Across the Plains of Texas, Scene 2

“Leave for the country let the day begin
I carry my share of original sin . . .
And I wanna be
like Mercury, with the wind blowing through my hair”

A jackknifed tractor trailer delayed our egress from St. Louis by turning I-44 into the parking situation at Woodstock. After an hour or so of creeping along in this controlled-access limbo, we found ourselves in what surely was the purest distillation of the mythical “Middle America” this coastal elite could have imagined, land of the fast food letter board advertising fifty-piece chicken nuggets and home of the ability to purchase high-proof liquor at any gas station.

Weighing heavy on my mind was the trajectory of our slog, roughly echoing the direction of - but keeping us tauntingly at arm’s length from - the most legendary American road of them all: the erstwhile U.S. Highway 66, more popularly known in the colloquial lexicon, of course, simply as “Route 66.”

Of all the numbered routes crisscrossing the continent that were cleverly devised during the 1920s, exactly how and why it was 66 that would uniquely rise to become such a cultural icon and object of the curiosity of a country’s populace is a question that is dissected still today by historians, hobbyists, and wide-eyed twentysomethings venturing overland into the west for the first time alike. It wasn’t the longest of the original 1926 U.S. Highways, nor the most important from a commercial standpoint, nor even especially scenic in the light of comparison with some of its brethren. And yet it was this piecemeal collection of thoroughfares that, after molding into a cohesive entity by way of getting pincushioned with signposts brandishing one consistent number, swelled into the zeitgeist of multiple generations.

Steinbeck helped to elevate “Highway 66” into our national consciousness, breathing a character’s life into the inanimate asphalt as he coined the “Mother Road” moniker. That only partially explains, though, the hit blues song (the composer of which purportedly settled on 66 as his subject primarily because his wife liked the way the rhyme worked with “get your kicks”), the fifty-state gas station chain, or the ‘60s television show. The program actually had little to do with its titular namesake, but such was the gravitas of Route 66 that the very phrase itself brazenly presumed to capture and bottle the essence of this country’s ethos, that intrinsically American compulsion to pick up and go.

Then there is the fact of Route 66’s demise. It is far from the only long-distance two-lane route to be mostly or even wholly superseded by the concrete leviathans, but it is one of the only ones that was deemed to have been rendered so comprehensively superfluous that the government opted to decommission the entire thing, stripping it of its federally-appointed, unifying number. Ironically, this fate seems to have galvanized historical, sociological, and above all, nostalgic fascination with the road with such a fervor that other renowned byways have not managed to replicate.

When Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act into law in 1956 and with it, the Interstate Highway System, the first construction contract handed out under its power was for Missouri’s Route 66 corridor, the same miles that Bea and I were rumbling along now. What better place than there to dip our toes into the deep well of the 66 legacy? As if I needed a valid reason for an extended foray away from the Interstate, anyway.

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We bid adieu to I-44 at Joplin, only to immediately come face to face with the harsh reality of the fringes of a small rural city, an incessant cortege of every chain eatery, hotel, big box store you could think of, progress made fitful by the humongous intersections every half-mile whose array of stoplights were responsible for orchestrating the sixteen lanes of traffic that funneled into each one. In eleven months, an F5 tornado would utterly devastate this strip towards which I was exhibiting such distaste, taking with it more souls than any other twister outbreak in over sixty years. On we crawled, past the Pizza Hut where, with sirens wailing and a waking nightmare bearing down at unfathomable speed, the manager would usher customers and employees into a walk-in freezer, then fasten a bungee cord to his arm and attempt to pull the door shut. It was a battle that would ultimately cost him his life, but he will have defied the unforgiving ferocity of nature just long enough to keep his wards from its clutches.

Emerging from Joplin at the western edge of town, we swatted away another agglomeration of vacuous hyper-consumerism and before we knew it we were crossing the state line into Kansas. Route 66’s idiosyncratic, eleven-mile tiptoe through a slender, unassuming corner of the Sunflower State lent my obsessive-compulsive need to catalogue experiences into neat checklists an excuse to mark off another new conquest. We skipped alongside almost imperceptibly wavy farmland that could have been just about anywhere in the Midwest. Soon we hit our first real indication of 66’s outsize proportions in the form of a general store, innocuous-looking enough from the outside, with a jumble of detritus in its front yard that suspiciously hid the faintest tincture of organization in its messiness: a rusted wagon with Old Glory affixed, colorfully-occupied flower pots haphazardly strewn about, a few plastic lawn flamingos for good measure.

Inside the store, dim and cool, the necessities could be procured, but they were dwarfed by the sheer volume of anything and everything conceivable with that magic number plastered on it. It was all rather hypnotizing, the t-shirts and hoodies and ballcaps and postcards and bumper stickers and fridge magnets and coffee mugs and keychains and lighters and ballpoint pens and calendars and stuffed animals and yo-yos and umbrellas and . . .

With armloads of swag and no recollection of how any of it came to be in our possession, we plotted a hasty retreat. As we exited, a bemused young German couple ducked into the store, their eyes beginning to glaze over as ours had.

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We returned to the Mother Road, nimbly darting across the swift current of the artery whose purpose was to shuttle traffic through the area as expeditiously as possible, that which had been silly enough to stray from I-44 for whatever reason to begin with. One of the many delights of Route 66 is that its extinct alignments often conceal even older, long ago bypassed segments; after a short distance we veered onto one such chunk, which I suppose could be termed a “Grandmother Road.” One-way and unlined, it curved towards what, frankly, ought to have been one of the less remarkable bridges I’ve encountered. A simple concrete arch spanning the most docile of creeks, this was the “Rainbow Bridge” - naturally, painted stark white, at least where incoherent graffiti wasn’t scarring it. Somehow its superficially mundane countenance was dramatically overcome merely by its participation in this road, a relic of car culture’s embryonic stage, supplanted by modern Old Route 66, supplanted by the fast super-two-laner, supplanted by the Interstate. It was the minuscule but rewarding prize at the center of a Russian nesting doll of vehicular progress cresting on the wave of our American obsession with efficiency. Bea’s 21st-century Bubble trundled across in no different a manner than would have a southwesterly-bound traveler eighty years prior.

The faded yellow passing zone dashes of Old 66 hooked up with the newer conduit and together they constituted the main drag through Baxter Springs, Kansas. It was a town that had never fully managed to wrestle free from the intractable reality of an existence that is contingent upon people starting somewhere else and going somewhere else. As early as the 1830s, a trading post had been established in the vicinity for the indigenous Osage, the forcibly migrated Cherokee, and European-American settlers beginning their avaricious westward creep. Following the Civil War, cattlemen driving their herds from Texas to the railyards of Kansas City and the promise of profitable eastern markets found the Springs an ideal stopping-over point, giving rise to, for the time being, the state’s first “cow town,” up until the Iron Horse reached its tendrils further south to more conveniently service the ranchers. The advent of Route 66 again propped up the transient economy, but that too receded. What was left was a mostly forgotten town in that buffer zone, shifting ever eastward, between the fertile and arid halves of the contiguous states. To me, it presented as an almost cartoonishly perfect facsimile of such a town, right down to the pockmarked Trailways bus morosely moping in the street athwart a building that had probably housed a department store or the like in more prosperous days, hinted at by a faux-marble facade and C-shaped, peeling metal apparatus hanging above, though whatever insignia it had once borne was dissolved into illegibility. A bulbous analog clock face protruding from the bottom of the sign was more or less in agreement with my own watch. Time hadn’t yet come to a complete stop in Baxter Springs, even if retail largely had.

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I harbored hope that the Route 66 revival was filtering a little bit of cash into local wallets, and there were indeed a number of establishments that appeared to cater to such a possibility. Upon further investigation, virtually none were open for business, a rather alarming indication, I thought, for a late Saturday afternoon during what ought to have been the summer high season. A visitor’s center within a refurbished Phillips 66 filling station (now sans pumps) lay dormant. Even more uncanny valley was the 1950s-style soda fountain, whose big glass doors, albeit locked to a darkened interior, permitted enough natural light to pass to enable us to gander at a setup so meticulously arranged that it may well have been frozen for all eternity at the very instant that Ike sicced the FAHA on communities like Baxter Springs.

Fortunately for us, at least the diner was accepting customers, a wonderful greasy spoon cafe in a corner red brick edifice (formerly a bank that Jesse James is said to have robbed) where we ordered hot dishes from a veritable novella reproduced on slightly yellowed newsprint. As we polished off our meals, a din rose from the street and we perked our heads up to see through the windows a fleet of choppers casually making its way down Old 66. We hurried outside to catch the end of the impromptu parade, and I noticed that the German couple from earlier had caught up to us and were on the sidewalk, wearing the dopiest of grins, the man capturing everything on a hand-held video recorder. One by one, the bikers circled back and parked their hogs in an orderly row, perpendicular to the curb in front of the restaurant, beneath the Stars and Stripes hanging flaccid in the stagnant heat.

I insisted on a post-dinner stroll to aid with digestion. Under the shingled awning of an antiques shop, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a dilapidated vending machine, austerely announcing COLD DRINKS. It looked as though it could claim membership in the first batch of such ever to roll off an assembly line, labels illustrating the brand selection shriveled and curling, output tray turned to rust. A low hum emanating from within indicated that despite its visage, this machine was allegedly functioning. Now, I’ll have you know that number one with a bullet on my holy list of this mortal realm’s small joys is a chilled can of Dr. Pepper on an incalescent day, so you can picture my euphoria as I clinked the required coinage into the slot (a meager four bits!) and pounded the appropriate plastic-sheathed button, then waited a few Mississippis with bated breath for the satisfying thud of a twelve-ounce pop dispensing into the corroded basket. I palmed the container, instantly shedding beads of moisture, and the symphony continued with the timeless hiss-CRACK of the tab being depressed and carbonation escaping its imprisonment. Twenty-four flavors - twenty-three as per the brand’s slogan, plus that tinny trace of aluminum that always adds a certain je ne sais quoi to any canned beverage - streamed down my gullet, manna from the gods. My disproportionately maniacal ebullience surely would have had Bea second- and third-guessing the life choices that had led her to this point had my overall hideous comportment not already long done so.

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Onwards, holding hands with the Mother Road, Kansas disappearing into our rear view mirrors as rapidly as it had arrived. Into Oklahoma, where on that early evening it was hardly the wind sweeping down the plain, but languid puffs of stifling air. Commerce, one of those places with such an ironic name that it has to be in on the joke, being laughed with, not at, had its downtown hidden from today’s designated Route 66 path, so we went looking for it. What we found was nearly bereft of a pulse. Sidewalks were in the shade of corrugated steel roofing affixed by struts to the faces of comatose structures, which, together with the extra-wide street to provide room for diagonal pull-in parking, lent an apt Wild West feeling to this veritable ghost town. Presiding over the foot of the deserted business district was a lonely soft serve ice cream stand.

Looping back towards 66, we passed a nondescript, off-kilter, one-story shack that was molting its coat of white paint en masse. This was the childhood home of one Mickey Charles Mantle, one of the most preternaturally talented men ever to swing a baseball bat in anger. His career records, sterling as they are, leave open the unanswerable question of how they might yet have been constrained by a litany of injuries and the deleterious effects of alcoholism. Lauded endlessly and deservedly for his gifts on the diamond while succumbing to addictions to the bottle and to women off of it made “The Commerce Comet,” in some ways, an unlikely metaphor for the country as a whole and, in microcosm, his own hometown, as they whistled past the graveyards of industrial collapse and social rupture along fault lines of wealth and race.

Next came Miami, its name a somber reminder of the state’s origins as essentially a free-range purgatory for Native Americans. It was especially poignant to us, having paralleled the Great Miami River for some distance, way back in Ohio. The compulsory march of the Miami people from there to here, a journey that took us about ten hours in elapsed drive time, was protracted enough when it happened that various place names in Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas are all owed to the Miamis’ passage. (The more famous Florida city and its river are derived from an altogether different Indian people and language.)

The town itself offered a third variety of Route 66 hamlet, after the dozy, worn at the edges but still trucking nostalgia of Baxter Springs and the largely defunct and forsaken Commerce. Miami was a county seat, plugging away with all of the responsibilities and amenities that entailed: a hospital, a community college, a half-dozen(!) casinos, a multi-screen cinema, and a sizable municipal park fronting the Neosho River, in addition to the standard glob of shopping centers and lodging out by the Turnpike. It was of ample size that the north-south thoroughfare on which we were being carried divided into a one-way pair. Route 66, however, split the difference, forging straight ahead as Main Street. It was there that a totally unexpected treasure lurked.

Miami had at one point classified as a boom town, reaping the benefits of a lead and zinc extraction crush during the early decades of the 20th century. This injection of prosperity, now come and gone, did leave behind one tangible marker in the form of an ostentatious performing arts venue, the Coleman Theater, so called after the mining magnate who bankrolled it in the 1920s. Its exquisite Mission Revival exterior would put it at home in, say, some tony Los Angeles neighborhood, but here, in northeastern Oklahoma, it was downright preposterous. Always a sucker for beautiful architecture in surprising places, I had us pull over to take a closer look. We approached the small glass box office booth to inquire about the possibility of peeking our heads inside.

“Are you here for the Playboys?” the woman on the other side quizzed.

“Sorry?” we stammered, flummoxed, to which the woman pointed at a nearby poster, advertising Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, whose tour was stopping in Miami that very night.

“Oh, no,” I returned, “the building is just marvelous.”

Examining us skeptically for a beat, the woman generously relented. “You missed the last tour, but go ahead and look around, just don’t go into the theater. And be out in fifteen minutes, doors open for the show then.”

Aesthetically, the interior represented a wild departure, decorated in the vein of French kings. Gold everywhere, multi-tiered chandeliers, finely carved wooden columns flaring out into detailed frescoes. Sculptures of the tastefully nude female form hoisted candelabras skyward from the newell posts at the bottoms of a double staircase leading up to the balcony level. We crept up and, disobeying the request of our patroness, creaked open the door to the performing hall, which was no less impressive than the rest of the theater.

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“There are big city orchestras that don’t play somewhere this nice,” I whispered. Below us on the stage, a couple of the Playboys were tuning their instruments. A sound technician looked like he was about to take a keen interest in our presence, so we quickly ducked out. Already a steady trickle of concert-goers was making its way into the theater, all, it seemed, of sufficient age to have birthed my parents. Stumbling back outside, squinting against our reacquaintance with the sun’s glare we could see a line of geriatrics was extending halfway down the block.

Vaguely dredging up something I’d read at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville some years ago, I rhetorically mused to no one in particular, “Didn’t Bob Wills die a long time ago?” It certainly didn’t matter to these folks; the entire AARP-eligible population of the surrounding fifty-mile radius must have been queuing up in front of the Coleman Theater to get a dose of the King of Western Swing’s ongoing legacy. Also present were our new friends from Deutschland, snapping photos of the theater’s ornate design.

“You go inside?” they asked us, having seen our exit. We disclosed that we’d barely gotten in and out with our lives and it was likely too late for them, unless they wanted to purchase a ticket and spend an evening rocking and rolling with the olds.

“Honestly, it might be a fun time. It’s probably the most America you’ll get on your trip, which I’m sure is saying something,” I contributed. It was an intriguing idea, but they were due in Tulsa that night and didn’t like driving The Route after dark, for that defeated the purpose of their adventure. Conversing a bit more - Bea was thrilled to dust off her latent but serviceable German, having lived in Düsseldorf for several years as a kid - we learned that they’d started in Chicago and were planning to ride the entirety of the Mother Road to its terminus in Santa Monica, a two-week expedition, their excitement palpable. We then rattled off our itinerary, in which something was evidently lost in translation because it incurred them to ask, “You are getting married?” We practically raced each other to awkwardly rebut that notion with strained, high-pitched titters.

It was time to go our separate ways; even the lingering daylight that is afforded to those undertaking a long-distance sojourn adjacent to the estival solstice was beginning to taper. As it turned out, they’d parked their rented convertible (now that’s how to cruise Route 66 in style) directly in front of Bubble, so we trailed them for the final few blocks of Main Street. At the red light we bid safe travels out the window. They turned right, into the setting sun. We turned left, slipping back into Missouri thanks to the arbitrary disposition of imperialist boundary drawing: the border between what would be considered North and South in the western territories had been set at half a degree of latitude (approximately thirty-five miles) higher than the slavery/free division that had been determined as part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which itself was an extension of an imaginary line that had been plopped down dating back to 17th-century colonial charters.

Our drive was predominantly in silence as we briefly submitted to an expressway to squeeze what we could out of the sun’s waning generosity. Perhaps the fatigue of what had developed into quite a distended day was starting to take its toll, though I surmised that Bea’s reticence might have also had a little bit to do with the Germans’ presumption of the quality of our relationship, exhuming intentionally suppressed thoughts and emotions and memories as if by the raging current of the Mississippi gushing over levees and sandbags.

We drifted south and east, the landscape transforming in front of our eyes. Hillocks, sheathed in velvety green, thrust up from the earth as open space shrank. The highway created its own contours in places, blasting through unwilling topography. We ditched the fast road once again. The new road wriggled and writhed, like the scrunched-up paper covering for a straw that’s been exposed to droplets of water in an attempt to entertain an impatient five-year-old at a restaurant. One-room churches and one-room schoolhouses, sometimes one and the same, would materialize and then get left behind in the gloaming. I could feel something seductive beneath the soil here. Without warning, a blue and white sign emerged out of the dusk, imploring us to BUCKLE UP FOR SAFETY but also, more importantly, inviting us in to Arkansas.

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Across the Plains of Texas, Scene 1

“I was carried
from Ohio in a swarm of bees”

Kentucky welcomed visitors by immediately laying claim to a piece of Abraham Lincoln. The Bluegrass State possesses Honest Abe's birthplace, the signs at its borders will have you know, but even in staying on the Interstate it occurred to me there was no need for such appropriation of history; simply the change in topography made for enough of a selling point after the roteness of the diagonal track we'd just cut across Ohio. The landscape now roiled around us, lush green knobs burbling to the earth's surface whenever the highway couldn’t be bothered to acquiesce to the terrain, exposing limestone innards that had been crushed into their stratified patterns over hundreds of millions of years.

Louisville came and went, the Ohio River feeling as important as ever in its wide, lazy flow, punctuated with barges and the trusses of bridge spans. Southern Indiana invited with stretches of uninterrupted forest, which in turn began to fade into the stereotypical image of the agricultural Midwest. Finally relenting to Lincoln-mania, we hopped off the Interstate in search of Indiana's slice of the Lincoln pie, the farmstead on which he had spent his formative years. In our way was a town called Santa Claus, a name innocently decided upon in the 1850s, only for subsequent generations to predictably pounce on the potential for runaway capitalism.

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Today, seemingly every business is adorned with a life-sized statue of jolly old Saint Nick himself, all the more disconsonant with summer in full swing, the faint shrieks of roller coaster riders echoing between the spires of waterslides at a nearby holiday-themed amusement park. Even the fast food sandwich chain was guarded over by Kris Kringle's cherubic, dead-eyed gaze. I couldn't imagine a better encapsulation of the unabashed tackiness of the country that was once saved from irrevocable cannibalism by the man who'd grown up not five miles down the road.

Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial was placed in the early 60s under the custodianship of the National Park Service, who, as usual, had done an admirable job of patching together a worthwhile exhibit. A pleasantly manicured courtyard was anchored by a tableau of sculpted wall carvings depicting Lincoln in all of those places that assert ownership over some phase of his life: his birth in Kentucky, adolescence in Indiana, political career in Illinois, and presidency in Washington. Then there was the centerpiece of the display, portraying a haloed Lincoln hovering grandiosely above genuflecting slaves whose manacles have been broken, in a disquietingly Christ-like representation.

A trail led first to the grave of Abe's mom, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who succumbed to illness two years after the family migrated north of the Ohio, then to what remains of the foundation of the log cabin that was actually inhabited by the Lincolns, and finishing at a working replica of an 1820s farm, administered by park rangers in contemporary garb demonstrating early-19th-century subsistence skills such as tanning and blacksmithing, while a smattering of cows, sheep, and chickens milled about in the background. In this attempt to fashion a window onto life as it would have been at that very spot nearly two hundred years ago, I sensed a certain humility that was conspicuously missing from the Lincoln-as-white-savior engraving at the front of the memorial.

Onwards we glided into Illinois, state number four on this lengthening day (five for me, if I’m allowed to count my point of origin in Pennsylvania), the earth growing ever more fertile, endless fields of corn stalks already appreciably beyond knee-height, still over a week ahead of the Fourth of July. Eventually development returned with a vengeance, the pastoral setting replaced by prairie of the urban variety, an indication of the difficulties that had been facing greater St. Louis for decades. Entire blocks occupied mostly by unruly grass dotted with the occasional sad edifice served as a paradoxical frontispiece to the iconic Gateway Arch, distinct and impressive against the backlight of the late afternoon western sky, its inverted U shape like a magnet, drawing us in.

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Downtown St. Louis felt fleshed out and consequential, hearkening back to an era that had spanned over a century, during which it had been one of the ten biggest cities in the nation. Currently it was noticeably lacking the abundant surface parking lots that had so marred the once-dense cores of other metropoles whose primes had also come and gone. The drawback to this was the warren of one-way canyons intertwined around a raised freeway (an “urban renewal” trick to which St. Louis had not managed to remain impervious) that stood between us and our hotel, though my melodramatic struggle with an unfamiliar street grid elicited little sympathy from Bea, who adjudged it to be merely worthy of an eye roll.

A major component of the rationalization I’d cycled through in the run-up to our departure was deluding myself into believing that if I could drape a robotically platonic veneer over this journey, it would somehow assuage any and all prior transgressions and keep the nausea of guilt at arm’s length for just long enough to complete my mission. This wildly sophomoric notion was immediately put to the test upon checking in at the hotel, whereupon we were informed that they were sold out of two-bed rooms and could only offer us an accommodation equipped with a single king bed. The bemused clerk must have thought I was some kind of evangelical zealot, such was the inordinate shrillness of my reaction to the prospect of having to share a bed. She pledged to have a folding bunk rolled up to our room by the time we returned from dinner so that my recently puritanical conscience could rest easy.

And so we were off to explore the city for the remainder of the evening. From the inception of his harebrained scheme, St. Louis was a target I’d been particularly intrigued by. Habitually dumped on by the media and other purveyors of conventional wisdom, I had an inkling I might feel some extent of kinship with the Gateway to the West. After all, St. Louis was Rust Belt in spirit, if not in definition; the rate at which it had shed industrial jobs during the second half of the 20th century was comparable to that of Detroit or Cleveland. It was a bona fide river city whose geographic situation meant that it developed earlier and a little more organically and compactly than virtually every other Midwestern or Great Plains population center.

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We took the train - an honest-to-goodness light rail system! - out to a neighborhood that could have been plucked from any erudite locale back in the Northeast, home to a prestigious university and its renowned medical apparatus, at the edge of a great park that owed much of its present design and landscape to having hosted the 1904 World’s Fair. The business district was lined with shops and restaurants that were not chains for the most part, though they may have well been for how generic they appeared to be. Sidewalks were crammed with tables and chairs so that the doctors and attorneys and bankers and aspirants to those lucrative professions could gorge themselves al fresco on a warm Friday night. A congenially sterile plaza showed off dancing fountains, synchronized with colorful pulsating light effects. Splendorous mansions, some dating back to the Gilded Age, lurked down semiprivate side streets defended by ornate, vestigial gates. These were all the hallmarks of the milquetoast, affluent urbanity I’d come to know and content in.

Lacking creative inspiration after our first wearying day on the road, we dined at a bland but adequate Irish pub. Absurdly, I felt weird selecting a beer to pair with my dinner, as if such an innocuous act would somehow tip the badly-calibrated moral scales of my quest to maintain a detached, monastic veil into something more pernicious: Young Man and Young Woman Enjoy Food and Libation Together. We hopped the MetroLink back Downtown, where my mediocre cot awaited me.

***

One of a great many weaknesses that has been known to saddle me is a tendency, when left to my own devices, to sleep until an unhealthily tardy hour. On the first morning of any momentous trip, however, I inevitably burst awake, aided only by dopamine, at the crack of dawn. That Saturday in St. Louis, possibly assisted by the flimsiness of my sleeping arrangement, was no exception. My theoretical plan was for us to knock out a couple of quintessential tourist must-sees before hitting the asphalt: ascending to the top of the Gateway Arch before embarking on an old-fashioned riverboat cruise on the Mighty Mississippi. Now roused, I figured I could wander Downtown on foot to kill time until the Arch’s public operating hours began. Bea, a naturally early riser, stirred into life despite my efforts to keep my puttering about the room at an imperceptible decibel and volunteered to join me on my hike.

Off we traipsed, past the Old Courthouse, the very building where Dred Scott - and by extension, all who looked like him - had been repeatedly dehumanized by the bureaucratic levers of power that were established as key to our self-anointed Model of Just Democracy. Notwithstanding its apparent sluggishness to clamber above the imposing silhouette of the Gateway Arch, it was evident in the rapid fleeing of whatever mercy had been massaged into the air overnight that the sun was soon going to exact its asperity on this part of the world, much as it had been doing for the bulk of June. By the end of the month, all of the territory which we were meant to traverse would be officially labeled “abnormally dry,” if not slapped with a full-on drought.

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We followed the Gateway Mall, that rare example of a relatively worthwhile outcome of the willful destruction of urban fabric. Its one-block-wide swath of deliberately composed green space, accentuated frequently by monuments, sculptures, fountains, and handsome civic institutions, felt more an appropriate aesthetic respite from the city center’s bejeweled towers and flow of street-level activity than a jarring intrusion to them, as can wind up the result all too often with such projects. Here, too, were reminders of the manifold issues continuing to afflict St. Louis as they do so many cities, in the forms of prostrate bodies slumped awkwardly onto benches that were intentionally designed with the goal of making it maximally uncomfortable to do precisely that, begging troubling questions of inequality and race in those days well before they were thrust into the national spotlight via the flashpoint of Ferguson. Suddenly the mildly sore neck induced by my lumpy trundle wasn’t so bothersome.

Amidst it all, a larger-than-life bronze Pinocchio stood, arms outstretched, head inclined towards the eastern sky, optimistically greeting the rising sun with the requisite naivete of a marionette whose singularly consuming purpose was to become a human being. Even if he were to win whatever cosmic lottery it is that bulwarks a person against the slide into desperation that curling up for the night out in the open on a miserable pew entails, he’d still be liable to fall prey to the rest of life’s hilarious little predicaments. I glanced at Bea, busy inspecting a miniature iron boatman adorning a nearby water feature. You don’t actually want this, kid, was all the wisdom I could muster to impart.

***

Putting aside momentarily that it’s a de facto celebration of some of the more heinous episodes of American history, it does need to be said that the Gateway Arch is a remarkable piece of structural engineering. This had been fairly lost on me until I found myself standing almost directly underneath its stainless steel swoop, delicate in its simplicity yet robust in the staggering grandiosity of its scale, demonstrated by the comparatively ant-like dots frolicking around one of its hulking legs that were, it turned out, a family of fellow tourists. Conceived by the Finnish-American Eero Saarinen in those heady, imperious years following Allied victory in the Second World War, by the time it was finally constructed in the 1960s it still must have seemed a work of total science fiction.

We descended below the grass lawn to the Arch Visitor Center, administered by the National Park Service, where we purchased tickets to ride what I thought was rather quizzically referred to as a “tram” to the observation deck at the structure’s apex. Our beat-the-rush gambit was nullified somewhat by the incontrovertible facts of a summer weekend, meaning we had to wait about thirty minutes for our designated tram departure. This gave us the chance to quickly browse the Museum of Westward Expansion encompassed by the Visitor Center, which I found engaging and informative on par with the lofty standards the NPS has set for itself, albeit disturbing in its glorification of a mindset that led to the marginalization, if not outright eradication, of entire cultures, among other deeply tragic ramifications.

Though it’s impossible to look past the horrific domino effect set into motion by Manifest Destiny, I couldn’t help but instinctively unearth a hint of romance in any number of the finer-grain, individual stories of pioneers from that era. I flattered myself to imagine the emotional forces that would have been at play for someone to uproot themselves and strike out for an uncertain future in a barely sketched out land were not all that dissimilar to those compelling me to get in a car and drive multiple thousands of miles at the risk of indelibly scarring relationships with people I purported to care about. Of course, I was blessed with a McDonald’s every half-dozen miles or so to suit my soft-bodied modern sensibilities and ensure that I didn’t have to go out and shoot things to survive on my trek west.

Our slot to climb to the top of the Arch rolled around and we gathered outside the tram, which was really a series of eight cylindrical, windowless five-seat compartments that more closely resembled a 1950s conception of the industrial tumble dryer of the future than anything meant to convey humans. Upwards we smoothly chugged, a four-minute transit that offered glimpses of the behemoth’s metallic innards through narrow, vertical plexiglass panes in the capsule’s door. Slowing to a halt, we were deposited in the parabola’s zenith, approximately 620 dizzying feet from the ground below. A carpeted hallway gently sloped to follow the curve of the monument’s design and was lined with squat, recessed horizontal apertures that evoked the gun ports of a wooden schooner and were not nearly at eye height, necessitating one to crook their torso at a 45-degree angle to be able to peer out and take in the views. We duly obliged, first sliding along the western side overlooking Downtown and the sprawl of the city beyond, then circling back to set our gaze towards the east, from whence we’d come. I scanned the Illinois horizon in vain for the protruding shape of Cahokia, the preserved remnants of perhaps the most extraordinary example of an American Indian metropolis. It flourished between the 11th and 14th centuries and at its peak is believed to have been larger in population than contemporaneous London. Alas, its massive mounds were invisible in the fossil fuel-aided haze. White man’s suffocation of all others in pursuit of technological advancement persists unabated a millennium later.

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We rappelled down the opposite stanchion and set off for the riverside. As we approached the water’s edge, we could tell something was amiss. For one thing, there was no riverboat dock. That’s because it was submerged under a drastically engorged Mississippi. As lethargic and harmless as it had appeared from the safety of the Gateway Arch’s perch, Old Man River was, in fact, angry and swollen, riding well over its manmade banks. The inundation, spurred by conditions over a thousand miles further west, presented a perplexing contradiction in those desiccated weeks. A hastily erected sign brusquely announced the cancellation of all leisure cruises on the river for the foreseeable future.

The question this posed to us was what to do with the two hours that had been unceremoniously shoved back into our pockets. One option was to get an early start on the day’s tire tread - usually not a wrong choice - but I felt something was gnawingly missing from my experience of St. Louis, something a little more authentic than the tourist traps or the hyper-hygienic environs from the night before. Bea didn’t require much convincing, so we hoofed it south down Broadway, past the ballpark and through a no-man’s land of parking lots and messy concrete highway interchange flyovers. Just when we might have been beginning to wonder what on earth the aim here was, we came upon a long, skinny, low-set, wall-less structure lined with stalls from which vendors were dispensing all manner of fruits, vegetables, meats, and other goods to a sizable throng.

This was the Soulard Market, in operation since 1779 according to a faded sign atop its pitched roof. The exterior porticos led to an H-shaped, renaissance-style brown brick grand hall where we bought chicken and dumplings from an old lady with a toothless grin and reveled in a staple of everyday St. Louis life. A brief foray into the eponymous neighborhood, one of the oldest residential areas in the city, a melting pot for the Europeans of varying backgrounds who had arrived at this point near the confluences of great rivers, French, Spanish, German, made me even more glad we’d bothered to investigate. As we perused the leafy rows of brick-clad attached houses, no cohesive business district materialized. Rather, it was the corner units that tended to carry the commercial weight, often occupied by some local entity, frequently a bar or saloon advertising live blues and jazz. I regretted not being able to spend the rest of the weekend hanging out in Soulard, but there were too many miles yet to cover - a quandary that, I’ve since learned, will never cease to be the case.

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Across the Plains of Texas, Prelude

“Two people are alley cats; we have an unhappy cat
He is restless, needs attention, loses patience, seeks affection”

It's not that the heat is particularly enjoyable, causing me to sweat profusely in clothes that still have to cling uncomfortably to me for the rest of the day. Nor is it purely the fact that I despise the cold, so much so that when summer's swelter comes around, I can't in good conscience allow myself to slip into ingratitude for the seasonal reprieve. It's simply the feeling I get when that stifling air rolls in, when even the ordinarily welcome breeze is conspiring with the devil to offer no soothing relief, that I am in a time of infinite possibility. It's a deep-seated reaction, lingering from those carefree years when with that oppressive weather tagged along unparalleled liberty.

It’s tempting for me try to pin the blame on this involuntary emotion welling up, rising from the depths of childhood nostalgia, for coercing me into believing it would be anything but a shockingly inappropriate idea at best to undertake a cross-country road trip alone with a girl who I'd met mere weeks before, willfully waving aside the distress such a decision would rightfully engender in my relationship with my extant significant other, who had remained back at home while I completed my degree a few hours away.

Northeastern Ohio to El Paso, Texas. Nearly 2,000 miles of nothing but the results of the great American experiment, marinating in its vast petri dish for going on two and a half centuries. The kind of effort not many people would be sanguine about having to endure on their own, I equivocated, weakly scrambling to hide behind a disfigured mask of dubiously chivalrous intentions.

There was substantial overlap in our respective circles of friends and acquaintances. Bea and I been at the same parties, even, we figured out later on, in the same room at the same moment, but had somehow never knowingly crossed paths. Fate, in that mischievous streak bordering on sadism that it loves to flaunt, intervened to overturn our fluky avoidance just two months prior to commencement. In the all too brief period between my pledge to act as co-pilot for her return home and our designated departure date, we accidentally grew dangerously close, developing an intimacy that I should have seen coming and consciously acted to head off. A kiss, stolen in a doorway at a fuzzy, mostly-forgotten apartment party, snowballed in short order into flimsy excuses for staying out late and clandestine predawn escapes so as not to arouse suspicions from inquisitive roommates.

I knew - as I imagine we both did, but I can speak definitively only for myself - that the charade would eventually have to come to an end, and I gutlessly chose to wait and use what I figured, or, more accurately, what I hoped would be the natural way out that the culmination of our journey would provide. My hand should have been forced long before that point was reached, though. That it wasn’t was not for any lack of intensity that was poured into an escalating series of confrontations with the Girl Back Home. These, by any rational measure, should have provided the stinging slap that jolted my head firmly back into place, but instead I defiantly and cruelly decreed that I would still be going forward with the trip, submitting as my justification solely that it would be wrong to abandon someone in the lurch with the prospect of now having to execute a colossal task on their own.

The true reasoning, however, arose from far more egocentric roots than this grotesquely twisted altruism, or even the affection that I had undeniably come to feel for Bea. At its crux, my motivation was purely self-serving: I just desperately wanted the adventure. Hell, I’d convinced myself that I needed it.

Through a combination of happenstance, curiosity, emotional funk, fortune, and beneficence, I had landed the incredible, unquantifiable privilege of getting to live for four months in Switzerland the previous spring. It hooked me with a daily injection of wanderlust directly into my veins. Since returning stateside, the ennui of my little corner of the globe had once again descended upon me like an allergenic blanket of pollen. A final academic year spent trapped in an unremarkable college town in the hinterland of several asphyxiated, contracting Rust Belt cities contorted in various stages of rigor mortis. A summer job in the low-wage morass of a local amusement park, night after night of accepting soggy dollar bills tugged from the nether regions of bathing suits and bras and dishing out sweatshop-produced stuffed animals if some inane feat of menial skill was successfully achieved. A relationship born of newfound confidence but perpetuated two years on out of routine and concern that its dissipation would reverse what I feared had been fragile gains in self-worth.

This Groundhog Day existence lay like a pit of mud under the tread of the vehicle whose engine had been immutably revved by my once-in-a-lifetime experience overseas, impossible to accelerate out of, the resultant whining skid yielding only the acrid stench of overtaxed rubber. In this proposed odyssey with Bea I saw the winch that would haul me from this bog of tedium.

Never before had I been presented with the opportunity to roam between the Mississippi and the Rockies. An entire third of the country, empty pages in the gazetteer of my mind, waiting to be filled in with scribbled observations and anecdotes. It was a drive that could feasibly have taken as little as two and a half days, but in my singleminded greed I commandeered the entire planning process and devised a much more leisurely itinerary that would span a full five days and four nights. This, understandably, went over like a lead balloon on the home front, but I had already galloped too far along the path of villainy to permit such considerations a second thought.

And so I counted down to my flight, whittling away the seemingly interminable procession of sticky nights at the park, Lee Greenwood's cloying yet vaguely menacing jingoism emanating from loudspeakers and washing over the concourses strewn with powdered sugar pared from overloaded funnel cakes. And then, at last, one morning towards the close of June I was gone, Buckeye State bound, with the sun at my back.

Bea's car, a blue crossover that she had christened "Bubble," was ready and waiting, every available inch of space occupied by compression bags crammed with an amount of clothing that boggled my mind, and that was before getting to the cargo pod strapped precariously to the roof. Bea had by then correctly sussed me out as a selfish coward and now viewed my presence through sideways eyes as a necessary evil for splitting the daunting number of hours behind the wheel to come and certainly not as a worthy companion for the ensuing week.

She drove first. Rather anti-climactically - not to mention in violation of one of the sacrosanct rules of riding shotgun on a two-person trip - I succumbed to Ohio's monotony and slept most of the way to Cincinnati.

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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 materialize 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 inescapability 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 magnitude 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 share 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 measure 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 summon 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 handy 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 snugly 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 planet 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 heartrendingly 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 Palladian arches remaining 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 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 male handed every other time and place to me on a platter, cooked to order. But 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 for 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 15 mph or so 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 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 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 nodding 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 preceding 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 mesa, 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 Street 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 alleyways behind churches 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 to steal 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 sight 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 to 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 burg.

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 varicolored 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 grew 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 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 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 an intelligent and fervent resistance to the project. Their cries fell on deaf Congressional and even Presidential ears, however, the saga 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 viaduct, 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 from Ohio, brothers called 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 incorporating 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, both the intact and devastated portions in concert. 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 no-longer-burdened 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 whenever 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 childhood’s 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 the Allegheny graces the latter two, 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 commodious size harkens back to the well-heeled days when lumber was king and this part of the globe 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 ludicrously 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 tacky opulence is jarringly out of place in this humble logging camp, but the ultimately Icarusian story behind it is, in my book, one of the most apt apologues of the advanced-stage capitalism unleashed on the world by the monolithic United States of the second half of the twentieth 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, PA. 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 thirty states.

While Adelphia ballooned 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 crippling 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 essentially been 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 fifteen-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 it, 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 consequential 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 value 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 antediluvian 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 taverns, up until the PRR ceased operations there in the late ‘60s, forsaking 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 irrelevant 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 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 a wonderful pub that has the misfortune of sharing its name with a certain ubiquitous mediocre diner chain. This very much independent entity is 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 considerable distance yet to plod in the dark, we settle for one of their standard but creative 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 tacked to a pair of 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 only, if we’re being honest) renown not only revolves around a rodent, but was most visibly manifested for a wide audience via a movie that was filmed five hundred miles away; Punxsy wasn't regarded as 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 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. Kittanning 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 but for the counting of bridges. One, 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.

The Drive Home, Part VI: The Fade

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 West, 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 an eminently 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, he was 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. While it may seem 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, in fairness, not owed to the flaws of my home.

Over the past century, Pittsburgh has had to endure a transformation from flourishing 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. By the time 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, not in any rush to scurry 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 brink of what comes next, an overload of desirability, sickly sweet, the insidious tentacles of the dangerously whispered "g" word taking root 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.

All told, it’s less than a five-hour drive to get here from Washington via the National Road, Cumberland, Pennsylvania Route 160, Berlin, the Glades Pike, and Century III Mall. Yet somehow it feels like it’s taken me years. I choose to believe that’s largely because, regardless of how much truth buttresses Thomas Wolfe’s adage that you can’t go home again, I certainly buy that it’s at least difficult to cogently and poignantly 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. My own forays into transcribing ruminations about Pittsburgh onto paper have frequently veered, albeit unintentionally, into the realm of advertisement, and I’ve found myself unable, or perhaps unwilling, to turn off that spigot. I’ve had too much of a personal stake in the subject I was trying to document.

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 and then swooped upon.

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

 

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

 

. . . in the overgrown basketball courts 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 endlessly photocopied, infinitely 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 gaps in 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 woefully 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 churning 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 leafy lane lined with brick rowhouses, where the entire world has taken on the earthy palette . . .

 

. . . in the delicate stillness after snowfall on a one-way, one-block streetlet, 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 reanimate again.

 

It's present in the energy of a watercolor neighborhood 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 ominous shelf cloud staring you down, daring you to blink, but the prospect of conceding and 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 stash it in your pocket for gray times, where it will join all of these snapshots of the city that raised me, reminders that it will always be my city, no matter what upheavals the future holds.

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 realm 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, whether for destinations heretofore unknown or for those I keep coming back to, time and time again.

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

The Drive 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 there. A single coke works is all that remains, still belching its vaporous refuse into the sky, a more incongruous visage 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 diminishing 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.

I spent four years working at an 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 bonfires 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 bleakest 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 soak 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 betwixt 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 so to be 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 new controlled-access highway was supposed to facilitate economic progress 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 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 dissolve into nullity. Not immediately, likely not even for multiple generations to come, but what else happens when your reason for existence has been so casually and deliberately erased?

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 slagheap. 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 partaking in mall culture is mostly restricted to hazy but fond memories of my grandparents taking my brother and me to another local 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 track 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 spurious 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 befall the tune'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 but larger stores, necessitating shuttling from errand to errand in the bio-hazard suit of a personal vehicle, achieving the desired effect of drastically reducing the chances of human interaction. As antithetical to positive 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 quasi-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 guiltiest of culinary pleasures 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 oozed out of a cardboard carton, all physics-defyingly stuffed into a plastic container along with some microwaved rice? I am constitutionally incapable of turning 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 also see that the crappy Chinese joint flat-out doesn't appear to exist any longer. A miserable-looking sub shop and grimy 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.

The Drive 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 have spread like locusts throughout the rest of southwestern Pennsylvania.

The result is a place that never really boomed, but also never had to cope with a 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 repose 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 forest 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 that was 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, it occurred to me that I didn't trust the Turnpike, or any of the people who mindlessly 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 dismembered branches and downed trunks 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 as my smartphone 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 detour 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 realization 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 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.

The Drive 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 miles 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 bickered with the topography for generations to eke out a livelihood.

This is a drive I've made too many times to count now, and it never gets old, no less fresh and intoxicating than it was on that April morning when I first stumbled upon it all those moons ago. I've done it in every season, through the stark, bare winter, above the damp, blooming spring, amidst the sticky haze of summer’s peak, under the cover of glorious autumn color. I've done it sliding through torrential downpours, immersed in fluffy floating 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 slim 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 on the tail of a slowpoke, well, that's alright, too. Leisure is the muse behind taking 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 signify 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, decades, even centuries 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 the close of 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 vanished to anyone traversing the area, buried behind a magician’s veil.

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, albeit shallow, 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 the sake of comparison, the analogous spot on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is hurtling past the sign informing me that I can treat myself to a lamentable Roy Rogers burger at the Somerset Travel Plaza.)

The Borough of Berlin will probably be alright in the end - its daily bread and cheese are derived principally 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 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 folks. 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 dark thoughts.

As I head back to my car, I notice what I surmise to be a delegation representing four generations of a single 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.

The Drive 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, ungainly vehicles, and vest-clad crews unleashed by 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 strikingly 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 three hundred-plus metropolitan areas defined by the federal Office of Management and Budget, Cumberland is mired in the bottom five percentiles in household income, per 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, both string bean thin, she pushing a stroller, 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 yet again blank spots on the map - "here be decay" - only this time, it's by design. Where once these hills were metaphorically 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, arguably 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 dissipates into hindsight.

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, while the elder cohorts whittle away the days that are left to them, scraping by on the paltry remnants of severely dented, if not outright broken promises. The odds are stacked devastatingly against those who become paralyzed in the quicksand of a moribund town - not only economically, but also mortally, on account of the pernicious python’s chokehold of substance addiction. I want to trust that there's hope, that the concept of the Great American Town isn't in its Late Cretaceous period, the Doomsday Clock ticking towards the inevitable meteor, but the question of what happens next is difficult to hand-wave. Perhaps, eventually, nature just runs its course, reclaiming the lands that once belonged solely to it.

Those places that do manage to untether from life support are the ones that can display flexibility, adapt, and squeeze into a new profitable niche. Cumberland, for one, might potentially be on a track towards some semblance of salvation, as the city toils to resuscitate its economy 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 panacea by any stretch, a strategy that is loaded 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 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, for becoming known as a regional arts mecca can be a recipe for rejuvenation when it can 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 far too long 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 flutter 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 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 official 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 exponentially 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. We have to believe that opportunity can and will arise for those who are able 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.