Hello Pennsylvania, Hello Maryland


It’s 11:00 p.m. on Thursday and I’m writing this at the Summit Motel on US 219, just south of Ridgeway, Pennsylvania. Though attached to a tavern, the place is clean, sturdy, cheap and welcome after a long drive.

No Internet, though. Damn.

Looking at the maps to Washington, I was surprised to find that there were few direct Interstates between our neck of the woods and the American capital. There are pretty easy and direct runs from Toronto to New York or Chicago, but if you want to head south from Buffalo, which is the more direct route, you end up leaving the Interstate system and entering an area where the roads, disturbingly, don’t seem to head north, south, east or west for very long.

As I type this, I think we’re surrounded by mountains, but it’s too dark to be sure. The snow around us has been sublimating into fog, sometimes so thick that I couldn’t tell whether the road was rising or falling, but my ears did pop on more than one occasion. That tells you the type of night driving I’ve had.

Not that I was in any danger, mind. This was still a federal highway. I spent a fair chunk of my time in the middle of convoys of trucks and cars, clinging together to navigate the twists and turns. The morning promises some spectacular vistas.

Later (Friday morning)…

Well, the Summit Motel means what it says. I emerged from our room expecting to be surrounded by mountain peaks. Instead, we were on top of one. 2185 feet above sea level, said a sign we passed not a hundred feet down the road. How’d we ascend over 1500 feet without noticing?

Our drive took us back onto three interstates — I-80, I-99 and I-70 — and the marked difference between these roads and the US highways really illustrates how much of an engineering marvel the whole Interstate system represents. The US highway meanders through the landscape, clinging to the sides of mountains and providing ample turns that keep you from seeing more than a few car lengths ahead of you. Get onto the Interstates and the terrain around them remains, but you get a definite sense that significant portions of the mountainsides were removed to allow these gentler curves and long straightaways.

We stop for breakfast at Brockway and have toast and (good) coffee in a place that sells snacks, magazines and curious gifts. The manager is a woman in her twenties and seems to have opened the place just ‘cause. Her clientele consists of a bunch of old fogeys who have come for the coffee and conversation. We’re welcome to listen in as they talk about taking trains up to Niagara Falls. Around us, trucks ply the winding roads, as lumber and coal still stakes its claim to this area of the American economy.

We lunch in Altoona, after passing a number of towns and even cities, looking down on them from ledges that were blown out to make way for the Interstates. The hilly landscape continues through Maryland, until we start to get signs of Washington’s influence as far as fifty miles out. DC appears to empty out on a Friday afternoon as, coming in on the I-270, we barrel along a near empty four-lane inbound highway, beside a clogged four-lane outbound highway. At least until we get to the Capital Beltway, and then nothing moves in either direction for about an hour.

A couple of observations: people in Pennsylvania coal country seem to smoke a lot more than in Kitchener, Toronto or Chicago. They’re not up to Quebec levels of blue air in bars, but their smoking sections tend to be meaningless distinctions. Secondly, Washington DC drivers seem to be among the worst I’ve travelled with. They’re super impatient on their highways; almost as if they think their time is more important than anybody else’s. Well, I’ll be trying out their Metro system soon enough.

Vivian is a real trooper. She handled this drive as well as she handled the drive to Chicago, and she’s enjoying Wayne and Marguerite’s house (lots of stairs). We’re resting, now, and thinking about what to do this weekend. A walk along the National Mall is very likely. The Capitol Building is iconic, and a visit to Washington without seeing it seems like the waste of a trip.


Summit Motel, sign and surrounding landscape.


The view from Billy’s Place Cafe, Ice Cream Parlour and Gift Shop, at Brockway, PA.


The view down the I-80 of the Pennsylvania mountains.


Congestion on the Beltway.

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