Spring was beckoning, and we were excited to venture into its gentle air, to welcome It, usher in the pastel season with a trip. We sketched out the plan. Gene and I, his older sister and her husband, and his middle sister were ready to go. The five of us ranging in age from seventeen to twenty-two would leave Hyattsville, Maryland at 6:30 p.m. on Friday night headed for Canton, Ohio where we would spend the weekend with Grandma and celebrate her seventy-sixth birthday on Sunday, the first day of Spring. We would be five people leaving, returning with four, having left Gene’s middle sister in Ohio to start the spring quarter at Kent State University. I 70 to the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Ohio Turnpike. Three drivers. Six hours. One stop. Trees leafing out along the way. Piece of cake.
“Which car should we take?” that was the question at the center of a last-minute discussion, the one had at 6 p.m. on the appointed evening. As if there really was a question, Gene and I thought, rolling our eyes.
His older sister and her husband had offered their VW bug, thought it would be just fine for the six-hour trip. Those of us doomed to the jam-up in the back seat thought otherwise. Not to mention the luggage accompanying us, how could we possibly fit all of it in that tiny trunk, we argued. “No,” we insisted, “we’ll take Gene’s car.” A 1963 Valiant sedan with a bench seat in front, a decent-sized back seat and a large trunk.
We packed up the car, the trunk filled to overflowing with four weekend bags and all of Mary’s worldly possessions, or at least, what she needed to set up her dorm room and live independently for the next several years.
Darkness fell and we were off, clad in our spring-time attire. Bright colors to match our mood, our youth, and the daffodils, crocuses, and cherry blossoms lighting up all around us. Mary even had on a pair of sandals. Gene pointed the car north and west, aiming for the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
At nineteen, this was my first run to Ohio. I was still fresh, though I had heard plenty about past trips made legendary by Gene and his family in countless tales of their (mis)adventures over the years. None had prepared me for the spectacularly surreal, utterly seasonless, yet wholly American interchange at Breezewood. The maze. The kaleidoscope. The cacophony. Growling downshifting eighteen-wheelers. Blinking, blaring neon signs piled on top of each other, climbing into the night sky. A spaghetti of ramps and gas stations and fast food joints. Not a tulip to be found. This was the entrance to the turnpike.
Then it was westward ho, a plunge back into the darkness, the boredom of the stretch taking us into the mountains. We had run out of stories to tell, sung all the songs we knew, played all the dumb car games, told dumber jokes, and were trying to find a comfortable position to drift into dreamland. Squirming. Stretching. Shoes off. One foot, then another up on the dashboard.
The car climbs higher, Gene sucks down another Coke, ready to roll through the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel. Shortly after, we would hit the Ohio Turnpike, a smooth, straight stretch, I was told. As tunnels go, it was like others I knew, the Holland, Hampton Roads, Baltimore, brightly-lit, white-tiled, catwalks along the side, an occasional guard in a glass box, all slightly eerie.
On that Friday night, March 19th, 1970 I can say the Allegheny was like no other. We burst out at the other end into the jaws of Winter. A furious snow storm. Blizzard of white blurring any thoughts or hopes of spring colors. Our speed dropped from about sixty miles an hour to a definite thirty. Make that five. We all sat up, eyes wide open, all of us understanding we would not be pulling into Grandma’s driveway at midnight.
Signs for Pittsburgh eventually appeared. So did the state troopers’ cruisers. Parked across the lanes growing more and more treacherous by the minute. Everybody off at this exit, they indicated, no words necessary. Turnpike closed. Road impassable. Caught in Winter’s unrelenting grip. What to do now?
We needed a detour, not a motel room. No credit cards in those days and only a few dollars in our pockets. Still have to get across the river. Route twenty-two. That’s the plan. Ohio at last. Small towns. Farmlands.
The roads had completely disappeared. Gene could only drive by the phone poles. No one else was out in the wee hours, so when we managed to crawl up a snowy hill only to be greeted by a red light at the top, he kept going, worried that we could not stop for fear of sliding back down. The sky was so black dotted by the relentless white flakes, a vast and eerie wonderland, a pure white hellscape made even more surreal by the purple glow rising from the smokestacks of the Steubenville factories, the red-and-orange fire of the mills and plants working round the clock.
I don’t think any of us was breathing, couldn’t remember the last time we had exhaled. It was all too white-knuckled unreal. So dark, so alone, and we were so small.
It was three a.m. when we crept into Canton. The snow was a foot deep. And yet, Grandma’s front walk was shoveled clean. She flung open the front door and ushered us in. We were whipped, but there she was, fully dressed, unfazed, wanting to know if we had eaten. All five of us had started with apologies, “Sorry it’s so late,” and “You didn’t need to wait up for us,” and “The roads are bad…”
“There’s bologna and cheese in the fridge,” she said, not missing a beat. This tiny lady with the thick cataract glasses that made her eyes look huge was calm, focused, bustled around the kitchen while I was just beginning to exhale. Amazed that there was not one word about “where you been…” or “I was worried sick…,” or “you should have called…” It was in her nature to take things in stride. An equinox baby who trusted that winter worries always melted away. Daylight hours were returning. The world rebalances and we are reborn.