The Le Grande Tour is nearing it’s end, which basically means I’m closer to the East Coast than the West Coast. Gone are the days when I had to put up with miles and miles of flat desert occasionally interrupted by an oil well. Gone are the days of the flat tree lined boring of the midwest. Gone are the days in Texas .. nuff said. Now, deep in Appalachia, I am on ground that I know well but love driving none the less.
Yesterday, in particular, I was able to make a run that wasn’t just interesting, it was reminiscent. Let’s start with a bit of a story, why not.
It was the summer of 1998. I was living and working in the Milwaukee area, and things were not going to any plan of my own. Recently, I bought my first new car (new new, not something just to get me from point A to point B) a ’97 Saturn SD-2. While I had made a few trips in the car, I was itching to go for a trip of some sort. With a three day weekend coming up for Independence Day, and a desperate desire to change my world from some things that were sucking the life out of me, I started to consider my options.
Pulling open a map, I looked at places to go to within driving distance of Milwaukee and was immediately disappointed. Wisconsin and Minnesota seemed like it meant I needed to visit family, and I was looking for some ‘Me’ time. Illinois was about as interesting to me as watching paint dry. I could have gone to Michigan, but I was too closely removed from spending 5+ years in college trying to break free of that. This was when looking at the map seemed fruitless. I was now looking at places that were going to be a long drive, so if I was going to do it – there better be a destination worth it. Iowa? No. Indiana? Heck No. Ohio? No, Serious. Pennsylvania? …
All of a sudden the grumpy answers stopped, and I asked myself again … Pennsylvania?
Then that little insanity in my head said: “Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania.”
Now, nearly 20 years removed, the thought process seems more normal to me, but only because I live in a world where I am driving 5200 miles for work. But back in 1997, I hadn’t done much driving like this. In 1992, I drove from Wisconsin to New Jersey to try out for Drum Corps, and in 1995 I took a 3 week road trip to visit my brother in Nevada; but both of those took on months of planning and preparing. When I made that plant to Gettysburg in ’97, it was literally a decision made on a Tuesday, and hit the road on Thursday. Not just that, I didn’t know what to expect when I got there. I’ve been to Gettysburg well over 10 times, and am not afraid to say I want to retire there someday – but that was my first trip to the Civil War city. This was going to be an experience, and I was about as nervous as I was excited. Not just that, this was pre-internet prevalence. I had no GPS, no good research on the path, heck … I didn’t even have reservations to stay anywhere, but that wasn’t even much of my plan.
Yet for the most part, the trip went as planned. I left work on that Thursday night, drove home, changed, packed, and hit the road. Leaving Milwaukee a little late was part of the plan, there is just no way to get east without going through Chicago, and traffic in the windy city is a nightmare on the last day of a work week. By the time I reached the Indiana boarder, it was already well past 10pm. The route at this point was nearly completely toll roads — I-90 across the top of Indiana & Ohio, then the Penna Turnpike on in to the finish. By the time I reached the Ohio bored, I was pretty tired – which since I was in my 20s and dumb, that meant that I was going to need to find a nice isolated part of a travel plaza and sleep in the car. As it turned out, this was a lot tougher than it sounds. I would sleep (kinda) for an hour, then tried to drive on until the next travel plaza 50 miles down the road then try to sleep again. This meant that by 5am, I had only made it to outside of Cleveland, where I waited diligently for donuts and coffee when a certain ‘dunking’ style donut shop was opening.
This was when things started changing for me. Hitting the road, the sun was starting to come up. This country was healthy farm land, still flat, and mostly treeless. So as the sun was coming up, with just a hint of orange in the air. A bit of the morning dew turned into a wisps of fog hanging low on the fields. The angle of the road, allowed for the sun to not hit me directly in the eyes, but wasn’t so out of the way I couldn’t soak in the whole of the start of this day. In the twenty years since that drive, no memory remains as strong as that sunrise. I have seen hundreds of sunrises since then, some more grand and more beautiful, but none more important. After a long night of driving, this was the first point that I fully realized that I was nowhere near where I lived. As much as the destination was my goal, the whole desire for this trip was to break free – and that sun rising up that morning told me I had broken free, and the road ahead was all going to be new.
The drive continued with experience after experience. I took a detour through Pittsburgh for he experience of breaching the Fort Pitt Tunnel onto the downtown that I’ve seem to have done a million times since. I got lost in the Western Pennsylvania hills trying to find something that would stand for breakfast. My stink needed to be dealt with somewhere around Sommerset. Yet by 3PM, I was pulling into Gettysburg … then pulling out of it, because the closest available hotel (only because it opened that day) was 30 miles away. The next morning was a trip around the battlefield on a double decker tour bus (a tour group that still uses the exact same audio to this day). While I could wax on of all of that day, this story is about the journey not the destination — and as much as I was enjoying this, reality was setting in – I had to hit the road, as I had to get home by the end of the next day.
On the way back, starving after a long day, I pulled into the Midway Travel plaza along the Penna Turnpike and grabbed a Stromboli from the Sabaro’s there. If you ever had one … it’s kinda gross. Yet, in that moment, in that weekend of freedom, it found itself in that page of satisfaction like little else. The cooling summer day, a bit of rain in the area, the road ahead, I was happy – truly happy – that kind of happy that makes you want to have that feeling forever.
Since that summer, I’ve recreated that trip a number of times over. Sometimes in full, sometimes in part. Yesterday was just another one of those trips. While I didn’t cross Ohio at sunrise, I still ran that stretch on the Penna Turnpike in the cloudy rain that reminded me of those days all those years ago. Capturing them in the way I felt. While I couldn’t say I was having one of those ‘happy’ days (my new stomach really was messing with me), it was nice to remember – it was nice to reflect.
That’s the point though. Sometimes, it is just nice to use the memory of Ohio Sunrises to remember what if felt to break free of your troubles to remind you why you do it.