Historical research still requires a lot of driving, and I plan most of my trips to avoid holidays and traffic. Holidays are an annoyance because all the libraries I need to visit are closed, forcing me to waste an expensive day on the road without getting any work done. They also tend to create mammoth traffic jams at certain times of day. Most of the repositories I have to visit lie in Megalopolis — that urban nightmare that blights the landscape from the James River to the Merrimack, so even on a normal weekday there’s already more traffic than I want to see.
I thought I came up with a slick plan to maximize research time and minimize traffic congestion during my last trip, which ended with a week in the National Archives and Library of Congress. I’m usually standing at the door of one of those institutions by opening time each day. With its endless collection of private papers and newspapers, the Library of Congress is now my preferred roost as long as it’s open, and on three evenings a week they don’t close the doors until 9 o’clock. A hearty breakfast beforehand and a midafternoon lunch at the cafeteria keep me from having to leave the building, and I seldom start packing my belongings until five minutes before closing time.
Thirty years ago, the Archives remained open until 10 p.m. Digitization of the census and other records seriously reduced microfilm usage by the genealogists who created the demand for nighttime hours, so the closing time was gradually cut back to 5 p.m. That sharply increased the hourly cost of doing research, but the reduced workday at least left the guards there less crabby. They’ve been downright chatty during my last couple of visits.
Despite the shorter hours, the Archives can occasionally produce some fascinating discoveries. This was one of those occasions, and for the second time in a quarter of a century, I turned up a previously unknown document in Abraham Lincoln’s own handwriting. If you want to know what it was, you’ll have to wait for the book.
That made for a near-perfect trip, and I decided to add another day of research. Usually I’m itching to get home to morning coffee with a familiar face after a couple of weeks away, and this was no exception, but escaping Washington at rush hour on a Friday night presents a daunting challenge. The Metro parking garages don’t charge on weekends, so I saved a few bucks and gambled for an easier drive by not starting for home until 6 o’clock on Saturday, Sept. 29.
These days, I swing wide to the west of the perennial gridlock in Washington and Baltimore. Traffic was moving fast on the Washington Beltway and I-270, but the electronic message machines hanging over those highways threw a monkey wrench into that. Usually they advertise a 1-800 snitch line, urging suburban lemmings to “say something” if they “see something.” That day, however, they announced a “silver alert” — which, as I later learned, involves a search for an older (and therefore presumably incompetent) person. Some bored geezer had decided to ditch his caregivers and go for a jaunt in his gray 1981 Cavalier, and the emergency system of a paranoid society had mobilized to look for him. Because of the paranoia, everyone had to slow down to read the message, because it might have warned of a nuclear attack, so traffic came to a screeching halt a mile before each of those signs. I saw one rear-end accident as a result, and there were probably more. I hope the old guy had a good day at the park, or bar.
A torrential thunderstorm made things pretty hairy as I approached Harrisburg, Pa. A flat tire in that tempest left me riding on the doughnut, and I decided to drive through the night so I could negotiate the dense East Coast cities in lighter traffic. It just wasn’t that light, at any hour. Once inside New Hampshire, I faced an endless stream of cars heading back to Massachusetts, and had to pull over every few miles to let people by who were piling up behind me at 50 miles an hour. In Meredith I came upon a creeping foliage caravan, behind which I and my last crop of followers crawled all the way to West Ossipee.
When I finally turned onto Route 16, I thought I was home free, but the traffic failed to disperse. Conway Village was jammed up like the Beltway, except with fewer lanes. I even followed a pickup truck up Davis Hill Road, and there was a Subaru on my tail. As I pulled into my own driveway, I finally realized that the dreaded Megalopolis has sprawled another couple of hundred miles north. Now I live in it.
William Marvel lives in South Conway.