How not to do the PCH

The sea lions were the first domino; I just had to see them. Seven and a half years previously, I'd spent literally hours marveling at the the pinnipeds that call the floating docks at the end of Pier 39 home, naively joyous in their comical, limb-less mannerisms and interactions with one another. Presently, after the better part of three days in San Francisco, I couldn't forgive myself if I left without beholding them once again. Not long ago, the entire herd had abruptly and mysteriously vanished, but they had been gradually trickling back and even the relatively small crew that was hanging out on an overcast late December morning made for an entertaining scene.

Despite a laudably early start to this excursion, I didn't get back to the hostel until a bit after nine, by which point the chain reaction of tardiness had been set irrevocably in motion. The ladies, to their credit, were mostly ready to go; it was Chuck, without me physically there to nag at him, who was a bit more dilatory. Then we all took turns remembering something crucial (phone chargers, passports, etc.) that we'd left in our bunks and before we knew it, it was the other side of ten when we at last began the march down to the BART station.

The train ran smoothly enough, but at the airport we fell victim to the golden rule of renting a car (a corollary to the Law of Bank Teller Queues): you'll inevitably get there just seconds after someone who knows precisely how to occupy an inordinate amount of the clerk's time. Adding insult to injury, the rental company ran out of appropriately human-scale cars and oh so generously handed me a "free upgrade" to a Chevy Malibu, which had to be one of the worst U.S.-manufactured models to emerge from the period immediately post-auto bailout. Armed with this clunky trash bin, we finally emerged from SFO's rental car garage at about noon, officially bound for the City of Angels.

Even in an ideally balmy climate such as coastal California's, the escalating latitude means that winter still rears its ugly head, most tangibly oppressive in the diurnal stinginess with which it permits the sun's rays to grace the surface of the Earth. At midday the clock was already ticking, conceding about five hours of natural light to cover a drive that, if done right, requires closer to twice that. I had envisioned a leisurely meander along the Pacific, with stops at any number of rewarding attractions on the way: the famous boardwalk in Santa Cruz; Steinbeck's Monterey with its historic Cannery Row and renowned aquarium; short hikes to breathtaking vistas dotting the Big Sur; the Hearst Mansion, arguably the most extravagant residence ever built in this country; the string of 18th-century Spanish missions scattered down the coast; Solvang, a Danish village plopped in the middle of Southern California; and the funky fusion of college town and beach town that is Santa Barbara. Including breaks for lunch and dinner, such a plan, if executed properly, would have seen us into L.A. around ten that night.

Of course, that was all predicated on my original pipe dream of having been locked and loaded in the rental car by ten in the morning. Instead, given the inevitability of Murphy's Law when traveling in a small group, with a pre-root canal level of dread I was now confronting the notion of scrapping the Pacific Coast Highway altogether. It was a miserable thought, one that I mentally cudgeled into oblivion almost instantaneously. Driving the PCH was the essential crux of this trip. You can't be a card-carrying American Road Tripper until you've done it. The primary alternative, though significantly less time-consuming, would have mandated imprisonment on Interstate 5, hundreds of miles of a hermetically sealed, hyper-speed conveyor belt through the desolate, sun-stroked Central Valley.

Not a chance in hell.

***

The autumn of 2011 was a time of transition for me. Earlier in the year I'd fallen out of the only serious, long-term romantic relationship I'd ever been involved in up to that point in my life, and being single for the first time since I'd finished school and become gainfully employed brought me to the intersection of money, free time, and restlessness that allowed me to be footloose and fancy-free in a way that I never previously had.

I celebrated by squirting lighter fluid onto the smoldering kindling beneath my latently itchy feet, spending more October and November nights resting my head on pillows in far-off beds than in my own. Cleveland. The Finger Lakes. Nashville. Toronto. New York City. D.C. Santa Fe. Portland. This itinerancy only served to exacerbate the burn; as the holidays approached, I began to formulate plans for something more grandiose. The winner I settled on was a jaunt down California State Route 1, from the Bay to L.A.

The cherry on top was arranging for my younger brother, Chuck, to join me. It wasn't that I'm averse to traveling solo - that couldn't be further from the truth - but rather, that I hadn't spent much quality time with Chuck in recent times. We'd had a pretty close childhood for being nearly four years apart in age, but as we grew up, we discovered that we were about as fundamentally different people as siblings can be. Chuck was the extrovert, the popular one, the partier, a fish in water when immersed in a garrulous crowd. I was the introvert, impatient with and drained by extensive interaction with most humans save for a small, exclusive inner circle of friends. Chuck, quick to get his hackles up and fight back in the face of any perceived slight. Me, laissez-faire to a fault, always preferring to err on the side of letting things roll off my back, not infrequently to my own detriment. College years accentuated already-diverging paths and personalities with time and geography, and deep down I feared how hard it might be to reverse an ever-increasing distance in my relationship with my only sibling. With Chuck on board for this trip, I felt things were aligning to make it one hell of an adventure, the kind whose exuberant designs are only exceeded by the reality of it.

In order to maximize our time on the Best Coast, we departed on Saturday morning, Christmas Eve, dodging questions of how we could be so soulless as to not feel an overwhelming amount of sentimentality about not spending the holidays with our kin. It was a new low for the grandsons of a minister. My retort, and I thought it was a fair one, was that 25 family Christmases out of the 26 for which I'd been alive wasn't a bad record.

I had convinced myself that wasn't such a callous way to look at it, but then that Christmas took on a whole different perspective to our family. No sooner had we landed at SFO than Chuck and I received the extremely sobering news that Uncle Roger, our dad's brother-in-law, had lost his battle with pancreatic cancer while we'd been in transit. Cancer of the pancreas is one of those most grim varieties to begin with, but the swiftness with which it had overtaken him stunned us all. Having been diagnosed not even three months earlier, he took a turn for the worse around Thanksgiving and then another towards the end of Advent. A prognosis that had given him months to cling to was, on the night before Christmas, abruptly shrunk to mere hours.

As we lugged our backpacks to the airport BART station, my mind ran the gamut of loss-related emotions: grief, that someone who we had always taken for granted as being part of our lives was simply not going to be there anymore; anger, that his two college-aged kids, our cousins, were all of a sudden not going to have a father and all of the innumerable and irreplaceable things that a father provides for his children no matter how old they are, but especially at such a critical stage in their ascent to adulthood; gratitude, that we had been fortunate to call family such an intelligent, conscientious, and principled man (even if we didn't exactly see eye to eye on a number of particular principles); and guilt, that we had selfishly insisted on being apart from our family during this season of togetherness.

On that last count, I was assuaged a tiny bit by the knowledge that Uncle Roger was something of an adventurer himself, having sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, among other exploits. For as little as it could possibly mean to anyone, I wanted to believe that this trip was dedicated to him in a way, with its almost unscriptably perfect weather from start to finish and an inimitable cast of characters that included old friends and serendipitous new entries to our lives, loved ones we'd talk to every day for the foreseeable future and passing acquaintances we'd probably never hear from again. Not to mention the endless reel of highlights, surprises around every corner, and, to borrow a phrase from our late uncle, plain old memorable moments.

From since I can remember up until I finished high school, my parents, my brother, and I would spend a midsummer week at the Jersey Shore with Uncle Roger and his family. Every single evening, without fail, we would not be permitted to abscond from the dinner table until we had revealed, at Uncle Roger's behest, what the "most memorable moment" of our day had been. Sometimes the group assembled around the table would contain various interlopers, family friends or fellow beach-going neighbors from down the block, but absolutely no one was granted amnesty from this nightly ritual. It was a terrific way to remind us all to keep our eyes open and to appreciate the beauty each day inevitably bestowed on us fortunate fools.

It was clear, then, the very least I could do was to make damn sure this would be a journey so superb that when it was all said and done, there would be no shortage of moments that could plead a case for "most memorable."

***

Roadfaring at last, our initial stop was to be in Half Moon Bay, where Chuck had arranged to meet a guy with whom he had studied in Barcelona the previous spring. This should have been the simplest of tasks, an easy thirty-minute cruise from I-380, except it was Chuck's job to relay our specific rendezvous spot, and the odd, zero-sum trait distribution between us had gifted me with a hundred percent of the "map wonk" attribute. Trying to extract comprehensible directions from him could often be the equivalent of asking a blind man to describe a Van Gogh. When his lack of innate navigational nous is compounded by the fact that he's trying to disseminate information from a third party, things are liable to happen like winding up in the driveway of the Ritz-Carlton, getting accosted by a whole procession of valet parkers and bellhops and feeling increasingly unnerved that anyone could need this many people attending to them when they travel.

When we finally did locate Chuck's friend the reunion dragged on into the early afternoon, but as one who is intimately familiar with the bonds that can be forged over the shared experience of living in a foreign country with someone, I couldn't in good conscience pull him away. The ladies, for their part, patiently smoked a couple of cigarettes to pass the time without complaint on this windy bluff overlooking the Pacific. It helped that Half Moon Bay was quite easy on the eye, beaches tucked at the bottom of cliffs, providing a sense of seclusion for those who pick their way down to them. The vibrant red and green asserted by the mantle of wild paintbrush flowers added a festive comportment to the scene.

At Santa Cruz, the road drifted away from the sea and became a freeway, rendering the subsequent forty-some miles distinctly unexceptional. It's possible to fly past Monterey and Carmel without ever knowing they're there, which is what we did, eliciting a twinge of regret, but alas, we were already staring down the barrel of having to make up far too much distance after dark. Right when the lull of mundanity was threatening to overcome us, the expressway ended and the ground suddenly sloped off to reveal the verdant Carmel Valley. It was the first unequivocally inimitable moment of the ride, the moment that fully hammered home that I was rolling down the world-famous Pacific Coast Highway. Shortly thereafter, the road reduced to two lanes in preparation for the following hundred miles of dizzying, coast-hugging glory.

The one upside to having gotten a late start was that the fog that treacherously clings to the shore through most mornings had retreated to a thin layer of haze in the afternoon sky by the time we flitted in, leaving us with an unobstructed view of the sharply defined shoreline and the sheer drops to the boundless expanse of the sparkling ocean. Windows were slid down in celebration, all the better to facilitate the dual sensory thrill of basking in the oblique warmth of the winter sun while sucking into our lungs the refreshing chill wafting up from the water below.

The PCH is so omnipresent amongst the superlatives doled out by Those Who Know, the compilers of travel guides and the composers of Internet listicles, it would have almost been forgivable for this drive to even marginally fail to live up to the massive hype that precedes it. Yet no apology was necessary. Instead it was us who were indebted to this deity of asphalt and yellow paint. Twenty miles went by, simultaneously feeling like they took hours to navigate but still like they disappeared all too quickly, the magic mark of a truly worthwhile drive.

***

I'll stop myself just short of falling into the clichéd trap of professing that "I left my heart in San Francisco." Rather, I'll suggest the analogy that San Francisco was my first lover, the older, more experienced lady who seduced me as an impressionable, wide-eyed teenager and made me see the world in an entirely new light from then on. She tapped into a lust I didn't even know I possessed, a lust for this planet and every place on it.

In the summer of 2004, a cousin was getting married in Oregon and my parents decided to craft a whole West Coast trip out of it. I was seventeen at the time and in the throes of my nastiest bout with adolescent angst. Everything my parents wanted me to do was, by default, an intentional torment inflicted upon me. This included family vacations, on which a disproportionate amount of our disposable income was spent. I could try to blame this lack of curiosity and gratitude on those dangerously proliferating hormones, making me pine only for being at home where I could wait for social invitations from so-called friends that rarely came and desperately try to set up dates that routinely fell through. The truth, though, is that I had pretty much always been an unappreciative little shit.

Then, during those few, brisk August days in San Francisco, it was like a switch had flipped. Everything about her completely mesmerized me. The climbs, the views, the fog, the urbanity, the ethereal undercurrent humming below the ground, discernible only to those who seek it out, of a city that has seen a little bit of everything, triumph and tragedy alike, crammed into a history spanning less than two centuries. For the first time, the total package of a place came together for me in a way that would leave my mind forever yearning.

It was with no small amount of trepidation that I returned in my mid-twenties, now far more seasoned and world-weary than I had been as a teen. Would she look the same to me? Would I invite undue disappointment by noticing blemishes and scars that I didn't before, when I had been so caught up in the heady exhilaration of giving myself over to her ministrations? Or perhaps she herself may have changed, grown more cynical and less romantic to keep pace in this constantly and violently evolving epoch of greed and self-interest. The next sixty-odd hours would answer these questions; whether the answers would prove satisfying or not was another riddle altogether.

I did receive a hint almost immediately upon entering the city, as we hoofed it up California Street from the BART station, following the streetcar tracks. We hooked a right and in short order arrived at the five-way intersection at the terminus of Columbus Avenue, where we were summarily greeted by the iconic Transamerica Pyramid rising into the dusky sky, presenting itself to us for the first of countless times. At this point I was worn out, both physically, from all-day plane travel, and emotionally, from the awful news that had been awaiting us upon landing. I've found, though, that there's invariably a singular moment near the beginning of any journey, a moment where debilitating exhaustion totally melts away, replaced with nothing but excitement and anticipation. On this trip, that sight was such a watershed for me.

I've always loved the Transamerica Pyramid. In all honesty, it's one of my favorite buildings in the world. The 1920s and 30s gifted us their handsome Art Deco masterpieces and the modern era has bestowed upon us its gleaming, curvy, glassy behemoths, but I have a soft spot for the skyscraper that manages to acquit itself well despite coming out of the architecturally forgettable middle decades of the 20th century, which spewed out aesthetically numbing concrete and steel boxes by the dozen. What the Pyramid does with notable effect is tickle my fetish for structures that act as "beacons" in that they are visible from practically anywhere in their surrounding vicinity and thus can act as a North Star of sorts for the directionally (or sobrietally) challenged wayfarer.

This affection started during my short-lived fling with Boston, living a brief walk from the hulking Prudential Center. "The Pru," not to mince words, is an unattractive edifice by just about any standard, but damned if it can't be picked out from seemingly everywhere within a five-mile radius. From Cambridge to Chinatown, from Somerville to Southie, it served as a remarkably effective navigational aide for many a drunken sojourn back to the dorms in those dark ages before the prevalence of smart phones. San Francisco's famous topography keeps the Transamerica Pyramid from being quite as ubiquitous, but the random nature with which it will suddenly pop up after rounding a corner or ascending a flight of stairs contributes an additional sheen of charm and mystique.

Coming upon the Transamerica Pyramid had given me a visceral thrill, but it was seeing Kearny Street launch into a sharp grade on the other side of Broadway, so steep that staircases aligned the road in lieu of sidewalks, that caused me to positively well up with giddiness. After the better part of a decade, I was back in the city that first cracked open my passion for roaming, and I had three days to do nothing but wander it to my heart's content.

Uncle Roger, accomplished mariner that he had been, must have pulled some strings with Neptune up there because we awoke on Christmas morning to an absolute San Francisco treat (and I'm not talking about Rice-a-Roni): if there had been any of the requisite morning fog, it had already been burned away by the time we rolled out of bed, and the sun was beating down on all corners of the city. On Boxing Day, the characteristic miasma lingered only a bit longer. To luck into such idyllic weather was nothing short of divine.

We took full advantage, traipsing upwards of 23 miles on foot during the course of our visit. We tried to strike a balance between the touristy: ascending the "most winding" portion of Lombard St, courting the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square, music shopping in Haight-Ashbury, a few too many exorbitantly-priced scotches on the rocks at the Fairmont Hotel (later expelled, in Chuck's case, on the topiaries in front of the building's grand, embassy-esque facade) - and the somewhat less touristy: an afternoon nap in Alta Plaza Park, perusing the beguiling curves and unheralded vantage points of Forest Hill (a place so painfully monied that the neighborhood association's annual big-to-do was a chamber music concert), guzzling foul cocktails in Chinatown dives.

What I discovered on both sides of that coin, even if I wasn’t fully cognizant of it at the time, was a city teetering on the brink of selling its soul. Take, for instance, the Hayes Valley. The particular mid-90s walking map of San Francisco that I had been toting around with me despite its obsolescence because it was so excellently and expertly designed barely even recognized the Hayes Valley as an extant place. This was residual from the days of the Central Freeway, which had cut straight through the heart of Hayes Valley and brought with it the blight and decay that tends to follow when large chunks of urban fabric are wiped away in favor of giant concrete slabs. This map would have been printed just several years removed from the demolition of the Central Freeway after it was severely damaged in the October 1989 Prieta Loma earthquake, before much development could have risen to replace it.

And so the cartographers could be absolved for their lack of foresight in not prognosticating that two decades beyond the publication of their map, Hayes Valley would be a shining example of a neighborhood revived, almost literally, from the ashes . . . for better or for worse. After all, cui bono? It was in strolling down Hayes Street, eyes bulging at the rows of unique eateries and shops that had sprung up, mostly within the prior decade, that we first observed the tendrils of the New San Francisco snaking in to grab hold of previously undervalued real estate and where we could palpably feel the looming specter of the impending takeover by an unapologetically capitalist, tech-based dominion.

It's so obvious in hindsight. Community stalwarts forced from homes they could no longer afford to live in despite having occupied them for half a century. Gorgeous and stately old Victorians subdivided again and again so that they could be uncomfortably crammed with hyper-ambitious young people, in some cases breeding a cult-like atmosphere. The private buses offered by corporations to whisk their elite-educated, upwardly-mobile employees off to sheltered campuses miles down the peninsula.

Across town in Haight-Ashbury, a similarly grimace-inducing tale was being spun. Once a genuine hotbed of countercultural revolution, Haight-Ashbury had become a shadow of itself. Taken in a vacuum, it's still a pretty darn cool and interesting neighborhood; Haight Street was lined with a wildly varied assortment of independent commercial ventures behind attention-demandingly colorful storefronts. But what remained of its once-organic funkiness felt largely artificial, intently designed to lure the patronage of preteen-toting baby boomer out-of-towners, some percentage of whom, I'm sure, ironically grew up in households where those "long-haired queers" were relentlessly mocked, the very same ones without whom Haight-Ashbury would not have achieved the symbolic prominence that it bears to this day.

Sadly, we found that historic resonance was obfuscated by a neighborhood that had unashamedly devolved into a gimmicky honeypot. One particularly egregious illustration of this phenomenon was the model of a long-necked dinosaur, painted bright orange with round black spots, placed outside of a shop - apropos of absolutely nothing, it must be said, considering the portal it guarded was that of a high-end designer shoe store. Maybe my skepticism here is over the top, but it struck me as a desperate attempt to exude the grooviness for which Haight-Ashbury became so deservedly renowned during its peak. A polka-dotted dinosaur! So random and classic! Now please fork over hundreds of dollars for footwear.

Even the hippies themselves seemed to have transformed into cold-blooded cronies of capitalism; everyone that remotely looked as though they may have been an honest-to-god survivor of the Summer of Love ended up trying to sell us drugs, often in a vaguely menacing manner. It was unmaskably disheartening to see a place that holds such deep meaning and social significance deliquesce into such a tryhard caricature of itself.

And they even have the gall to insist people not sit on it.

Meanwhile, what quietly became my favorite of the business districts we walked through during the course of our stay was the relatively boring Irving Street, constituting the Inner Sunset's main drag. It didn't have the trendy, upscale boutiques of Cow Hollow and Pacific Heights, it lacked the nouveau hipness of the regenerated Hayes Valley, it wasn't drowning in contrived nostalgia like latter-day Haight-Ashbury, and it wasn't choked with tourists like many of the other neighborhoods closer to Downtown. It was just full of real people going about their normal, everyday business in the agreeable Boxing Day weather.

Despite the ominous presence of these myriad warning signs, I remained under the spell of the proud lady, deeply entranced by her siren's song, embodied in the surreal serenity of Washington Square Park on Christmas night, exuding more Yuletide peace than any elaborate light display or coating of snow could; in the tranquility of a Russian Hill overlook at dawn as I watched the sun embark on its daily struggle to defeat the thick, woolen blanket of clouds nestled over the Bay; and in the winking of the Transamerica Pyramid's luminescent crown, performing its beaconly duties in guiding us as we stumbled home to our bunks. Most importantly, she was providing a platform for the opportunity to break bread and enjoy some adult libations with my kid brother. Everything she had shared with me, I could now share with him.

And, it turned out, she had one more trick up her sleeve. As if she knew we would soon have to part ways once again and that this time it would be done so with creeping doubt about what feelings I would hold for her in the future, her gift to us was to play matchmaker, introducing us to two of our fellow holiday refugees at the hostel. Madde was a vivacious Aussie on her way to spend a semester in Guadalajara and Tee was an infectiously upbeat USC student who hailed from South Africa. They had serendipitously linked up and become impromptu traveling companions and now were trying to figure out how they would make it to L.A. in the next few days.

This was my cue to swoop in and reveal that Chuck and I would be renting a car for the express purpose of driving to L.A. It was a chance to spontaneously come to the aid of fellow wanderers in need, the kind of act that most genuinely exemplifies the the true rambler and his craft, something I constantly aspire to. Surprising even myself, without hesitation I offered them the option of hitching a ride with us. A road trip in the company of total strangers! Who said the spirit of the highway was dead?

***

Past the Point Sur Lighthouse, cutting a lonely figure on its spit of land jutting into the ocean, the road bent inland and ascended up into the Big Sur itself, the name ascribed by the Spanish colonial explorers to the wild region of the Santa Lucia Mountains that thrust precipitously out of the water and lend this segment of the PCH its unique beauty. Not that the spectacular, to-and-fro seaside route was getting dull by any means, but the pine-forested respite of the Big Sur's interior did provide a temporary, albeit enjoyable change of scenery.

By this point, my hostages were beginning to get a bit restless as the result of a tyrannical decree upon leaving Half Moon Bay that we would not stop to eat until we'd seen some portion of the renowned coastal terrain before we ran out of daylight. Now that that had been checked off, I was finding it increasingly hard to ignore my own hunger pangs, so at the first little cluster of shops/galleries/eateries that we passed after climbing into the Big Sur uplands, I relented and pulled in.

California 1 was interspersed dismayingly frequently with these outcroppings of yuppie comfort all through the Big Sur. Chow on an overpriced, mediocre burger! Wash it down with a generic frozen yogurt cone! Buy a bumper sticker to boast to all the world that you (like tens of millions of others) have privileged this road with your own rubber-wheeled benediction! All of these we were unable to refuse, of course, capitulating with a resigned smile, our money helping to propagate the prosperity of these ersatz environs that were straining to convey an atmosphere of quaint, rustic, log-cabin charm, even as they furtively reached a palm out to collect $200 for a bed for the night. Kerouac must be spinning in his grave. At least Tee got to go and find a redwood to hug.

Underwhelmed but more or less sated after a hot meal, we departed as the light was already starting to fade from the eastern sky. Within ten minutes, we had emerged from the woods into the rapidly advancing twilight as the road twisted back towards the coast. Then we rounded a bend and suddenly had the air forced from our lungs by a sunset so stunning I was compelled to veer onto a five-foot-wide dirt shoulder with only a chickenwire fence separating the Malibu from a disastrous insurance liability claim, just so we could soak it up.

It wasn't that the colors were exceptionally vivid or varied, it was simply the sheer scale of the tableau that made it so awe-inspiring. Watching the sun sink over something as infinite as the Pacific Ocean and seeing nothing but those pastels on the horizon made it seem, for an ephemeral spell, like the world was stuck this way and that we would be perched on the very border between day and night for all eternity. Alas, the Earth did indeed continue to rotate us away from the giver of light, and we pressed on into the darkness.

***

Gertrude Stein was referring to her childhood home of Oakland, California when she made her famous lament of "there is no there there," but I theorized that it more aptly generalized modern Los Angeles, the poster child of uninhibited car-centric urban growth, whose precedent and success had paved the way for grotesqueries such as Houston and Phoenix to flourish.

I had been to Los Angeles once previously, a business trip at the opposite end of that same year. Taken as evidence together with this visit, I came to acknowledge that the Stein-ism that had so succinctly captured my haughty pre-conceived notion of this megapolis was, in fact, not entirely accurate. Although huge swaths of the region do suffer from a rash of deplorable placelessness, there are an ever-increasing number of worthwhile theres, wonderful havens of urbanity, scattered amongst greater L.A.'s incomprehensible maze of cities-within-cities.

The caveat is that many of those theres remain self-contained oases in the asphalt desert, realistically able to be reached only by two-ton, metal, pollution-vomiting camels. To its credit, L.A. has been trying to improve its situation; a few years prior, Angelenos had voted themselves a half-cent increase in sales tax largely for the explicit purpose of boosting public transportation. No matter how extensive the transit network becomes, though, it will still be hamstrung simply by the sheer distance between everything. Even the "express" bus from Santa Monica to Downtown Los Angeles takes upwards of an hour each way, and the subway line that's recently been carved to Santa Monica will only shave about fifteen minutes off of that.

Sadly, this all means that driving is left as the most practical, and often the sole viable option for getting around. It's a process so ingrained in the culture of the metro that it has morphed into its own language, comprised of numerical sequences that represent the highways that need to be taken to reach a given destination: "the 5 to the 110 to the 105 to the 710," for example.

Fortunately, Chuck and I were lucky to have a hook-up in one of those theres, perhaps the most fun one of them all. An actor cousin happened to live right smack in the heart of Venice Beach and had generously given us permission to crash at his place for the duration of our stay even though he'd be out of town. Venice, stocked with every desirable amenity within a foot-accessible radius, the added bonus of, you know, a huge beach, along with its inherent eccentricity, diversity, and all-around weirdness, was a Los Angeles there that I could actually fantasize about living in, myself.

And so, twenty-four hours after witnessing that heart-achingly immense nightfall on the PCH, I'd be viewing that same sun as it dipped behind the Santa Monica Mountains from the veranda of a cafe fronting the Venice Beach Boardwalk. Our passengers from the day before, Madde and Tee, had joined us. On a lark I also extended an invitation to the elder brother of a good high school friend. Though I'd only met this sibling, who I'll call Ned, on maybe two other occasions, he enthusiastically rushed over to Venice with his girlfriend to complete the entourage.

The six of us were seated around a table on an open-air patio, plying ourselves with beer and burgers named for cultural luminaries (mine was called the “Timothy Leary,” presumably on account of the heap of sautéed mushrooms, albeit of a non-psychotropic variety, that adorned it) as the day's temperature succumbed to starlight's cooler breeze floating in from the water. I made sure to consciously revel in the pure bliss of the ability to comfortably indulge in such an al fresco milieu on a winter evening, very much a novelty for me.

It was then that Ned revealed that he'd brought with him a certain type of digestif. The gang excitedly hustled to Ned's car, where the cannabis-infused Rice Krispies Treats were distributed surreptitiously, as California hadn't yet unequivocally legalized it in those medieval days. I had more than dabbled in weed once upon a time, but by then I hadn't touched it in any form in years. This made me the group's resident square and thus the recipient of a well-intended warning from Ned: "Just so you know, this stuff packs a punch."

Gosh, I hadn't rolled over so easily in the face of peer pressure probably since I was a college freshman, but buoyed by the verve of the whole experience so far, I decided I wasn't going to not partake. Watching the others to gauge how much they were ingesting, I was quite careful to break off a chunk not even half as big as each of theirs had been.

The first thing I noticed was that my beer tasted funny. We had moved on to the next bar, where I'd ordered one of my favorites, a NorCal brew called Winter Solstice, and it seemed off somehow, flat and flavorless. I passed it to Ned to corroborate, and after testing it he regarded me quizzically. All of a sudden I didn't want to be inside anymore. I felt claustrophobic and flushed, so I rushed back out onto the Boardwalk, where the bracing air was nothing short of holy on my prickling skin.

After sundown, the Venice Beach Boardwalk undergoes a demographic transition of sorts. Formal society migrates a few blocks inland to Main Street bars or tonier Santa Monica nightclubs, while the Boardwalk becomes populated with the assorted drifters, indigents, and other down-on-their-luckers who use the beach as an overnight campground. This was happening as I watched, now officially stoned.

"Joker!" called a man fashioning a bed of newspaper in the doorway of a kitsch purveyor, under one of the few remaining Palladian arches left over from Abbot Kinney's original turn-of-the-20th-century vision for his Venice of America resort.

"What!" came the response from some unseen warren hidden in the shadows cast by the palm trees across the Boardwalk.

"Hey, Joker!"

"Whaddya want!"

"You got a cigarette?"

A lumpy couple trudged past, wardrobes borrowed from Bedrock. Their gait was so labored I could not help but conceive, with my chemically-enhanced imagination, that they were being weighed down by heavy, ungainly dinosaur tails. As they passed snippets of their conversation reached my ears, but their voices, cracked and blistered, rendered it unintelligible to me in all but syntax, a new "Jabberwocky." This pseudo-alien language frightened me into realizing that this was not My World anymore, it was theirs. The privilege of a young white man handed every other time and place to me on a platter, cooked to order. But not this. Here, I was just a voyeuristic interloper. The THC took hold of my conscience like a marionette and wagged its finger in admonishment: There but for the grace of God go I.

The others found me, stewing in my guilt, understandably mistaking it for the reticence of a fierce high. They attempted to formulate our next move, another bar? Or perhaps some food? But I desperately did not want to go back indoors. An ambitious plan to hoof it to the Santa Monica pier, whose technicolor lights blinked and whirled enticingly, was scrapped. Then a trepidatious mission across the sand to reach the edge of the water was aborted in its nascent stages. Finally, Ned and the girls exhausted their patience with me and bailed to seek out a diner.

Chuck, bless him, hung with me long enough to make sure I wasn’t liable to do anything too foolish, and even procured me a mug of water from our cousin’s apartment in a building called the Ellison, where an erstwhile UCLA film student and self-fancied poet named Jim purportedly used to sleep on the roof, before adjourning inside for good himself. Left to my own devices, I stalked off down the “walk-street” that the Ellison adjoined. Venice possesses a series of narrow alleyways that are nominally streets in the eyes of the Postal Service but are free from motorized traffic, and in this moment I found their umbral enclosure strangely reassuring. Time could not keep track of me as I wandered this orthogonal labyrinth, idly wondering if Joker’s pal had managed to rustle up a smoke.

Daringly I followed one walk-street to its intersection with the nearest vehicular thoroughfare, Pacific Avenue. The road seemed to carry on forever in an effect akin to a funhouse mirror trick. The glow emanated by the street lamps was a sinister lure, like one of those terrifying fish that dwell in the deepest ocean trenches, trying to bait me into getting too close to the cars that were flying by at a thousand miles an hour. It represented the return to My World, and approaching this precipice filled me with anxiety and dread. I turned back, retreating into the soothing darkness and seclusion of the walk-streets.

***

The leisurely drive that had been so gratifying during the day became tedious without the ability to see any of the extraordinary landscape. The PCH's numerous hairpin curves, many of which carried vehicles within mere inches of long vertical drops to rocky outcroppings in the frothing sea below, made it impossible to just accelerate away. The going was made even slower now and again by catching up to another car, weirdly usually some junky relic from the mid-80s, like an Oldsmobile Cutlass, say, whose operator was evidently adamant about maintaining a speed of at least 15 mph below the posted limit. Sometimes these unhurried drivers would have the courtesy to use the nearest pullout to let us pass. Sometimes they wouldn't, and the minutes began to pile up into the night.

As we progressed down the coast, next on the agenda was finding gas, as the Malibu, irritatingly inefficient for a vehicle of its class, crept closer to empty. This bucolic region was not exactly a hotbed for gas stations, but we managed to stumble upon an outpost before the situation grew too dire. However, the relief was immediately nullified when I rolled up and saw the astonishing price-per-gallon for regular: $4.9999.

Unfortunately, I had no choice but to patronize these racketeers, since I had no idea when a further opportunity to refuel would come along, a fact that the proprietors had clearly succeeded at taking advantage of. Glowering, I thrust a cool Jackson into the clerk's palm, hoping that would at least buy us enough time to get to a place with more civilized gas prices (by California's standards, anyway).

South of the Big Sur, the PCH alternately detaches from, then returns to the coast as it runs towards its concurrence with U.S. 101 at San Luis Obispo. When I started to lose my traveling companions to slumber, to entertain myself I invented the game of trying to guess whether the pitch black void to my right was the water or a field. As the car’s digital clock display ascended in the direction of midnight, I could only muster an apathetic ounce of disappointment upon realizing that I had completely missed the PCH’s re-divergence from the 101.

For company, I did also have the assortment  of CDs we'd acquired during San Francisco record store forays. The selection had been deliberately curated to represent what we felt would constitute a quintessential West Coast road trip soundtrack. Chuck sang along to "40 Oz. to Freedom" while sucking on a tall boy of Pabst before eventually drifting off, leaving me alone, but in the quite capable hands of Messrs. Morrison, Nowell, Tweedy, and Q-Tip, to name a few.

The desertion of the others allowed me the solitude to ponder this inflection point in my own life. I had long struggled with the sensation of never being on top of things, never being out in front. Deep down I could acknowledge that no one my age had their shit together no matter how impressive of a veneer they may put on, but, man, at twenty-five it was hard to escape frequently feeling like I was fifteen, perpetually could be counted on to do the wrong thing at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.

Cataclysmic periods and events along the way had at least gifted me the self-awareness to recognize that it was an ongoing metamorphosis, even if it was an arduous, often nonlinear and even painful one. The person I wanted to be was an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, and it was a matter of finding the pieces and figuring out how they fit together, except far too often some pieces had slipped off the table and under the couch. Invariably the breakthroughs would come only when I stopped actively seeking them. Then the missing piece would reveal itself to have been right there on the rug, in plain sight the whole time.

I had sensed the tail end of that year building to one of those landmarks. The gathering snowball was present in all of the places and spaces I'd been over the previous months. It was in the seductive shadows of Georgetown mews and Adams Morgan's neon rays late at night. It was in the crystalline cascades of Watkins Glen's ancient, divine geology. It was in the glass floor of the CN Tower, humanity's attempt at a pneumatic tube to heaven above, halted at its height, I prefer to think, not because of the limits of structural physics but because what would a correspondence with God impart that an unimpeded hundred-mile view cannot? It was in the storm clouds massing over Pedernal, muse to Georgia O'Keeffe, keeping a watchful vigil over the Chama. And it was certainly culminating in this California romp.

The final leg of this journey would be set out in the West Texas town of El Paso, where I'd fallen in love with a Mexican girl. Time would tell, as it is in the habit of doing, but it at long last felt as though everything was clicking into place, for once the right thing at the right time for the right reason.

Oh, god knows, I'm not going back . . .

I was snapped from my reverie by one last surprise, one of those Blue Highway Specials that rewards the intrepid for freeing themselves from the shackles of the Interstate. Using California 154 as a shortcut to Santa Barbara, I had not been expecting to shoot a curve and instantly find the lights of the community spread below us, twinkling to the edge of the continent. Then the road fell into the pass as it made its descent into the seaside college town, and the sight was gone just as quickly as it had appeared. The next time I found myself at the dinner table with Uncle Roger, I could contentedly regale him about the San Marcos Pass.

This little slice of serendipity, mollifying my regret at having misplaced a chunk of the PCH, was enough to leave me freshly re-energized. After stopping to fill the tank (at normal California prices, which is to say merely cringe-worthy as opposed to the apocalyptic gouging we were subjected to in the Big Sur), we zoomed off at breakneck speed, through the endless sprawl of the San Fernando Valley, the 101 to the 405 to the 10, first freeway to the right and straight on 'til Venice.

San Marcos Pass Photo by Cory Cullington

Autumn Blues in the Northern Tier

November always gets me the worst. It's wandering season's last-gasp clearance sale, Everything Must Go, before winter consumes this latitude in her vindictive clutches. Once the calendar flips into December and beyond, even when local appearances might seem to favor a day-long joyride, there is often great deception; entrapped by mountains on one side and the Snow Belt on another, a difference of so much as thirty minutes or thirty miles can incur dramatic changes in temperature and precipitation. But in November the weather is still cooperative regularly enough and the fear hangs over my head that any mild weekend surely will be the Last Good Weekend and thus it would be a criminal waste not to take advantage of that fact for explorative purposes.

This is how I find myself on an arbitrary Sunday between Election Day and Thanksgiving, taking the 62nd St Bridge across the Allegheny River, my companion preoccupied with a greasy gas station breakfast sandwich. We've decided to escape from the city on Pennsylvania Route 8, just to do something that isn't the old standby of PA 28 or, worse, the numbing homogeneity of I-79's state trooper-infested waters. Route 8 isn't so bad, it turns out, passing first through Etna, a compact and remarkably intact old industrial borough wedged into a nook off the Allegheny Valley hewn by the prehistoric ancestor of the trickle that today is Pine Creek. Beyond Etna, development along Route 8 is hemmed in by the hollow of the creek. When suburban-style commercialism does try to break out, the results are restrained: a stunted strip mall here, an undersized big box store there. It's practically demure, a far cry from the Boschian hellscape that has spawned up and down the parallel McKnight Road corridor, just a few kilometers to the west. In Hampton Township, the road diverges from the creek, which presents the opportunity for suburbia to more fruitfully take root. Soon the sprawl gives way to Butler County, a transition marked by the appearance of feed stores and advertisements for gun bashes.

Suddenly the city of Butler is upon us, first evidenced by the steel mill on the opposing bank of Conoquenessing Creek. Butler is Rust Belt disguised as rural county town. Pullman-Standard used to make rail cars here; the Pullman-Standard plant is underneath a parking lot now. The courthouse is impressive, Main Street fairly filled in and extensive, but I am not drawn in. It's a well-preserved example of Small Town USA, just not a particularly captivating one to me at this moment. Perhaps I'll be back to give it a closer look, but for now, I'm sufficed with simply making a wrong turn and having to navigate a warren of church parking lots right as Sunday morning services are letting out. Eventually we find our way to Jefferson Street and jet into the countryside.

We meet up with the Allegheny again at an emphatically twisty section known as Brady's Bend, where the waterway nearly curves fully back on itself as it carves its course through the ancient plateau. The oppressive granite tent of morning has given way and the day has evolved into one of those whose crisp beauty only deep fall can conjure. Plump, hale two-tone clouds litter the sky, their tops blindingly white, their bottoms a heavy charcoal, as if they had been left on the heavenly Brinkmann a bit too long by an absentminded Saint Peter, neglecting his duties as divine grillmaster to mingle with those recently admitted through the pearly gates. In sharp contrast, the space in between is unerringly blue and bright.

A bridge carries us over to the hamlet of East Brady. In short order PA 68 ascends to the spiny ridge atop the strange world here, where the same river exists on both sides of us, to the left and to the right, an anomaly of geography. Clarion County dissolves beneath our tire tread. We spit on I-80 when it imposes its presence, trying to trick us into submitting to its poisonous charms as it cuts across our path.

In Fryburg, lorded over by the regal parish church up on a hill, we come upon an open-topped truck casually lumbering up the road in front of us, transporting some kind of grain. Wind shears fine layers of popcorn kernel-sized pellets from the bed, which skitter along the asphalt and bounce up into my windshield in a cacophony of unnervingly loud clicks and clacks. It's as though we are being bombarded by that most benign and innocent of American culinary inventions, sugary cereal.

"Gotta have my Pops," my companion deadpans as the onslaught continues relentlessly. The absurdity of the scene becomes too much to stifle, and muffled chortles cascade into uncontrollable, hysterical fits of laughter. Squinting through the tears, I just about manage to keep from careening into adjacent farm fields.

Finally we ditch the cereal truck and Forest County announces itself with exactly that, stands of droopy-leafed, skeletal trees flanking the road, escorting us to another reunion with the Allegheny River at Tionesta. It's one of the state's tiniest county towns, but an important jumping-off point for the Allegheny National Forest, "Land of Many Uses," as it is billed. Here the river is fat and slow, easy to accompany northerly, contraflow.

This is U.S. Highway 62 now, one of my favorites for the haphazard manner in which it slices diagonally across the country from Niagara Falls to West Texas, aggressively bucking the typically orderly grid of the U.S. Highway system while passing near very little of consequence during its ten-state journey. In fact, between Columbus and Northwest Arkansas, the route does not traverse a single town of appreciably more than 30,000 residents, and it doesn't get a whole lot busier from there: following 62 west from NWA (105th), only Oklahoma City (41st) and Lubbock (159th) stand amongst the nation's 200 most populous metropolitan areas until it reaches its terminus at the border with Mexico in El Paso (68th). Despite this idiosyncratic aversion to urbanity for such an ostensibly significant route (hanging just outside the top ten in total mileage amongst U.S. Highways), it still seems to pop up everywhere I go. When my better half moved home to El Paso after we finished school in northeastern Ohio, I always extracted some degree of comfort from simply knowing that I could get on a road mere miles from where we had met and follow one solitary number all the way to her.

On this November midday, however, we are heading in the opposite direction. Not far along comes the intersection with the questionably-numbered PA Route 666. Many states have been careful about handing out this number, given the regularity with which route markers go missing (highways assigned 69 and 420 are also reputed to have this problem, oddly enough), but PennDOT evidently is not overly concerned. Perhaps the opportunistic general store near this T-crossroads helps in that regard; after all, who needs an unwieldy two-foot by two-foot metal sign when you can buy a beer stein bearing the slogan, "Route 666 It's a HELL of a ride!"

In a way, the devilish number does add a certain amount of mystery to the road, which permeates deep into the occult heart of the National Forest. Maybe Hansel and Gretel are in there, trying to escape a gruesome fate in the oven of die hexe. There are modern horrors, too: the last time I had ventured onto Route 666, I witnessed a convoy of trucks wielding what looked suspiciously like fracking fluid right through the woods, taking the Land of Many Uses to the logical, tragic conclusion the moniker euphemizes. This road is not in our purview today, though. Not even the crude handmade sign roughly hammered into the ground and pointing down Route 666 with promises of "Old Fashioned Ring Bologna" can tempt us, probably for the best. It could very well be the work of a present-day sorceress, hoping to lure the hungry, unwary traveler into her den.

Instead we continue to hug the river until we reach U.S. 6, the primary thoroughfare across Pennsylvania's Northern Tier. Born of dirt logging roads, Route 6 was once a crucial east-west transversal of the state in the decades before the advent of Interstate 80. Nowadays it's much more sparsely trafficked, frequented chiefly by the big rigs involved in the commercial trades of the region and the occasional inquisitive, loose-footed soul.

In tandem, 6 and 62 convey us upstream to the town of Warren, Pennsylvania. Rounding a bend in the Allegheny, Warren bursts forth with a flash of color and the fleeting view of a modest eight-story skyscraper poking up behind the copper-roofed clock steeple of a handsome, wedge-shaped flatiron building. I immediately take a shine to the town, far more so than I had Butler. It feels like an opportune moment to stop for a stretch.

A small triangular plaza with a fountain whose base is bedecked with sculptures of stoic, proud-looking bucks anchors the main business district, which is encrusted with a rainbow array of mostly-occupied brick storefronts. Many are not accepting patronage at this time - Sunday is still revered in these parts - but a foray away from the river, into the surrounding blocks, reveals more clues into the heartbeat of this little town.

Warren soared above its status as a run-of-the-mill timber outpost because of oil, unearthed in this region during the 1870s and kicking off a boom that saw the town prosper far beyond what its own imagination would have dreamed possible. This newfound wealth erected the painted Victorians and roomy Foursquares populating the tree-lined streets encircling the august county courthouse, unusually removed from downtown in a quiet residential neighborhood (to a rather pleasant effect, it should be noted).

Around the corner is another gift from the thriving late 19th-century economy, the Struthers Library Theater, an artifact that has been lovingly restored and currently hosts local stage performances, classic film screenings, and the like. It's not a mission that smacks of a town with two feet already in the coffin, and indeed, Warren seems, at least on the surface, to possess more vim and vigor than many of its "bitter-clingin'" brethren throughout the Commonwealth, the decaying coal towns, rail towns, mill towns that are the resigned fodder for chin-stroking New York Times longreads, disaster porn photographers, and undistinguished amateur blog writers. It's still the black gold that's priming the pumps of Warren's aortic valve, the crude being pulled from the ground and refined right there in north-central Pennsylvania by the United Refining Company, better known by its nom de guerre, Kwik-Fill.

One more piece of the puzzle is presented during the walk back towards the main street, in the form of a large, low-lying brick building finished with Art Deco flourishes, inhabiting the vast majority of the square block on which it sits. A curious fixture on the corner of 3rd and Hickory explains everything. It's a four-sided analog clock, boxy and metallic, an early-20th century take on how everyday things might look in the future. In lieu of numbers, the letters N E W ` P R O C E S S ` are arranged around the face.

In 1910, a man named John Leo Blair came up with the idea of a more fashionable raincoat, utilizing black wool fabric on the outside with a plaid lining on the inside. These raincoats were such a smash hit, Blair was able to expand his company, which he named the New Process Rubber Company, into a full mail-order retail enterprise that went on to grow into one of the most successful such operations in the country. Despite some bumps in the road owing to the rise of Internet era, the company - now called the Blair Corporation after its founder - remains Warren County's largest employer, still headquartered right here in this complex.

Moving on eastward, U.S. 6 meanders down into the federal forestland, but we opt to keep traipsing after the Allegheny. After a few miles a concrete slab appears, the Kinzua Dam, past which the river swells into a languid body of water. An artificial lake, whose creation necessitated the drowning of 10,000 acres of land that had legally belonged to the Seneca people since 1794, according to a treaty signed by Chief Cornplanter and none other than George Washington himself.

It turns out, to no great shock, that the signature of the Father Of Our Country, as superficially deified as he is, would come to mean very little to the subsequent generations of the white man's government that His Eminence had done so much to nurture in its nascent stages. Originally contrived in the late 1930s as a flood control measure, part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' public works blitzkrieg under the New Deal, construction of Kinzua Dam wasn't actually ready to begin until 1960, by which point Seneca Nation had organized a fervent and intelligent resistance to the project. Their cries fell on deaf Congressional and even Presidential ears, however, as immortally lamented by Johnny Cash in the ballad "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow."

The confluence of the Allegheny River and Kinzua Creek would be indistinguishable in the obesity of the waters but for the unsightly bridge across the mouth of the creek that transports oblivious motorists, eager only to reach their destination, neither knowing nor caring that they're rumbling over what was once the focus of an entire culture, now submerged, sacrosanct burial grounds desecrated by the induced inundation.

Cornplanter, can you swim?

We rendezvous again with U.S. 6 through Mount Jewett, a speck of a village that rests between the headwaters of three different stream systems, the Kinzua, the Clarion, and the Potato. Each flows in almost perfect cardinal opposition to the others, yet all three eventually pour into the Allegheny, further evidence of the eccentric properties claimed by the earth here. A piecemeal Main Street wastes no effort in informing passersby of the area's Swedish heritage; the yellow Nordic Cross on cyan background features prominently at every opportunity. These displays are made to seem downright monochrome by an incongruously technicolor mural plastered to the next cluster of dilapidated buildings. This is my cue to look for Bridge Street, the back road that will wind us to the day's primary goal.

Kinzua Creek, inoffensive trickle that it appears today, managed to dig an appreciable gorge over the course of its geologic history, a gorge deep enough that the construction of a railroad bridge spanning it in 1882 would be at the time the highest such bridge in the world and, as such, was hailed as a unique feat of engineering. The designer of the bridge, the superbly-named Frenchman Octave Chanute, would turn his passion and intellect to aviation in his advanced years, going on to act as a mentor of sorts to a pair of erstwhile bicycle mechanics, brothers from Ohio named Wilbur and Orville.

Meanwhile, after an all-steel reboot at the turn of the century, Kinzua Bridge remained in the service of the railroad through the 1950s, until consolidation of the big companies rendered the route involving the bridge redundant, whereupon it was sold to the government of Pennsylvania in 1963 and preserved as the centerpiece of a State Park that would later enjoy excursion trains running across the trestle. It was an amply popular attraction that the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources chose to put money aside to strengthen the bridge, closing it in 2002, temporarily - or so it was believed.

One muggy July afternoon in 2003, a freak storm system roared through northern Pennsylvania, bringing with it conditions ripe for the formation of tornadoes, one of which touched down in the valley of Kinzua Creek. Though a mere F1, it was able to wholly ravage the bridge, ripping half of its mighty stanchions from their concrete moorings and tossing them to the floor of the glen. It would have cost tens of millions of dollars to rebuild the bridge, money the state didn't have. So the folks at the PADCNR - much to their credit - instead of throwing their hands up in self-pity, decided to squeeze fresh lemonade out of the calamity and made the ruins themselves the selling point of the park. It was a cool premise, and Kinzua Bridge was one of those things that had long been on my radar that I had just never got around to checking out, until this autumn expedition.

When we drop in, a fancy new parking lot and visitor center facility are in the works, but their current form is that of a pile of rubble decked in yellow ribbons of CAUTION tape fluttering in the constant breeze. For now visitors are directed to park in a muddy patch of gravel that requires a brief hike to the bridge itself. The endeavor is rewarded far past even my optimistic preconceptions.

The standing half of the bridge, anchored to the south slope of the valley from whence we've arrived, has been reinforced and converted into a wooden skywalk, permitting those free from the grip of acrophobia to venture out until they're suspended nearly three hundred feet above the ground. The extra-brave can walk along the tracks themselves, nervously hopscotching the disarmingly wide gaps between ties. Reaching the end of the walkway yields the first full glimpse of the wreckage strewn about the valley floor, an awesome bird's-eye view of the fury of nature's reckoning.

Looking at the crumpled and twisted steel bones, slapped aside so effortlessly, I try to picture what it must have been like to actually witness such destruction taking place. The only frames of reference I have are grainy memories of watching on television as the World Trade Center collapsed, or the controlled implosion of an obsolete stadium. It's a totally different brand of terror when you eliminate human agency, though, leaving you at the mercy of an untamable, uncontrollable act of god.

Already the Kinzua Bridge has lived up to the hype I'd prematurely bestowed upon it, well worth the detour, but it turns out the fun is just beginning, for the blustery amble back to solid ground reveals what looks like a primitive trail snaking down into the hollow. Curiosity piqued, an investigation is in order. A proper path leads to another wooden observation deck, complete with quarter-operated binocular device, granting an impressive side-angled view of the bridge. Branching off to the left is the trace of dirt that descends into the valley. A coil of switchbacks through the thick but denuded woods suddenly deposits us breathtakingly within feet of the colossal structure. The path now is nothing more than a track of tamped-down grass, with only a small sign acknowledging that people are intended to tread any further.

We pitch forward down the hill in the shadow of the rusting hulk, close enough to climb onto the concrete blocks holding the legs in place if we so desired. In fact, I am struck by the lack of formal regulations posted anywhere here. At one point, the actual trail veers off to the right, back into the forest to continue its slalom down to the creek, but there is no explicit warning not to keep picking through the ruins if you'd prefer. Nothing is fenced off or otherwise physically prohibited from access. Emboldened by this, I forge on, slinking perpendicularly between the last pair of erect trusses and a graffitied beam nearly as tall as I am even in its horizontal slumber.

I emerge on the other side of the bridge, still expecting to be ambushed by the PADCNR Stasi at any second.  But all is quiet as I trek deeper into the valley, the now-unburdened blocks resembling little ancient temples as I pass. And then I am face to face with the heaps of gnarled steel, somehow more inconceivably monstrous than they had seemed from above, the telltale red tint of oxidation flaring into a rich copper hue when the sun peeks out from behind the quilt of clouds.

My progress through this magnificently terrible wonderland is halted only by the barrier posed by Kinzua Creek. It looks easily fordable, but not in November when equipped with only one pair of shoes. I'm satisfied just to hang out amidst the rotting latticework and marvel at the fact that I am allowed to be doing so at all. I recall all of the wacky playground apparatus I loved as a kid - those rope spider web-like contraptions, intricate wooden pirate ships, etc. - that have since been dismantled on account of being "too dangerous" in the wake of the national pastime known as litigiousness and uniformly replaced with pre-fabricated, unimaginative jungle gyms over a spongy rubber surface. Kinzua Bridge is, at long last, my revenge.

I could spend hours meditating in the shade of these warped manmade arbors, but the shortening afternoon wants those hours, too, and that's a tug-of-war battle I'll never win. Grudgingly, we return to the blacktop, eastbound on Route 6 once again, through a sequence of towns that contain "Port" in their names - Smethport, Port Allegany, Coudersport - in open defiance of their landlocked status, though in the case of the latter two, the Allegheny graces them, having reemerged from a brief sojourn into New York. All three are adorned with elegant Victorian homes in varying conditions of upkeep or disrepair, but their considerable size harkens back to the well-heeled days when lumber was king and this part of the world possessed a virtually inexhaustible supply of it.

In Coudersport, however, it's not the ornate painted ladies that represent the most visually striking architectural feature. That honor belongs to the veritable palace preposterously looming over Main Street, a neo-Georgian behemoth in gauche red brick against building-high reflective windows and two fat, purple marble columns astride the front entrance. Such a beguiling exhibit of opulence is jarringly out of place in this humble logging camp, but the ultimately tragic story behind it is, in my book, one of the most apt emblems of the late capitalism unleashed on the world by the monolithic United States of the second half of the 20th century.

John Rigas arrived in Coudersport in the early 1950s as postwar American exceptionalism was getting into full swing, fresh off combat duty in France and dreaming of something more than his family's hot dog shop in Wellsville, New York, just on the other side of the border, or his shift at the Sylvania electronics plant down the road in Emporium. Rigas' first venture, a one-screen movie house, was not as lucrative an endeavor as he had hoped, so, as the story goes, he overdrew his bank account to buy the local cable service for $300. It was this antenna on a nearby hillock that would sprout over the ensuing decades into the giant called Adelphia that at its zenith was the sixth-largest cable provider in the country. Rigas found monumental success filling in the gaps between major media markets and was later joined in the business by his three sons as the empire's coverage expanded to 30 states.

While Adelphia swelled to outlandish proportions and Rigas himself became a household name, he opted to maintain the company's base of operations right there in tiny Coudersport, much to the befuddlement of the power brokers and money men in New York City and Philadelphia. Potter County had been amply removed from every economic boom that Pennsylvania enjoyed, but Rigas was now putting it unmissably on the map in bold type and size 24 font. His beneficence in the community was the stuff of legend: a job found for anyone who asked, favors dished out unremuneratively.

Photo from Google Maps

Rigas had a real weakness, though, and that was his brazenly cavalier attitude towards money. Aggressive spending and borrowing had enabled him to grow his dominion so robustly, but as the century came to a close, it emerged that Rigas and his sons had been essentially using the company as their own personal piggy bank, unbeknownst to most of the board members and other investors. Countless personal expenditures, even those as whopping as the purchase of a National Hockey League franchise (the Buffalo Sabres), were financed with Adelphia money.

Not only was this highly illegal, but the book-cooking required to keep partners and shareholders none the wiser meant that the company was racking up obscene amounts of debt without anyone cognizant enough to sound an alarm. Adelphia declared bankruptcy in 2002 and, after protracted litigation, in 2005 a 15-year prison sentence was handed down to an octogenarian John Rigas. That empty, palatial chateau out on Main Street in Coudersport? That was to be Adelphia's new corporate headquarters; its completion just beat the Chapter XI buzzer. Potter County receded once again into the state of perpetual stagnation that it had known for most of its existence, a much crueler fate now that the sweet nectar of prosperity had passed its lips. Meanwhile, the little cinema, John Rigas' original entrepreneurial enterprise, still boasts a lit marquee, touting a first-run blockbuster.

With the angle of the sun's rays diminishing, it's time to formulate an exit strategy from these northlands. The most straightforward course south mandates traversing a province geologists refer to simply as the "Deep Valleys" for the sharp lacerations myriad streams have gashed into the plateau atop the Allegheny Front over dozens of millennia. In some places the floor of a hollow lies a full thousand feet below the ridges of the surrounding bluffs, adding to the feeling of entrapment already lent by the region's foreboding name. The terrain casts an inescapable prison of shadows, but the amber hilltops in the distance offer a teasing promise.

This is the remotest area in the entire Commonwealth. The most significant thoroughfare spanning the region, Pennsylvania Route 120, stakes a legitimate claim to being Pennsylvania's "loneliest road," but surprisingly, it wasn't always quite so forlorn. The history of navigation through the Deep Valleys traces a fairly logical progression. Indian trails followed the natural paths provided by the West Branch of the Susquehanna River and the Sinnemahoning family of creeks as a means of portaging between the Susquehanna and Allegheny watersheds. When the white man became consumed by his iron horse craze, the most direct overland link between Pennsylvania's two biggest water ports ran through these gorges, and so here was laid down the trunk line of the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad in the years surrounding the American Civil War.

The rise of the automobile created new demand for paved roads, and when the U.S. Highway System was being drawn up, it was thought that a route alongside the P&E (which had long since been gobbled up by the Pennsylvania Railroad) would take on similar import as a vital connection between two important cities and thus this route was handed its own federal designation: U.S. 120. As better-engineered roads were constantly being constructed, it quickly became apparent that it was not ideal to bestow any modicum of importance to any road through territory that could appropriately be deemed the "Deep Valleys" if it could be avoided. U.S. 120 found itself superseded by corridors that skirted the Deep Valleys, subsequently truncated multiple times, and eventually decommissioned and handed over to state care, which is where things stand now: a mostly-forgotten highway to nowhere, still braided around the old P&E tracks and the prehistoric waterway.

Nowhere, in this particular case, was once somewhere, and that somewhere was Renovo, the Deep Valleys' major metropolis. Renovo exists solely because its spot was approximately the halfway point between Philadelphia and Erie when the P&E was built through, so the company put a railyard and maintenance shops there, propping up enough of an economy to healthily sustain a permanent population in the several thousands. For a century "the shops" were plenty sufficient to foster ordinary, archetypical small town America, schools and churches and stores and bars, up until the PRR ceased operations there in the late 60s, leaving Renovo to face the obscure, reclusive existence its geographic situation surely would have dictated all along had it not been for the interloping presence of the railroad. Now the town is so isolated and inconsequential that the thousand and change hardy souls that continue to call it home did not have cellular phone service of any kind until 2011. One business sticks out as we fly past: a restaurant named "Yesterday's."

Golden hour chases us from this peculiar domain’s crevices and crannies, the Susquehanna riding shotgun all the while. We are deposited in Lock Haven, one of those otherwise nondescript burgs that’s kept buoyant by the existence of a four-year university, a phenomenon I’ve come to greatly appreciate and look out for in my travels, for such institutions lend a certain youthful energy to their environs. The school doesn't have to be especially big or prestigious for that vitality to be readily palpable and infectious to the random wanderer.

There is a bated stillness to the light’s last hurrah, as if the earth has lost a fragile belonging in a crowded room and shouted for nobody to move. The season extracts a melancholy chill from the air as soon as the sun disappears. It is one of my favorite time of day and time of year combinations (paradoxically, it must be said, for someone whose hobby is defeated by both night and winter) and to soak it up I clamber to the top of the levees overlooking the old river. I allow myself a few minutes of contemplative solitude, alone with the twin chess-bishop steeples of the Clinton County Courthouse, and then we must proceed onwards.

The drawing of the curtains on the day instills a different type of mentality into a drive. No longer is leisure in control of the wheel. We can sneak into Nittany Valley through a crack in the invisible Bald Eagle Mountain and acquiesce to the convenience of the Interstate without any illumination to betray our sin. I-80 powers up the Allegheny Front, eschewing the serpentine curves of the older roads that had to surrender to the topography of the escarpment.

Empty stomachs plead for mollification, so a stop is made in Clearfield to eat at Denny's. No, not Denny's® the safely mediocre diner chain, but the one and only "Denny's Beer Barrel Pub," infamous for its challenges involving multi-pound cheeseburgers, the Everest among them a 96-ounce gargantua that must be polished off completely within a three hour time limit. With hours yet to plod in the dark, we settle for one of the standard half-pound offerings. Even that sits heavy as we waddle back out into the night, now verging on frosty. Pennsylvania's sole ethanol plant silently chugs away over the restaurant's shoulder, its smoky exhalations camouflaged against the inky sky.

Sated nearly to the point of discomfort, we aim for a rough hypotenuse across the wrinkled landscape, penance for our earlier abandonment of the Blue Highways, brief though it may have been. We're almost precisely echoing the Great Shamokin Path to Kittanning; the Lenape had a pretty good idea of what they were doing, so obviously our roads are merely imitations of theirs. The Amish arrived and were permitted to stay, unlike the Natives whom they usurped as the wardens of these fertile dales. Thus our journey is stuttered by the periodic emergence from the gathering gloom of incandescent orange reflectors hovering in midair, in reality affixed to the rear of a dawdling carriage, unapologetic for the sluggishness with which it moseys along. The buggies outnumber other cars, which makes it easier to maneuver around them, straining my ears to catch the metronomic clip-clop of horse hooves at each pass.

Punxsutawney lies dormant, the only sign of life evident in the faded red, white, and blue emanating from neon displays promoting name brand domestics affixed to a pair of windowless saloons engaged in a sad standoff of sorts down a dingy side street. The drab setting can be forgiven of a place whose biggest (and probably only) renown not only revolves around a rodent, but was most visibly manifested for a wide audience via a movie that was filmed 500 miles away; Punxsy wasn't considered adequately charming or pretty to star in its own biopic. Human-sized groundhog totems lurch out of the darkness to leer at us as we zoom by. Phil's wood-carved brethren taunt us with the vow of a cold, nasty winter, as if the whole season is borne by a universal punishment for their hamlet's depressed languishing.

Sure enough, we're no more than a few minutes beyond Punxsy when the heavy air finally caves in and the snow begins to tumble copiously from the heavens. Kittaning beckons to us with a return to a fortified major expressway, an ostensibly merciful gesture that is actually more of a mixed blessing, if even that. An eighteen-wheeler sashays wildly to and fro across the lanes ahead of us, nothing more than a blur in the swirling blizzard. We creep forward trepidatiously, distances unintelligible in the maelstrom. A bridge, then another, then another. One of them is ours, but in my mind it is the Kinzua, shredded and torn asunder. This fear is, of course, proven silly, and we leap the Allegheny one more time to slide down the hastily salted city streets that will lead us home.

Driving Home, Part VI: The Coda

It's not the more famous entrée into the city; that would be the dizzying burst out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel following the lull of the Parkway, slinking in between unseen office parks and shopping centers, then suddenly finding yourself face-to-face with a sparkling array of skyscrapers, like stumbling upon a modern day El Dorado hidden amongst the hills. With unique panache it greets the unsuspecting visitor arriving from the airport and it winks knowingly at the old hand who doesn't need to waste so much as a glance at the green aluminum welcome mats offering a four-second crash course on the jumble of lane configurations.

In some ways, though, the less-heralded procession through the Liberty Tubes is just as grand. For one thing, there's no overhead truss to contend with, allowing for a more unobstructed view of the skyline. There are also no fewer than five other bridges immediately visible spanning the Monongahela to the left and right, each of a different style and vintage - this is the City of Bridges, after all. We've got more of them than Venice, so it is said.

There's also simply a particularly analgesic effect after the protracted slog up Route 51's torturous rack of traffic lights, skimming the likes of Baldwin, Whitehall, Brentwood, faceless entities that owe practically their entire tax base to white flight, noteworthy only for giving the region its own civil rights disgrace over two decades ago. Long before Fruitvale Station and Ferguson, before "I can't breathe" and Freddie Gray, we had Johnny Gammage. Thirty-one and black, pulled over for "driving erratically" (applying his brakes on a portion of road with an appreciable downgrade) and subsequently beaten to death by representatives from all three boroughs' police departments, none of whom ended up receiving any legal repercussions.

After trawling through such oppressive generica, emerging from the tunnel will forever feel like home. Contrary to the sentiment espoused so far in this space, that's not a bad thing by any means. My aversion to going home is not owed to the flaws of my home.

Over the past century, Pittsburgh has had to endure a transformation from prosperous but filthy ("hell with the lid off"), to broken and rudderless in the wake of fleeing industry, to well-kept secret as a pioneer of how to escape the Rust Belt quagmire, to today's wider renown for gaining a reputation as something of an "It" city, where the best and brightest actually want to be.

I grew up right on the inflection point between those second and third stages. Even when I hit high school, it still wasn't hip to appreciate Pittsburgh. "There's nothing going on here. I can't wait to get out," were common refrains in the cafeteria or study hall or gym class. I saw through this myopia all along. For me, it was a good place long before the outside world started to sit up and take notice, so much so that I had no major qualms about returning home after college, no rush to scramble away, satisfied enough to drift through my twenties in familiar surroundings.

Many others have joined me, even a number of those who cast the most aspersions as teenagers. Stage four now perilously teeters on the edge of what comes next, an overload of desirability, sickly sweet, the insidious tentacles of the dangerously whispered "g" word grabbing hold and refusing to let go. The housing market. The tech bubble. The demographic shift. Buzzwords carelessly flung about to measure a city's success in modern terms, but no one is comfortable dealing with the eternal dilemma of where to draw the line when it comes to how much soul is worth it to part with and who gets left behind.

It's far too easy to get caught up in the hype machine, too easy to unearth and sink your hands into the superficial reasons for Pittsburgh's ascendency. I could spend hours waxing eulogistic about all of the factors that make it so - the walkable neighborhoods, the universities that foster the curious breed of person that helps to keep a place interesting, the thousands of acres of urban parkland, the cost of living relative to other hot metros, the burgeoning foodie scene, the natural beauty afforded by the rippled terrain that is almost unrivaled among American cities.

But that's everyone's Pittsburgh. At the risk of falling into a deep well of solipsism, my Pittsburgh, three decades' worth, is not so much in the magazine rankings and puff pieces published for the benefit of nationwide audiences. It's in the age-old question of what it is to be from a place. It's in all that which has been earned and discovered, not merely taught or read about.

It's in the alleyways, back streets, shortcuts, lost worlds . . .

 

. . . in the tangled paths through forested glens . . .

 

. . . in the overgrown basketball courts of our youth that have claimed and kept the blood from the sacrificial ritual of countless scraped knees and elbows . . .

 

. . . and in the rusted, sagging bridges that will be reconstructed in a year or two to be slick and anesthetized, and the derelict towers that will soon house luxuries the likes of which have never graced their neighborhood before, catering to the people who would never have been caught dead in that neighborhood before.

 

It's in the innumerable views, even the photocopied, Instagrammed ones I'll still never take for granted, such as the crown jewel cathedral of the Chuch of Baseball at its most photogenic hour of the day . . .

 

. . . the secret views you can't get to without knowing how, through the branches of a wooded hilltop or perched in a crumbling, mostly forgotten cemetery . . .

 

. . . and the views that unexpectedly leap out from behind the corner of a tilted, crooked street to steal the air from your lungs.

 

It's in my thoughtful spots, a sycamore's shade on the tiny hillside college campus in the thick of the city’s frenetic swirl, but at the same time tucked quietly away from it all . . .

 

. . . on the tragically underused benches in front of the flagship library, surrounded by architectural wonders at the city's intellectual heart . . .

 

. . . or posted at the end of the bar in one of the city's many quintessential dives, masked by neon beer logos, watching life pass outside the window in that quirky double-time manner of an early film reel.

 

It's in things as routine as the cycling of the days and the turning of the seasons, in the cool serenity of Sunday morning's slanted shadows before high noon arrives and erupts into a midsummer broiler . . .

 

. . . in the nostalgic snare of a crisp autumn afternoon on a tree-lined street where the entire world has taken on the earthy palette . . .

 

. . . in the delicate stillness after snowfall, when it seems like so much as a deep breath might disturb the whole tableau . . .

 

. . . and in the titanic battle of a frosty spring dawn, the sun's exhalations hovering over the ground in their quest to defeat the previous night's chill.

 

It's present when vibrancy drains from the urban canyons of Downtown in the wee hours, leaving the glittering towers frozen in dormancy above the deserted streets, like exquisitely carved gargoyles waiting to come alive again.

 

It's present in the energy of a watercolor street scene on an Indian summer evening so idyllic not a citizen is spared from the inspiration to be out and about.

 

It's present in the electric excitement of an impeding storm, the shelf cloud staring you down, daring you to blink, but the prospect of conceding, finding a place to hole up and watch its fury in safety and comfort, is a noble one.

 

And it's present in the rarely spectacular sunset preceding a crystal clear winter's nightfall, compelling you to wrap it up and put it in your pocket for gray times.

Somehow, it's taken me several months to get here from the not-so-far-off National Road, Cumberland, Pennsylvania Route 160, Berlin, the Glades Pike, and the Century III Mall. I choose to believe that's largely because, regardless of how much truth there is behind the adage that you can't go home again, I certainly buy that it’s at least difficult to effectively talk about it.

In my experience, virtually no one has a neutral opinion of the places in which they've spent the most years, especially earlier in life. People tend to come down strongly on their hometown at one end of the spectrum or the other and it's only natural for that bias to creep into any attempt to ascribe meaning. Previous drafts of this epilogue kept veering, unintentionally, into the realm of advertisement and I found myself unable, or perhaps unwilling, to turn off that spigot. I still had too much of a personal stake in the subject I was trying to write about. 

I don't think it's a coincidence that it's only now, after having spent the last few months living nearly full-time in our nation's capital, that words about Pittsburgh are suddenly spewing forth from my keyboard unencumbered. The buffer of time and distance that is gradually accumulating hardens as it does so into another dimension of perspective. My hope is that this new layer will one day be able to look eye-to-eye with the ground level view that is all I'd previously known and shake hands - not necessarily as an equal, for thirty years is a mighty head start - but at the minimum as a respected peer.

In the mean time, I'll be navigating that alien world where home isn't exactly home anymore and new home isn't quite home yet, either. It's a different sort of adventure than I'm used to, the adventure of the mundane, cracking open a new habitat like a book fresh off the shelf, the everyday intricacies and nuances of each street, each block waiting to waft off the pages, all the more frissive for being shared with someone you love.

There is one constant, though.

I know there will still be days when I'll wake up early to a tantalizingly azure sky, coaxing me outside to get behind the wheel of my car and set off for destinations heretofore unknown.

I know that at the end of those days it will still be hard to go home.

Driving Home, Part V: The Scar

Photo from John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

On October 13, 1962, John F. Kennedy stood in the parking lot of the A&P Supermarket at Donner Avenue and 6th Street in Monessen, Pennsylvania and stumped for his fellow Democrats who were running in that year's mid-term elections. All of Monessen turned out to see JFK, it seemed - actually rather more than that, if the quoted number of 25,000 is to be believed, packing themselves like sardines into the streets of the mill town that could claim roughly 18,000 residents at the time.

Even during that relatively prosperous era in the history of both Monessen and the nation at large, JFK's remarks hinted at troubles looming on the horizon as he spoke of "towns which have been hit hard by all of the technological and industrial changes that have come in this country." The President, as we know, would not live long enough to see just what a grave harbinger his words really were. Most of the population of Monessen, on the other hand, would have to suffer through three decades of cutbacks and layoffs as heavy industry gradually packed up and left. The death blow was dealt in 1986, when Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, the town's largest employer, finally terminated nearly all of its operations in Monessen. A single coke works is all that remains, still belching its vaporous refuse into the sky, a more incongruous sight today against a much bluer backdrop than could be seen a half-century ago in this part of the world.

This is the same story that was writ all up and down the valley of the Monongahela River as it slithers through southwestern Pennsylvania, from Pittsburgh to Brownsville. For almost a century, a perfect convergence of natural resources and innovative minds made this region America's Ruhr (in fact, the etymology of Monessen is an amalgamation of Monongahela and Essen, the city that was the hub of Germany's industrial heartland). Such intrinsic advantages were multiplied when these United States woke up one fine morning to discover they effectively had a monopoly on being able to build things after a few wars had ravaged the rest of the developed world's manufacturing capacity. In those heady days, rolling out of bed with a work ethic in hand was practically all that was necessary to land a steady and reliable job, if not also an arduous and likely fairly dangerous one. For those who persevered, though, the gate was left wide open onto a path to a financially comfortable and secure career and retirement beyond, not to mention that golden tenet of the mid-20th century working class: the desire to provide an even better life with even greater opportunity for one's kids.

The gate was open until it wasn't. At the beginning of the end there was no single precipitous moment, rather a slow burn over twenty-odd years. Corporations began to figure out that factories and mills were cheaper to operate in other, poorer countries, and besides, better to blacken their skies than ours until they resembled night in the middle of the day, sun blotted out by chemical clouds. What industry stuck it out on our own soil could be increasingly automated, further reducing the need for a colossal labor force. These foreshocks eventually snowballed into the earth-shattering calamity of the 1980s, as plants were shuttered one after another like dominoes across the Northeast and near-Midwest, the phenomenon that led to the coining of the "Rust Belt."

Thirty years on and many of the larger cities within the Rust Belt have at least started to pull themselves up with heavy doses of eds and meds, tech and finance, reorienting towards the service-based tertiary sector of the economy, to varying degrees of success. It's the smaller towns that have fallen through the cracks en masse, and frankly, it's impossible to say where ample recovery might come from for most of them.

During college I spent four years working at a local amusement park down here, and I'd be lying if I insisted that those long summer nights cruising the Mon Valley didn't leave an indelible impression on me. Double features at the Brownsville Drive-In off the Old National Road. Emerging bruised and bloodied, but invigorated, from pickup games of parking lot street hockey. Backyard parties down the endless cul-de-sacs of milquetoast 1960s subdivisions. Ghost hunting among the decaying ruins of McKeesport mansions, now folded into some of the worst blocks of urban prairie this side of Detroit. Three a.m. pancakes at charmingly shabby round-the-clock diners. Crossing the train tracks to Dravosburg, getting lost in Charleroi, stranded by a flood in Glassport.

And the green - oh, the green! From the spring rains through the return of autumn's benign reign, the color is the most loyal of compatriots while winding from crest to gully, along decrepit business districts and between hulking industrial apparatus. It is limitless in its abundance, every conceivable shade, even tirelessly inventing new ones to be discovered the next time I'm swallowed in this world that tries to hide its unkindness behind such soft, plush velour.

The Mon Valley is a place for which I can't help but to have developed great affection, which is why it pains me that I'm unable to convince myself that there's any feasible way back in the long run. No one seems to have the answers. Half-measures have been attempted; a newly-completed controlled-access highway was supposed to facilitate economic development in the region. Instead, it's just helping what sparse traffic does use it to move through the area even more quickly and with even more of a force field between themselves and the dying towns they're flying past.

Something that the proponents of the "if you build it, they will come" philosophy that led to the construction of the utterly desolate Mon-Fayette Expressway evidently failed to take into account is that they won't come unless they have a reason to be there. Yet there are plans on the table to expand the MFE, the hyper-ambitious upshot of dreams that connecting it to the rest of the metro's highway network at another traffic-choked, commercialism-strangled, placeless 'burb called Monroeville will spur development in the numerous brownfields that are scattered about. We'll see. The cynic in me fears that the natural order of things is simply that these towns will quietly fade to black. Not immediately, of course, perhaps not even for several generations, but what else happens when you no longer have a reason to exist?

I don't know what compels me to do it, but I suddenly find myself veering off Route 51 and into the maze of service roads that leads to the sad husk of Century III Mall. Once upon a time, it was a true monument to Western consumerism and the industrial machine that made it all possible - literally, for it was built on top of a U.S. Steel slag heap. When it was completed in the late 70s, hubristically stealing its moniker from the passing of our country's bicentennial, Century III was purportedly the third largest enclosed shopping center in the world. It's a staggering notion to consider now as I navigate the moonscape-like driveways, barely fit for an ATV, and pass by a crumbling two-story parking deck that has been completely barricaded off. No repetitive spiral around the lot required; spaces are vacant no more than fifty feet from any entrance.

The extent to which I grew up around mall culture is mostly restricted to hazy but fond memories of my grandparents taking my brother and me to another nearby mall when we were foisted on them (that mall has already succumbed to the fate - extinction - towards which Century III continues to amble). Perhaps that's sufficient to explain the slight pang of nostalgia when I walk into the air conditioned confines, an involuntary emotional reaction that drifts in the direction of sorrow when I see how forlorn the place is. Storefronts sit unoccupied, an unsettling number of them, with depressingly desperate "FOR LEASE" posters plastering the wall-to-wall windows, behind which resides nothing but blank ecru drywall and dusty beige carpeting. One whole wing of the mall has been blocked off to public access by a row of unused kiosks that in a past life would have hawked cheap jewelry and sunglasses. An hour before close and I can do a full 360 degree turn from the middle of a second-floor balcony and see virtually nobody else. One young mother and the toddler she is gripping by the hand are my sole accompaniment in this veritable George Romero homage apart from the Steely Dan tune that wafts from hidden speakers and reverberates through the empty space.

I've seen your picture / Your name in lights above it / This is your big debut / It's like a dream come true

The song is randomly pulled from some pre-packaged easy listening Internet radio station, but I have to chuckle at the accidental metaphor: an ostensibly cheery, upbeat ditty that upon deeper examination is actually a dark commentary on the sinisterly false optimism of the entertainment industry, being piped into a complex that was a grand house of worship to the gods of material possession when it was shiny and new (as it happens, the ribbon was cut just a couple of years after "Peg" was recorded). Like what is implied will inevitably happen to the song's eponymous starlet, the mall was unceremoniously kicked aside when tastes changed and the trends dictating what passed for the vaunted American lifestyle kept evolving.

On some primordial level, the suburban enclosed shopping mall was designed to emulate the traditional Main Street shopping experience, only with ample parking, protection from the elements, and a private police force. But then strip malls and big boxes became the craze, aggregating a wider variety of products into fewer stores, necessitating shuttling from errand to errand in the bio-hazard suit of a personal vehicle, achieving the desired effect of totally eliminating any chance of human interaction. As antithetical to good things like urbanity, environmentalism, and independent business the idea of the indoor mall was and is, at heart it was at the very least trying to foster a social setting. Maybe that is where my perverse sympathy for this terminally ill mecca of excess is germinating.

Tonight, I very well may have been coerced inside by morbid pity, but I can plead hunger as a more rational excuse for my presence in this mausoleum. Quite possibly my most shameful culinary guilty pleasure is crappy mall/airport Chinese food. You know, where you get to pick two flash-fried entrees, overloaded to the point of sogginess with "sauce" that probably came out of a cardboard carton, all physics-defyingly stuffed into a plastic container along with some microwaved rice? I will never turn it down.

So imagine my dismay to not only find the food court darkened, with a lone custodian performing the tedious task of overturning chairs and balancing them on tabletops one by one, cutting a tragically Rigbian figure given the likelihood of how few of those chairs were actually utilized throughout the day, but to see that the crappy Chinese joint flat-out doesn't appear to exist any longer. A miserable-looking sub shop and grungy pizza counter are the only options remaining even when the lights are on.

This is all too much to bear, so I hightail it out of there. As I go, the music floating across the abandoned concourse is now Stevie Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen." It's again perfectly fitting: a song about death.

Driving Home, Part IV: The Scab

In the late 1750s, the road tamped down by General Forbes' expedition to capture Fort Duquesne (which turned out to be much more successful than Braddock's attempt had been) had the byproduct of initially opening an area known as "The Glades" to white settlement, a high plateau of rolling hills between the Allegheny Front and the final barrier to The West posed by the twin ridges of Laurel and Chestnut. Within these few hundred square miles arise the headwaters to a multitude of streams and creeks, flowing forth to join four major river systems - the Allegheny, the Monongahela, the Potomac, and the Susquehanna - and thence into both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. This must have truly felt like the top of the world to those early homesteaders, and they would not have been entirely wrong; our friend Berlin, for example, can boast of being Pennsylvania's highest incorporated place with over 100 permanent residents.

By the close of the 18th century, imaginary lines had been drawn and the County of Somerset officially demarcated (ironically borrowing the name of an English shire despite Germans and their descendants comprising the largest influx to the region). It's a title that evokes quaint, serene, picturesque countryside, and Pennsylvania's version does an admirable job of living up to its namesake in that regard. Though coal mining has taken its toll, the open wounds still visible on hillsides across the county, Somerset, due to its relative inaccessibility, managed to avoid the most intense manifestations of the industrial frenzy that swept the nation for a century-plus. Today still, fracking wells are comparatively few and far between within the borders of the county even as they spread like locusts throughout the rest of southwestern Pennsylvania.

The result is a place that never boomed, but also never had to cope with the subsequent bust. As it did nearly 150 years ago when the railroads first permeated the Allegheny Plateau, Somerset continues to subsist largely on mining and farming, with the latter-day supplement of tourism destinations in the form of two ski resorts and a state park atop Laurel Ridge. The county's population peaked at close to 85,000 during the 1940s; it currently holds steady in the upper seventies. It remains mostly anonymous to the world at large, except for two tragedies that momentarily thrust it into the international spotlight: United Flight 93 crashed in a nearby field on September 11, 2001 and eleven months later, the harrowing plight of nine coal miners who found themselves trapped in a flooding mine and their eventual against-all-odds rescue became headline news. Apart from that snake-bitten year, one gets the impression that there is contentedness to slumber on in obscurity.

The eponymous Borough is a prototypical sleepy rural county seat, crowned by the impressive Classical Revival courthouse on a rise in the middle of town, visible from all directions, including mine as I trundle in from Berlin. The sight is my cue to cut over to the proliferation of brand-name travel services that has cropped up like a bad rash surrounding Somerset County's only interchange with the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Then I can strap in and crush the 50-odd miles of tolled novocaine between here and Pittsburgh, trampling underfoot any Left Lane Bandits unfortunate enough to get in my way.

Or . . .

Or, I'm still not ready to be home. Even with the sky now a navy blue velvet blanket draped over the earth, there is more length to be driven on oxygenated roads where leisure is the only capital I need to breathe in the night air. Almost as if by natural magnetic repulsion, I'm pushed away from the fluorescent oases of McDonald's and Holiday Inn and up into downtown Somerset, locked in quiet calm on a Sunday evening. Then it's on down Main Street, lined with trees and early-20th-century houses which give way to the standard small town outskirt flotsam and jetsam of used car lots and miniature strip malls, until the two lanes open up to dictionary-perfect rolling farmland, sporadically interspersed with an old-timey inn, tavern, or country store. Soon the tree wall closes in, signaling the ascent up and over Laurel Hill to the hamlet of Donegal twenty miles west.

This is Pennsylvania Route 31, but prior to assuming that designation it was simply the Glades Pike, tracing a more direct path through the Somerset highlands, initially hewed a decade or so after Forbes and his men blazed their more northerly trail. As with the Old National Road, I can't help but to be filled with wonder and excitement in treading in the footsteps of the pioneers. Even the name of this road does things for me; in my mind, the word "glade" is an ineffably pleasant marriage of "glen" and "shade."

I have a fond relationship with this stretch of Route 31. It has yet to let me down as a respite from the cattle call of the mainline highway. There was the instance a ferocious storm crawled across the area just as I was reaching Somerset on my usual trek home from the Capital. From the distant heights of PA 160 and Berlin, I could plainly see the malevolent anvil and the bombflashes of lightning dancing within. It was going to be rough, and at this juncture there was no way around it. Sitting at the red light beyond which the entrance to the Turnpike beckoned, I realized I simply didn't trust the Turnpike, or any of the people who drive on it, to be able to handle a severe thunderstorm. On the other hand, as silly as it sounds, I trusted the Glades Pike, even with its dated and inferior construction.

The tempest hit, fierce gusts rocking my car to brag about the downed trees and dismembered branches left in its wake. It was intense sledding for a while, but sure enough, I felt confident moving at a safe, consistent speed on the parallel Route 31 while Google relayed notice of aggravating slowdowns on the Turnpike westbound from Somerset. I may have actually saved myself time in the end by taking the "slower" way, and even if I didn't, avoiding the stop-start stress of being swallowed in a sea of brake lights alone made the endeavor well worth it.

Presently, there are no storms. The air has cooled sufficiently to proceed with windows down, left arm extended, idly buffeting on the breeze. Donegal, home to the next Turnpike exit to the west and with it, another small flowering of commercialization that your run of the mill modern-day American traveler would evidently be lost without. Subway, Days Inn, Dairy Queen. This is the "Gateway to the Laurel Highlands," western Pennsylvania's "beach," as it were. It's a colloquial ascription owing to the Highlands' legitimacy as a nearby vacation spot for our landlocked region, though Laurel Hill State Park does feature an actual, honest-to-goodness beach straddling a Civilian Conservation Corps-made mountain lake, delightfully counter-expectant at 2,000 feet and hundreds of miles from any real body of water. The genuine charm of an escape to elevation makes the concept of Donegal all the more disappointing. People flock here to ostensibly get away from it all, only to blissfully fork their hard-earned over to the same familiar mediocrities they do at home.

Fortunately, Donegal passes quickly and within a few minutes the road climbs to the top of Chestnut Ridge, the ultimate hurdle presented by the Appalachian Mountains before the continent opens up to over 1,300 miles of relatively easy footing until the Rockies rise impenetrably from the Great Plains. Cresting the ridge, for a few moments the western horizon sprawls out into infinity, the day's last gasps of technicolor straining to flee the black hole at the edge of the earth. Amazingly, from this spot, still nearly forty miles from Pittsburgh as the crow flies, the crowning towers of the city's skyline are distinctly visible when conditions are clear. It's another reminder of how close to home I am.

The gravity-aided glide down the mountain reverts back to a rollicking two-lane cruise through the foothills, halted only by a rare traffic signal at a lonely crossroads. It's fully nighttime now, the gauzy glow from the off-brand gas station just about infiltrating my car, casting abstract, Escherian layers of shadows upon shadows. Radio off, instead choosing to be serenaded by the comforting chorus of nocturnal insects. It's a timeless sound, one that never fails to make me think of childhood summers coming to a close.

My wistfulness is exacerbated by the turn-off that leads to an old Mennonite retreat center where I used to spend an October weekend with my family throughout my single-digit years, always when the reds, oranges, and yellows were at their most vivid and the apple cider at its sweetest. I would return as a teen for a different sort of formative experience, a gathering of co-ed youth groups during those muddy lost days between fall and winter. The road there is ringed with trees, their canopies creating a tunnel effect that for all I know just may constitute a wormhole to the past; I dare not enter. The inexorable acknowledgement that my southwestern Pennsylvania roots run intransigently deep is enough for tonight.

This ephemeral reverie buoys me as I pass through Mount Pleasant, if nothing else visually memorable for the doughboy statue situated squarely in the middle of the town's focal intersection. Usually, this is where I finally succumb to the pneumatic tube of the freeway, whooshing past the massive plant where Volkswagens were once assembled, then Sony televisions. Sony's pull-out almost a decade ago could have destroyed the local economy, but enterprising individuals moved quickly to subdivide the facility and attract the kind of smaller-scale manufacturing that can still be found stateside: envelopes, bar codes, acid-free batteries. It's a fortunate solution in an era of misfortune.

However, if I want it, there is still one more alternative to the Turnpike, an option that requires confronting head-on the post-industrial malaise readily apparent in this part of the country. Onwards it is, then. At this hour the knobby no-man's land takes on a presence of its own, watching my every move, muttering its concern, voyeuristic titters it thinks I can't hear. The descent comes suddenly, a spectral parade of mid-century bungalows, clapboard Victorians, squat brick domiciles from even earlier generations, ushering me down the funnel into a worn business district, rudely bisected by the train tracks that some time ago would have been the lifeblood here, now just a conspicuous gash in the street wall. I am greeted only by the restive spirits of faded-out advertisements astride hollow buildings.

"This stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace . . . It looked at you with a vengeful aspect," Joseph Conrad wrote of a nefarious jungle river, though it very well could have been penned to describe this sluggish waterway and the dilapidated burg skulking around its banks nearly six score years later, in this land of milk and honey. Before there was a bridge there was first a crude ferry, proffered by a man named Simeral. Tonight he's nowhere to be found, scarcely remembered, drowned in history's excess. In his place it's Charon escorting me across the Youghiogheny, further into our own, self-wrought heart of darkness.

Driving Home, Part III: The Salve

I pass through the Narrows north of town, their sheer rocky faces obscuring what remains of the daylight. By the time I am free of their imposing clutches, dusk is well on its way to settling over the landscape. My angst from earlier begins to evaporate along with the day's heat into the twilight air. I feel even better still when I think about the next segment of my drive.

As it so happens, the current most optimal route between Cumberland and Pittsburgh actually utilizes two dozen of good, old-fashioned two-lane blacktop, a navigational anomaly in this day and age. Beginning at the border with Maryland, Pennsylvania Route 160 jaggedly hypotenuses northwest, summiting the Allegheny Front to meet U.S. 219 a few miles outside Somerset. From there, I am only required to endure less than an hour on the dreaded Turnpike to get home.

Starting at the Mason-Dixon Line, PA 160 climbs steadily through an outpost called Wellersburg (pop. 176). Then this textbook "Blue Highway" twists and turns, rolls and rises, dips and dives through classic southwestern Pennsylvania countryside dotted with farmsteads that have fought the topography for generations just to eke out a livelihood.

This is a drive I've made too many times to count now, and it never gets old. I've done it in every season, through the stark, bare winter, above the damp, blooming spring, amidst the lightning streaks of a summer storm, under the cover of glorious autumn color. I've done it sliding through torrential downpours, immersed in fluffy falling snowflakes, battling fog as thick as blood, and I've done it on some of the most spectacularly beautiful days you could imagine.

But what makes this route truly special, to me, is the nearly ubiquitous presence of what I opine to be one of the most graceful sights that can be found in nature. It is, ironically, a man-made feature, the first of which comes into view perched at the top of the ridge above Wellersburg. It is a windmill, sleek and sterile white, its three narrow propeller blades churning through the calm sky. Up close, the true force of the circular motion can be discerned, a steady whomp, whomp, whomp exhaled as the air is displaced. From the distance of the road, however, it looks merely a lazy pantomime.

Somerset County has emerged as something of an epicenter for Pennsylvania's budding wind energy sector, and no fewer than three different wind farms flank this portion of PA 160 as it snakes through the region. At times, vehicles pass close enough to a turbine that the driver is able to appreciate the enormous scale of the contraption. At other spots, the road offers panoramic vistas of entire colonies, strung out in an orderly fashion like army sentinels along a distant hilltop, making it easy to see how Cervantes would have been inspired four centuries ago. For the duration of this jaunt the windmills are almost never out of sight, elegant travel companions along this country road.

If I'm lucky - if the weather is cooperative and there's no one in front of me - I can treat this stretch like my own personal autobahn. In fact, there is no speed limit posted at any point beyond Wellersburg (though an admission must be made that rural state highways in Pennsylvania do technically carry a standard speed limit of 55 mph unless otherwise posted). I can take the curves at speeds that turn the yellow advisory signs a shade of blushing crimson. I know which rises to gun hard to experience that exhilarating plunge in my stomach upon descending the other side, as if on a roller coaster. If I do happen to come up behind a slowpoke, well, that's alright, too. Leisure is the purpose of a road like this, after all, not getting somewhere as quickly as possible. There's the Turnpike for that.

The windmills, now literally Quixotic silhouettes against the dusky sky, grow smaller in my rearview mirror until they are nothing more than their red aircraft-warning signals, pulsating on and off rhythmically in the gloaming as if they are windtalking to an extraterrestrial race. Just past the green-and-white marker pointing the way towards one last back door to Meyersdale, the road drops and rounds yet another bend, much as it has been doing for the majority of the ride since the state line. At the crest of this latest glen, however, I can catch a glimpse of the town on the hill, sheathed in faded gold from the disappearing day. The cupola atop the quaint school building stands out amongst the pinpricks of light that represent the windows of houses.

The town is visible for about twelve seconds, just long enough to feel tangible, and then it is gone - at least, from my own eye. Life still goes on inside the town, of course. Years and decades have passed and assuredly, some things will change; for instance, as I write this, an 11-and-a-half-mile chunk of controlled-access highway is being constructed between Somerset and Meyersdale. When completed (purportedly by late 2018), it will co-opt the U.S. 219 designation that currently constitutes the main drag directly through the little town on the hill. Thus the hamlet will be bypassed, effectively put out of sight and out of mind to anyone traversing the area.

This is a familiar fate for small-town America, but it continues to sadden me no less when yet another community is rendered some degree of obsolescence by the allure of a fast, seamless four-lane vacuum. That is why I take comfort in the notion that from a distance, such as the vantage point from these few hundred feet of asphalt, the town will always look more or less the same, like a dollop of white paint dripped carelessly across this Appalachian hillside by the cosmos while she was going about dabbing the stars into their patterns in the sky. If I squint, I can conceive that it might not have appeared all that dissimilarly to Governor Mifflin when he rode in with federal militia troops in the autumn of 1794 to quell the Whiskey Rebellion. Bittersweet is the knowledge that when I first see the town from afar, frozen in time, I am only a bit more than an hour from home. (For context, the analogous spot on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is the sign telling me I can get Roy Rogers at the Somerset Travel Plaza.)

The Borough of Berlin will probably be alright in the end - its daily bread and cheese comes mainly from the potato chip factory and the drilling equipment company that reside there - but I still can't help fearing for the town once its amenities become forcibly hidden from the through traffic that they serve and rely on.

For the time being, though, it's largely business as usual on this agreeably warm and clear late summer evening. Most of the activity is concentrated around the intersection of Main Street, from which I have come, and for-now U.S. 219, which carries the name Broadway Street through town. The town's only stoplight presides over this crossroads, although it is not even really a stoplight but a set of four-way flashers that are programmed to give the motorists on 219 a perpetual right-of-way.

On one corner, the door to the bar on the first floor of the New National Hotel has been propped open, allowing one to see that this watering hole is fairly well attended when the barroom's glass brick window, bathed in a soft red glow from a neon beer brand logo, would not permit such inquiries. Across Main Street from the New National Hotel, a motley crew of teenagers huddles outside the diner, where the final dinner customers of the night have just been seated. These idle youth are bored, but not menacing, as they clandestinely pass a lighter around to spark illicitly-purchased Marlboros.

The diner is affixed to a laundromat, which in turn is adjacent to a gas station/convenience store complex. The store is as comprehensively stocked as any generic Interstate Highway Travel Mart (at maybe a third of the square footage), complete with sandwich bar and DVD nook. It enjoys a steady stream of patronage as I watch, and I worry that it, especially, will face an appreciable decrease in commerce due to the forthcoming abandonment of Broadway Street as part of a major interregional thoroughfare.

Opposite the diner/gas station/laundromat, in an otherwise mostly-unused parking lot, the Ice Cream Station has set up shop. Housed in a trailer shack, at the moment it is doing brisk sales in dispensing cold treats from an impressively expansive menu to a long line of people. Its popularity is, to me, the most pleasing aspect of the town that presently does not seem too concerned with its impending hamstringing.

It is often while I'm queued up for an obligatory frozen confection that the weight of how close I am to home reemerges to sit squarely on my shoulders. Weariness and anxiety congeal into a cloud over my head. It's a feeling I've grown accustomed to experiencing, but no better at coping with, as someone who is most restless when he's at home and most relaxed when he's in between places. A butterscotch milkshake helps to assuage some of these black thoughts.

As I head back to my car, I notice what appears to be four generations of a family clustered around a picnic table. Two of the men, one middle aged and one elder, are curiously decked out in the crisp, navy blue threads of the Army of the Potomac. They must be members of the Berlin Fife and Drum Corps, the oldest continuously-playing such unit in the country. Their melodies could be heard on Civil War battlefields, on the campaign trail with William McKinley, and at the dedication of the nearby Flight 93 Memorial. On this evening they’ve likely returned from an event in a neighboring town, some sort of festive procession, or perhaps a more somber affair, escorting the casket to a funeral. I wonder if this particular family can trace its lineage in these parts back to the inception of the troupe near the end of the American Revolution, when veterans of the conflict who had made it back to their Brothersvalley homesteads came together to keep the music of their victory alive. Might one of their forefathers have erected a liberty pole in protest against Hamilton’s tax on distilled spirits?

As the family laughs over their twistees and sundaes, I chastise myself for carrying such negativity. Governor Mifflin has gone home to Philadelphia. Tonight, in Berlin, Pennsylvania, everything is as it should be.

Driving Home, Part II: The Scratch

I-68 through Cumberland is like the Interstate Highway System's equivalent to an old wooden roller coaster. Originally built during the mid-60s as an elevated solution for alleviating the city's local street grid from long-distance through traffic, it has hardly been upgraded since, even as a modern freeway filled in around it, connecting Hancock to Morgantown and points west. Now it's so woefully under-standard that it boasts one of the lowest posted speed limits on any controlled-access roadway in the country, dropping to 40 mph as you slalom through town. The narrow lanes, lack of shoulder space, and virtually non-existent merge areas, not to mention the omnipresent highlighter-bright orange cones, vehicles, and vest-clad crews owing to seemingly interminable construction, all leave an unsuspecting motorist suddenly nervous about how safe it really is, like those rickety amusement park thrill rides.

You might be so focused on navigating this anachronism of an expressway that you'll miss the view as I-68 swoops into the valley where Cumberland lies. The humble redbrick skyline is punctuated by a half-dozen church steeples and capped by the incongruously handsome Romanesque tower of the Allegany County Courthouse. In front of the green backdrop of Haystack Mountain, it looks like the two-dimensional set for a play, perhaps one about Cumberland's bustling and prosperous past.

Time was, a city could grow and thrive on the back of geography alone. You could be at the foot of an extensive mountain plateau, on a major river, surrounded by lush forests, near a big vein of coal, and someone would see fit to build a canal to you, followed by a plethora of railroads. Then came the factories and mills, and even the travel business; in addition to the cornucopia of manufacturing industries that sprung up, Cumberland also played its part in Westward Ho!, emerging as a prime staging ground for those attempting to migrate over the Appalachians via the National Road, into the heartland and beyond.

The halcyon years were not to last forever. America grew up and did its best to abandon its industrial childhood, preferring instead to hire other adolescent economies to do that dirty work on the cheap. Pittsburgh Plate & Glass shuttered its Cumberland plant in the early 1980s. A consolidating Goodyear yanked its Cumberland subsidiary to Akron in 1987. After peaking at a modest, but vibrant 40,000 during the war effort of the early 1940s, the city today sits half-empty, and those who have stayed face an uphill battle. Of the 382 metropolitan areas defined by the federal Office of Management and Budget, Cumberland is mired in the bottom five percent in household income as of the 2010 census.

On this particular late afternoon, the slanted light does an admirable job of trying to conceal the residual scars from such a dramatic turn of fortune, but in traversing the quiet streets of this once-lively burg at ground level, the clues are there to be seen. The corner bar, windowless but door ajar, the blue flicker emanating from television sets providing the strongest source of illumination inside the saloon. It's enough to catch a fleeting glimpse of the old men, clutching their Buds and Millers and staring unthinkingly into the familiar security of the glowing boxes as their country rides off into the sunset without them. Outside, there's the couple, woman overweight, wearing sweatpants and a 90s band t-shirt, pushing a stroller, man string bean thin, in baggy jean shorts and an XXL white t-shirt, hair buzzed almost down to the scalp, the orange tracer of a smoldering cigarette dangling from his lips. They can't be much beyond their early twenties, but their faces are lined and worn, eyes sunken, belying their youth.

It's a scene that is replicated throughout the greater Appalachian region. These mountains were once the western frontier of a rising democratic, capitalist nation where anything was possible, defeating this indomitable barrier to expansion first and foremost among those possibilities. In fact, that quest lit one of the many fuses, if only a small one, beneath the powder keg of growing discontent within the then-Colonies, whose inhabitants felt aggrieved over what they viewed as an unnecessarily constipated process, enacted by their British overlords, for the exploration and settlement of western territories.

After they were conquered, the mountains gave up what they had beneath them, fueling a nation's ascendency to its stature as an industrial juggernaut and thence, a global power. Maybe it was a deal with the devil all along, but several generations on and for most of us, these locales are once again blank spots on the map - "here be decay" - only this time, it's by design. Where once these hills were literally the country's backbone, symbolic of Made In The U.S.A. ingenuity and bravado, we'd now rather pretend we didn't rape this land and all but eradicate its indigenous peoples to give ourselves a leg up, only to bring the house of cards crashing down when it suited us, leaving millions scrambling to free themselves from the collapsed wreckage. No, it's out of sight, out of mind, except as fodder for cruel humor, ignorant jokes about inbreeding and lack of teeth, or, almost even worse, to be used as a prop every four years by aspirational Leaders of the Free World, only to be promptly cast aside once again as the election cycle fades into the rearview mirror.

But the truth persists that it's a constantly evolving, unforgiving artifice that humanity has invented, and some places just aren't going to survive. There are no jobs, the young have no reason to stay but little means to leave. The odds are stacked devastatingly against those who become paralyzed in the quicksand of a moribund town - not only economically, but mortally, on account of the pernicious python’s chokehold of opioid addiction. I want to believe there's hope, that the concept of the Great American Small Town isn't in its Late Cretaceous period, the Doomsday Clock ticking towards the inevitable meteor, but the question of what happens once the elder generation fades away is difficult to ignore. Perhaps nature just runs its course, reclaiming what once belonged to it.

Those places that do survive are the ones that can display flexibility, adapt, and find a new, more profitable niche. Cumberland, for one, might potentially be on a course towards some semblance of salvation, as the city toils to resuscitate its economy at least in part by reorienting itself outwardly. The factories and mills simply aren't coming back, at least not at a scale that would permit a significant revival for a robust middle class, and one of the few options remaining for the communities that relied so heavily on them is to figure out a way to convince people to come spend their money there. It's not a foolproof strategy by any stretch, and it comes with its own set of drawbacks and perils, but surely it's better than just sinking into oblivion?

Fittingly enough, it's the vestiges of Cumberland's past importance that allow such a gambit to even be viable. The C&O Canal was an engineering marvel in its day, running from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland and maintaining its utility even well into the railroad era. The full length of its towpath has been converted into a National Park Service-administered bike trail, which in Cumberland hooks up with another trail, the mostly-paved Great Allegheny Passage, this occupying the former right-of-way of the Western Maryland Railroad and continuing all the way to Pittsburgh. Civic leaders have accordingly made a concentrated effort to capitalize on Cumberland's location at the nexus of 330-plus miles of unbroken bike path (the longest such route in the country).  The old iron horse is in on the act, too. The Western Maryland terminal has been restored and for nearly three decades has operated popular excursion trains to nearby Frostburg and back. There's also been a movement to lure the creative class to the area; becoming known as a regional arts mecca can be a recipe for reinvigoration when it's able to be pulled off. It's a sensible idea for Cumberland given that housing is cheap and the natural setting is second-to-none.

How much effect has been yielded by these endeavors? Per the immediate eye test, it doesn't seem to be a whole lot. For every house whose upkeep visibly appears to be the product of attentive care, there are three or four in the same block that are scuzzy and ramshackle, unpleasantly playing right into the negative stereotypes of Appalachia. Commercially, a similar story is spun at first glance. During the mid-1970s, Downtown Cumberland's main shopping street, Baltimore Street, was converted into a pedestrian-only promenade, last-ditch chemotherapy aimed at a cancer that had already metastasized. It was an ill-fated maneuver that was tried all over the country, but Downtowns died anyway (a phenomenon for which pedestrian malls were unfairly scapegoated and thereupon banished to the American urban planner's manual for "What Not To Do," a black mark that has taken decades to erode).

But as Cumberland itself crawls away from the six-foot-deep hole that's been beckoning to it for half a century, so too has a pulse begun to course once again through the brick paving of Baltimore Street. There are a handful of real restaurants interspersed among the junky "antique" shops and vacant storefronts, plus a coffee cafe that would not be out of place in Portland, a bona fide bakery, and the centerpiece, a renovated and refurbished 1930s theater that now hosts events of all types, from stage performances and classic film screenings to DJ sets and bachelor auctions. Former Tony Award-nominated Broadway actor and Cumberland native Mark Baker lends New York gravitas with his regular appearances there. Though as of yet no one would quite mistake Cumberland for the West Village, slow motion, as they say, is better than no motion.

At the foot of Baltimore Street, a bridge crosses Wills Creek over to the hill upon which stood Fort Cumberland, once a tangible indication of the very limit of white man's control over this New World. It was the site of George Washington's first military command, after the then-Colonel of the Virginia militia led General Braddock's troops back to the fort following their humiliating defeat to the French and their Indian allies at the Battle of the Monongahela outside present-day Pittsburgh. The arresting county courthouse and Emmanuel Episcopal Church now occupy the footprint of the fort, but the one-room cabin that served as Washington's headquarters has been preserved in its entirety and moved across the street to a creekside parklet.

Outside the cabin stands another emblem of history: a stone obelisk, demarcating the beginning of the Old National Road. Logically, when the National Road was laid out, much of its route from Cumberland into southwestern Pennsylvania followed the path blazed by Braddock's doomed expedition, itself pieced together with ample assistance from friendly Indian groups, whose hunting trails had been unlocking these mountains since time immemorial. Centuries later, we're conveyed in multi-ton metal chariots with the comfort of climate control and GPS devices to hold our hands as we hurtle along at speeds once the stuff of pure fantasy, but damned if we're not still just following in Chief Nemacolin's footsteps.

As suffering places scratch and claw to find their way in this rapidly unfolding epoch of technology that is ruthlessly doing its utmost to leave them behind, the optimistic allegory represented by this monument doesn't escape me. At mile marker zero, there is still possibility. Opportunity can and will arise for those who are willing to forge a new direction forward out of what came before. Sadly it won't happen for everyone, everywhere, but the more that goes right for hurting communities across these states, the better off we'll all be for it.

Mission Statement

The road trip: a tradition more intractably American, more ingrained in the culture and history of this country than any other. The Germans may lay claim to inventing the concept of long-distance travel by automobile, but only in these United States, unique amongst the industrial giants of the early 20th century for her undeniable immensity and physiographic diversity, could the idea become so inextricably linked to the ethos of a nation.

By returning agency to the hands of the individual traveler, the road trip put the adventure back into the process of Getting There in ways that trains, with their rigid timetables and fixed tracks, could not. At the same time, there developed unprecedented comfort and safety in road travel.  A hot meal and a bed to sleep in were never far away, and itinerant crime like banditry was almost wholly a plague of yesteryear, a relic of the stagecoach era.

As the decades passed, as car ownership became more and more ubiquitous, two lanes turned into four, which multiplied into six, eight, ten, completely sealed off from the surrounding world and accessible only via sporadic, predetermined airlocks. I have a hard time arguing with the bare necessity of a transcontinental autobahn network as prescribed by Eisenhower - though I will happily listen to and even endorse quibbles about the actual execution of the project in numerous places - but the fact remains that long-haul auto travel has become increasingly sterilized and homogenized because of it, reduced to a mere means to an end.

I started writing in this vein to hopefully serve as a reminder that it doesn't have to be so, even in today's world of extreme automation and algorithm-devised routing directions. I believe that there is a latent nostalgia for the golden age of road trips buried within the id of the American populace-at-large, sensed and revered even by outsiders. After all, there's a reason hundreds of thousands of visitors, many of them foreign, flock to the cracked old alignments and dusty outposts of what was once Route 66, in search of the chintzy motels and diners, the quirky sequential billboard ads, the bizarre and questionable roadside tourist traps ("World's Largest ______!") of road-tripping's heyday.

The tricky part is coaxing out that long-lost curiosity. I never fail to feel almost intentionally insulted when I hear, for instance, someone gripe about the dreadful monotony of Interstate 5 through California's Central Valley. If such complainers weren't conditioned to inherently believe that the entire raison d'être of roads is to get from point A to point B in the least amount of time possible, they wouldn't think twice about spending an extra three or four hours to roll down the Pacific Coast Highway instead and get one of the world's greatest drives out of the bargain.

Yet I am not surprised by how often I am met with genuine intrigue upon regaling someone with the tale of a hidden gem stumbled upon in a bypassed town or of a breathtaking vista that would never be known to the astronauts of the Interstate. We as a nation bemoan the loss of "Middle America" while expressly avoiding ever coming into contact with it, all in the name of progress. The irony is, if more people were willing and able to consciously act on a desire to see more of the "real U.S.A.," these vanishing places might be hurting that much less.

It's edifying on a personal level, too; when haste is the primary motivating factor in route choice, your expectations get artificially jacked to the point that you instinctively feel like you ought to be, you deserve to be inviolably going as fast as you want. In that frame of mind, every minor slowdown morphs into a major irritant. Although you're still moving faster on the whole than you would be off the highway, that one guy hanging out in the left lane and not fucking passing that truck is the bane of your existence. Blood pressure skyrockets on a hair trigger.

A strange thing happens, however, when urgency is permitted to take more of a back seat. That presumption of utmost speed fades away, so getting stuck behind that baler for a couple of miles suddenly isn't such a big deal. Heck, you can even afford to take a look around you. Funny, you hadn't ever noticed how heart-achingly picturesque that stately farm manor is, with the sun beginning its descent beyond. And now you're already slowed down a bit, so why not stop and have a quick stretch in this quaint little town? Embarking on a brief hike down Main Street, all is serene except for the diner on the corner, which seems to be packed with locals. You know, you haven't eaten since this morning . . .

And now you've arrived at your destination, maybe an hour or two later than you could have, but it sure doesn't feel like it because you were engaged, you were immersed in the landscape, you were discovering, you were encountering real life. This is why I proselytize riding the "Blue Highways," why I extol the virtues of following the old two-lane blacktop at every opportunity. One lane coming, one lane going, and an inexhaustible wealth of experience in between for those open to taking a different way home.