Who among us have not gotten lost driving home from Harrisburg? Like the paths in an old garden, the highways twist themselves away from the town, clinging to, parting from, braiding themselves with the Susquehanna river, where the exit signs are just whispers from behind the oleanders, luring travelers to turn right, daring them to stay their course, offering used-car dealerships, promising orientation. Even the Statue of Liberty once lost her way among these paths, now planted upon rocks in the heart of the river, facing south with homeward longing, never to return. Look it up.
This is a story I keep going back to, the afternoon I took a wrong turn after leaving Harrisburg. I had just taken the Praxis test of basic skills, and so the three-hour silence of staring at questions on a computer screen gave way to the road’s silence, an October drive in central Pennsylvania.
There is a stretch of the highway that follows the Juniata River, a tributary to the Susquehanna and, as it leads to State College and beyond, brings its drivers to the edge of existence. This was at least my experience of the canyons, the yellow soil and the drying grass, the brown riverbed, the convoluted plunging of river water, the emptying branches in the hills and the orange leaves. There was not a single farmhouse, only occasional bridges crossing the channel of river, the old rusting bridges and modern suspension bridges sitting side by side. To the left, a territory marker of green pines enclosed my looking out. I curved up around the hills at my right. I thought that this must have been what it felt like to American navigators, of whom I have heard an account, to ride through Montana for the first time, or maybe to any earlier explorers who walked in its rippling mass of rock and silence and trees. The isolation. The joyous emptiness. The wonder. I have never been to Montana.
I awakened from my dreaming numbness to worry if this stretch of road was in fact wrong highway. I couldn’t have missed all this beauty on the way down to Harrisburg. This seemed more unlikely every five minutes I didn’t see something I knew. I scanned my memory for landmarks I would be able to recall, but familiarity was starting to feel less and less like a trustworthy authority. In honesty, all I could remember were the sex shops and topless clubs, of which there were several, between Harrisburg and home. Had I finally reached that point in my adulthood where I could pass each of these without remarking on them? I started to guess that I was headed to State College and not back home. Was I close? State College has a Chipotle. If I can get there, I know how to get to Bucknell. That’s an extra hour and a half or so. Is it better than turning around and risking a complete trip back through Harrisburg? And we all know how that goes. I had thought that as long as I stuck to the Susquehanna, as long as this was the branch I wanted, the one that would bring me past the porn shops, I would be fine. These are the thoughts we have to have when we are lost. The sunlight was still glowing in the hills. It wasn’t the danger of night but the danger of loneliness. I don’t remember if I had seen another car since leaving town, but it would have been rare.
I turned around and headed back. I ignored some highways branching off to the east. I couldn’t afford to compound my disorientation. One of the suspension bridges led into a town. I could see its buildings through the trees as I approached. Gently, I pulled off the highway and onto the bridge with a sense of trespass. I crossed over the river under a tunnel of green metal and tree branches and, eyeing a gas station directly on the other side, I continued into the town.
In my telling of this moment since, I have suggested what was truly in the essence of my living of the moment then, that this was not a town that existed in any reality that I had known. It felt possible to me that this town was a thing of magic, one of those hidden places known from literature and all storytelling, if old Pennsylvania towns could be these kingdoms apart, these islands across the river that offer sanctuary to wanderers, to weary travelers in search of or fleeing from home. I had the feeling, and have since had the dread, that if I passed by that way again I would never be able to recover that town, just an empty bridge leading to a stillness in the tangle of woods.
But forgive this indulgence. The town of N—- does exist. Its high school has a show choir, a competitive sports program, and a gym. The music teacher directs musicals from the last ten years. Whether these rambling uncertainties were the thoughts of an outsider forever unfit to make a home in the back roads of central Pennsylvania or if this consciousness was induced by the taking of three-hour test that so proved my very ability to teach in this community I leave to the people of N—– to answer.
The afternoon light hung around the shadows in the town square and gleamed richly on the brick walls of every building. Cars circled. People stepped out of storefronts with large glass windows. Traffic lights changed. I came back to the gas station.
Not parking at the pump, I worried that I should be asking for help without offering any trade. I was obsessed, in those days, with the idea of exchange. I was also mindful of how some of my black classmates might have felt, have said they do feel, at the prospect of asking for directions at a gas station in a largely white rural town. Pennsylvania was a northern state, but Confederate flags are about as numerous as historical signposts indicating stops on the underground railroad, not that I saw either that day. I felt degree of safety, too, as a man. So, with a mixture of gratitude and guilt, and not without a sense of discomfort at having to ask directions of strangers, I stepped out of my car.
An attendant walked towards me as I approached. He was thin, teenaged. I asked him if he could point me towards Highway 15 North. He didn’t have an answer. How about Selinsgrove? I didn’t expect him to have recognized Lewisburg. He brought me over to the owner, an older man, possibly his father.
“He’s trying to get to–where was it–?”
“Selignsgrove. Highway 15,” I said. “Well, I’m trying to get to Lewisburg.”
The man collected his thoughts.
“Ok,” he said, “You’re gonna wanna cross this bridge and follow this highway straight towards Highway 11/15. You’ll run right into it.”
“Ok, just across this bridge and go straight?”
“Just cross this bridge and go straight.”
“Thank you,” I said, and I got back in my car.
There’s a Jack London story where a man freezes to death in Yukon territory, believing himself lost. When he dies, his dog runs up the familiar path of sounds and smells to the camp they had set out from that morning. I drove twenty minutes and hit highway 11/15. Selinsgrove was another half hour and just beyond, my own college town.
I wondered–and this knowingly, having heard of research done by Pennsylvania geographers about the sense of place and the social bonds that hold the communities of these towns together–if that teenager who tried to help me had ever crossed that bridge leading away from his town. He has no doubt stepped on the other side. How could he not have? But would he have had reason to? I have since consulted maps. Crossing that river, we see the sudden spiraling of state parks and forests, the great bending already underway of geosynclinal valleys, the topographical undulations leading away from Harrisburg and the East and down into the bulkier Appalachians. I wonder if crossing that bridge is more than just a psychological barrier, of the kind I imagine it would be for youngsters of any river town, but a departure from one set of cultures to the next, if places like Selinsgrove, Sunbury, Bloomsburg, and Williamsport were as exotic to him as his town felt to me when I drove in, if the sound of Highway 11-15 felt as fantastical as the vision of afternoon sunlight on the red brick, if my life was as incomprehensible to him as his was to me.
Yesterday I was talking with a professor about teaching license requirements in Massachusetts. He suggested that I might be a good resource for my classmates, given my familiarity with the process of taking educator tests, the CTEL, the Praxis 1 and 2. “You know, it’s a little strange that we require all those tests for certification.”
“Well, someone has to get paid,” I joked. “At least that’s my cynical side.” I believe I stole that line from a professor I had back in Pennsylvania. He agreed.
I was thinking about driving in central Pennsylvania, about the trees and the slopes of earth and rock and leaves, about the teenager at the gas station, about coal towns and river towns, and about the friends I haven’t seen in years.