The Roads I Knew:
When I first started driving, I feared Route 30 and I-76 more than any other roads. Route 30 is called Lancaster Avenue in Southeastern Pennsylvania. To get to any doctor’s appointment or dinner place, I would have to weave through its infinite lights and avoid its impatient suburban drivers. I-76, on the other hand, connected my hometown to downtown Philadelphia. Forever busy, it never felt like much of a highway.
Growing up, these roads both symbolized my sheltered suburban life and the path to leave the bubble, if only briefly. On my journey from Mercersburg to Pittsburgh, I traveled Route 30 and I-76 again. The places and paths they took me to and on, though, were quite different.
Pickup Trucks and Kind People:
As I walked through the streets of Mercersburg, the pickup trucks caught my eye. Where I grew up, a pickup truck was a rare sight. But here, I saw Ford’s and Chevy’s everywhere, in every color from red to teal blue. Community members in all places recognize and share customs, and the trucks, and the fact that they seemed significant to me, signaled that this community was different than any I’d ever been apart of.
One particular conversation I had stood out. As I spoke with one person, she talked about how she had lost three high school classmates to heroin overdoses in the last few months. She mentioned the conversations she had with addicts. She lamented how no matter how good of citizens we are, it seems like drugs aren’t something we can help others with.
In a place so different, it startled me how nice people were. I was clearly an outsider, a boy with a backpack walking around. They didn’t care, though. They talked to me, smiled at me, explained to me what mattered to them: family and their town. I hope that when visitors from a very different part of Route 30 come to my town, my neighbors are as generous and thoughtful as people in Mercersburg were to me.
Our Roads, Our Cities, Our People:
I left town on Route 30, except it wasn’t like the Route 30 I had always traveled. While in my area the road was straight and flat, in this part of Pennsylvania, it curved and wound through the Tuscarora Mountains. Going around bends felt like taking u-turns, perhaps a metaphor for my travels. The difference on I-76 might have been even larger. In the Philadelphia area, there are exits every half-mile on I-76. On the road to Pittsburgh, the average distance between exits? Close to 30 miles.
As I got closer to Pittsburgh, roads seemed more similar to the ones I had always known. Exits every few miles, impatient drivers in mid-sized SUVs. Fortunately, though, my time in Pittsburgh continued my learning about America and showed me how much I still have to learn. I watched a baseball game with fans of all backgrounds and spent two nights in an Airbnb with a Trump supporter, two Clinton voters, and one person who wrote Bernie Sanders onto the ballot. I spoke with an undocumented immigrant who has spent over a decade here in order to support their family. At University of Pittsburgh, I spoke with an aspiring writer and a young engineer. Most spoke positively about America; all spoke positively about what America could be.
America has many roads, all with different curves and cars. Looking at them tells you a lot about a place and its culture. But I realized the thing that unites us all physically is that our roads all connect. Sometimes the connections come by several different roads, but the connection is still there. What unites us personally? I’m still figuring that out.