My fellow Pittsburghers will know what I’m talking about…

I got a message a couple days ago from a friend who was traveling the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I wrote back, “Tell all of my people I say hello, and watch out for Ponding Water!”

paOh, the stories I have of that road! There’s the day I hitched a ride with a trucker (indeed!) when my car broke down on a mountainside. Weirdly enough, that was my safest option at the time. And, of course, there’s my family’s invented tradition, the Annual Peach Run, which gained infamy because of that treacherous Turnpike. But those stories will come to this blog later. This story is about Ponding Water.

When I lived in D.C., I habitually drove the Pennsylvania Turnpike West to visit my family in Pittsburgh. I usually entered from about the midway point, Breezewood, and drove through the hills and mountains, twists and turns, the Allegheny Tunnel, and constant construction that is the Original Turnpike route, opened in 1940. (The opposite drive, from Breezewood to the East end is typically flat, straight, and “Please-get-me-out-of-the-car-I’ll-walk-from-here” maddening with hours of the same da-dunk, da-dunk, da-dunk from your tires over the multitude of seams in the road surface. I’ve only had to drive the East portion about a dozen times in my life, and that was plenty enough.)

Constant Turnpike construction on the Original Turnpike toward the Western Expansion (opened in 1951) gives us what we call “Jersey walls”—movable concrete barriers on either side of the road that guide you through lane changes and keep you from driving off hillsides. They’re placed to allow about a foot of clearance from the side of your car. You’ll see them.

IRThe funny thing about Pennsylvania is that it’s typically raining somewhere. (In Pittsburgh, we blame the Great Lakes for this, but I digress.) Along the Turnpike, which stretches from East to West (or, for Pittsburghers, it stretches West to East, from Us to Them), it’s likely raining (or snowing) on this long road at multiple points simultaneously. Weather plus Terrain equals Construction, every Pittsburgh kid knows that. They teach it right after the Immaculate Reception.

The very first time I saw a Ponding Water sign, it was one of those movable construction signs, lit up by light bulbs. I passed it and thought, “I’m already pondering all this water. What a weird sign. Did an English Major program that in?”

And then it dawned on me what the sign had actually said. The Jersey walls were trapping the rain water, making the road a virtual canal. I’m driving on this narrow expanse of concrete, rain is flying, the road surface leaning left then sloping right from the construction, the tractor trailers and cars around me are all trying their best to navigate at top speeds. Ponding Water. They might as well have written, “Death Ahead!”

With about 80 miles left to go, I remember a red Toyota truck that suddenly hydroplaned and did a 360 degree spin about 30 yards ahead of me. Luckily no one was traveling in the lane next to him at the time, so the driver was able to use both West-bound lanes to complete the spin. He narrowly missing one jersey wall with his front end, but his tailgate made contact with the opposite wall. The rest of us gave him room, and the driver and truck shook it off and kept going. Ponding Water.

I remember the irony and outrage of knowing I had to pay the exit toll before this would all end. You read correctly: if and when you reach your destination, you pay to exit the road. Depending on the distance you traveled, you could pay $1 or $30+ for your car (trucks with more than 2 axles pay more). So sharpen your skills and try to enjoy the ride, because this kind of adventure is far from free. I can tell you that no matter how bad it got during the drive, every time I reached the Allegheny Valley Exit, I felt nothing but relief to pay the toll and exit the road. I never had any fight left to argue the system. Not once.

I have very vivid memories of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, so vivid that I wonder if I weren’t more alive then. Let me explain: Sometimes you need a good, white-knuckled shaking-up to put things in perspective and remind you how great life can be. Colors are brighter, food tastes better. Pennsylvanians know this best.


My novel, Upside Down Kingdom, is available on Amazon.