There was a crash on I-40 last Monday, and it wasn’t just any crash. A semi-truck carrying radioactive waste caught fire and somehow the description of it as “low grade” just made it sound even scarier to me. My wife said, “It was just alpha radiation so that’s not so bad.” Sure, tell that to Marie Curie or the women who painted the luminous numbers on clocks. At least, as far as I’ve been able to find out, none of the radioactive material spilled out so that’s good. And for me the other bright side is I didn’t know what was going on. All I knew was that, because I was driving home from the office that afternoon, no one was going anywhere. I’ve never seen anything like it. Every street was backed up with cars creeping along at only a few inches at a time. And when I say every street I mean every single street. I’m familiar with all sorts of side streets—I take ‘em all the time, sometimes because there’s heavy traffic on the main street, sometimes just because I’m not in any great hurry and just out of curiosity I’ll turn down a side street I’ve often passed but never been down before. I like to take scenic routes, and side streets, by their very nature, eventually lead to main streets. I don’t always know where I am but I know where I’m going and so far have always managed to get there.
This was not a day I wanted to take the scenic route, though. I wanted to get home and all I knew was that apparently every single car in the world between 1995 and 2023 was on the streets of Nashville and no one was going anywhere. And my knowledge of side streets didn’t help me because, as I passed them, I could see every side street was just as jammed as the main road I was on—filled with people who’d probably taken a side street a few miles back and were now trying to get back on a main street.
I could have walked home faster, and was tempted to, except for most of the trip there was no place to pull over and park, and even if I did I’d still have to walk back and get the car eventually. So I stuck it out. I turned on the radio but there was no news about what was causing the traffic backup. I did find one station playing Queen’s “Radio Ga-Ga” which seemed amusingly appropriate. Most of the time, though, I sat in silence, focused on the traffic, watching the needle on the gas tank steadily creep downward with the yellow warning light on. It reminded me of how my father used to make me crazy driving around for seemingly days, even weeks, with the yellow “Low fuel” warning light behind the steering wheel blinking, then glowing. I watched the monitor go from “51 miles to empty” to “48 miles to empty” and I’d only moved three inches.
I had a lot of time to think. It took me more than three hours to go less than ten miles.