STATE COLLEGE — I saw “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” a few days before I went home for the holidays last year. The movie was nothing special, but what’s the old Oscar Wilde saying? Oh yeah, “Life imitates art.”
On my drive to Pittsburgh International Airport later that week, drizzling sleet and flaky snow took turns falling from the sky, spun-out cars dotted the side of the road, ice accumulated quickly and thickly on the downhill stretches, and I couldn’t see because fog had canvassed the area, leaving me fearful to take my eyes off the road long enough to do simple tasks like adjust the radio station.
I did not have Gandalf by my side, ready to whisk me away on the wings of enormous eagles. I did not even have AAA or, come to think of it, a car jack.
Unexpected journeys like these are normal, of course, for anyone who travels out of State College this time of year. For me, holiday travel involves driving, far, to an airport (because State College flights are way too expensive) and then flying, far, to Kansas City. The enemies of time, weather and expense conspire to turn my supposed vacation into a life-risking experience, and I start wondering whether my house really feels enough like home to make the trip worthwhile.
Even for people who hail from the big cities nearby — and nearby is an extremely relative term in these parts — leaving State College carries a special commitment to adventure.
When Penn State entered the Big Ten in the early ’90s, Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight lamented that the road trips would inevitably turn into three-night stays in the mountains. “Penn State’s a camping trip,” he famously said. “There’s nothing around for 100 miles.”
State College is a beautiful, fun college town. But Mr. Knight was right. This place is so isolated that people from Pleasant Gap or Phillipsburg or wherever actually refer to State College, population 40,000 if you include the bears, as “town.”
“You want to get real crazy and go into TOWN tonight?!”
State College is undoubtedly the Manhattan of the Alleghenies, but there isn’t much competition. Last I checked, Altoona had yet to build a Barneys. Everyplace else — Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore/D.C. or New York — is at least 100 miles away and across frozen mountains in the wintertime. In the rare instances that the temperature rises above freezing during the winter, slush floods the sidewalks and streets. It usually rains on those days as well. Robert Pattinson would love this place.
I again encountered the vagaries of Central Pennsylvania weather during Thanksgiving break last month. Snow, fog, ice, slush, the usual. I was driving to another far-away airport for a cross-country flight to Kansas City for all of two days, just enough time for my parents to ask me to finally clean my bedroom and complain about how I’m not engaged or married yet.
I still went home, though. I always do. I haven’t missed a Thanksgiving or a Christmas since college, when I was still close to home, or in the four years since, when I’ve been in Texas and now here.
When I’m driving and not thinking about the possibility of a weather-induced car accident, sometimes I think about the concept of this journey. There are people who don’t go anywhere for the holidays. They live at home. I’m sure it’s wonderful. The lives they have built have been constructed into a firmer, compacted shape. They might see relatives elsewhere, but pieces of themselves aren’t spread across regions or countries.
Some people have this permanence in State College. For many of us, though, the students and the yuppies passing through like myself, State College is just a portion of the whole. My residence here, dilapidatedly cozy as it may be, is only that. A residence. Home is still that warm, beating pulse I feel hundreds of miles away.
So for now, I do what everyone else like me does. I travel through the worst Central Pennsylvania has to offer. I travel through all the snow it can spew, confident that it will never be enough to keep me from family and friends.
My flight home for Christmas this year leaves at 6 a.m. next week. From Baltimore. I’ve learned enough in the past year to not tempt the weather gods by driving at 2 in the morning, so I’m planning to leave the night before and maybe sleep at the airport.
It’s going to be miserable, but what’s the old Edward Snowden saying? Oh yeah, “Vladimir Putin, please get me out of this baggage claim!”
Mark Dent is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791, Twitter @mdent05).