The scenic route

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We make the drive to New York every Christmas.

The first time it was just Jill and me in her champagne-colored Jeep. It guzzled gas so fast we could actually see the needle dropping in the gauge; once the soft top blew off during a rainstorm in Virginia.

As our relationship deepened and our family grew, we made the trip in a Saturn, then another Saturn, a Subaru, a Jetta and, now, in a hybrid Hyundai that can handle nearly the entire haul on a single tank of gas, even with a back seat full of children who no longer look and act so much like children.

We’re always looking for a way to outsmart the I-95 corridor, which bunches up with dense traffic somewhere near Richmond, Va. and holds all the way through New Jersey, when it actually gets a lot worse. If you can handle the stoplights, Highway 29 is a fine option, running through the soft mountains and Civil War battlefields of central Virginia before approaching Washington, DC from the west.

This year we hit Charlottesville and made a left, dropping at the foot of the Skyline Drive: 105 miles of curvy two-lane road that wends through Shenandoah National Park with switchbacks and cliff sides and a tunnel blasted right through the granite, climbing high enough to pop our ears a dozen times.

With a max speed limit of 35 — which, I must admit, I did not strictly adhere to the entire time — we were looking at probably three hours for a stretch that I could manage in just over an hour under ideal conditions on I-95. But on I-95, ideal conditions do not exist.

In the end it probably took us about four hours to crawl above the valley, with ample stops at overlooks and short trails to take in the view and just… breathe.

At the right time of day, in the right time of year, this piece of the Blue Ridge Mountains looks like folds of velvet in the distance. Up close the naked trees are skeleton hands emerging from the rock. We saw it all at a leisurely pace while the long, angry snake of cars on I-95, 100 miles to the east, made its slow slither.

Skyline Drive dropped us off just 80 miles west of Washington, DC — the closest we came to the capital on this drive — allowing us to slip into Baltimore, our first stop, through the back door by cutting through a corner of West Virginia and the tiniest sliver of northern Virginia.

In the end, the scenic route probably took about the same time as the slog through the heart of I-95. But it was a way better deal.