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