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 maximum 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 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, cloaked behind a magician’s veil, effectively vanished to anyone traversing the area.

This is a familiar fate for small-town America, but it continues to sadden me no less when yet another community is rendered some degree of obsolescence by the allure of a fast, seamless four-lane vacuum. That is why I take comfort, 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, 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 of 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 injected 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 instructions. 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.