Jim Bishop: Gonna take a sentimental journey

Column by Jim Bishop
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There must be better places than a long slab of cement to celebrate one’s birthday.

But the more I reflect on it, this setting is probably fitting, given the countless hours of my lifetime spent traveling this long stretch of crumbling pavement, the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

This Saturday, May 22, somewhere between the Donegal and Willow Grove interchanges of this 359-mile thoroughfare, my odometer will roll over one more year, from 64 to 65. How in the world did I get here so quickly?

The immediate answer is, one day at a time. But at the moment, my brothers, Bob, Eric and Mike, and I are traversing several hundred miles of turnpike roadway because it’s the fastest route to our next destination, our hometown of Doylestown, Pa.  We could take the “scenic course,” congested U.S. Route 30, but that’s not likely, unless we want to spend much of the day sitting at busy intersections. The time allotted to this grand adventure is brief, the hours precious, and we want to maximize every minute.

The occasion is a long-anticipated Bishop Brothers Road Trip, something my brothers and I discussed numerous times in more recent years, but never moved past the talking stage. Then, Mom Bishop left us just before Christmas last year, and at her funeral, we brothers declared, “Let’s do it. We’re not getting any younger.”

This weekend, we’re retracing one section of our life path, seeking to celebrate and to connect where we’ve been with where we are now and in the process to kindle a sense of anticipation and fortitude for whatever lies ahead. Not a bad thing to do at this stage of our lives, instead of waiting until it’s too late.

My Pennsylvania brethren offered to come to Harrisonburg to launch our four-day excursion. The first activity on the agenda, once settled in here, are two local landmarks – Jess’ Lunch, a Harrisonburg hot spot throughout our college days of the 60’s and 70’s – scarfing down several chili dogs with a side of ketchup-drenched French fries. Then, we’ll coat the whole mess by wrapping our tongues around some Kline’s frozen custard while paying tribute to similar hometown haunts – a drive-in south of Doylestown that always had raspberry frozen custard and the Frosty Cup at Souderton with grilled hot dogs and A&W root beer served on tap in frosted heavy-duty glass mugs. Both places exist today only in our memories.

Leaving Harrisonburg Friday morning, we’ll head over the mountains to wild, wonderful West Virginia to visit my mom’s Dayton home place and relatives in Mineral County, stop at Penn Alps Restaurant and crafts shop near Grantville, Md., and then on to Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in Westmoreland County, Pa., a place important to our adolescent development. Although the camp is nestled in the Laurel Highlands, one can hear the traffic on the Pennsylvania Turnpike anytime, day or night.

Ah, I’m thinking, even before we get our ticket at the Donegal interchange and start debating who will pay the toll at the other end – here’s to the PA Turnpike, such a vital artery to my past and present. One thing for certain: we won’t be stopping at any of the orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s restaurants that once held a monopoly on the toll road. What a treat to pull into one of these, back when our family would cram into the 1957 Chevy Bel Air for a daylong or more extended trip.

On the occasions we’d actually make more than a pit stop, I would order a clam roll sandwich, soft drink and ice cream cone (28 flavors?).

Another expectation was seeing the Blue Mountain tunnel looming ahead, the first of five that we’d pass through before the Bedford interchange, where we’d exit to head south toward Cumberland, Md., and on to our Mineral County destination. We’ll pass through most of them again this weekend en route east to Bucks County.

After revisiting selected childhood haunts in our home community, we’ll return to the Valley and conclude our venture by recording a cross-section of a cappella musical favorites at a local studio – just for the historical “record” (it would never sell, anyhow).

This trek is certain to generate a mix of emotions. The people and places we’ll likely encounter will have undergone considerable change over these decades. But then, so have we. But I’m hopeful that it will be a priceless time of remembering, reconnecting and reflecting on what really is most important in life, grounded in a rich heritage of familial love not bounded by time or geographic distance.

The vehicle is packed, we’ve filed our flight plan, there’s tread on the tires and homemade CDs with music prepared especially for this trip, so let’s hit the road, Jack.

After allowing time for processing and reflection, a report on this processional down memory lane will be coming soon to a column near you.

May we have adequate fuel for the rest of the journey.

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