Having a history with I-70 can make you even more fearful

Friday, October 5, 2012

Let's just say, Interstate 70 and I have a history ... we sure do.

And I mean more than a history of all the miles logged driving from the Chicago suburbs to the University of Missouri-Columbia for four years of college. More than the sum total of the miles I've added over I-70 since moving to Greencastle in the fall of 1975.

Let's just confess right here, right now. I hate Interstate 70.

Have you noticed? There are songs about Route 66. And "rollin' down Highway 41." But nobody sings the praises of Interstate 70.

And now that our least favorite roadway has turned into the Bermuda Triangle of all interstates -- where traffic turns into hell on wheels -- I'm content to just avoid the entire 156.6-mile stretch through Indiana.

So why do I detest I-70 so much?

For starters, I-70 was the scene of my first speeding ticket. Yep, 84 in a 70-mph zone in central Illinois back in the day. Didn't even know my old 1966 desert rose-colored Mustang could still go that fast.

Secondly, only twice in my life have I dangerously nodded off for even a split second while behind the wheel. Both times on I-70. Both times somewhere between Effingham, Ill., and Kingdom City, Mo. Granted, good places for a yawn or two but extremely dangerous just the same.

Both times rumble strip pavement on the berm jerked me back to reality. But even a millisecond of terror can stay with a guy for a lifetime.

I-70 also raised its ugly head the first time I visited the Mizzou campus. I was driving the family car. Dad was sleeping. It was my father's Oldsmobile. And I found myself in the far left lane instead of the right as we were supposed to take the I-270 bypass around St. Louis.

Of course, my Dad would pick that precise moment to jolt himself awake just as we descended upon downtown St. Louis at rush hour.

And the string of expletives he unleashed would have made Ralphie Parker's dad blush in "A Christmas Story." That litany of four-letter-word disgust is still hanging in the humid air somewhere over East St. Louis, I'm sure.

Then in recent years, there was the family trip during which an overly excited young son Sam learned we were just about to reach our St. Louis Zoo destination. We were doing 75 or so on I-70, rounding a curve when inexplicably he reached over the back of my seat to start choking me in some random moment of pure joy on his part, pure terror on mine.

And to this day, my fatherly reaction of "What in the hell is the matter with you!" never fails to make the rest of the family laugh 'til their sides hurt. As the one being choked, I still fail to see the humor in it.

But not even that vivid memory can make me cringe like the solo drive from hell that's etched in my brain and carved into my psyche.

It came behind the wheel of that same 1966 Mustang that got me my first speeding citation. This time I was headed home, rolling along eastbound, west of St. Louis, near St. Peters, Mo.

Sticking to the passing lane and passing everything in sight, I suddenly realized my engine seemed to slow not a bit when I took my foot off the accelerator. Sure, I could step on the brake and slow us some, but as soon as I removed my foot again, we began to fly anew.

There was no mistaking it, the accelerator was stuck. As I would learn later, the spring that normally would govern it had been stretched, and one end of it slipped out of the hole inside the engine compartment. But for now, the Mustang was running wide open, out of control, and I was just hanging on for dear life.

Thankfully, I was still outside the heavy traffic of St. Louis, and it was only mid-afternoon. As soon as I spotted an exit ramp, I went for it, and cautiously turned the ignition off halfway up the hill, crossing my fingers I'd be able to stop before running into stopped traffic or an intersection ahead.

And thankfully, with a mighty backfire and a volley of black smoke, all 200 cubic inches of that Mustang engine groaned and lurched to a halt, leaving me only a 50-yard walk across the grass to a Sinclair service station (those last three words should tell you how long ago this was).

For a couple bucks, the attendant replaced the spring and sent me on my way, but he never repaired the hole that little episode ripped into my peace of mind.

And those moments of fear and panic return every time I drive that section of I-70. Even today, decades later.

State Police, INDOT officials, driving experts, whomever, can warn us about construction zones and traffic cones and cite all the statistics about accidents and fatalities they want, but nobody has to tell me twice.

I'll just stay off I-70 again, thank you very much.

That interstate is out to get me, I know, and I'm not giving it another chance any time soon.