Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ol' Man River

This one is kind of long and you don't really need the first half. There's a break a ways down, skip to it if you just want a crazy story. Read the whole thing if you want needless pastoral description of stuff that leads into a crazy story.

Pennsylvania truck route 441 is easily one of greatest stretches of road in the entire eastern seaboard. It snakes through central Pennsylvania, going parallel with the Susquehanna River from Middletown to Columbia. It’s my favorite road to drive when I need to unwind

Its northern tip branches off of route 230 East at the Harrisburg International Airport, starting south. It immediately takes you through the downtown heart of Middletown Pennsylvania. A small cracked and rusty town that looks eerily familiar to anyone who’s ever taken an American history class.

Middletown is immediately followed by the tiny borough of Royalton, which on 441 is nothing more than trailers, homes with plastic siding and blue above-ground pools where large men with larger beards will recline and watch the cars pass by.

The woods that are Pennsylvania’s namesake rise up from Royalton and dominate the drive for a little, but are immediately overpowered by another forest consistent of power lines. Tall angular conglomerates of steel loom over the heads of commuters, creating an intricate criss-crossing canopy of wires. It does seem a bit much, and there’s no immediate reason as to why. All the while, the trees whip by on the side of the road, doing their best to mingle with the metal. They are thick broadleaved green trees, all covered in coats of ivy. Through the green to the right, little grey flecks of the Susquehanna can be seen.

Right out of Royalton, if you look hard enough you can see that the river is getting wider and wider. The road curves lazily to right and suddenly you see a small plume of steam rise above a gap in the canopy. It’s curious looking and one gets anxious wondering what all the electrical wires and steam could form into.

Then suddenly, there’s a gap in the trees and four enormous hourglass-shaped concrete towers burst out of the river. Two of them are quietly breathing out steam, while the two downriver towers are quiet, stained, and barely resting on their rusted diamond shaped steel scaffolding. A little time on wikipedia will tell you that this is the Three Mile Island power plant—the one that nearly melted down and destroyed half the country. I think it’s one of the coolest sights ever, seeing this power plant after we spent so much time in AP American history watching videos about the near meltdown and subsequent shots of Middletown’s residents freaking out over the thought of how their entire livelihood was almost bleached from the surface of the earth.

And then you look at the Towers. Sure, the two live ones are nice, but then you look at the two towers that nearly melted down, you see how dark streaks of god-knows-what clings to the side of them and how crows and grackles and various other black birds perch and flitter around it. There’s so much romance and drama to it that I can barely stand it.

Of course, everyone else I take there is less than impressed.

“That’s…nice…” Said Julie Bertini one night when I took her there after she said she Just Wanted to Get Out Of Etown.

“It’s cool… If you’re into that sort of thing.” Said the Dutchman. He then punched me in the shoulder for being so “gay.”

“Well, I guess I’ll take pictures of it.” Mel said. Each time they said it with that reserved sort of tone that someone gives you after you’ve shown them your pet rock or something equivalently lame.

Immediately after TMI’s towers recede from your rear view mirror, the power lines disappear and it’s all forest, river, sky and road. It is nothing but grey, blue, and green for miles around. The road curves smoothly to follow the river, and every so often there are sloping gravel turn-offs for people to take their boats to the river. The clouds are almost always large and puffy and barely floating across the sky. A large, emerald, vine-encrusted stone barn with a faded heart painted on it passes by to the left.

Through the woods you eventually arrive at Falmoth. The sign on the road says ‘Welcome to Falmoth! Home of the GOAT RACES,” in big important red letters. Below it says ‘Next goat race”—a colon—and then just an empty yellow smear where dates might once have been hung. I guess the races weren’t all that exciting to people on the roads. After that there’s a statue of a white cow with an overbite pulling a red sled—for no particular reason

I love the nonchalance of the people who live on this stretch of road—even the haughty municipal types have a sense of humor. After passing Falmoth you arrive in the tiny borough of Bainbridge. The sign welcoming visitors to Bainbridge tells you:


Silly Bainbridge—just because every other town in America is larger than you doesn’t mean they have extra, unnecessary people lying around.
Oh wait…that’s not true.

After Bainbridge the route opens up more—the trees give way to farmlands and industrial complexes. You can really see the sky and the enormous clouds that just seem to barely float by on a hot summer afternoon. It’s the closest one living in the east can come to knowing what it’s like in the big sky western states. To the right the forested outcroppings of the York County side of the river dominate the horizon.

An enormous, beige, box-shaped recycling plant with a single smoke stack passes by to the right, as does a scuba diving training center. Eventually you enter Conoy Township and pass by baseball fields and houses, and cross the Conoy Creek. The forests return for just a moment, only to be immediately replaced by corn and soybean fields. The soybean fields are stamped out by a large complex of blue and grey warehouses and trucks on the right. The campus is labeled “Transport for Christ,” a concept so weird that my friends and I almost have no choice but to shout, “Truckers for Jesus!!” every time we pass by. It makes you think heavily bearded men stopping at truck stops all across America, bringing peace through the gospel of Jesus and Pep pills.

Eventually route 441 announces that it has changed its mind and has become the Spangler Highway—and then route 441 again after a mile. You pass by a Glaxo Smith Kline pharmaceutical factory and a Sheetz convenience store where drunken Elizabethtown College students will have their sober friends drive them on any given Friday and Saturday night for chicken sandwiches and the most delicious two-dollar bowl of macaroni and cheese that a drunkard ever did eat.

After Sheetz, the woods return and the road gradually starts rising uphill. The curves become sharper and the trees become thicker and taller. To the left on a large rise there is a grey stone house that has a strange resemblance to the Adam’s Family house from the TV show by the same name. A yellow sign warns of falling rocks. The threat is realized immediately after as sharp grey cliffs sprout out on the sides of the road. The shoulder is littered with rocky debris.

Then suddenly, the hill peaks, the trees all fall away and all you can see ahead is the sky merging with the steel grey river. It is at this point that the Susquehanna decides that it needs a break from the river business and briefly turns into a wide, slow-moving lake. In front of all this, at the bottom of all this is the tired old town of Columbia, from the rise you can see bright red houses, the entrance to Pennsylvania Route 30 and an abandoned brick steel mill.

But just before you get to Columbia, as you speed down the steep incline into town, to your right there’s the most curious place. Odds are you’ll miss it, you’ll be going so fast and the sign blends in so well with the surroundings that you have very little time to slow down and make the turn. It is the Breezyview Overlook, a park on a cliff overlooking the river. From there you get a view of the river as it turns a corner and begins to widen. It’s easily a mile wide at this point—it reminds me so much of the Mississippi that I always come back to it when I need to relax and think of home. You also get a nice view of the opposing bank—its hills and slowly blinking radio towers poking their way into the sky. From the view you can go off into trails in the woods bordering the cliff. Though, I don’t recommend it. You’ll see. Let me tell you.

It was a cloudless day in March 2009, during the second semester of my second year at college. It was a Friday. I was awakened by sharp little fingers of sunlight that broke into my room from behind my curtains. It was a beautiful morning and I had slept great. I figured it would be a good day.

That is, until I checked my phone. The clock read 9:17. I had class at 9:30—and a presentation to give.

Well, shit.

With thirteen minutes to get ready for a class that takes 5 minutes to get to, you don’t have time to do much. I rolled out of the bed and onto the floor…8 feet below me. Dave and I decided to bunk our beds that semester. I hit the blue carpet with a rib-cracking thud and shouted. I narrowly avoided our couch, a solid tan mass that surely would have killed me had I hit it. I took my denim comforter with me when I fell. For a painful couple of seconds, I was neatly tucked in on the floor.

“What the hell was that?” Dave moaned—he was angry. I ignored him. There was no time.

I threw on the first clothes I could find – my brown fedora, ripped jeans, red shoes and a black argyle sweater over a maroon collared shirt – and drove to class, because I love grades more than the environment. It took thirty seconds. I arrived just in time. I aced the presentation. I guess I should mention that it was a theater presentation…so there wasn’t much to screw up in the first place.

I walked out of class and got to my car. I only had that one class on Fridays, so I had a whole weekend to goof off. But suddenly I realized that I had woken Dave up when I left the dorm.

You see, Dave is a great roommate; it’s just that he’s also an insomniac. Should anything wake him up after he falls asleep, he will not sleep until maybe 13 hours later. So, having a roommate like me—someone who has insanely vivid dreams and thrashes about his sleep because of it—well, it leads to a sleepless night or three.

Catholic Guilt struck again—I couldn’t just go back to the dorm. Friday was Dave’s only day to sleep in and I’d ruined it! If I didn’t go back, there was still a chance that he might get some rest before his class at noon.

Class had gotten out at ten, so that gave me two hours to kill. And I certainly wasn’t about to waste them. I did what any irresponsible yet boring college student would do—I went to the Breezyview overlook by way of Pennsylvania truck route 441.

It was a beautiful day to be along the river. The sky was cloudless and spring was gently blowing winter away on the high cliffs of the overlook. The river was steel grey as always, the wind making frothy peaks along its wake. The only notion of temperature you had was the occasional cold wisp of a breeze from the river—it was that pleasant a day. I was leaning against a wooden barrier between the flat part of the overlook and the vertical drop. I watched the river for a little while and was at peace. Eventually I looked to my left and saw there were trails cut into the forest downriver—towards Columbia. I couldn’t help myself—I wandered in.

Big mistake.

The trails made a steep incline uphill and then into the woods. They were covered with partially decomposed leaves that had only recently been uncovered by the snow, so the whole area was damp and rank—my kind of nature. The trees were still barren from the winter, save the tiny green shoots that had only just begun poking their heads out of the branches. A light breeze whispered up from the river, occasionally cooling things down. Man, it couldn’t have been more peaceful out there.

I pressed down through the trial for a little while, swatting at half-fallen branches and insects that had come out of the frost a little too early. Eventually the paths just…trailed off, and the going got dangerous—tripping over a tree root could have easily sent me flying down the steep riverbank. It was really annoying—what kind of asshole would go through the trouble of cutting trails to nowhere? What was especially odd was at the very end as the trails stopped, they widened and appeared to end at little circular cul-de-sacs. Because that was clearly needed.
Either way, I was satisfied with the amount of time I’d killed. The sun was getting higher in the cloudless sky, so I would probably get back to the dorm after noon.
I walked backwards through the damp brown and green. My shoes got a fine layer of muck on them and my sweater caught all sorts of tree-matter.

Just as I was about to reach the head of the trail, and thus my car, someone came around the bend a little ways ahead of me. He was a tall portly fellow, easily in his sixties, with an enormous, bullfrog-esque neck. That’s the only physical feature I could see on him, because he was dressed in all black. I mean, black shoes, black slacks, a black button-down dress shirt, a black blazer, a black sort-of beret and angular black sports sunglasses. He looked the sort of guy you see walking into sex toy shops, who didn’t want you to see his face—ever.

When Tall, Dark and Creepy saw me, he immediately stopped and stood, hands in his pockets, at the bend in the trial I was walking towards—staring at me. Any normal person would have walked by and pretended that he was nothing more than a smear of an uncomfortable situation on an otherwise nice day. But I was raised in the South, and we are hospitable people.
As I walked past him I smiled and said “Hey, how are you today?”

“Doin’ well, boy” He said. He had a deep, nasally voice that went well with the bullfrog neck.

“What’re you doin’ out here?”

“Oh, I go to college in the area.”

“Freshman!?” The old man said. There was a certain excitement, almost a level of anxiousness in his voice, as if he was eager to make me as young as possible. It was strange, because when I say I’m in college, most people ask “Oh, so you’re a senior?” Apparently I look old for my age.

So, already I was a little weirded out by this dude. However, the pathetic social center in my brain forced me to press on. What’s the worst a nice creepy old man can do? I said to him: “No sir, I’m a Sophomore.”

“Ah, you looked younger than that.”

Of course I did.

“Nah, I’m just the age I am.” We laughed in unison at that horrible joke. This is what you do with the elderly; you make terrible passes at humor and laugh together at how bad they are.

What you also do with random old men you just met is talk about highways. My new old friend and I did this quite a lot. Men like to have competitions to see who has the best sense of direction. From our perch on the trail, you could see a bridge crossing the river.

The old man motioned to it. “That Route 30 is a nice road to drive.” He said.

“Yea, I use that one to get to D.C.”

“Oh, you go through 81?”

“Yea, tolls are for jerks.”

More stupid laughter.

After ten minutes of this, I was getting tired of the conversation. Also, the old dude was inching closer and closer to me the whole time, so that was a little bit uncomfortable.
Finally, just as my old friend was millimeters away from violating my very conservative personal space bubble, he asked me: “So, why do you come here?”

I gave him a puzzled look. What an unnecessary question. It was even worse that I couldn’t come up with a good response.

“Well…uh…” I began. I looked down, searching for an answer. Instead I saw dead leaves.
Oh wait, that’s actually a good answer. I looked up and said ‘Well, you know. I like nature. And walking around... And the river.” It was such a weird question that—well—I had to ask it right back.

“Well,” said the old man. “I like nature and walking around…But I also really like…” He paused and looked right at my eyes through his sunglasses, “extracurricular activities. D’you like extracurricular activities?”

Did I mention that I’m an idiot? Surely you must have realized this by now. When he said extracurricular activities, I got confused and my mind immediately jumped to all the college and job applications I’d filled out over the years, where they inevitably asked how many extracurricular activities you’d participated in during High School. I ran with this definition, because my genius knows no bounds.

“Oh well…uh…I mean, my college sometimes sends geology classes around here for field work…but there’s no like...Susquehanna River Club…or anything.”

Now it was the old dude’s turn to look puzzled. “Clearly you don’t know what I mean when I say ‘extracurricular activities,’ do you boy?”


“Do you want to know what extracurricular activities are?”

My curiosity got the better of me “…Sure?” I said.

He leaned so close to me that our noses almost touched. He smelled like tuna.
He said, plainly as ever while smiling through slightly yellow teeth: “It’s a…sexual thing,”

Oh, fuck.

When the brain is faced by something as jarring as this, it initiates something that psychologists refer to as a “fight or flight” response that will let instinct choose whether to…you guessed it…fight or flee. In this situation, my obvious choice was to flee. So, my adrenal glands shotgunned an electrical storm of adrenaline into my system. Because I was going to need all the help I could get to dodge getting raped by a creepy old man,

However, in the few milliseconds it took the cool wave of adrenaline to explode over my body, time appeared to stand still. I saw the old man’s face, how red and pillowy it was. I felt the calm breeze on my cheeks, I felt the earth, solid against my muddy feet.. For an instant, while the shock resided, it was almost peaceful. It takes awhile for you to process that, goddammnit, you’re being hit on by an old man. It takes even longer for you to figure out how to respond.
But then the adrenaline hit. I tensed up and said the first thing that came to my mind. I said to him, while backing away:

“Uh… I-I think I hear my mother calling.”

And then I bolted past him and down the trail, towards my car.

The awful thing was, as I ran off, the old man called after me:
“Don’t worry, boy! I’m not gonna hurt you!!”

I looked back, and was about to shout “Yea, I’ll make sure of that!” when I tripped over a tree root and rolled down the incline that lead into the clear part of the overlook. I used the momentum from the roll to launch myself back on my feet in the most graceful maneuver I’d ever pulled in my life. I made it to my car in thirty seconds and sped away—screaming into my rear-view mirror.

The worst part of all of this was that, just then, as I was speeding north up route 441…my mother called, as if I had predicted that all along. I answered and it became immediately clear that I was hysterical.

“What on Earth is wrong?” Mother asked.

“Mom, a random old man just tried to have sex with me along the Susquehanna River!”

And this is why I love my mother. Rather than ask me “Are you okay?” She sounded very confused while saying, “But you don’t even look gay!”

At that point I looked in the rear view mirror and for the first time saw exactly what I looked like. I was wearing an argyle sweater, a fedora, ripped jeans, and red shoes.

So, probably from the moment that old dude laid eyes on me, he was probably thinking “Oh yea, jackpot.” I couldn’t have looked more homosexual if I tried.

I made it back to my dorm in record time, just after noon. Dave was awake and getting ready for class.

I burst in the door, ripped off the argyle sweater and shouted “HOLY, SHIT!”

Dave saw the look on my face and asked what had happened.

I told him. I practically screamed the story at him, but laughed in the end. Dave did too. Things were going to be okay.

“Dude,” Dave said.

“What?” I asked

“Maybe this story should just stay between us man. This isn’t the kind of story you tell people."

Well, we’ll see about that.


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  2. You need to write more stories please!