Finding comfort in pot-holed roadways, speeding under ugly bridges past cornfields, and the mysterious "World of Pigeons."
I know we ought not celebrate, without some qualification, the gas-guzzling solo road trip. Yet, in a fallen world, where expensive highways created negative unintended consequences, I delight in driving west on Route 76, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, with a van-full of books to be displayed at some western Pennsylvania conference or event. Even with the serious stress of an eight-hour setup on my mind (and noisy trucks to the left and right), the four-and-a-half hour drive soothes and refreshes me.
I suppose the routine is part of it. Since the 1970s, when my wife and I would drive the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg stretch with some regularity to visit family, we've taken delight in the appealing landscape, with the sturdy stone rest stops tucked in aesthetically-pleasing ways into the mountainsides, and amused ourselves by spotting familiar roadside oddities. "Drink Milk" is brightly painted on one large barn; we still marvel at the "World of Pigeons," a curious destination which has been there as long as we can remember. It is quite a comfort knowing in your body the shift of the curves, the many inclines, the long, straight stretches, and, of course, the speed traps (after that mile-long descent before the Breezewood exit heading west—just sayin'.)
We sometimes joke about putting the van on autopilot for this regular drive, but it would be foolish to overestimate the mindlessness of the routine. Yet even the hazards of high-speed driving are an odd comfort—I am still anxious on the string of S-curves in the mountains before the tunnels east of Johnstown, and then I realize that "some things never change." I smile to myself as I turn the music down—to better concentrate—and wonder why my wife has always taken pleasure in driving this dangerous stretch.
A recent ride in the morning rain reminded me again of the joy found in the sheer glory of Pennsylvania geography. Nature writers wax eloquent when describing the luminosity of this slant of light or that textured tree trunk or the glorious shade of an almost azure sky. Yet words fail me when describing the delight I took seeing Appalachian mountain peaks garlanded with low-lying clouds—grey mist beautiful in its own right, but off-setting the vivid walls of lush, leafy forest above the fog. Silver maples are common here, although I see birch and aspen, shimmering in the wetness. Doxology comes easy with such lovely vistas.
Rain falling on rolling hills—each distant ridge a bit higher than the one before—highlighted the bright green pastures and the spectacular brown and green stripes of terrace farming. There is one pleasant slope on the left where there are always hundreds of sheep grazing, speckled spots among grass and granite. For decades they have reminded me in a convoluted way of Psalm 50:10 (which mentions God's care for the cattle on a thousand hills) and it is a great comfort to know it is so, even in Franklin County.
If it seems safe at the moment, as I approach one of the tunnels, I often look over my right shoulder and see in the valley below a large reservoir beautifully surrounded by both deciduous and pine trees. It is easy to miss and I've pulled over a time or two to take in the scene. One might expect such a sight in breathtaking Colorado or Alberta or upstate New York, even, but a vision of a small mountain lake along the Pennsylvania Turnpike still makes me smile with surprise.
Dare I report it? There are a few secluded spots where on late night drives, my wife and I—years ago, as newlyweds—would pull over to smooch. I spy each spot now and smile; don't ask me where, for it is a secret, but the recollection is sweet.
The comfort of a long, routine drive, the stunning (and generally under-appreciated) beauty, the quirky sites and strong sensations of driving and remembering are such that I am occasionally moved to tears along this mile marker or that surprising view. The tears seem joyful, yet melancholic, too. I have lost a loved one in a traffic wreck and I feel deeply the way harsh design has ripped the Earth and befouled creation; there are vivid signs of hubris and stupidity along most highways these days and we notice and lament. (Ahh, but don't I love the billboard on the eastbound way home—not too far past Pittsburgh—announcing to travelers that they are entering the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Who knew?)
Naturalist and nature writer Kathleen Dean Moore has given us a good phrase in the title of her newest collection, Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature. Wild comfort. The solace of nature. Yet, as reviewer Scott Russell Sanders writes, Moore finds comfort in "natural and human creation, in symphonies and snakes, science and stars . . . " Also in pot-holed turnpikes, speeding under ugly bridges past cornfields and the mysterious "World of Pigeons"? Yes, yes: comfort—and delight.
Pennsylvania Turnpike enthusiasts know that the genesis of the roadway came when the Commonwealth passed legislation in 1791 at the desire of George Washington with the official opening of what is now known as the Turnpike in October of 1941. Some of the fascinating history of this important roadway can be found at paturnpike.com/geninfo/history/history.aspx. Byron drives his van full of books on other roads as well, having set up book displays as far away from south-central Pennsylvania as Texas, Florida, Chicago, and Massachusetts. He has travel stories from those journeys, too.