Summer spent revisiting 'Highway 61'
I've done a lot of driving on Route 61 in the past few weeks and I've probably had some experiences readers can identify with. I drove into a wrong lane, alive to tell the tale because there was no oncoming traffic, I missed the exits for some of the new jug handles and had to turn around in parking lots. I've had trucks from construction sites cross my path as if I weren't even there, and of course, I've learned to slalom through the narrow corridors, some enclosed, some not, that make up the transition road between 'old 61' and the new improved highway everyone is hoping for.
I'm on vacation, visiting family and friends and probably, hopefully, in a year from now, the next time I visit, the new highway will be done. In the meanwhile, just like everybody else, I sit, motor idling, stuck in a traffic jam.
In some ways, believe it or not, I like it. Car-life, as I call it, is a novelty for me. In France, I don't own a car (although as readers know, I have a hard-earned driver's license). I take the crowded, smelly metro to work and instead of loading groceries into the trunk, I fill a personal shopping cart, a "caddie," that I wheel along the sidewalks between the supermarket and my home. Then I sling the handle of the caddie onto one shoulder and lug the thing up seven flights of stairs. Yes, car-life has definite appeal.
I'm someone who has what you might call a checkered driving history. I didn't get my first license until I was 21, the age at which I also had my first accident in the Penn State Schuylkill parking lot. Moving around, living in cities, I let my license expire and had to take the test again in 1987 before I moved to France, where I found out my U.S. license was not valid. I did not get my French licence until 2011 and now I proudly possess two because, since 1987, I've kept my Pennsylvania license up to date.
This summer, I'm getting used to driving. Perhaps it is my rental car, a black Impala, sporty and speedy, that has made me feel more confident. Perhaps it is the life I am living, the discoveries I am making thanks to the freedom of being able to take to the road. In fact, not only am I revisiting "Highway 61" (I thank Bob Dylan for the title), I'm getting to know Schuylkill County in an entirely different way.
I've gone south. I've moved to southern Schuylkill. I am living in the shadow of Hawk Mountain, not far from the banks of the Little Schuylkill and I feel like I'm in one of the most beautiful places in the world. I have my own "little place" (it's bigger than my Paris apartment). I'm the summer resident of Summer Valley Guest House, operated by Carolyn and Gene Bonkoski, and I couldn't ask for better hosts. Outside my bedroom window I see green fields and trees and most days I also see Charlie and Rio, the Bonkoski's horses, who enjoy carrots, apples and watermelon rind as treats.
From the living room, I see the sunrise over Hawk Mountain and, thanks to my black Impala, I often go there to walk the mountain trails and sit at North Lookout, scanning the sky for hawks and eagles, catching glimpses of beautiful song birds as well. There, my sister and I spotted a scarlet tanager; along the Little Schuylkill, I've seen indigo buntings, gold finches, tufted titmice and catbirds.
Most of the year, I live in Paris. When I tell people, they exclaim at my good luck: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, all that beauty, all that culture at your disposal every day. They forget I also take the metro, go to work and carry my groceries up all those stairs: metro, boulot, dodo, as the French say: metro, work, and straight to bed. I wish I could take advantage of more of that beauty and culture. Just as I wish I could have more green.
In southern Schuylkill it surrounds me and I feel better, breathe better, even look better living in the midst of it. But as I write, rain is falling and outside green leaves are shivering on the trees. Already there's a hint of autumn in the air. The leaves will change color, they will fall and inevitably winter will come. Perhaps I'd change my tune about my southern Schuylkill experience if I had to experience a Pennsylvania winter or two.
For the moment, I'm entranced. Travelling just a few miles to the other side of Route 61, I park my car at the new boat launch in Auburn and set out on the bike trail to its end, where I take a gravel road to the railroad tracks. I cross a bridge over the Schuylkill and then head down a path into the woods. Above my head, there is an abandoned railroad trestle. I walk beneath it. On the other side, there is a steep path that cuts up to a section of the Bartram Trail, that one day soon will continue from Pottsville all the way to Philadelphia.
I follow it for a stretch, stopping at a pond where I disturb a blue heron. It gracefully takes to the air, its image reflected, along with the surrounding pines, in the perfect stillness of the pool.
Soon I return to France, after a golden summer, one of the best and the calmest I've had in years. For that, I've also my two yoga teachers to thank, Beth Shields, Pottsville, and Pamela Gyory, Kempton. I discovered Pamela, her yoga classes, and her beautiful bed and breakfast, Pamela's Forget-Me-Not, thanks again to my black Impala, that has carried me up and over Hawk Mountain, one of the most beautiful summertime drives around.
I used to live in the South of France, on the Riviera, to be exact, and in the summer, the coast highway, the final stretch of France's legendary Nationale 7 - the American equivalent would be Route 66 - was one long string of cars crawling between Cannes and the Italian border. When it rained, the highway would flood in spots, as would the campgrounds located so close to the road that the drone of cicadas was drowned out by traffic noise.
The South of France or southern Schuylkill? For my summer vacation, I've made my choice.
(Honicker can be reached at email@example.com)