One of our greatest childhood “gifts” is imagination. As we grow into adulthood the very real world of our youth is displaced by the very “real” world that surrounds us. In dealing with our adult struggles we forget how easy it is to travel to another place without ever leaving home.
It is very healthy for adults to take a holiday from the daily struggle. We usually go “somewhere” . . . . vacations, travel, hobbies. . . . We forget how easy it is to go somewhere and never leave where you are.
I spent most of my youth in a fantasy world. Sometimes my flights of fancy were constructing the roads of the world in my sandbox. Other times, I was in the woods, which surrounded my neighborhood, saving all the poor unknowing souls from some dreaded menace. As I grew, the realities of the world gradually displaced the sandbox and woods.
Many of the most wonderful times I had, as a child, were “road trips” with my mother. The vast majority of our trips were day trips. Whether day or over-the-road trips, the common denominator for all the trips were the car, maps, and most of all my imagination.
If as a child your imagination ran wild, then your imaginary Heaven would be traveling the Pennsylvania Turnpike. As I rekindle those PA. ‘pike trips, both real and imaginary, no matter how far you drove, there was never more than a mile of a straight road. A level road was even more unusual.
In my imaginary world, There were bears to fight. Indians to hunt with. Mountains to climb. Streams to cross. The Rest Areas were places that were pure imagination. They sold things that you never saw anywhere. . . . polished coal, Your Name on a license plate or key chain, PA. State Police Cars, games that you could only play ONLY in the car and on the Pa. ‘pike.
For me, both then & now, the absolutely best thing about the Pennsylvania Turnpike were the Tunnels. The road just went right inside a mountain. The mountain swallowed you up. The tires sang. The exhaust had a different rumble. The lights had a special glow. You experienced momentary blindness both when it swallowed you and when it released you, even the radio paid its respect to the all powerful force which surrounded you. Of course you were not allowed to stop. You could never pay the respect due the mountain, the tunnel. . . the force which protected you.
As a youth the time spent in the tunnel seemed at once to be an eternity, yet over in a blink of an eye. In actuality, since the longest PA. tunnel is approximately 4500 feet long, at the posted tunnel speed limit of 40 MPH, you were through it less than a minute. For me, I was in the tunnel for many , many miles afterward. Then there was another tunnel. My ‘pike adventures were usually centered both in and between tunnels. In the years that of passed, I often return, in my mind’s eye, to those tunnels.
Just a few days ago my fantasy and reality met. No only was I lucky enough to revisit a small portion of my youth, I was to share the experience with my adult sons, one of their wives and a fiancee.
Recently, while researching driving directions, on the Internet, to somewhere since forgotten, I came across two Internet sites concerning both the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike and Tunnels. As my family and I were planning a pilgrimage to Pittsburgh from Northeastern Ohio to do some family bonding, i.e. watch the Pirates destroy the invading Indians, the timing seemed perfect to have a long overdue family adventure.
The family adventure would include 4 adult sons, 3 daughters-in-law, 1 fiancee, 1 eleven year-old daughter, 2 out of 5 grandchildren, and of course my bride of 31 years (total 13 people).
As all of the above family members either have direct or indirect access to the Internet, I inundated them with information I had either found through research, received from two Pa. ‘pike webmasters (see acknowledgments) or gleaned from Delorme’s Street Atlas USA, (ver 4.0).
What was the information? . . . . . The Pa. ‘pike Tunnels, their location, accessibility and my “need” to visit ALL of them. . . . for an extended period of time. To say there was some trepidation on there part would be an understatement. Although not voiced, I am sure several members of my family questioned my sanity.
Being great kids . . . . and somewhat used to my sometimes flights of fancy and need for adventure, in the end they all joined in the quest. In a moment of sanity, I realized that we could not possibly see all the tunnels and explore the surrounding areas in one day, so the logical choice ( probably the last time that term will be used) was the Laurel Hill Tunnel, some 70 miles east of Pittsburgh (Exit 3 of Pa. pike).
Sunday July 18, 1999 dawned hot and humid. We were recovering from the previous day’s festivities. Saturday had included cheering on the Pirates and that other team. . . from Cleveland (?), depending on one’s loyalties. The heat exceeded 100+ F and a humidity index which I had not experienced since Viet Nam. By 10:00 A.M. the 13 of us had eaten, packed and were heading for the Laurel Highlands. Of course the 13 of us had spent the night some 40 miles apart. My youngest son and his fiancee had spent the night at the apartment of #3 son and his wife. The remaining nine of us stayed in four separate rooms at a motel near exit 3. We had agreed to meet at the Quarry Road (Twp Rd 366) and Pa. 31 crossroads, some 60 miles to the East of Exit 3.
Following the Turnpike East, with my wife, daughter and I leading the way, #1 son and his wife following and #2 son with wife and two kids 10 minutes back, we exited the glorious road at the Donegal Exit (#9). We then turned left on Pa. Route 31.
Following the map I had printed from Delorme, we began traveling East on Rte. 31. Once we passed through Meyersburg, we started looking for Quarry Road (Twp Rd 366). Just past the quarry, we saw a road name Tunnel Road. It was designated (Twp Rd 366). Ahhh, someone had changed the name of the road.
Son #1 and I made the left turn, stopped and waited for sons 2,3, & 4 and their assorted family members. After about a twenty minute wait, I could sense a lack of restlessness in the women-folk. After some conferencing with the restless, I suggested to son #1, that he take them to Kosser Park (2 mile east on Rte. 31) while he looked for sons 3# and #4. on Rte. 31. Perhaps, there would be a shaded picnic area for them to bond.
While he was gone, son #2 and family arrived. Wondering where the remaining sons were, I called them from my car phone. They had already been there and had ventured up the township roads I had mapped from Delorme. They had found the tunnel ventilation shaft.
Now, I had to wait for son #1 to return. Sensing that, son #2’s wife & children did not share our sense of adventure or discovery, I hoped that son #1 was successful in locating a staging area where the less adventurous would have a good time. Eureka !!!!
Upon his return, #1 son reported that he had found not only a shaded picnic area, but a swimming area which was feed by mountain springs.. . . . God is good !!!!
We (sons 1 &2 and #2’s wife and children) drove the 2 miles to the State Park picnic and swimming area. We off-loaded the food, coolers and swimming paraphernalia. The three of us, sons #1 & #2 and me, left to catch up with sons #3 & #4.
Beginning at Tunnel Road and following the maps and with some trepidation, we began our trek into the darkness of a primeval forest. We traveled up the dirt and gravel township roads for about 10 - 15 minutes. The ride could have been taken in 1999, 1899 or 1799. After about a mile up the road, other than the occasional roadblock gates on side roads-trails, there were no signs of civilization. All you could hear were the sounds of forest.
After about 15 minutes, the road turns right and continues up a steep grade. To the left was an open gate with the rather official sign stating:
We drove to the open gate. This road goes down a small hill and disappears to the right. At this point, you could see the “new” Turnpike alignment. After checking the map, seeing the position of the “old” alignment and the tunnel, we were sure (?) that the Western Portal of the tunnel was down that “official” road. We are adventurous. . . . but not stupid. we decided to continue on the previous road and see if there was a “legit” way to the Western Portal.
About a mile up the road, we found sons #3 with his wife and son #4 and fiancee.. . . they had same idea. Son #3 and wife were down a path (?), unsuccessfully, looking for some sign of old alignment/portal. Son #4 and fiancee were standing “lookout”.
We decided to continue up the road. Near the top, the road split, with one split going to the right and the other continuing up the hill. We continued “up” the hill. At the top was an “old” fire lookout tower, a radio “repeater” tower and the tunnel ventilation shaft as described in _ _ _ _ _ _ website. Again, looking at the maps, we decided to return to the last “split” and continue on looking for eastern portal. After returning to the previous road, we spotted an ancient building (cabin) on the right which had a distinctive Stephen King/Dueling Banjos aura about it. We continued on.
There were several “Trail-heads” on either side of the road. We stopped at a couple, ventured a couple of hundred feet “down” each.. . . no success. we continued on. After several miles, we reached the out-crossings of civilization.
Given the terrain, the preponderance of houses (?) and the information gleaned from the websites and maps, I felt we had gone to far. We turned around and back-tracked to the “last” house.
Seeing a “local”, we stopped and asked directions. Guess what? The “old” Power Line Access Road across the road was one of the trails to the Eastern Portal. He suggested that we ask “old” George who lives across the street for permission to “cut” through his property. He also went on to say that the next trail head “up” the road would get us close as well.
We (sons 1 & 2 & me) went to see Old George. he said that we could cut across his property. Looking us over, he warily, gave us directions to the tunnel which was a mile away. He also warned that the trail could turn treacherous because of the wetness, rocks and steepness. He also said to be aware of the Black Bears, Wildcats, Copperheads and Rattlesnakes.
At this point son #3 & his wife, and son #4 & his fiancee joined us, we conferenced for about 10 seconds, then we set out.
So here we are, four sons (ages 30 to 23), two women, and one 52-year-old handicapped man all dressed in shorts and wearing either tennis shoes, sandals or loafers setting out on one the hottest days in the Summer on an adventure which promises bears, snakes, Wildcats and MAYBE . . . . a Tunnel. . . . where all of the preceding could be living.
The hike started out easily enough. The old access road was cut sideways across the side of the Laurel Hill. There are some ruts and ridges along the way, but nothing bad. About seven-hundred yards in, the road turns slightly up hill while a trail turns left into the trees and down hill. The trail is dotted with wild flowers, ferns and unseen birds chirping in the background. The foliage hides some of the rocks and erosion and the downhill trail gets a little steep. We proceed another two-hundred yards, then the trail got really steep, rocky and a bit wet. Another two hundred yards further, we spotted what looks to be a paved road. . . . over a three hundred yard embankment which can only be visualized if you have seen the movie, “Romancing the Stone”. The scene where they, slide down the side of a mountain. With that scene in mind, add trees about two or three feet apart, lots of broken branches, holes that were snake size, and take away the really neat “chute” they were sliding in.
Decision time !!! Do we continue down the hill. . . forever. . . . or “cut” down the hill. . . . Easy. . . . cut down the hill. After crossing a small stream, we started down the hill. Using the trees as hand-holds and stops”, avoiding as many “holes” as possible, and trying to stay up-right, five minutes later we are on the old turnpike alignment about three hundred yards from the tunnel.
There we were standing in the middle of a turnpike which had not seen traffic for over 36 years. Looming in front of was The Laurel Hill Tunnel. For me it was instant flashback to when I was 10 years old, traveling with my mother, imagining all the animals, Indians, saving the world. I was realizing a dream I had put away but not completely forgotten from 42 years earlier.
There she stood, in all her majesty. She was worn and tired. She looked neglected, but she was reaching out. I was standing right in the middle of the road. The road which had carried so many millions to new homes, new lives, grandma’s, work, Washington D.C., Florida, the world. This was more than a road it was the heart of a country. Here I was in awe. I am sure I was smiling and she was smiling back.
Behind me the road dropped out of sight into a bend . . . . which now goes past . . . . . . The only sound for miles were my family excitedly taking it all in. For me, all I could hear was the thousand of cars and trucks whizzing by. That special sound of cars & trucks singing as they entered the tunnel. The feeling of adventure, the momentary tunnel blindness. The perfume of exhaust filtering in the open windows of the non-air-conditioned cars.
There she stood. Like a long lost love, all I could see was how she looked the last time I saw her in 1961.
Standing there, you could sense she was inviting us in. Here in the middle of nowhere was this huge cavern, an opening which disappears into an infinity of darkness. The closer you got you, the more you could sense the immenseness, the calling out, the foreboding of entering something man-made but with a presence.
Ten feet in the temperature dropped at least 15 degrees. The further in we went, the bigger she seemed, the cooler she got. Without flashlights, you had no idea what was ahead. The roadway still seemed in good condition, as did the walls and ceiling. We went in still further, checking the opening to our backs. . . . which did not seem to get any smaller. About 500 yards in, the roadway seemed to start sloping downhill. Still there was no “light at the end of the tunnel”.
Remembering Old George’s warning of snakes and bears, and considering we did not have lights, snake bite kits, or any weapons, we thought it wise to return to the opening of Mother Earth.
After a time of exploring, wondering and picture-taking, we sensed it was time to leave the past, we began thinking of a way out. They could have made the climb out. . . . I could not. . . . too steep & I am too handicapped.
#1 son went up the opposite embankment from the “Romancing the Stone” side. #2 son went down the old alignment to see if there were any connecting paths / roads. . . . No luck, but he did find the target-end of a Highway Patrol Shooting Range.
Son #1 thought we (me) could make it up and over the top of the tunnel to the path we came down on. I set out up the embankment. . . everyone was behind me, sure they would be catching the “old” man.. . . . Once up the embankment, #3 son struckout to see if there was a “less” steep way up and out. He was successful !!!
This path, that he cleared, was less steep, but Fern-covered. Snakes love Ferns. . . . we didn’t see any. . . . thank God ! We climbed for about a thousand yards. The path, finally, intersected the power line access road, which was near an old water tank. I assume it was used by the Tunnel. From here, the climb was even less steep. After a hike of about one mile we reached the Trail Head. From there, sons 1, 2, & 3 walked down the road and retrieved the cars. The rest remained with me. . . hoping I didn’t die.
was sharing this experience with my family. For a breif
instant in time, my imaginary world and my real world co-existed. . .
The family were good sports and cheering me on all the way. I am sure they were worried about the old man. For me, this was a once in lifetime experience which I will never forget. Hopefully, they will remember the trip, the way I do. Hopefully, they will share the gift and the adventure with their kids. Maybe, they will even return to a place I have long loved.
All of my thanks to my family for humoring an "old man", especially John, Brian, Chris & Jennie, Andy & Kacie who accompanied me on Our Adventure. Without them, we would have missed a once in lifetime experience,
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