Is This a Great Country or What?
Just before Easter, I brought a vehicle to my son down in Florida. The whole enterprise, including the return, took all of 30 hours. During that time I experienced many of the marvels of a country and its system that for all of their current challenges remain the most impressive on earth.
The drive was about 750 miles, and began in Mason, Ohio. Over 600 of those miles were on interstate highways. Several decades ago, a Wall Street Journal editorial angered public transportation zealots by asserting in essence that autos, trucks, and the highways and roads that support them represent the single greatest mass transit system ever devised. Though there's always room for improvement, I don't see how anyone can reasonably disagree. The drive itself took only 12 hours, point to point -- no nodes, no tolls, and virtually no hassles.
Given that it's springtime, there were, of course, a few construction delays, particularly in the hilly section between Cincinnati and Louisville. Otherwise, traffic moved nicely and safely at -- or slightly above -- the posted speed limit, which was usually 70. (Governor John Kasich in Ohio, where only the Ohio Turnpike has this limit, please note!)
It's been over a decade since I've driven the stretch of I-65 between Louisville and Nashville. I barely recognized much of it. Most of the "country" stretch between Louisville and Nashville was three lanes wide in each direction. Before that, the Metro Louisville portion of the trip revealed a robustly growing area. Sure enough, according to the 2010 census, Jefferson County's population increased by almost 7% during the past decade, while the majority of urban counties in Ohio, most notably Cuyahoga and Hamilton, suffered significant declines. Nashville's highway improvements since I was last there have been simply stunning, but they need to be; Davidson County has grown by 10%.
I stayed at a well-appointed hotel south of Nashville whose brand was synonymous with the word "dive" not that long ago. Since the directions seemed to conflict with the hotel's address, I had to call the place from the road on my cell phone to clear things up. An effort which would have been expensive or involved a separate stop for a pay phone just 15 years ago now cost me nothing. Does anyone think that the old AT&T monopoly would ever have evolved to this point without the competition from entrepreneurial upstarts in the long-distance and wireless businesses? Or that it would have thought up the type of "friends and family" plans that gave me about an hour of free talk time during the trip?
The hotel stay itself was also free, courtesy of reward points. Does anyone think that a government-run hotel chain would ever come up with the idea of frequent-stay incentives on its own? Or that a government-run or government-controlled Internet would ever have moved wireless access at hotels from a fee-based rarity a dozen years ago to a routinely expected free commodity today? Oh yeah: breakfast was also free. I spent less than $8 on food during the entire trip down. And even with prices higher than they should be, it also only took about $120 in gas to complete the outbound journey.
The next day's drive was predominantly through Alabama, a state I haven't visited in decades. Memo to East and West Coast elites: Your stereotypes about the economically backward South would not survive drives though Metro Birmingham or Metro Montgomery. (Update: Some of the areas through which I drove were subsequently hit hard by devastating tornadoes. Go here for a list of donation links and ideas.)
It's a nearly ironclad rule that I can't travel without at least one Murphy's Law event. But even the trip's one downer was easily dispatched. Fifteen miles from the end, an oncoming truck on a two-lane highway threw off a stone which put a silver dollar-sized crack in the bottom left of the front windshield. Insurance will cover it, with no deductible.
I had a few hours to visit with my son, who is in his first year of serving his country. Though I would never minimize the day-to-day challenges and stresses of military service, I can report that the "barracks" at Eglin Air Force Base looked more like the outside of a Comfort Inn -- up to and including keycard access. We went out to a nice restaurant in town, and ate well while researching cracked windshield insurance on my son's Droid (and, yes, exchanging texts with his mother).
He doesn't know the area very well yet, so after dinner my son set the GPS on his Droid to direct us to the Fort Walton Beach Airport. Despite heavy construction activity in the area, the unit's spoken directions were virtually perfect.
While waiting for my flight back to Ohio to board, I remembered that I didn't have it tied to my frequent flyer account. In less than five minutes, I found the airline's toll-free number on my computer using the airport's free Internet access, called the airline, and got the miles credited to my account, without even knowing the account number. In between the two legs of the trip, I was able to let the folks picking me up know that I would arrive as scheduled -- all while finding time to fix a typo (imagine that) on my blog.
Most of these wonders have come about because of the efforts of private companies operating in a capitalist, free-market system. Though most don't seem to recognize it, we're in more than a little danger of giving it all away. Don't let it happen.