Tonight’s trip was a bit of an experiment. It was the first time we had an opportunity to test whether taking back roads is truly a viable option for four-wheeled travelers, or if it’s strictly something that will appeal to bikers. Heading east on Wednesday wasn’t really an option: even though the weather did not turn out to be the horrible disaster the weathermen predicted it would be, it was still dicey enough that the turnpike was the safest option for our travel (particularly over the mountains). And so, leaving the Harrisburg area in the middle of the afternoon with a full tank of gas, no particular time that we needed to be home, plus a ton of additional cars on the road traveling home from the holiday culminated in the perfect storm trifecta of factors: finally testing out my theory that taking back roads is not only feasible but enjoyable in a four-wheeled vehicle.
No sense in humility here – I was right. In fact, reflecting on the experience now, I feel that my only mistake was not getting off the highway and onto back roads sooner. So be it. In all likelihood, we didn’t save much time on our trip; in fact, we probably added time, particularly when you factor in the dinner we had. However, the overall experience of travelling from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg was substantially improved by the 60 mile “detour.”
We were nearly two hours into our journey westward to Pittsburgh and making relatively decent time considering the concentration of traffic on the road. Roughly five miles outside of Breezewood, right around the time when Route 30 starts becoming visible again on the southern horizon, we saw several signs warning us of “heavy traffic,” “congestion,” and to “watch out for stopped vehicles.” Almost immediately, bright red Christmas lights lit up the road in front of us, and we came to a stop. Although we really only lost about 20 minutes in that little jam up as we crept towards the Breezewood exit, it was apparent that we were in for a rather lengthy trip.
Every 2-3 miles we got stacked up in creep-and-crawl congestion for 5 or 10 minutes. As we passed over the “intersection” of Route 30 and the Turnpike (where 30 passes underneath and Sheetz is visible just north of the highway) I noticed that the traffic on 30 was very light by comparison. Ah ha!
We approached the Midway rest area, and Amanda requested a pit stop. I suggested that we consider getting off at Bedford and taking 30 to Ligonier, then get back onto the turnpike. “OK, if that’s what you want to do. Just get me to a restroom.” After the pit stop and a glance at GoogleMaps, we were back on our way and shortly thereafter navigated a couple side roads around Bedford toward Route 30.
The trip improved immediately. While only a single lane in each direction, 30 was clear of both traffic and snow. We were only averaging about 50-55MPH, but the trip definitely felt like it was going much faster than on the highway. Instead of the monotony of highway “scenery,” we were continually engaged by the dynamic nature of the roadside homes, businesses, and small towns we passed.
Aside from the beautiful vista at the Lookout Point on Mount Ararat (former home of the Grand View Ship Hotel) and of course the heart-rending Flight 93 National Memorial, none of the scenery along 30 was particularly memorable. That didn’t really matter though, as it was enjoyable to experience as we drove past and was interesting enough to hold my attention for the entire time. I noticed small details as we passed houses, like the white horses heads on the carriage posts outside a rather old-looking colonial home. I visualized what the road and what this particular trip was like 50 or 60 years ago, before the turnpike existed. Most importantly, I enjoyed myself. When’s the last time you said that about driving on the turnpike?
Up next was dinner. While driving through the tiny borough of Laughlintown, we nearly continued past The Ligonier Country Inn. I am extraordinarily glad that we didn’t. It caught my eye immediately – the beautifully lit sign wonderfully introduces the cozy combination of a bed & breakfast and a ski lodge. Warm and inviting both inside and out, we knew right away that this was going to be an excellent experience.
Apparently a slow evening for the Inn, we were able to have our choice of table. In fact, the host (who was also the waiter and bartender) asked if we would like to sit fireside, to which we all happily responded in the affirmative! Reading the menus and enjoying the warmth of the fire, we all settled in for what turned out to be an excellent and filling homestyle meal. Just thinking about the freshly baked flower pot bread is making me hungry! The timing of each course was wonderfully relaxed, allowing us to unwind and chat, take in our tranquil surroundings and enjoy our deliciously simple meal.
After a wonderfully filling hour and a half or so, we waddled back to the car for the final 30 minutes of our back road journey. At this point, it was completely dark, so we were not able to see virtually any scenery. We continued on 30 towards Ligonier and turned onto 711. We weaved and wound our way down 711 through some wooded countryside, eventually re-connecting with the turnpike. You can see that this area is a wintry playground – ski lodges and similarly-styled resorts and taverns dot the landscape all throughout the area. Having been here before during the day, in both summer- and wintertime, I can say with conviction that it’s a beautiful and enjoyable place to be year-round.
I am extremely pleased with the positive results of tonight’s experiment. My conclusion from the experience is that when you are traveling anywhere long-distance in a four-wheeled vehicle, a blended approach of both back roads and main highways will make for an enjoyable and efficient trip!