I took a bold new step in my relationship with my girlfriend, Barbara, over Memorial Day weekend: I drove with her to my family’s cottage in Northeastern Pennsylvania for the first time. Though we’ve enjoyed one another’s company for six months now, we had never spent five consecutive hours confined within a rickety sedan before. But in order to share my favorite vacation getaway with my special someone, I was willing to risk it.
We got on the road at 10:30 a.m. Friday with me at the wheel, since Barbara had traveled the 80 miles from her house to mine the night before. To help pass the time, I suggested that we play the license plate game, one of my old standbys. I had even prepared for the possibility by printing out an outline map of the United States, so that we could color in each state as we spotted a car with the corresponding plates.
Yeah, I know. Fortunately, Ms. B already knew she was dating a geek.
Still, the game is less than ideal when the person most enthusiastic about playing is also the driver. Every time Barbara would get situated comfortably in the passenger seat, I would invariably bark out “INDIANA!” or “TENNESSEE!,” sending her scrambling for the map and highlighter.
The first stretch of the drive took us up I-83 from Baltimore, and it was uneventful and construction-free, much to my relief and surprise. (It’s been said, with good reason, that the state motto of Pennsylvania is “Road Work Ahead.”) As we crossed the state line I began looking for the same familiar and reassuring landmarks that I’d passed on countless summer trips with my family. The package goods store in Shrewsbury with the big brown bottles of booze painted on the side was still there. But much to our dismay, the giant weightlifter that used to sit on top of the York Barbell Company building was missing. So much for the only thing that made York visually appealing to interstate travelers. (Note from the eds: Don’t lose heart! It turns out he was just taken down temporarily for repairs.)
Taking a tip from my father, I merged onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike to bypass Harrisburg. As I approached the E-ZPass tollbooth, ready to let technology pay my toll for me while we rolled past the toll plaza, an SUV with Georgia plates (“GEORGIA!”) came rolling over from the next lane to cut me off, seemingly unaware or unconcerned that I could have crashed into it had I not been alert.
I’ve been known to have a temper, and now I was fuming. But then the courteous and knowledgeable driver from the Peach State took me from mere anger to the rage cage — apparently he didn’t even HAVE an E-ZPass transmitter to pay his toll after all, so he merely sat dumbfounded and motionless at the booth for several minutes, leaving those of us with a functioning grasp of Eastern seaboard transit trapped in his dim wake.
My reasoned response was to lean on my car horn and unleash a stream of profanity that was both loud and nonsensical. Our Georgia road buddy eventually gave up and ran the toll, and I followed in hot pursuit. Perhaps sensing the white-hot intensity of my anger, he zoomed up I-76 in excess of 80 miles per hour, leaving me safely far behind. Barbara was more amused than frightened by my wrathful display, though she did express concern for my physical well-being.
The distraction of this adventure compounded my misunderstanding of my dad’s directions, so I missed my exit off the Turnpike. I soon calmed down and had the nagging sense that I had goofed, so I pulled out my GPS and punched in Lake Side Road, the dirt-and-gravel path awaiting us at the end of the journey. I was mildly stunned when the device actually located it, and a little annoyed when it suggested that the quickest route to I-81 (the highway we were supposed to follow for the majority of our route) involved several miles’ worth of side roads. Yep, I’d goofed.
So I played it safe and did exactly as the tinny computerized female voice commanded, exiting on Route 72 and enduring the winding local roads and endless traffic lights of Lebanon, PA. The detour was not a total wash; much of the scenery was quite beautiful and quaint, and at one street corner we spotted a sign advertising Shyda’s Gun Shop and Clothing Barn. I tried to take a picture, but was foiled by my iPhone’s lack of a zoom lens.
Soon we were back on track, traversing the vast and monotonous expanse of I-81 North and its endless landscape of forested mountains. While I find it encouraging that there is still vegetation in this country that hasn’t been plowed over in the name of Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and McDonald’s, I could have really used some variety in the scenery. Instead, I had to keep myself amused by reading the weird names of the nearby towns off of the exit signs. Nuangola … McAdoo … Tamaqua … Frackville … who came up with these names, anyway?
Ah yes, Frackville. By the time we were hungry for lunch, Frackville was the location of the nearest Cracker Barrel (Barbara’s request). We exited onto Route 61 and immediately spotted the restaurant on the horizon. Though traveling in a straight line would have seemed like the logical way to get there, we instead had to wind through a labyrinth of twists and turns to actually get there.
Every tenth of a mile or so, there was a sign featuring a folksy Cracker Barrel logo and an arrow pointing in yet another different direction. I was way beyond punchy, so I responded to each new sign with an incredulous and mock-panicked exclamation: “Thank God! I’d feared that we’d lost the trail!” “If only there were some way of knowing where I might find a DAMNED CRACKER BARREL!” Barbara (also a tad delirious) burst into hysterical laughter, which only egged me on, which in turn made her more hysterical. When we finally arrived in the parking lot of the eatery, which remarkably did not have a sign pointing 10 feet ahead to the building, we had to sit in the car for several minutes before my girlfriend regained her composure.
Nearly five hours into the trip, we finally put I-81 behind us, taking a detour through Pittston to reach the Turnpike (again!), where it was quickly on to Clarks Summit, the last major town (read: chain restaurants and traffic lights) before the cottage. We stopped there for groceries, and I wept at the total price tag upon checkout. Somehow preparing full meals with fresh ingredients is costlier than my tried-and-true bachelor food staples, like frozen chicken patties and hot dogs and sodium-enriched packets of noodles and seasoning. Who knew?
As the last 30 minutes of the journey took us farther and farther from civilization, I was alternately entertained and concerned by the blissful exhalations of delight and longing from my travel companion. One of Barbara’s dreams is to own and maintain a large, beautiful house or farm in the countryside, so the remote and folksy estates that revealed themselves along the way were like dozens of little knives pricking her in the heart … and those knives were coated with morphine. (I think I left my book of similes out on the interstate somewhere.)
So, was the 220-mile odyssey worth it? After arriving at the cottage and unpacking the car, we stood on the front porch looking out at the lake. The late-spring breeze wafted in through the window screens, and it was still and quiet enough to hear an old bullfrog croaking away on the bank.
“You know,” Barbara said, turning to me, “I’m going to want to come up here every weekend now”.
I’ll take that as a yes.