In my 25 years of life, I’ve spent well over 300 hours on the road to my family’s lakeside cottage in Northeastern Pennsylvania. We’ve made about three trips every summer to this outpost that my grandfather and his father built more than 50 years ago. I love the sense of family history and the peaceful surroundings, but the best part about my trips to the cottage is pulling under the carport out back and finally planting my feet on solid ground.
See, getting to Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains region requires a 235-mile drive that would take four hours under the best of conditions, and that’s before factoring in an hour for rest area stops and a bite to eat. You can also expect to lose about an hour to traffic snarls caused by highway construction, since that’s about a 50-50 proposition in the Keystone State. I can’t think of any more secure and lucrative position than working for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, since apparently there’s always work to be done.
My family members don’t exactly relish these long car trips, which we still take together. My sister, who is prone to motion sickness and headaches, tries her best to endure the trek by curling up in the back seat and sleeping through it. My mother has trouble reading in a moving vehicle, so she occupies her time by cringing and gasping at my father’s less-than-genteel driving habits. Occasionally this leads to arguments, with Dad defending his prowess behind the wheel by touting his spotless record. Mom counters that just because he hasn’t crashed, that doesn’t make him a good driver; it makes him lucky.
I’ve resorted to all sorts of activities to pass the time on these long car rides, with varying degrees of success. My maternal grandmother Boots taught me the license plate game, the alphabet game, and travel bingo. Then there are word search puzzles, books, and hand-held electronic poker and Yahtzee. But even I have my limits. After all, I have long, gangly arms and legs, and four to five hours stuffed in the back seat isn’t my idea of comfort, no matter how big the vehicle.
Moreover, my father is a little heavy-handed when it comes to regulating the car’s temperature. Having spent half his life toiling in the sweltering heat of cramped warehouses, he seems to think the AC doesn’t work unless he cranks the dial to maximum cool. So the rest of us are left huddled and shivering, using our pillows as a barrier against the Arctic blast and wondering why we ever thought to wear shorts and T-shirts in August.
In the summer of 2006, I got behind the wheel for the first time for one of these cottage trips. This time, my travel companion was John Hefner — a good friend and an even better sport. His work schedule ensured a late start, so we pulled away from my apartment at 8:30 p.m. on a Friday. We’d been on the road less than an hour when, to my great frustration, traffic stopped dead on Interstate 83 thanks to a crash that had blocked both northbound lanes. With nowhere to turn around or exit, I sat smoldering and twitching for the next 30 minutes while John undoubtedly feared for his safety.
When we finally got moving again, I plowed forward through the dull sameness and pungent roadkill of I-83 and I-81. I focused on just getting to one of the trip’s few bright spots: the Dairy Queen in Lebanon, PA. Naturally, we arrived in Lebanon at 11:15 p.m. to find my Ice Cream Valhalla was closed. I settled for a Wendy’s chocolate Frosty, which tasted more like failure.
By quarter after one in the morning, I had reached the home stretch. The final half hour of the drive entails navigating several winding, climbing roads surrounded by dense foliage. I should also mention here that the charming motorists of rural Pennsylvania seem to view speed limit signs as a quaint relic of days gone by. Further complicating matters on that July night was the dense fog engulfing the pitch-black roads in front of us.
At 1:40 a.m., I finally spotted the lake and the familiar row of cottages. I had never been so relieved to pull into that old carport.