Saturday, May 30, 2009

The return of the non-native

More than ever I am convinced that the older I get, the more quickly time passes. I suppose this means I am getting older more quickly, which means time goes even faster, and so on. Even Einstein could not have figured this out.

I'm on the return trip to Chicago, although it feels like only hours since I arrived in Altoona. Was it really a week ago already that I was leaving work for the train station? Have I slept in a different bed for six nights, plus last Friday night on the train? Didn't JCVC and just enjoy my arrival breakfast?

And is it already time to return to toil?

It was a full week, with visits to family combined with shopping for a front door—I never knew there were so many options (wood grain or smooth; stained or painted; full, three-quarters, or half glass, arched or squared, transparency of glass, patterns, etc, etc.). We spent a lot of time in the van.

On Thursday we headed for the Amish country around Lancaster, via the Pennsylvania Turnpike. We passed through tunnels under three mountains—Tuscarora, Kittatinny, and Blue. The latter are right up against one another, so when you emerge from Kittatinny you're in daylight for only a few moments before plunging under Blue. These lighted, tiled tunnels have just enough room for two cars on each side, with nowhere to walk. A narrow ledge might have offered some room on which to stand if absolutely necessary, but it looked as though it would be wise to suck in one's gut and hold on tight, especially as tractor-trailers passed by within inches. In case of breakdown, I'd recommend staying inside the car, although getting a signal to call AAA might prove an insurmountable challenge. Between the two traffic tunnels was a garage-style door, which JC thought might lead to a service area. I wondered about emergency equipment after I recalled the catastrophic Mont Blanc tunnel fire between France and Italy.

I don't love man's ongoing alterations of the landscape, but since it's too late I do love the approach to the massive green mountain as it looms over the road and the plunge into its heart. Those who drive through Tuscarora, Kittatinny, and Blue Mountains often most likely think no more of it than I do of passing over the Chicago River, yet I don't think I would cease to marvel at both the loveliness and the novelty.

Speaking of rivers, we passed over the Susquehanna, which makes the Chicago River look like an ugly, choked canal. Long ago, my mother's sister and brother-in-law owned a house somewhere on the banks of the Susquehanna, at a place where you could walk up to the water's edge from their nearby picnic table. We found frogs, and I fell in love with the misty Susquehanna. When I see it in my imagination, because my visual memory is unreliable, I see a wide expanse of river with a house, picnic table, and trees silhouetted against it. It's like a movie scene, but one that can never be enjoyed again. Of course, here in its industrial center the Susquehanna is not so bucolic looking, and I suppose it's been polluted for decades. At any point in Pennsylvania, I'm apt to reflect on the land that was, the land that is, and the land that will be.

In Intercourse, we stopped at Dienner's Country Restaurant. After thinking I had done well not to eat too much, my brain caught up with my stomach, and I realized I had eaten too much probably 20 minutes earlier. I can't believe I ate the whole thing. It looked like I wasn't the only one. The patrons were an eclectic mix of Mennonites and mostly elderly tourists.

We looked at furniture and into a series of bric-a-brac shops, where I settled for towels from India (for J.), T shirts, magnets, a bookmark, and tote bags. I thought about getting J. an Amish barn star, but didn't quite know how to transport one of a suitable size, and then for some reason gave up on any of any size. I'll look into this closer to birthday time.

Separately, VC and I spotted a pony pulling two Amish boys in a red wagon with a fluorescent orange flag fluttering on a pole. We saw the same pony, wagon, and boys several times throughout the afternoon. They didn't appear to be headed anywhere or doing anything in particular, and I wondered if that were their version of joy riding. It looked like lots of fun, although perhaps not for the pony.

While there was an odd blend of Amish wares, including furniture and quilts, and country-style kitsch manufactured in China, at least one place we saw was pure Amish—strictly authentic. This harness shop advertised horse liniment near a sign awkwardly lettered with something to the effect of, "NO TOURIST EXCEPT FOR DRIVING AND RIDING NEEDS." At Lapp's Coach Shop, taking photos was prohibited. Not for the first (or last) time I thought how strange it must be to be treated like a curiosity in your own home, but then I suppose the Amish and Mennonites are accustomed to it.

I hadn't seen that many tourists, and the shops we went into weren't bustling. At one we returned to, the cashier told us that the owner, a wholesaler by trade, wasn't replenishing the stock. She mentioned the shop closings and changeovers due to the decline in traffic. JC and VC noted that the furniture, which used to be made primarily from oak, now is dominated by the less pricey pine. Not surprisingly, the recession has struck the Amish and their neighbors like everyone else.

After JC and VC bought a bench for their family room, we headed toward the countryside around Bird-in-Hand. In an adjacent field, a man drove a horse that was pulling a machine that seemed to poke holes into the soil. A young man and woman sat on the machine below, dropping plants into the holes, while further up a row three little ones sat and watched the world go by. There are worse ways to live.

Fire vehicles had been blocking the road in front of us, but they pulled out within a few minutes. We were more than half afraid that we'd see the aftermath of a collision between car and carriage, but there was nothing there when we passed by. When we returned, a small line of firemen dressed in their gear was sitting on lawn chairs in a yard, watching the road in much the same way the Amish children were. Waiting for Godot?

The day had been overcast, but mostly dry. On the way back, however, we saw black clouds gather and the skies darken ominously, then the thunder and lightning began, and the downpour followed. One storm began before we reached the tunnels, I think, while a second started closer to home. These storms must have covered a large expanse, and I was reminded of flying above and over from a massive evening storm. I could see the lightning sparking in one enormous cloud for at least 15-20 minutes of flight time. I imagined what it would be like to experience the pure fire of this storm from above, away from the constant staccato of the rain on the windshield.

We made it back a little after 9:00 p.m. and, after taking care of a few things, were in tacit agreement that an earlier-than-typical bedtime was in order. Half asleep, I stayed up until after 11:00 p.m.

The trip back started out uneventfully, but in Pittsburgh we learned that the Capitol Limited wasn't expected until 1:30 a.m. (which, as time passed, became later in 15-minute increments until finally the last arrival time posted was 2:30 a.m.). We boarded at 2:45 a.m.—three hours late.

After checking my suitcase, to kill time I walked around for a couple of blocks, wandered into the nearby Westin, and ultimately settled on a bar and grill that shall remain unnamed. The hostess and servers were polite, but somehow conveyed that they were doing me a tremendous favor by speaking to me. As I sat at an outdoor table, a man lifted the barrier, seated himself, rejected the offer of a menu, asked only for water, smoked, and left the way he had come. I wondered if they knew him; he certainly received a warmer welcome than I did.

Satisfied with an appetizer and a screwdriver, I meandered back to the train station, where I took over a bench in a park area near a Mennonite couple, who, after a discreet period, moved a little further away. I started to wonder what I looked like.

I called VC, but it was difficult to hear. The normal traffic noise wasn't notable, but often—too frequently, it seemed, to be random—a souped-up car or group of cars, or motorcycles, roared by. I wondered if this area were known for this—there was so much of it. Between the bright hues of the Greyhound terminal across the way and the roar of vehicles, even I had a hard time picturing Pittsburgh as once the westernmost urban outpost of the United States. Then again, Manhattan was once a verdant forest.

Sitting bolt upright in the station, with earplugs in and clutching my purse, I fell sound asleep for three hours—the very thing to make up for the train's tardiness. By the time it came, I felt better and ready to lie down.

And so l left behind the lovely little green mountains for the big shoulders . . .

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