Just Passing Through

In Travels With Myself on June 27, 2013 at 11:27 am

I picked up US 50 in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where it’s a wide, fast highway carrying people through Clarksburg and on through the Allegheny foothills and the farms toward Parkersburg and the Ohio Border. Once it leaves Clarksburg, the road reverts to a two-lane road that drifts between the hills and fields, occasionally opening up to four lanes and a divider strip. Side roads came running straight at it, without traffic lights or on-ramps or anything but a sign giving drivers a quarter-mile warning of the intersection. Wilhelm Run, Morgan Run, Cabin Run, Cunningham’s Run, Bear Run, Brunnell’s Run, Lost Run: the names of roads that ran past in rapid succession, carrying forward the names of creeks or washes that marked the land of farmers long gone. The roads themselves are runs, little creeks that feed the small streaming roads like US 50 that eventually pour into the rushing rivers of the interstates.
I had gotten an early start and by 8:00 had stopped for breakfast at the Omelette Shoppe, which I had spotted from the highway just outside of Parkersburg and which I turned back to find. A sign out front welcomed race fans: “Want Bacon? Get All You Want Here.” At the Omelette Shoppe, they serve large omelettes drowned in white gravy, along with hand-made sausage patties, and shredded-potato hashbrowns, and your choice of white, wheat or rye toast. I ordered the rye, but when it came I couldn’t tell the difference. You can also get biscuits with that same gravy poured over them. And your coffee cup never goes empty. The lady who brought my food and refreshed my coffee called me darlin’, but was entirely uninterested in conversation. US 50 cuts across Ohio all the way to Cincinnati, but the feeling is different once you get past Athens, where it separates from Ohio 32 and again becomes a simple 2-lane road through farms and small towns. Most people stay on the better highway, so these rural roads are in need of maintenance and repair, patched and battered. Just after US 50 takes off on its own, a sign warns of “rough road.” The sign is old and weather-beaten, and makes no promise that conditions are likely to change in 10 miles, or 15, or ever. When people talk about the nation’s infrastructure needs, they usually think about bridges falling and highways crumbling, but the damage is deeper than that. Roads like Route 50, or the more famous Route 66, are disappearing in our rush to get away from where we are and beyond the spaces between us and our destinations. If we took better care of them, maybe more people would slow down and enjoy the ride. Or maybe it needs to work the other way around.
There is plenty to look at along Route 50, well-kept farms and small, clean towns; distant hills clothed in lush greenery; and all the particulars of rural American life: the Baptist or Lutheran churches; the classic town halls and firehouses; the red brick high schools with football fields. I passed a billboards proclaiming that life begins at conception; mounted directly below one advertising guns bought and sold. But in spite of all that, there are, compared to Connecticut, very few landmarks. There are places where the road goes straight ahead to the vanishing point, with no hills or turns to interrupt the view. I imagine that for those who have lived there long enough, familiarity teaches landmarks that those just passing through cannot see. I suddenly found myself longing for a co-pilot, someone who could look for the things I had to ignore because my attention was on the road itself and keeping the van between the center line and the gullies; someone who could look for the opportunities to stop, or turn aside to explore and discover. My one reliable companion has been public radio. There is hardly a stretch of more than a few miles anywhere that does not get a signal somewhere at the low end of the frequencies, where the familiar NPR programming can be found. But even this can be a distraction once you start seeing that road disappearing in the distance.
Every once in a while, I would stop and walk through a Dollar General store or grab a coffee at a gas station. I was looking for a map of Ohio. In New York and Pennsylvania and West Virginia state maps were available free for the asking; but I was nearly to Cincinnati before I found one in Ohio – and the station attendant had to walk into a back room to find an old one up on a shelf somewhere. He seemed surprised. A clerk at another station/convenience store had joked that it was either because Ohio was a shy state, or that so many people wanted the maps that no one could keep them on the shelves, while there were still plenty of Kentucky maps to be had. I finally found a rack with plenty of Ohio maps after I crossed into Indiana, where I bought the last Indiana map in the place. This is probably another consequence of staying off the highways. These days, no one expects the tourists to take the secondary routes, so there isn’t any effort to keep visitor centers there either; or even to be worry about a map.
After Cincinnati, where 50 is called the Cincinnati Byway and wraps around the southern edge of the city, so close to the road barriers and retaining walls that you can’t see the buildings looming above you, and so close to the Ohio River that you can wave to Kentucky as you go by, I began to think about settling down for the night. The radio had been warning of an approaching storm front bringing thunderstorms, likely hail, and possible tornados. I will write about the storm, if it proves as dramatic as the predictions, tomorrow.

  1. Dollar General has booze in the south! Cheap and yucky, but booze none the less.


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