The end is nigh! The miniseries is nearly finished, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t cover some food along the way. On past trips we stuck to smaller meal budgets and didn’t bother to record most of our meals, in this bygone era before the Instagram foodie-photo fad. Every so often, though, a restaurant here and there would stand out to us — sometimes for the food, sometimes for other reasons.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Beginning with 2003’s excursion to Washington DC, we added my son to the roster and tried to accommodate his preferences and childhood accordingly.
After the record-breaking nine-day epic that was our 2009 trek to the farthest reaches of South Dakota, we decided to scale back in 2010 with a shorter drive in a different direction. We previously drove through the corners of Pennsylvania in 2003 and 2004 — through Washington in the southwest corner on our way to Washington, DC; and through Erie in the northwest corner on our way to Niagara Falls. This year, that extra-large wooded state would be the center of our attention.
As one of America’s original 13 colonies, Pennsylvania contains multitudes of U.S. history and authentic places and things from centuries past. For the three of us, we figured it would do well. Anne is a big history buff. I’m willing to drive just about anywhere within reason. My son would be dragged along for whatever ride until such time as he developed a separate life and identity.
We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.
Eastern State Penitentiary was an odd place to part ways with Philadelphia, on a fascinating yet haunting note. The next several hours were spent on one final drive west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Lunch was at another travel plaza uniting several eateries under one roof. While Anne and my son gave Roy Rogers’ chicken a second chance, I grabbed a slice of pizza at a Sbarro with anemic service, very little food prepared, and a major bottleneck at the drink station where several women were filling and refilling their soft drink cups with as much hot coffee as possible, each of them spilling several ounces on the counter during the process, all refusing to budge from that spot until they were finished, no matter how badly their fingers were scalded. Some are so stubborn about doing the wrong thing that no amount of pain will deter them.
Three hundred miles of turnpike didn’t offer much new scenery on the return trip. We had the pleasure of cruising at top speed once again through the four mountain tunnels in reverse — Blue, Kittatinny, Tuscarora, and Allegheny. I love driving through tunnels. Each one is like a short action-film ride to me as long as no one slows me down, though I have to compromise a bit because my wife doesn’t share that impression of life as cinema.
Anne noted two road signs that merited mentioning: an ad in Bedford for someplace that once hosted George Washington and now boasts, “Yep, he DID sleep here”; and a pro-GOP bumper sticker that confirmed “Republicans do it Right.”
We reached the western end of the state in the late afternoon and made our one and only McDonald’s stop of the entire week. Normally we cave in and eat there at least once every vacation as a concession to the boy, but the opportunity just hadn’t presented itself. Even now, we still weren’t resorting to eating there. North Huntingdon is the home of the Big Mac Museum, a modest tribute to the renowned sandwich that Ray Kroc didn’t invent.
Our Saturday night dinner was not at The Golden Arches. We drove into nearby Pittsburgh for another As Seen on TV meal, not unlike our Day One stop at the Thurman Cafe. Our next semi-famous meal option was Primanti Bros., famous Pittsburgh purveyor of lunchmeat sandwiches topped with fries and slaw, featured on the Travel Channel special Chowdown Countdown.
No need for us to worry about not fitting in — no formal dress code or wine list here. As with the Thurman Cafe, basic-cable-TV fame proved a formidable barrier to customer service for this oversize bar. The place was packed, as one would expect on a Saturday night, but only two waitresses were on duty. We overheard several other families express that this was their first time here, just like us. I had to wonder what the locals think of the influx of new foot traffic into their prized dive.
After a long wait for our beleaguered waitress to take care of us, Anne and the boy eventually enjoyed their respective turkey and corned beef sandwiches, though they insisted theirs be served without slaw. I no longer remember what I ordered. I liked the combination of slaw, fries, and whatever meat slices I tried, but after being on the road for so many hours and paying over twenty bucks for 300 miles of turnpike tolls, the wait and prices didn’t feel worth the additional test of my fatigued patience.
A second visit under less claustrophobic, better timed conditions might be worth a try, if we ever return to the area.
From there we finally headed over to our hotel on Neville Island, in the middle of the Ohio River in northwest Pittburgh. Because I wasn’t worn down enough, the city of Pittsburgh thought it would be a neat practical joke to set up a new construction site at the exact exit ramp we needed. It would’ve been even funnier if they’d removed the detour signs and let us wander directionlessly into Ohio, but whoever was assigned that role in our punking shirked their duty, so I was able to follow the signs to the far end of the island and exit onto the correct route anyway.
Our reward for completing this navigation challenge was a stay in the nicest, cleanest, most elegantly designed three-diamond hotel we’ve ever entered. It had just opened in 2008 and hadn’t had time to be trashed yet. The interior decorator forgot to blanket all the walls in monochromatic blahs, opting instead for the sort of intricate, eye-catching patterns usually seen only in dream-design magazines. The elevators were spacious, the lobby doubly so. Our room had a scenic view of the river and an LCD TV, a rare room perk in your typical decades-old establishments. Did I mention this was also the least expensive of our hotels? We were bowled over.
That night on TV: originally anticipated to be a new episode of NBC’s Persons Unknown, a show about several people trapped in an unknown faraway town desperately wishing they were home. A local weatherman kept interrupting to warn us about thunderstorms that were threatening to lay waste to other counties. We gave up after 30 solid minutes of Chicken Little meteorology and instead switched to HBO for Terminator Salvation, in which the day is saved several times by a man driving like a maniac.
To be continued!
1. Primanti Bros. has been expanding their reach so far in recent times that they now have a few Indianapolis locations, including one a few miles from us that replaced a failed burger joint. Now that it’s convenient, it’s less of an enticing novelty.
2. To learn more about the early days of McDonald’s, be sure to check out the 2016 biopic The Founder, in which Michael Keaton has a winning smile and a dark, greedy side as Ray Kroc, the man who put all the pieces of McDonald’s together without inventing very many of them himself. It takes place before the Big Mac came around, but nicely captures the looks of its primitive ancestors, the hamburger and the cheeseburger. Bonus points for casting the equally excellent Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as the tag-team McDonald brothers.]
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