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On The Road With Penn State Football

Sometimes the journey is as memorable as the destination.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Stanford vs Iowa Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

"Don't hurry. Don't worry. You're only here for a short visit. So don't forget to stop and smell the roses." -Walter Hagen

This weekend there are many Penn State fans on the way to the Rose Bowl. Some are coming from nearby while others had to traverse the width of the country. A good road trip can make memories that last forever. A bad road trip can, too. Sometimes it’s hard to tell at the time which type of experience you are having, until years later when it becomes the funny story that you always tell.

A trip to the Rose Bowl, for any team, is something that is rare enough to be considered special. Only one Rose Bowl appearance, a demoralizing loss to USC in 2009, came between Penn State’s first as a Big Ten team in 1995 and this year’s game.

There are surely many memories that will be made this weekend for Penn State fans. This game will be talked about for years if the team wins; it will be an exclamation point on one of the most enjoyable seasons in Penn State football history. If the team loses, the trip to the game will be acknowledged but the result not mentioned at polite dinner parties. For people who are traveling to the area, it is as important to enjoy the journey from home to the game and back safely as much as the game itself.

The same goes for the team. The players, coaches, and support staff have been enjoying southern California for the past few days. They deserve the fun before their attention is turned solely to the game.

Here’s to everyone having a nice road trip. And to those who are watching the game at home with family and friends, let’s have some good memories.

If you have a good road trip story to share in the comment section, have at it. Below is an unexpected road trip that I took a couple of months ago.

The Horse Apple Road Less Traveled

After spending a few years in State College and then returning dozens of times since leaving the school in the mid-90’s, it was my belief that I had seen everything that there is to see in the surrounding area. Sunday morning, following the Iowa game this November, there was a journey to Harrisburg, to catch a plane back to Florida, looming on the agenda.

Heading down 322, just before leaving the outskirts of State College, a sign reads “45.” The road it is attached to has probably been there since I’ve been coming to the area but I never really noticed it other than in passing. Using the internet on my phone, I surveyed the area that 45 would bring me through. Bald Eagle State Forest, just a short drive east of State College, beckoned my tiny rental car. I turned left and headed for Mifflinburg. And that has made all the difference.

The typical path taken, 322 through the mountains to Harrisburg, is one of my favorite drives in the United States. The topography is great. It’s a far departure from the flatlands that are the state of Maine where I grew up and Florida, where I live a few feet above sea level. The beauty when the leaves are changing colors in the fall speaks for itself and there is also a feeling of nostalgia that I get during the drive. In 1995 I took what I thought would be the final drive away from State College on 322. I pulled over my Chevy Corsica at the top of a hill and took in the scenery. “This may be the last time my eyes see this,” I thought.

There’s a place along the way where there are buses parked at the top of a large hill. It seems like they have been parked there for years. Their tires are just inches, it seems, from the edge, precariously placed. While it would be a tragedy to those who need the buses, I have always wondered what it would be like to drive past and see several buses, tilted on their side like dominoes, and a pile of buses at the bottom of the hill. Nearby an embarrassed person is trying to explain the mistake of leaning on the first bus as I blast south toward Harrisburg.

This trip down 322 is one that many Penn Staters have taken, some so many times that they no longer notice the scenery as it whizzes past outside the window. It’s beautiful but the regularity with which it is traveled for PSU fans can also contribute to a type of complacency that dulls the experience.

So 45 to Mifflinburg was the course, then south to Harrisburg. A new path shall be blazed. It doesn’t take long when driving east on what is initially called Earlystown Road to get the feeling of being out in the country. There’s sprawling estates, houses on hills and farms.

The further you drive, the fewer people and more corn you will see. Twenty minutes outside of State College, my phone began to lag. The internet was slowly waning. It didn’t take long before there wasn’t any internet at all. It had been nearly a decade since I was unable to get phone service, so it felt like a trip back in time.

“No problem,” I thought to myself, “if I need directions I can pull over and ask.” So I kept going, further into the abyss of internet-less country road, winding through farms and small towns. Without the aid or distraction of internet-bound devices the other seven senses of my being became more focused.

As I selected my rental car a few days earlier I made a conscious, sober decision to take the smallest one available. There was no reason for this choice and I made it as though I had carefully thought it through, quick and deliberate. As I went up the mountains into State College an hour later, at the steepest part of the journey up 322, I realized that my foot was to the floor and the poor little car wasn’t able to muster up 60 miles per hour. I wondered how may horse-power the thing had.

I got a pretty rough estimate when I was heading east on 45 and came up behind a horse-driven carriage. The buggy was midway up a substantial hill when I got to the bottom of the hill. As the two-horse carriage methodically traversed the hill I had the pedal once again placed to the floor about a half-mile back. It took the entire one-mile hill to catch up to the two-horse carriage, which leaves me with the rough estimate that the rental car that I was driving had 4 horsepower.

In Sarasota there’s a rule about picking up your animal’s waste. It’s a city ordinance, sure, that you should pick up your dog’s poo. It’s also a neighborly thing to do, if not a moral obligation, depending how you feel about it. I have a good friend who refuses to pick up his dog’s waste. He has carried the same plastic dog-poo bag for so long that they no longer make that type of bag. He takes it out of his pocket and feigns the motions of picking up the poop, and then walks with the empty bag as though it has something in it. He missed his calling as a mime.

Apparently in central Pennsylvania there is no such rule, or moral obligation, when it comes to horse droppings. Luckily it seems that the horses are for the most part centered up, leaving the trail of turds between where the car wheels meet the pavement.

Passing the buggy I came to the top of the hill and then descended down out of the mountains. I noticed that my phone had service. It was indicating roam status even though I have a plan without roaming. The internet’s proof of life was provided.

Realizing that the further down the hill I got, the closer to the internet source I was getting, again the pedal was put to the floor. I imagined myself in the cockpit of the Apollo 13, coming back to Earth. Sparks were coming off the heat shield in my mind and as the internet got stronger, I began to flip on the non-essential phone services that had been switched off while internet was scarce. Not wanting to risk the adverse effects of going from no internet to high-speed I was careful to decompress, first using 3G to go through some emails. I felt my body beginning to relax as I continued reading. Then I flipped it up to LTE and watched a few Youtube videos. I was ready for WIFI shortly after when I got to the airport.

The journey through the wilderness of central Pennsylvania was an unexpected, pleasurable break from the normal routine. Instead of looking at the screen of my internet devices, which have become like a sixth vital organ, there was an hour-long trip back in time. Back to when horses pooped in the road and people acted like it didn’t happen. Back to when you may have to engage with another human being if you get lost. It was nice to be there, alert and present, on that country road. It was equally satisfying to get back on the information superhighway.