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Author Topic: Something a little different  (Read 1797 times)

wphiii

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Something a little different
« on: March 31, 2017, 01:56:18 AM »

This isn't a road trip narrative, per se, in that it's not a description of one particular trip taken at one particular time. Rather, it's the product of what is now going on seven years of making the same eight-hour round trip upwards of twice a month. First it was for work, later for love, and now for some combination thereof, but it's this most mundane of drives that for a while now has made me want to put words down on paper. Repetition breeds philosophical thought, I guess.

What follows is the fruit of that inspiration. As someone who suffers from feeling most at home when I'm on the move (an affliction I imagine many here relate to), I've found it hard to explain to most people I know how a four-hour drive can become routine, but somehow not completely bore me to death. While this may not really belong here, I don't have a lot in the way of ideal venues for sharing it, so I appreciate in advance allayinz bearing with me. Any and all feedback is, of course, always welcome with open arms.

wphiii

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Re: Something a little different
« Reply #1 on: March 31, 2017, 01:56:38 AM »


The Road Home

The Itch


The concept of The West is as much a part of the DNA of the United States of America as apple pie and baseball. When the Union’s predecessors arrived here from Europe, a massive continent, unknown and mysterious, sprawled out before them to the west. Long after the geographic extent of this country was shorn of its mystery by the quest for the Northwest Passage, Lewis and Clark's intrepid expedition, and the rapacious forces of Manifest Destiny, the allure of The West remained a siren's call for many.

At first, it was the lure of material wealth and prosperity in the form of animal pelts or mineral excavation. In the isolation created by its difficult terrain and unforgiving environment was the solution for those seeking freedom to practice unorthodox religions, or perhaps just those craving the illusion of escaping the snare of the government. Later, it was clung to as the source of salvation from the smoky, claustrophobic hell of the industrial metropolises and from the inhospitable, barren hell of the Dust Bowl. The completion of the transcontinental rail lines, followed by the rise of the automobile, made The West accessible in ways that were once inconceivable. Anyone who wanted a new life could simply uproot themselves and strike out for The West. Even today, it entices as the wide-open land of the big sky, a haven for rugged individuality…or as the land of left-coast social tolerance and cutting-edge entrepreneurialism.

I, myself did not realize how deeply The West resonates within me until volunteering to help a special lady move from northeastern Ohio back to her family home in El Paso, Texas, after our college commencement. Unfurling a road map to begin the planning process for that trip, it dawned on me for the first time what an open book this country truly could be. Ever since then, the unspoken power of The West has imprisoned me in its vise-like grip. It's always just a bit further. One more hour of daylight. One more turn I've never made before. It's this power that is responsible for the uncontrollable urge I get every time I hit the road to return home to Pittsburgh from Washington, D.C., a journey I've come to undertake several times a month.

It starts with the very essence of the road itself - Interstate 70, a 2,153-mile superhighway that begins in Baltimore and terminates in Utah and serves as a crucial connection between Southern California and the entire Midwest and Northeast. For much of its course, I-70 is intertwined with U.S. Route 40, which itself was one of the original coast-to-coast routes laid out in the 1926 U.S. Highway System Plan. This particular portion of the I-70/U.S. 40 corridor closely hugs the footprints of a series of late-18th-century turnpikes that stretched from the teeming port of Baltimore to Cumberland, Maryland, where travelers could then embark upon the National Road.

One of the young country's primordial efforts, powered by federal funding and oversight, to create a cohesive, long-distance transportation trail, the goal of the National Road was to ensure a standard of relatively easy mobility between the industrial and economic centers of the Mid-Atlantic and the croplands of the Midwest, traversing the tricky Appalachian Mountains in the process. Running from Cumberland to Vandalia, Illinois, this was the first road of such length to be completely surfaced using the newfangled Macadam technique, which would in short order come to be regarded as the state of the art standard for road construction. Thus it can be said that these easternmost miles of I-70 essentially represent the very cradle of our attempts as a nation to provide simple, comfortable access to The West.

Then there are the green guide signs that alert drivers to utilize I-68, which splits from I-70 at Hancock, as an "Alternate Route West." Maryland's Highway Administration has erected the signs as a ploy to keep people south of the Mason-Dixon Line for as long as possible and in doing so, hopefully trickling some much needed dollar bills into the coffers of the businesses and communities of the state's downtrodden westernmost counties. To me, though, the signs serve as another reminder - as if I need one - that the ultimate purpose of this road's existence is to get people from here, in the East, to way over there, in The West, through the amber waves of grain and across the purple mountain majesties.

In any case, I had long taken to incorporating I-68 into my commute, a habit formed when I finally reached the point that I could no longer bear the mind-numbing grind of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It helps that, as far as controlled-access hypnoroads go, I-68 is a rather enjoyable drive, thanks to lower traffic volumes, lovely ridge-and-valley Appalachian scenery, and an absence of tolls. Not to mention the far more frequent exits and with them, the ability to jump on and off the highway whenever I want, enabling me to explore local towns and attractions at will and patronize businesses that weren't just hatched out of a prefabricated big box. Where the Turnpike feels like a chore, a monotonous countdown of mile markers until I arrive at my destination and no further, 68 has the totally opposite effect of sparking a sense of being part of something truly grand and fueling the desire to discover just what that something is. It engenders the notion that this land, even after all these generations, is still an unfinished story waiting to be told.

Finally, there's the fact that, because of the timing of my trips, I often find myself rumbling along I-68 as the day is waning. The sun reclines into the western sky, casting its pastel hues over the glades and hollows of the Maryland Panhandle, and I am drawn into its canvas, beckoned to follow it over the horizon. I want to succumb, riding into each day's sunset until I can't anymore. I am called to Go West, Young Man, chasing the light like so many before me towards a new tomorrow, a new beginning, full of new hope. And every time, there's a good five-Mississippi count during which I swear I actually consider doing it. But then the adult neurons fire. Irresponsibility is bludgeoned and the impulse is wrested from me, leaving just an odd burning sensation in my gut (not wholly unlike the feeling you get after narrowly averting some kind of accident).

As I brood, autopilot kicks in and forces me to take the appropriate exit into Cumberland. Like always, I'm not going West, I'm going home. Maybe one day I'll get used to it.

wphiii

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Re: Something a little different
« Reply #2 on: March 31, 2017, 02:09:42 AM »


The Scratch


I-68 through Cumberland is like the Interstate Highway System's equivalent to an old wooden roller coaster. Originally constructed 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 below-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 leave an unsuspecting motorist suddenly wondering just how safe it really is, not unlike 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 incongruously handsome Romanesque tower of the Allegany County Courthouse. In front of the green backdrop of Haystack Mountain, it all 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 essentially abandoned 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 ‘87. After peaking at a modest, but vibrant 40,000 during the war effort of the Forties, the city today sits half-empty, and those who have stayed face an uphill battle. Of the 300-odd metropolitan areas defined by the Census Bureau, Cumberland is mired in the bottom five percent in per capita income.

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 dive 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, woman overweight, wearing sweatpants and a thrift store band t-shirt, pushing a stroller, man string bean thin, in baggy jean shorts and an XXL white tee, hair buzzed almost down to the scalp, 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 all up and down 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 things. In fact, that quest lit one of the many fuses, if only a relatively 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 rise 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, these locales are once again blank spots on the map - "here be decay" - only this time, it's by design. Where once these hills were literally 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.

But the harsh truth remains that it's a constantly evolving, unforgiving world, and some places just aren't going to make it. There are no jobs, the young have no reason to stay and the old have no means to leave. I want to believe there's hope, that the concept of the self-sufficient Great American Small Town isn't in its Late Cretaceous period, the Doomsday Clock ticking towards the inevitable meteor, but the question of what happens once the elder generation fades away is impossible to ignore. Perhaps nature just needs to run its course, reclaiming what once belonged to it.

Those places that do survive are the ones that can display flexibility, adapt, and find a new, more profitable niche. Cumberland, for one, might potentially be on a course towards some semblance of salvation, as the city toils to resuscitate its economy at least in part by reorienting itself outwardly. The factories and mills simply aren't coming back, and one of the few options left 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 strategy by any stretch, and it comes with its own set of problematic 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 possible. 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 Western Maryland terminal has been restored and for nearly 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; becoming known as a regional arts mecca can be a recipe for reinvigoration when it's able to 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 St., 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 decades 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 course once again through the brick paving of Baltimore St. 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 his 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 St., 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 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 an 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 rapidly 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. Opportunity can and will arise for those who are willing to forge a new way forward out of what came before. Absent a radical dive into full-fledged Universal Basic Income-style democratic socialism, it sadly 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.

wphiii

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Re: Something a little different
« Reply #3 on: March 31, 2017, 02:19:27 AM »


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 has well and truly settled on 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 20 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, ascending 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.

From 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 fought the topography for generations just to eke out a livelihood.

This is a drive I've made dozens of times now, and it never gets old. I've done it in every season, through the stark, bare winter, above the damp, blooming spring, amidst the lightning streaks of a summer storm, under the cover of glorious autumn color. I've done it sliding through torrential downpours, immersed in fluffy falling 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, shockingly and 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 narrow 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 truly 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 carry a standard speed limit of 55 mph unless otherwise posted). I can take the curves at speeds that cause the yellow advisory signs to turn a shade of blushing crimson. I know which rises to hit hard to experience that exhilarating drop in my stomach upon descending the other side, as on a roller coaster. If I do happen to come up behind a slowpoke, well, that's alright, too. After all, getting somewhere as quickly as possible isn’t the point of a road like this. 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 some extraterrestrial race. Just past the green-and-white marker pointing the way to one last back door to Meyersdale, the road dips 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 represent the windows of houses.

The town is visible for about ten 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. Assuredly, things will change over time; for instance, as I write this, an 11.4-mile chunk of controlled-access highway is being constructed between Somerset and Meyersdale. When completed (purportedly by the end 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 great comfort 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.

More 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. (The analogous spot on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is the sign telling me I can get Auntie Anne's pretzels at the Somerset Travel Plaza.)

The Borough of Berlin will probably be alright in the end - its daily bread and cheese comes mainly from the drilling equipment company and the potato chip factory 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 St., from which I have come, and for-now U.S. 219, which carries the name Broadway St 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 ground 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 sign, would not permit such inquiries. Across Main St from the New National Hotel, a group 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.

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 a significant decrease in commerce due to the forthcoming abandonment of Broadway St 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 business in dispensing cold treats from an impressively expansive menu to a long line of people. 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 returns to sit squarely on my shoulders. Weariness and anxiety settle in a cloud over my head. It's a feeling I've grown used to experiencing, but no better at coping with, as someone who is most restless when he's at home and most settled when he's in between places.

A butterscotch milkshake helps to assuage some of these black thoughts. As I head back to my car, I notice what appears to be four generations of a family clustered around a picnic table. Two of the men, one middle aged and one older, are strangely decked out in the crisp, navy blue threads of the Army of the Potomac. I realize 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. Tonight 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 family can trace its lineage in these parts back to the inception of the troupe near the end of the Revolutionary War, when veterans of the conflict who had made it back to their Brothersvalley homesteads came together to keep the music of their victory alive.

As the family laughs over their twistees and sundaes, I chastise myself for carrying such negativity. Tonight, in Berlin, Pennsylvania, everything is as it should be.

wphiii

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Re: Something a little different
« Reply #4 on: March 31, 2017, 02:31:03 AM »


The Scab


In the late 1750s, the road set 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 obstruction 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 three major river systems (the Allegheny, the Monongahela, and the Potomac) 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.

By the close of the 18th century, imaginary lines had been drawn and the County of Somerset officially demarcated (curiously 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 spread like locusts throughout the rest of southwestern Pennsylvania.

The result is a place that never boomed, but also never had to cope with the 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 in the form of two ski resorts 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 be in my way.

Or…

Or, I'm still not ready to be home. Even with the sky now an inky 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 calm 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-time inn, tavern, or country store. Soon the tree 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 (roughly concurrent with today's U.S. 30 and the Lincoln Highway). As with the Old National Road, treading in the footsteps of the pioneers always fills me with anticipation and wonder. Even the name of this road does things for me; in my mind, the very word "glade" is an ineffably pleasant marriage of "glen" and "shade."

I have a fond relationship with this stretch of Route 31. It's 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 region 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 sinister anvil and the bombflashes of lightning dancing within. It was going to be hellish, and at this juncture there was no way around it. Sitting at the red light beyond which the entrance to the Turnpike beckoned, I realized I simply didn't trust the Turnpike, or any of the people who drive on it, to be able to deal with 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 downed trees and dismembered branches left in its wake. It was intense sledding for a while, but sure enough, I felt confident moving at a safe, constant speed on the parallel Route 31 while Google relayed news 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 endeavor 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 wind. 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. 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 final 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 plains. Cresting the ridge, for a few moments the western horizon sprawls out into infinity, the day's last gasps of color straining to escape 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 drive 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. 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, a route 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, whispering 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 houses from even earlier generations, escorting 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 ghosts 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 burg skulking around its banks nearly six score years later. 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.

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Re: Something a little different
« Reply #5 on: March 31, 2017, 02:36:55 AM »

The Scar


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 in Monessen. A single coke works is all that remains, still belching its vaporous refuse into the sky, a more incongruous sight 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 snakes 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). 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 remained on our own soil could be increasingly automated, even further reducing 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, 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.

During college I spent four years working at a local amusement park down here, and I'd be lying if I claimed 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 parties 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 worst blocks of urban prairie this side of Detroit. Three a.m. pancakes at terrible round-the-clock diners. Crossing the train tracks to Dravosburg, getting lost in Charleroi, stranded by a flood in Glassport.

It's a place for which I can't help but to have developed great affection, which is why it pains me that I'm 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 tried; a newly completed controlled-access toll road was supposed to facilitate economic development in the region. Instead, it's just helping what sparse traffic actually uses 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 called Monroeville 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 fade to black. Not immediately, of course, perhaps not even for several generations, but what else happens when you no longer have a reason to exist?

I don't know what inspires me to do it, but I suddenly find myself veering off of 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, it was built on top of a U.S. Steel slag heap. When it was finished 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 free no more than fifty feet from any entrance.

I didn't really grow up around mall culture, though I have hazy but fond memories of my grandparents taking my brother and me to another nearby mall when they were tasked with watching us (that mall has already succumbed to the fate - extinction - towards which C3 continues to amble). Even so, I feel a slight pang of nostalgia when I walk into the air-conditioned confines, a pang that turns to sorrow when I see how forlorn the place is. An hour before close and I can do a full 360 degree turn from the middle of the second-floor balcony and see virtually nobody else. One young mother pushing a stroller and gripping a toddler by the other hand provide my sole accompaniment in this George Romero homage apart from the Steely Dan tune 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 number that upon deeper examination is actually a dark commentary on the false optimism of the entertainment industry, being piped into a complex that, shiny and new (the ribbon cut just a couple of years after "Peg" was recorded, as it happens), was a grand house of worship to the gods of material possession. Like what is implied will inevitably happen to the song's eponymous starlet, the mall was unceremoniously kicked aside when tastes changed and the vaunted American lifestyle kept evolving.

As antithetical to urbanity as the idea of a suburban enclosed mall was and is, on some level they were still designed to emulate the traditional Main Street shopping experience, only without exposure to the elements and traffic and with ample parking and a private police force. But then strip malls and big boxes became the craze, aggregating a wider variety of products into fewer stores, necessitating shuttling from errand to errand in the bio-hazard suit of a personal vehicle, achieving the desired effect of totally eliminating any chance of social interaction, something that indoor malls at least fostered to an extent. 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 pity, but I can claim hunger as a more rational excuse for my presence in this mausoleum. Quite possibly my most shameful culinary guilty pleasure is crappy mall/airport Chinese. You know, where you pick two mass flash-fried entrees, overloaded to the point of sogginess with "sauce" that probably came out of a cardboard carton, and they stuff as much as possible into a plastic container along with some microwaved rice? I will never say no.

So imagine my dismay to not only find the food court darkened, with a lone custodian performing the Sisyphean task of overturning chairs and balancing them on tabletops one by one, but to see that the crappy Chinese joint doesn't appear to exist any longer. A miserable-looking sub shop and 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 somehow perfectly fitting: a song about death.

wphiii

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Re: Something a little different
« Reply #6 on: March 31, 2017, 02:50:31 AM »


The Coda


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, 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 a particularly analgesic effect after the torturous slog up Route 51's 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, 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 always feel like home. 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 not owed to the flaws of my home.

Over the past century, Pittsburgh has had to endure a transformation from prosperous 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 escaping the Rust Belt quagmire, to today's wide renown for emerging 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. Even when 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 took notice, so much so that I had no major qualms about returning home after college, no rush to scramble away, satisfied 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 edge of what comes next, an overload of desirability, sickly sweet, the insidious tendrils of the dangerously whispered "g" word grabbing hold and refusing to let go. The rental 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.

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's required 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 rugged terrain, almost unrivaled among American cities.

But that's everyone's Pittsburgh. At the risk of falling into a deep well of solipsism, it's taken me a short lifetime to realize that my Pittsburgh, three decades' worth, is not so much in the magazine rankings and nationally published puff pieces. 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.

It's in the alleyways, back streets, shortcuts, lost worlds, in the tangled paths through wooded glens. It's in the overgrown basketball courts of our youth that have claimed and kept the blood from the sacrificial ritual of countless scraped knees and elbows. It's 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.

It's in the infinite views, all the classic ones at their most photogenic hour of the day, that I'll never take for granted. But even more so, it's in the secret views you can't get to without knowing how, through the trees of a wooded hilltop or perched in a crumbling, mostly forgotten cemetery. It's in 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 tucked away amidst the city's bustle, or on the chronically underused benches in front of the flagship library, surrounded by architectural wonders at the city's intellectual heart, or even posted at the end of the bar in one of the city's quintessential dives, masked by neon beer logos, watching life pass outside the window like an early film reel.

It's in things as mundane as the cycling of the days and the turning of the seasons, in the cool serenity of Sunday morning's slanted shadows before noon arrives and erupts into a midsummer broiler. The nostalgic snare of a crisp autumn afternoon on a tree-lined street where the entire world has taken on the earthy palette. The energy of a watercolor street scene on an Indian summer evening so idyllic not a citizen is spared from the inspiration to be out and about. The delicate stillness after snowfall, when it seems like so much as a deep breath might disturb the whole tableau. The titanic battle of a frosty spring dawn, the sun's exhalations hovering over the ground in its 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 come alive again.

It's present in the electric excitement of an impeding storm, the shelf cloud staring you down, daring you to blink, but the prospect of conceding, 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 put it in your pocket for gray times.

Somehow, it’s taken me several months to get here from the not-so-far-off National Road, Cumberland, PA Route 160, Berlin, Somerset, and the Century III Mall. I choose to believe that's largely because, as true as it is that you can't go home again, it's just as difficult even to effectively 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. Previous drafts of this epilogue kept veering, unintentionally, into the realm of advertisement and I found myself unable, or perhaps unwilling, to turn off that spigot. I still had too much of a personal stake in the subject I was trying to write about.

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 very least as a respected peer.

In the mean time, I'll be navigating that alien world 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 place 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 for destinations heretofore unknown.

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

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Re: Something a little different
« Reply #7 on: March 31, 2017, 12:39:59 PM »

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Re: Something a little different
« Reply #9 on: April 01, 2017, 07:21:29 PM »

That was absolutely beautiful. I wish I could write like that.

26 years ago I was you. I spent the first 21 years of my life in the midwest, most of that time in the Chicagoland area.

Then I made eastern North Carolina my home. My story was different in that I went from a major metropolis (at that time #2 in the country) to a pretty rural area, so the two homes really don't compare. Or do they? Someday I may need to go back and have a look to refresh my memory, then maybe report back my findings.

Only I doubt that I could compare them as eloquently as you have!
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