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The journey - Joel Hall

Tuesday was my first day back in the office after a week-long vacation. Surprisingly, it feels good to be back in the newsroom.

Not to say that my vacation wasn't wonderful. I really enjoyed myself, despite the 10 1/2-hour drive to Virginia Beach (which I broke up over two days).

It takes that long because their are no major highways between South Hill, Va. (south-central Virginia on the North Carolina boarder) and Norfolk, Va. (on the eastern seaboard). Once you get off Interstate 85, there is nothing but about 150 miles of farmland and one of the worst speed traps in America: Highway 58.

As a passenger, it was always scary going down this stretch of road because the speed limit is 45 mph most of the way and there are Virginia State Troopers posted about every other mile. The cars I've traveled in down that highway have been pulled over on more than one occasion for any number of minor traffic offenses.

However, this time I was the driver, and I was determined not to get a ticket. So instead of speeding and taking my chances with the troopers, I got behind a slow-moving truck and forced myself to go an even 50 mph the entire way.

Coming from Atlanta, it was really unbearable in the beginning. I am certain that I-75 and I-85 derive their names purely from the fact that 75 mph and 85 mph are the speeds at which you need to travel in order to avoid getting run off the road.

Traveling at 50 mph and under felt like being in a state of suspended animation. It was almost surreal.

However, after I started to resign myself to my fate and forced myself to enjoy the scenery, I started finding it very ... enjoyable.

I had never really stopped to notice how beautiful it is before then. When I was in middle school and would travel from North Carolina to Virginia Beach to visit my aunts there, the endless expanse of green was just white space between our current location and the next McDonald's.

This time it was different. There are so many things that I had never taken the time to take in.

Dotted among the fields of ripened corn, peanuts, and cotton are abandoned farm houses, old plantations, farmers markets, watermelon trucks, boiled peanut vendors, palm reader huts, and huge farms.

And these farms aren't your run-of-the-mill ones where fenced-off animals eat out of metal slop buckets. These are the kind where animals run free with no restrictions like in one of those feel-good Disney movies. The cows were scattered among the hills almost like people and at one point, I even saw a heard of horses running on the open plain.

It was truly amazing. The only part I didn't enjoy going through at such a slow pace was the city of Franklin, Va. The town's economic livelihood comes mostly from a huge paper mill that everyone (with the exception of Franklin residents) can smell within a 20-mile radius.

There is no way to avoid the stench, which somewhat resembles burnt collard greens and old diapers. For about 20 minutes, my mouth tasted like I had eaten a combination of the two.

After the air cleared, the road opened into a thick forest, in which 40-foot-tall oak trees lined the median and both sides of the divided highway. I could see just a hint of autumn starting to settle in on some of them.

Finally, just before sunset, the forest emptied into the coastal plain which leads to Portsmouth, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and normal highway speed limits. I made it home just in time to have dinner with my parents for my mother's birthday.

While I was glad to be back in civilization, I felt blessed and truly happy to be alive during that drive home.

Yes, my vacation was relaxing, peaceful, and introspective, but part of the fun was just getting there.

Joel Hall covers government for the Clayton News Daily. His column appears on Mondays. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 ext. 281 or via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.