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, paucity 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.

Mission Statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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