Sunday, September 6, 2009

On The Road: Going Home

Even though Pittsburgh has been my home for a longer period of time than any other place I’ve lived, I still say I’m going home when I return to visit the area where I grew up. Jacks Mountain spans four counties in central Pennsylvania, but the part I call home is the ridge that separates Huntingdon and Mifflin counties. I make the journey only two or three times a year now, and as I begin each trip I wonder what will be different and what will remain unchanged.

Going home is one of the oldest stories in literature. It’s said that all stories come down to just a few basic plots, and it has even been argued that all stories can be boiled down to a single plot: a stranger comes to town. I sometimes feel like that stranger when I go home and see how things have changed with time.

The road home has always been Route 22, although it is no longer the two-lane highway winding through small towns that I once traveled. Instead, it’s now a four-lane divided highway bypassing most towns along a straighter route past Wal-Mart superstores and identical looking shopping centers. There are still a few diners along the way and a few curves left here and there, but the diner atop the ridge in the photograph above is gone. The two-lane stretch of the road that goes past the house where I grew up, however, remains much the same with the biggest difference being that there are more houses along it in what used to be fields and woods.

None of my family remains on our old home place, a small house on two acres of land near Atkinson’s Mills. It was sold when it became too much for my mother to manage after my dad died. Mom lives in town now, as do my brothers and their families. It’s not a town I’ve ever lived in, and not the town where I went to school – so going home isn’t, well, quite home anymore. Except that it’s still on Jacks Mountain.

The mountain was named for Captain Jack Armstrong who was a fur trader there in the mid-1700s. I’m not sure why the mountain name lacks a possessive apostrophe, which always makes me think there were multiple Jacks for whom the mountain was named (not to mention how much it pains me to omit that punctuation). But there it is on the maps – Jacks Mountain, my plural home.

There are several versions of the Captain Jack story. Legend is that his ghost roams the mountain and that the glow of his lantern can still be seen at Jacks Narrows near the Thousand Steps. The version I grew up hearing was that he was searching for his dead wife and children who’d been murdered by Indians. Another version is that he was murdered along with his two Indian guides in some sort of disagreement. Our school was named Captain Jack at one time, but by the time I reached high school it had been renamed for the town where it is located, Mount Union. I preferred the more poetic, slightly roughish name.

Peduzzi’s, was the favored after-school hangout for its tall wooden booths in the back where multiple generations of names were carved. The phone booth, also wooden and located in the back, was a place where a dime could connect you with your sweetheart for unlimited minutes – or at least until the call was interrupted by someone’s impatient pounding on the door. Peduzzi’s as my generation knew it is a thing of the past, although the building still stands and the sign remains.

I’m almost always up for a road trip, even if it’s just a short one, and especially if I’m with my husband, Kevin, who is my favorite traveling companion. He knows all the interesting routes, and I swear he’s driven just as many blue highways across the country as the fictional Dean Moriarity. In fact, one of the reasons I got to know Kevin years ago when we were students was because we both happened to be reading Kerouac’s On The Road at the same time. That book opened up many conversations between us, one of them about Route 22 which Kevin deemed as the kind of route Kerouac would’ve chosen. It’s been a while since I’ve read On The Road, but I seem to remember a scene where Sal Paradise was walking along the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg at night. Perhaps I’m mixing it up with another story. Or, maybe I’d just like him to be one of the Jacks connected to Jacks Mountain. It may be time to revisit the book. To see what I remember and what I’ve forgotten – the same as with going home.

Photo credits

Top Photo: Jerry’s Diner, Route 22 near Huntingdon, PA (1981). Copyright © by Dory Adams

Bottom Photo: Peduzzi’s, Mount Union, PA (1981). Copyright© by Dory Adams

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