Eighty is a mild road. There are a few scraped hills that verge on picturesque, there are cooling towers, there are valleys strewn with silage and barns. The speed traps all telegraph themselves a mile away except for that one hummock outside Buckhorn.
Tree-covered ridges look nice in sun, clouds, mud, best of all after an ice storm, of which I think there must have been one a week all winter last year. But the monotony! The changes -- in elevation, in landscape, in the local papers -- are so gradual they don't take any effort. The highway food doesn't do much for me, other than the Wawa at the 476 interchange.
The Sapp Bros coffee pot, the Gio BBQ billboard, the bizarrely crusted steak on the Iron Skillet sign somewhere between Grove City and Clarion...
Gabe Gudding writes about this road, or rather ON this road, in Rhode Island Notebook. (In it, he claims to have mailed me a dead fly. Never got to me, Gabe -- send it again.) He praises the Shenango, a nubbly little thing but it marks the transition from Ohio to Pennsylvania, and it’s as far from his starting point as my destination is from mine. At the Shenango River sign, he’s almost half way.
Last November I had the bright idea that a decent meal might be had in State College. I wound around past the prison, the football temple, the center with my name on it, and wound up on the main drag, Beaver Street, around dinner. Success: the Green Bowl serves Mongolian style buffet stir fry, fresh vegetables and a little protein, tasty and reasonable, students, faculty and families crowded in and cheerful about it. I thought, what a good vibe hurray, and made the second half of the trip without snack pain or cramps from Arby's. Made a note to get to know the town better.
The next morning, mentioning dinner to my wife's family, we all noticed State College was on the tv news.
I like anthologies. You go to them knowing one poem one writer, you’ve heard a name, maybe, or maybe you just want to go on vacation there be from there. And you wade through just the worst drivel, a few seconds from flinging the book when a line sounds not at all like the others, not what you expected but as good as what you expected to be there. You keep reading, by side-eye probably, but you’re still there. A single good poem gives you enough momentum, if you can read it a few times and want to come back to it, to get through a lot.
That curve in the ridge at Nescopeck, that one farm somewhere between Akron and Emlenton I always turn to notice, the barn covered in solar panels. The camps at Lake Milton, Ohio, the warehouses of Milton, PA.
Sometimes while driving I dictate reviews into a voice recorder, usually I put on one of the 100-song anthologies from JSP Records, an oldies house in England. A lot of yowling and yodeling, and now and again a song I know I’m going to replay until I can add it to my lullaby repertoire alongside the other prison ballads and songs of heartbreak.
My father’s running joke with my older son: “Did I ever tell you about the movie Groundhog Day?” Next time he sees him, da capo. So on one of the family hauls over the holiday, we took Exit 78 and followed state routes over enough gulleys and lurching curves from there to Punxsutawney to appreciate the engineering of the interstate a little more. The town looks vaguely like the movie set, which it shouldn’t, since the movie was filmed in Illinois. Every block or two there’s a giant fiberglass groundhog; I seem to remember one dressed like a dentist, one like a doctor, one in a kilt. At the far edge of the town square, an awning reads “Phil’s Burrow.” The boy starts for it, and we’re worried it’ll be a bar, but no, it’s a viewing window into a room adjoining the children’s library. In it, two groundhogs sleeping.