Headed Home


Photo credit: Denys Prykhodov / Shutterstock.com

It’s just me and Google Maps Lady.

By Phillip Ratliff

It’s 4 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon in Atlanta, and I’m crawling along I-285, a brutal stretch of asphalt recently named the deadliest interstate in America. I’m down to my last $12, famished, hoping for Birmingham, nervously eyeing a fuel gauge promising me no more than Anniston and only that if I manage to catch a tail wind. I’m nervous: little more than a sawbuck keeps me from having to haul my Trek Superfly out of my Fiat’s hatchback and pedal it across the Birmingham District’s eastern corridor to my family in Homewood. I’m in survival mode. I need gas. I need food. I simply must break through this oozing sludge of automobile, push onto I-20 West, and make my way back to hearth and home and I’ve got to do so efficiently.

As I round the ramp, I receive, straight from the electronic orifice of the Google Maps Lady, some disheartening news. There’s a one hour-and-11-minute delay just outside of Leeds, she says. From her tone of voice, she’s concerned, but she adds a cheery, reassuring note: “You are still on the fastest route available.”

Questions arise. What will happen if I get stuck in traffic and run out of gas? And what will happen if I take an alternate route that eats up even more gas? Frantic, I punch in Abby’s number. “I’m needing intel. And quick,” I bark. “I’m facing irrevocable decisions.” I give Abby the location of the reported accident, then urge her to check a website I’m convinced that I once saw, run by the State of Alabama and delivering real-time reports on auto crashes. “That sounds made up,” she says. “Let me check the TV instead.” The phone goes silent. A half hour later, I’m on I-20 and passing Six Flags. Traffic is humming. If this traffic catastrophe is for real, it will be well over an hour before it affects me, I surmise. I’m finding a Cracker Barrel and waiting this one out, I tell myself.

Not that I’d have more than a few dollars to spend there. Maybe I could get a bowl of beans and a Coke? In Atlanta, I’d all but blown through my budget. Monday night, I made my way to a mountain bike trail in Roswell called Big Creek Park. It was several miles of swift and daring single track carved out in a suburban offshoot of the Chattahoochee River. There were glades, quick hairpin turns, a bridge, and an utter gift in the sighting of four deer wading and sipping in the marshy grasses around the banks. Afterward, I meandered to a Publix in Alpharetta and ordered a Cuban sandwich, dropping $8.

The next morning, I was up at 5, showering and getting in front of Atlanta traffic. I drove 20 minutes to a Starbucks next to my office, opened up my laptop and wrote copy for several pages on the company website. I left Starbucks $6 lighter, but ahead of my work for the day. It was such a successful formula I repeated the bike ride/Cuban combo and the next morning, that is, Wednesday, I repeated the work/Starbucks pairing. My $40 allowance quickly dwindled to $12 while the extra miles to the bike trail had all but drained my tank.

The phone buzzes. It’s Abby. “Here’s what I found. A truck has turned over and closed both directions of traffic on I-20. There’s a fuel spill and flames. The lanes have been closed since this morning. The road may have melted and there are fire trucks with hoses.”

“Google Maps Lady shows red lines starting around Pell City. Sometimes she messes up and gets the direction wrong. Maybe westbound is wide open and she’s confused. I’ve got to hold out this hope.”

“I’m afraid Google Maps Lady has this one dead on right. Both directions are closed down.”

“I’m finding a Cracker Barrel and waiting this one out.”

“Do what you have to do. But whatever you decide, do not get on Highway 78. Do not get on 78.” We hung up around Carrollton, 30 miles east of the state line. I knew from experience that Abby was right about 78. Two months prior, I exited onto 78 from a backed-up I-20 westbound, attempting a coup de grace. “I’ve discovered a secret road,” I thought. Me and a thousand other motorists. At first, I was whizzing west on 78, but within minutes was running into an expanse of cars attempting to work their way one by one through a single country stop sign. I made a U-turn and decided to make my way back to I-20.

That’s when Google Maps Lady speaks up. “Turn right,” she says. I comply instinctively. Soon she has me looping through a leg of Georgia backwoods, and onto 78 heading toward the westbound traffic snarl I’m attempting to escape. I made a U-turn and the Google Maps Lady chimed in again to shunt me off onto the same gravel road.

“Maybe Google Maps Lady is trying to find a shortcut back on to I-20,” I thought. “Maybe I just missed the on-ramp.” I did a stupid thing: I turn right again onto the same gravel road, looking for the gnostic mystery ramp onto I-20. Predictably, I emerge back on 78, at the butt end of the same ever-growing queue of hopefuls looking for a back door into Alabama. Cursing, I execute another U-turn and make the schlep to the very exit I had come off of an hour earlier. Not this time, I told myself. I punch at Google Maps. The delay has decreased by four minutes. What could that mean? Did a lane just open?

My phone rings. It’s my boss. He’d been in Birmingham taking his kid to visit UAB and was heading back to Atlanta. Tough titties for him, I thought, but he may be able to provide a useful eyewitness account.

“What’s traffic like?” I ask.

“Slow. I’m going five miles an hour.”

“Where are you? Are you in Leeds? Describe what you see. Is there smoke? What’s happening westbound? Is it moving?”

“It’s slow is all I can say. Five miles per hour.”

“Word on the street is that a truck fell over and caught on fire. Now fire trucks are everywhere. If I were you, I’d seriously consider finding a Cracker Barrel and waiting this one out.”

“Good idea.” I’d been studiously monitoring my fuel tank and have developed a system for reading how many miles and how much time each bar on my LED gauge is giving me. One bar equals about 30 minutes, or 35 miles, and somewhere around the Cheaha State Park exit, I’m down to my last LED bar of gas.

My stomach is starting to eat itself. I spitball: My $12 will get me a cherry yogurt parfait at Starbucks and two more bars on my fuel gauge at the gas station next door. I can also find someone from Birmingham in the Anniston Starbucks, I reason. I happen to know that the Anniston Starbucks is the busiest Starbucks in Alabama and it’s achieved that status for two reasons: Birminghamians driving to Atlanta to shop and Atlantans driving west just because they just can’t take it any longer. Somebody in that damn Starbucks is going to know something about the apocalyptic truck explosion in Leeds.

I pull in and ask the first customer I see what he knows about the accident. Nothing. I check with everyone else. No one has any information. So I check in with Google Maps Lady. The delay is down to 20 minutes, she says. It’s suspenseful in its own way, having this abstract, computer-generated awareness of mayhem awaiting me 30 minutes to my west, even though nothing in my irenic physical surroundings suggests anything like that. I’m in roughly the same position as Sandra Bullock in Gravity, a wave of space garbage hurtling silently toward me. I buy my cherry yogurt parfait, and then use the remaining $7 to buy gas and get back on the road.

At Pell City, I could see the line of eastbound traffic. Behind it brews a shit storm. Traffic must be backed up to Birmingham. Westbound traffic, however, is moving at 75 percent speed. The turf to my right is crispy and black. The road shoulder must’ve been in flames when the hour-plus delay was in effect. But the whiplash has begun to work itself out. “It’s moving on my side. I won’t have to pull over. I’ll be home in half an hour,” I told Abby on the phone, my voice beginning to show signs of optimism.

“When the truck flipped, the driver was killed,” Abby says.


Traffic to my left is shut down. The line stretches past Bass Pro Shop and the outlet mall—a dense, solid line of cars. I pass fire trucks, mangled asphalt, and more cars. Traveling westward, I see traffic slowing into the solid line, accreting to it like atoms of iron cooling to form a crystalline structure. The further west I travel, the faster the cars move toward the solid forming around Bass Pro Shop.

Reason and experience tell me that the solid line’s eastern point will slowly dissolve as a passage opens and drivers free themselves. Or maybe it will appear like a protracting spring: Cars moving slowly, then more quickly, then at the breakneck speed for which their drivers now yearn. But for now, the motorists will bide their time, suspended around a tragedy, the fatality of a truck driver who was probably, like me, just hoping to get home.

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