Three a.m. Dark. Pitch black. I notice a fresh batch of leaves on the driveway illuminated by the headlights as I head the Liberty down the driveway and make the right turn onto Sandy Flats road.

Time for the annual trip to Washington. A four-and-a-half hour drive, if all goes well, from the peace and serenity of the mountains to the madness of the National Capital Region.

Steve Jarding (right) and I do our road show at The Washington Center for Politics and Journalism (Photo by Terry Michael)

Each year at this time I make the trek to DC for an appearance at The Washington Center for Politics and Journalism. Terry Michael, who runs the program, is an old friend as is Steve Jarding, an “adjunct lecturer in public policy” for the Kennedy School at Harvard who also ran Mark Warner’s successful campaign for governor a few years back. Steve and I have been doing this road show for the center to talk about political campaign management to a group of interns for Washington-based media and news organizations with bureaus in the city.

No traffic as I turn onto U.S. 221 north and head towards Roanoke. The Liberty’s headlights reveal a deer grazing on the side of the road as I cross into Roanoke County but the road itself remains traffic free all the way down Bent Mountain.

Traffic picks up as I near Roanoke. Even at 3:30 a.m. some people head for work in the city. A few cars as I turn off Brambleton Avenue and short-cut along Colonial Avenue to U.S. 220 and Interstate 581 at Wonju Street.

A little truck traffic on Interstate 81 as I head north. The Travel America truckstop in Troutville normally has gas for less than the going rate so I fill up there and pick up a 32-ounce of “Coffee Extreme,” a brew for truckers that claims double the caffeine of ordinary coffee.

According to the mile markers on I-81, it is exactly 150 miles from the T/A Truckstop to the intersection with I-66 near Strasburg: A little over two hours if I can maintain 70. I need to reach the Metro station at Vienna by 7:45 a.m. if I want any chance to getting a parking space. That means reaching the I-66 interchange no later than 6:30 a.m. I have two-hours and 45 minutes to make the deadline.

Back on 81, I set the cruise control at 70 and take the pressure off my aching ankle. Using the brakes and gas on the winding trip down Bent Mountain started a long, dull ache on the ankle. For some 69 miles I remain in a “cradle” with other traffic, mostly trucks. No one passes me and I don’t pass anyone.

Near Lexington, traffic slows for construction. Most interstate construction occurs at night and they have not yet shut down and reopened the closed left-lane near the intersection with I-64 west. I slow to 45 and tuck in behind a truck for the two mile trek past the cones.

Once past 64, I kick the cruise back up to 70 and listen to Bachman-Turner-Overdrive belt out “Taking Care of Business” on XM-radio’s 70s channel. After just a few sips of Coffee Extreme I am wide awake.

A little traffic in Harrisonburg but nothing major. It is still dark at 6:29 a.m. when I veer right onto 66 and head towards DC. It’s been a year so I wonder how much worse traffic is. Last year the backup started around Warrenton, just west of Manassas.

Traffic picks up at Front Royal. I close in behind a truck running 70 in the left lane and stick with it until brake lights start appearing west of Haymarket. Damn. Rush hour now extends another 15 miles westward. We slow to under 30.

Construction around Manassas slows the flow even more but the speeds pick up to about 40 afterwards and I pull into the parking lot at Vienna at 7:40 a.m. and grab the last close-in parking space in the handicapped line. A painful limp to the subway and I’m headed into DC with plenty of time to make the 9 a.m. appearance.

Good thing. A problem on the Orange Line at the Metro leaves just one track open from Vienna to East Falls Church. The train slogs along as less than half normal speed. It takes nearly an hour to make what is normally a 35-minute commute. At the George Washington University stop I grab a cab for the short trip to the Watergate office complex and the WCPJ offices.

Steve is also limping. He broke his foot recently. I bitch about how long it takes bones to heal at our age. We finish our 90-minute presentation (with questions from the interns) and we visit with Terry for another 30 minutes or so. Terry, a lifelong Democrat, now talks a more libertarian line. He is furious with his party for not standing up more to the abuses of power by Republicans and argues his case on his blog (seems everyone has one these days).

I arrive back at the Vienna metro station at noon. Outside the subway windows I can see a backup on I-66 west. Switch on the Washington traffic channel on XM and learn there is a problem between Nutley Street and Rte. 123 so I avoid 66 and head up Lee Highway and then right on 123 to get back on 66. Clear Manassas at 12:45 and set the cruise at 70. Clouds have moved in. Looks like rain.

Stop at Woodstock for gas (at $2.29.9 it is 20 cents a gallon more than back home) and pick up a bacon burger and fries from a nearby Five Guys and another 32-ounce of coffee from a truck stop.

Traffic much heavier than the early morning trip. Rain starts to fall just south of Harrisonburg. Intermittent until Buchanan when the skies open and driving becomes a test of limited visibility and traction. The coffee is also wearing off so I pull into the rest area just north of Troutville and sleep for an hour while the rain falls.

Like many of the rest areas along 81, the regular restrooms are close for remodeling, replaced by porta-potties. No sinks to splash water on my face so I gulp down the rest of the coffee, deposit the earlier intake into the portable facility and head back on 81 around 4:45 p.m.

After the morning battle with Washington rush hour traffic, the so-called rush hour drive through Roanoke is a breeze. I make it from Troutville through Roanoke, clear the stop lights at Cave Spring and head up the mountain on U.S. 221, arriving home at 5:45 – just enough time to gather up my cameras and head for Floyd County High School to shoot the football game and homecoming.

Got back home at 10:30. Amy had dinner in the oven. Ate and sat down to catch the news. Didn’t make it through the first story and slept solid until morning. Not even Coffee Extreme could prevent a much-needed good night’s sleep.