Driving Interstate 95

We recently made our semi-annual trek from Virginia to Florida. The drive, which we spread over two days, gives me plenty of time to think. This time, I was thinking about the many faces of Interstate 95 as you pass from one state to the next.

We’ve driven I-95 from as far north as Bangor, Maine, to as far south as Fort Lauderdale. Nothing illustrates the unique character of the road better than the 1,000-mile stretch from northern Virginia down to southern Florida. Part of it has to do with the seasons. We left Virginia in a cold rain this year, as opposed to the light snow that we left in last year. We arrived in Florida in warm, breezy sunshine. That itself makes for a dramatic change. But it is the smaller, state-by-state changes that captured my attention this time around.

We live just outside Washington, D. C., the seat of federal government, and home base for many government-related contractors. Northern Virginia has some terrible traffic, so much so that they have implemented premium traffic lanes in several places, including on I-95. These EZ-Pass express lanes run between the north and south lanes. Traveling on them can cost anywhere from a buck to $20 or more, depending on traffic conditions and time of day. Since I hate to start a road trip in traffic, I immediately entered these express lanes, coughing up the four bucks, despite no obvious traffic. The five main lanes of the southbound I-95 had only light traffic. The express lanes were empty and for a long stretch we were the only car there, making me a little uncomfortable. There was something eerily familiar about it, and I was reminded of a movie I’d seen in which there were special lanes on the highways in and around Moscow, lanes which carried only VIP traffic.

If you’ve ever wanted to visualize what happens within an artery when it becomes clogged with cholesterol, all you need to do is drive down I-95 south to Woodbridge, Virginia. The five lanes of I-95 calcify down to three lanes, and even light traffic slows and becomes heavy for a few moments as it pushes through this narrow passage. The red glow of brake lights give the impression of blood flow. Here, the express lanes act like a bypass, and we zipped along at 70 MPH.

South of Stafford is when I generally relax. I put on the progressive cruise control and generally don’t have to touch the gas or brakes for another 200 miles. The only question is which path will be faster, the I-295 bypass around Richmond, or continuing on I-95 through the city. On this latest journey, Apple Maps told me to stay on I-95 and that is what I did.

Incidentally, while the car has its own built-in GPS system, I’ve grown to prefer Apple Maps. It’s got more accurate traffic information, a cleaner interface, and best of all, it automatically pauses Audible when it has something to say so that I don’t miss any of the book I happen to be listening to on the drive.

The transition from Virginia to North Carolina is the most subtle of the four state boundaries we cross on our way down south. Sometimes I miss it, and realize I am in North Carolina only because of the sudden proliferation of adult store billboard signs that appear at the side of the road. If there is anything that distinguishes I-95 in North Carolina, it is those billboard signs.

We usually stop for a bite to eat around Roanoke Rapids. The kids can stretch their legs, and I can top off the car so that we have enough gas to make it to our stop for the night. Then it’s back onto I-95, as we pass alternating billboards, one reading “Adult Den next exit”, the next reading “You will meet God” as if some vast philosophical debate were taking place right there on the roadside.

You can’t miss the transition from North Carolina to South Carolina, since you are warned about it in Burma Shave fashion more than a hundred miles in advance. I tried counting how many “South of the Border” signs I saw before actually passing by South of the Border, just over the border into South Carolina. I lost count and gave up.

Interstate 95 in South Carolina is a quite, 2-lane affair with generally light traffic. Eighteen wheelers play leap frog with one another–a moving van passes a tanker and ten miles later that tanker passes the moving van. But the road is merely a cut between trees. Stare at that cut long enough, and it begins to look as if someone has taken a giant set of hair clippers and run them down the head of the earth, clipping away the trees to make two neat rows for pavement.

Walterboro, South Carolina is about the halfway mark for us, or close enough to it. We exit I-95 for the night, fill up the car the next morning, and we’re right back where we left off, as if someone simply paused the video that appears in the car windshield. I’ve learned that there are certain times when I-95’s trees cause problems. One of those times is just after sunrise if you happen to be driving south. The flickering sun to my left reminds me of the way the sun looked through the idling propeller of a Cessna as I headed west on a base leg at sunset. It was back then that I learned about something called flicker vertigo, and it seems that sunrise on I-95 in South Carolina is a perfect breeding ground for that rare, but dangerous condition.

There are two ways to know you’ve crossed the border into Georgia. First, the two-lane road grows a third lane almost at once. Second, Georgia wants you to give truckers plenty of space. There are signs all around informing drivers to give plenty of space to trucks when passing. It’s the only state on I-95 in which I have seen these signs.

I-95 slices through Georgia, catching a sliver of the state and to me, it always seems like we pass through Georgia faster than any other state on the trip. I-95 also seems to have more significant water crossings than Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. And the median between the northbound and southbound lanes always seems to be in some state of repair. This time, it looked recently denuded of trees and what remained was a swampy mess. Gas prices reach their lowest point in Georgia. I saw several signs advertising gas for $1.999

The border from Georgia into Florida is marked by the St. Mary’s river, but you know when you are getting close because the land begins to flatten out well before you reach the river. I always get a little thrill crossing the river into Florida. A day earlier, when we piled into the car, it was rainy and 38 F. Now it’s sunny at 72 F. I roll down the window for a moment just to feel that warm Florida air.

We take I-95 as far south at I-4, which we then take west toward Orlando. We usually spend a few days in Orlando before heading down the Gulf coast to our final destination. Interstate 4 is about the worst interstate I’ve ever driven on. It is always under construction, so the road zigs and zags for miles at a time. We’ve been driving this route since 2012 and it seems to me that I-4 has been under construction that entire time. What’s more, it seems to me that the construction is not improving things. It is, in fact, making them worse. I imagine this is one of those times when local politicians tell their constituents that things will get worse before they get better–and for wonder, they are right!

The benefit of this little side-trip on I-4 is that it makes me appreciate the uninterrupted fluidity and smoothness of Interstate 95. The abandoned construction vehicles, and STAY IN LANE signs everywhere help me to appreciate the “Adult Den this exit!” and “Flying J – $1.999/gal” signs. I-95 has roadside farms to look at, and entire log cabins built at the side of the road just for advertising purposes. I-4 has nothing but orange cones, construction warning signs, and traffic.


  1. Hey, your flicker vertigo may have gotten to you while writing this post! The GA-FL border is along the St. Mary’s River; the Savannah River is between GA and SC.

    Otherwise, a nice recap — and enjoy your holidays!


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