One For The Road
Today was a travel day, this time, a planned road trip to Pittsburgh, PA (the side trip). I reserved a car online at the local Avis location, which was located right in the Upper West Side at 76th and Broadway. After a quick breakfast of coffee, croissant and knish at nearby NYC institution Zabar’s, it was a quick walk to the Avis office to meet with my sister to pick up the car. The last time I rented a car here, they gave me a tiny 2-door Hyundai Veloster coupe that we drove to Montreal. This time, I specified a 4-door, and after confirming whether I’d get a 4-door, they gave me a free upgrade to a 2019 Hyundai Elantra (I might have gotten a 2-door otherwise). After fetching it, I had to park it reasonably close to the apartment as we finished packing up and loading. It took around 4 loops around the neighborhood until I just relented and double-parked in front of a double-parked FedEx truck, and waited in the driver’s seat until a minivan finally left.
At around 4 p.m., we were off, though of course this is NYC we’re talking about, and leaving town on a Friday afternoon is no easy task. We headed down the West Side Highway and only hit the speed limit for a few seconds until traffic brought us back to reality and down to street level; it was a slow crawl until Chelsea Street, and then we were cruising with little traffic until Canal Street, where we had to gradually veer left over the course of several minutes in order to enter the Holland Tunnel. Ah, traffic, NYC style.
Then, it was a slllloooowww queue until reaching the actual tunnel. Fortunately, the flow of traffic was constant, driving some 90 feet below the surface of the Hudson. We got out in Jersey City, and I even passed a gas station that I filled up at prior to returning a rental in the Avis office at the Newport Centre Mall back in 2015. From there it was a straight path following the route of I-78. Now here is where the fun begins: The toll booths.
For Whom The Toll Tolls
The one thing this Californian can’t stand here out East is not the right turn on red (I just discovered that’s what the right-hand traffic light is for), but those damn tolls. And it’s not the fact that I have to pay for them, but because they’re do damn confusing. Hear me out: The last time I rented a car, I avoided the NJ tollway system completely and only had to deal with NY state’s system, which had cash lanes where I could pay with cash. I’m using a rental car equipped with an E-Z Pass electronic toll transponder, but I specified to Avis that I didn’t need it activated and preferred to pay for cash tolls. Okay, fine.
So please understand the confusion when I enter a cash toll lane (which also allows E-Z Pass-equipped vehicles), get ready to retrieve the toll ticket at the start of the system, and am told – even by a toll gate attendant – that my car’s E-Z Pass system was already activated.
Say what? There’s an automatic $3.95 fee collected daily plus any tolls I accrue that’s charged to my credit card, even post-car return. Paying cash would mean I’d pay double the toll, but I’m still not 100% sure my E-Z Pass transponder is activated, because it’s not flipped down. Ugh.
Traffic was slow through urban New Jersey, then let up halfway through as the evening sky grew darker. Finally, we crossed a bridge going over the Delaware River and were greeted with this:
And then we were greeted with a set of toll booths. I went through the cash lane, but I was already allowed to pass. And then I saw a couple of flashes of light. California drivers, long dealing with the PTSD triggered by red light cameras, get real nervous when there’s a flash of light when you pass through a road utility where you’re not quite confident you really belong there. Ugh.
It was after the Pennsylvania state line where I realized that my headlights weren’t fully on; it was one more notch on the steering wheel knob to turn them on. Good timing, as dusk was transitioning into nightfall, and memories of my 2015 car rental flashed back – where a NY State Trooper pulled me over for not having my headlights fully on (I was only given a verbal warning, phew).
Darkness fell. We passed by myriad places with an “Twp” following their name. Then passed industrial towns that have seen their heyday long ago: Bethlehem. Allentown (complete with Billy Joel song recollection). Then we passed by tons and tons of places that contained the -town, -ville and -burg suffixes.
Pit Stop in Harrisburg
My niece really like chicken and rice for dinner, so we had to cater to her tastes. My sister and brother in law searched for Asian-ish restaurants along the way and found a place called Shogun Asian Fusion in the Harrisburg suburb of Paxtonia, on the Mountain Road exit off of I-81 (which I-78 turned into a few miles back). It was primarily a Japanese-style place, featuring sushi as its mainstay, but we had various entrees. I had the Pan-Seared Sesame Tuna, which was full of vegetables, which was fine for what I should be eating for dinner. It wasn’t California quality Asian food of course, but we all agreed it was decent enough.
After dinner, it was the final trek to our first hotel. Taking Route 22 through Paxtonia to Route 322 and back on I-81, I noticed how…generic the place looked. At least under the cover of night, American suburbia looked no more unique than any other place. The restaurant was embedded in a bix-box shopping center with a Home Depot, Kohl’s, Costco, Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond. Down the Route 22 (Jonestown Road) was a Pep Boys, a Taco Bell, and various mobile phone retail outlets. Besides the regional bank chains, all of the signs looked familiar. I could have been driving through Orange County for all I knew. For someone who takes pride in seeing unique facets of America, it was partly troubling and partly embarrassing.
The original plan was to make a quick stop to see the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg, but since we’d pass the same way back on Tuesday, and in the daylight, we decided it was best to bypass Harrisburg proper altogether for now and head to the hotel.
After crossing the Susquehanna River (one of those Eastern geographical names I’d only hear of from the names of old railroads), it was another two hour trek driving west through southern Pennsylvania. Although my sister was ready to step in as backup driver for this journey, I’m on enough of a traveler high to stay awake and alert through the journey (without any additional coffee save from what I had this morning in NYC). Some fun singing/rhyming games led by my niece, who was strapped in the child seat, helped made the 130-mile trek pass by relatively quickly.
And then, we crossed the Appalachian Mountains, via a number of long tunnels. Blue Mountain Tunnel. Kittatinny Mountain Tunnel. Tuscarora Mountain Tunnel. These tunnels were around a mile long, engineering marvels in their time and place. The Appalachians were an exotic range I only heard of in U.S. History class, where I was taught to pronounce it “Apple-asian.” It wasn’t until I met a group of Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers in the Owens Valley who told me they had previously hiked the “App-latch-un” Trail. But here I was, driving a car through a series of tunnels bored through them. Driving in the night doesn’t afford you much sights. I can recall driving downhill in a very long curve, as if we had rounded a mountain somehow.
Somerset For The Night
Just before 1 a.m., we finally arrived in the small town of Somerset, PA, just off of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Just prior to exiting, we encountered the daunting row of toll booths and once again I drove through it, with a flashing light, wondering if the sensor registered the toll or not. Oh well. anyway, it was a short winding drive up a small hill and onto the EconoLodge Somerset which I hastily booked just the night before we left (I booked it via Hotels.com when I should have booked it on the Choice Hotels site and used a discount code I had as an ASCAP member. Oh well, the motel was only $56 for the one night). Unlike some of my recent hotel experiences, the innkeepers didn’t bug me about checking in late. The room was located on the 2nd floor in a motel building with interior hallways and an elevator. And it just so happened that the room given to the group that drove in all the way from New York City was #212. The room was clean, though I wasn’t used to a hotel room without a carpeted floor. Speaking of which, one negative about our hotel room experience was that the floor above us seemed almost paper-thin, that we could hear the occupant pace back and forth constantly into at least 3 a.m. (What was up with that person?).