Friday, November 21, 2008

On the road to South Bend


Amazingly enough, the day started out as planned: Dad and I were in the car and on the road at 5:05 a.m., just five minutes past our target. We drove to the end of the street, turned right. Made another right at the yield sign onto Route 19, then curved left onto the on ramp and were westbound on Interstate 80 -- three turns and 700 miles would have us in Indiana. Another turn or two put us on Notre Dame's campus (a campus that, after several years of gradual small-step expansion and renovation is unrecognizable in certain corners).

By 6:05 p.m. -- exactly 12 hours after departing -- we were on Twyckenham Ave., the northeast border of campus. The roads have been redirected in some places (a traffic circle at Douglas and Twyckenham??) and the borders spruced up, creating quite a different melding of Notre Dame into South Bend than we ever knew.

I'd expected a hint of the daylight to come upon our departure, but the sun didn't start illuminating the eastern horizon until after 6 a.m., by which time we were already in Pennsylvania. The entire New Jersey stretch of I-80 and the Delaware Water Gap was covered in darkness, the looming peaks of the Kittattiny highlands only dark shadows against a black-blue sky. From the highway, a the illuminated skylights of a warehouse in East Stroudsburg looked like a sea of alien pods from a science-fiction movie. By the time the sun started to make an impact on the landscape, we'd reached just far enough into the Keystone State to see a dusting of snow on the hillsides and lights on in the farmhouses as people began their Fridays.

Dad drove for two-and-a-half hours and by the time I took over, at 7:30, the low morning light cast a calming orange-pink hue on the Pennsylvania countryside. The roadbed was clear, but the fields and trees held onto increasing amounts of snow. As each mile passed, the view out the windshield became whiter and whiter, until each individual bare branch of the trees appeared encased in white -- much like the North Pole scenery in any number of Christmas specials. And it wasn't even 10 minutes into my first driving shift that the first flakes started falling from the sky.

But the weather held for the first 80 miles or so, until we were west of Lewisburg and really beginning to enter the Alleghenies. By Bellefonte -- the exit for State College -- it was snowing, and as we ascended the modest peaks and maneuvered the serpentine curves on our way to the highest point on I-80 east of the Mississippi, the weather varied from flurries with a beam of sunlight to snow squalls and diminished visibility. I persevered, and as we descended from the route's modest highpoint, the warmer asphalt appeared more wet than slushed over and I felt we were through the worst of it.

Ohio, though, had more in store. We stopped for lunch at 11:30, the streets of Youngstown -- at the exit, at least -- in that in-between state just hours after a snowfall of slushed up yet plowed once or twice. Dad resumed driving after lunch and I retired to the back seat to stretch out, cover my face against the sunlight with a hat, and catch up on some sleep.

Before I could doze off, however, Dad asked if I was awake and if he had taken the wrong route. Seems that once before, on a stretch in eastern Ohio where I-80 and I-76 share the same macadam, he'd mistaken I-80's veering off the main thoroughfare for a local exit and, instead, stayed on 76. He'd done that again this morning. I consulted the map and told him it was a minor detour; we'd be able to take Exit 43 ahead and follow Route 14 north for 12 miles to rejoin 80. It would cost us little more than the 15 or 20 minutes it would take to traverse the 12 miles between the interstates.

Only before we could get to that exit, traffic on 76 came to a standstill. Thankfully, it was only rubberneckers looking at the five cars that had spun off the road a mile ahead and not the closing of 76 we'd heard about on the local radio station (that accident turned out to be west of Akron; we were still to the east). The sun was gone, hidden deep behind the clouds above and the lake effect snow pouring from them. The road was slushy and slippery, the travel cautious. By the time we did return to 80, it was 50 minutes after Dad had first alerted me.

The weather alternated between partly sunny and lake effect snow squalls with near-whiteout conditions. As we drove on Route 14, I navigated with my sunglasses on, yet over to the west, a dark cloud reached down to the horizon -- a clear sign of a storm in progress. At that moment, a haiku came to me:

Ohio sunshine
just a tease, for the west holds
dark, foreboding skies

The sunshine held until the interstate, at which point I did fall asleep for nearly an hour, waking up just east of Toledo. Shortly after 3 p.m., we crossed over into Indiana and I remarked to my father that this just might be the first time he's made the trip from New Jersey to South Bend through nothing but blue states since the 60s. After we gassed up for the second time today, I took the wheel and drove us the final 70 miles to campus, with nothing but trucks or slow drivers in the left lane hindering our progress. As if sensing its location, my iPod -- shuffling through my entire collection -- settled on Dave Matthews' "Crash" for the final stretch of highway, reaching directly into my college years in selecting the soundtrack for the final leg of the journey.

As the sun set on the campus' winter tableau -- someone had built a snowman outside the merchandise tent near the business school and on-campus restaurant, and many of the buildings have Christmas trees lit up already -- the horizon burned orange through the bare branches of the trees. We navigated slick sidewalks -- the base layer of ice buffed to a dull sheen by the sweepers used to clear the powder from the walkways -- to the bookstore, where I browsed just long enough to make sure I wasn't missing out on anything I really wanted. (The only purchase was a porcelain Play Like A Champion Today sign to mount on the wall above the stairs leading to the basement.)

Walking back to the car, I made sure to gaze up Notre Dame Avenue at the Main Building's dome, the shining gold beacon standing out, a clear, unobstructed view despite trees reaching in from either side. The sky was not yet black but a deep, deep blue like we'd seen this morning at the Water Gap. Other than a crisp, bright, sunny autumn afternoon at the fall colors' peak, this is my favorite time of day on campus. In any season -- but particularly in winter, when the air is clear and the Dome and the stars seem to pop in high definition -- this meeting of day and night, of the gold dome and the navy blue sky, is a perfect Notre Dame moment.

Cold and eager to get to our friends' house for dinner, we kept walking. I contemplated returning after dinner by myself to walk around campus under the more private cover of nightfall, but the beer tasted too good and the couch felt too soft. I would've liked to take a few pictures, maybe stop by the Grotto when it's not quite so crowded as it will probably be after tomorrow's game, but I didn't get the chance today. I'll have to push myself to do so tomorrow, even with the crowds, because these days the next trip back here is not always definitely the next season. Growing old, working hard and living far away don't allow me to designate a weekend or two every fall for a return to South Bend, so I have to be sure to appreciate these moments and take them in when I have them.

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