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.