Saturday, June 16, 2007

Get me to the beach on time

Groomsmen and the groom
Originally uploaded by DC Products

Among my friends, I'd consider LJ and Brad to be the two who, like me, are drawn to the road. We love to pull out the map, plot a route and get behind the wheel. The drive, as they say, is as important as the final destination, and the three of us have each spent significant time in a car -- by ourselves or with others -- not just getting from Point A to Point B (or Point Pleasant), but finding out what awaited us along the way.

Two weeks ago, the three of us spearheaded LJ's bachelor party. OK, Brad organized the whole thing; I simply offered some help and suggestions and then drove down to Camden on Saturday morning to meet them at LJ's apartment. From there, we got in my car for the drive to Atlantic City. I followed LJ's directions out of town and we stopped for sandwiches at a Wawa on Route 40. The plan was to take the road across New Jersey's southern rump to A.C., until Brad -- ever curious about the road ahead -- pulled an atlas from the seat-back pocket in front of him and made an important observation.

"Hey, LJ, Route 40 doesn't turn into the Atlantic City Expressway," he said. "That's a different road a few miles south of us."

So we made the adjustment and cruised east to the shore. But that's not the point of this post. The key is that it turned out to be rather appropriate that on the occasion of LJ's wedding last weekend, Casey and I were forced to alter our arrangements on the fly -- because fly we could not.

We met at the Newark Airport station on the NJ Transit rail line and took the monorail to the airport, getting through security way before our 9:15 p.m. flight to Norfolk. I'd printed our boarding passes online and left work in time to make a train that got to the airport at 6:20. We were through security by 6:45 and took a swing past our gate to check on the status before getting some dinner. A half-hour delay to 9:50 seemed reasonable, because we figured the airport was bogged down by the remains of Tropical Storm Barry that had been heading up the Atlantic coast during the week.

Not to dwell on the minutiae -- because I swore (at myself, mostly) through the whole ordeal Friday night that I wouldn't write about this, not wanting to remember the hassle -- but after rejecting two bars because the menus weren't extensive enough, having dinner and returning to the gate to find the flight delayed now until 10:30, though our plane was now en route from Montreal. That's when I realized that the problem wasn't so much with weather down south; it was more with weather everywhere, and Newark was stuck in one of its painful backlogs.

Over the years, I've managed to be rather lucky with flying out of Newark. Even when there have been extensive delays, my flights have always seemed to board and push back from the gate within an hour of the original scheduled departure time. Sure, de-icing and taxi-way delays sometimes pushed takeoff back another 30 to 60 minutes, but we always took off -- and many, if not all, of those winter-weather trips tended to land in warmer climates.

This is when I started to wonder if my time for a hellish travel experience had finally come.

We were moved at 9:45 to another gate, though that transfer came with an earlier departure time of 10:10. Things were looking up. Briefly.

Once on the plane, the head of the cabin crew announced, "Welcome to Continental flight 2085 with service to Norfolk, Virginia ... we hope."

"We hope?" someone behind me said. "That doesn't sound promising."

Minutes later, the captain came on and cleared up the flight attendant's comment -- which was unfortunately accurate. Not only was there a taxi-way delay of about 30 minutes, but the cockpit crew was coming up on the FAA-imposed limit on how long they could be on duty. Basically, we had 42 minutes to get airborne in order to reach Norfolk before the pilots' 15-hour day was up.

Twenty minutes later, we hadn't moved. A storm had moved in over Washington and no flights were leaving Newark heading south, especially not those -- like ours -- on smaller planes that only get up to about 22,000 feet, which was our expected cruising altitude. The pilots negotiated with the tower to keep us at the gate -- some planes, he said, had been sitting on the tarmac for nearly four hours, having left their gates but not gotten airborne and now stuck without an open gate to return to in order to deplane the passengers. Moments later, the pilot returned to tell us that the flight was canceled.

"I guess we're driving," Casey said.

Driving had been one of the options we considered when we found out I could not get Friday off to make it down to North Carolina's Outer Banks in time for the rehearsal dinner. The schedule just wouldn't allow it, so we decided to take the 9:15 flight to Norfolk, rent a car, then drive the final 90 miles to Kitty Hawk. Cruising the lone road, a four-lane North Carolina highway, at midnight would be better than doing it on a Saturday morning in the summer. Driving the whole way from New Jersey after work was an option, too, but not one that was seriously considered. "We're too old to drive nine hours through the middle of the night," we reasoned.

That one came back to bite us in the ass.

The most painful part of the night -- the one I'll try to forget as much as I can after writing this -- was the traffic and the less-than-fully-competent cab driver who combined to turn a 25-minute ride home into an hour-long ordeal. Nonetheless, we were backing out of the driveway at 12:55 a.m.

I took the first leg, setting the cruise control for 75 and cutting through the New Jersey darkness down the Garden State Parkway to the Turnpike and over the Delaware Memorial Bridge -- Del. Mem. Br. on the signs -- glancing to the east at the lights of the refineries far off on the Delaware shore. Casey slept as best she could in the first two hours, and by 4:30, we were crossing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge into Virginia, having only stopped to fill the gas tank in Maryland. I pushed on for nearly another hour, reaching Fredricksburg, Virginia, around 5:20, where a 24-hour McDonald's provided us with our breakfast stop.

Casey took over from there as the sun came up to our left and I put the passenger's seat down and slept as much as I could for the next two hours. I awoke for Norfolk, dozed again after crossing the harbor, then pulled myself upright for good when we left the interstate for the state highways leading south to Carolina.

At 9:15, we pulled into the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn, our reservation waiting for us, a night lost but a chance to check in right away, rather than at 4 p.m. (Not that we could've rented the room for only one night, since two nights was the minimum and the reduced rate applied only to Friday and Saturday.)

Their moment on the beach
Originally uploaded by DC Products
Having driven through the night with the air conditioning on -- the colder air to help us stay awake behind the wheel -- the warmth of the North Carolina morning was refreshing, but we still brought our bags up to the room, brushed our teeth, and crawled under the covers for a three-hour nap. By 1 p.m., I met up with Brad and LJ and we gathered our tuxedos and made our way up the peninsula to get ready for the evening's ceremony. (Let me add, too, that the Men's Wearhouse rental tux held up very well. On Thursday night, we rolled the whole garment bag up to put into a Container Store bag with handles to make it easier to lug on the train and through the airport. After getting home, I laid it out on the back seat of the car, but it didn't hang until we checked into the hotel, and then only for three hours. Barely a wrinkle to be seen.)

The ceremony on the beach was beautiful. El looked like a movie star when she appeared at the steps atop the dune to come down to the sand. The wind and the pounding waves made it hard to hear the officiant, and I was just four groomsmen and the groom away from her. Guests in the back rows of the chairs on the beach must've merely made up their own words to the service. Families that had remained on the beach past 5 p.m. watched the whole thing and clapped when LJ took El in his arms, dipped her and planted a kiss.

The wedding party stayed behind another hour for photos on the beach as the sun fell lower in the west. Casey and Nicole made their way to the cocktail hour, gorging themselves on the hors d oeuvres that we'd only hear tales of after they'd had their fill. Once we'd made our way to the country club, we ate and drank and danced -- and drank -- until midnight, Brad fulfilling his pledge to hand his car keys to Casey, only to get them back, having finished only a few drinks in the five hours we were there. He left the reception for extended periods twice to go over his toast outside, curtailing his imbibing enough to remain sober.

For the time being. On the way back to the hotel, he, Casey and I stopped at the Food Lion for a 12-pack of Yuengling and two bags of chips. Despite our travel ordeal, the fact that I spent nearly 23 of 24 hours awake from 7 a.m. Friday to almost 6 a.m. Saturday and that we'd had only three uninterrupted hours and five to six hours, total, of sleep in the past 44, Casey and I joined Brad in his room, knocking back lagers on the balcony, chowing down on Utz and Cape Cod potato chips and shooting the shit until 3 a.m. We also outdid ourselves with the beer -- we got 12, figuring six was too little and 12 might be too much, but since we both had cars, we could take any extras with us. There were no extras.

In the end, it turned into a memorable and enjoyable trip. LJ, Brad and I spent a lot of time talking, drinking, laughing and enjoying ourselves during the two weekends. While both excursions were the kind of visits I tend to step back from even while in the intoxicated moment and think, "These are the good times," I didn't find myself doing that at the time.

Yet recalling it now, and earlier during this past week, I think that I knew that all along. I might not have said it out loud, or even consciously thought it to myself, but I did take stock of those nights and place them among the highlights, the greatest hits of my college and "real-life" days and nights. And, perhaps most pleasantly of all, I felt that there are more days to come. Sure, we're all married and Brad's expecting his second child any day now, but with Washington and New Jersey so close -- and with five Major League ballparks in or between the two cities, not to mention numerous minor-league venues -- we shouldn't find it too hard to pick one day a year where we turn down all other invites, rearrange any other potential plans and make sure we catch up over a few beers and burgers.

We're nine years removed from college now, but there are still times when we catch up that it seems like a lot less than that. Good job by us.

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