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A blog for the decades by M. Scott Smith

From the Less Mature Files: Turnpike Reflections 🔗

As an undergraduate at Drexel University in the mid-90's, I served as a columnist, contributing weekly bits of satire in an effort to amuse others or at least myself. I'm dusting off some of those columns and reprinting them here, in raw, unedited form. In this entry, I reflect on turnpike travels...




Remember, years ago, when you had to write a report for English class describing what you did over the summer? Well, that's exactly what I'm doing in this column. The differences are: (1) My summer vacation was only a week long, as opposed to three months, (2) I'm writing this report for an audience of at least fourteen faithful Triangle readers as opposed to a single teacher, and (3) Unlike a high school teacher, who would pretend to read the summer reports with interest but actually read none of them, you have no choice but to read my report, because you have this nagging fear that I'm going to say something insulting to you somewhere in the middle of this column.

With that out of the way, it's time to start my summer report. During my summer break, I did a lot of one thing: driving. Oh sure, I also spent a night backcountry camping next to the ocean at Assateague National Seashore, where I became a human salt lick for mosquitoes, and I visited relatives in Michigan and testified in front of Congress and slept in a ritzy Radisson hotel, which I accidentally bungee-jumped off of while sleep-walking, but by far the most exciting thing I did was drive.

One might argue that a night backcountry camping at Assateague National Seashore - by myself, I might add - not that I'm bragging - would present ample opportunities for thoughtful and humorous anecdotes, but that simply isn't so. Basically, at Assateague, there's a lot of ocean, a lot of sand, wild ponies, and swarms of mosquitoes more efficient than the entire fleet of Philadelphia Parking Police.

The wild ponies might make for some excitement, but there are many signs warning that the ponies are indeed "wild," that they "bite and kick", have "body odor", and that you shouldn't feed them, as they are all on a diet. In case those signs don't get the message across, a few signs remind visitors that many of the wild ponies are also rabid, and that a few are parasitic with suicidal tendencies and desires to become conservative talk radio show hosts, and that thus it is not a wise idea to place your toddler on a wild pony's back while you gleefully roll your Sony Handycam, encouraging the child to pull at the irate pony's hair so the pony will "do something cute."

So, I avoided the wild ponies, and they avoided me. I only saw a couple wild ponies, which didn't appear to be rabid - but you never know - and my fears of being trampled by a stampede of wild ponies while I slept were soon erased when the hummingbird-sized mosquitoes attacked my tent and then carried it off into the night.

The neat thing about Assateague is, when you first cross the dunes and see the ocean, you see a lot of water and sand. After walking a few minutes along the beach, you might pause to take in your surroundings. You will see more water, and more sand.

The backcountry camping site I stayed at was 4.5 miles away. After 4.5 miles of hiking with a 40 pound pack on my back, I paused to take in the view. I saw some water, and some sand.

A common mathematical technique of proving mathematical theories is the technique of mathematical induction. Basically, mathematical induction allows you to say that if something is true in one case, and true in another case, then it's universally true. (I'm omitting a few details which mathematicians would vehemently argue are necessary, but of course mathematicians like to sweat the small details.)

Using mathematical induction, I was able to conclude that because Assateague had water and sand at one point, and water and sand at a later point, it was universally boring. This includes the rabid ponies and the gargantuan mosquitoes, which, as my parents happily reminded me, carry encephalitis ("I know someone whose head exploded from encephalitis by being bit by a mosquito at Assateague"), malaria, and Canadian currency.

Since Assateague is so unexciting, I decided I wouldn't write about it at all in this column. Instead, I'll write about driving to and from Michigan, which is much more exciting, particularly if done in a car with some gas in its fuel tank.

The most efficient way to drive to Michigan is to drive directly to Michigan, which involves driving on the Pennsylvania and Ohio Turnpikes. (If you are headed to Michigan from Philadelphia, and you find yourself on the New Jersey Turnpike, you are probably lost or unable to read. If you are unable to read, you should immediately call 1-800-PHONICS and ask for the number of Hooked on Phonics, which is probably not 1-800-PHONICS.)

On the way to Michigan, I stopped near Pittsburgh and slept at a hotel. On the way back, I left at 8:30 p.m. and arrived in Maryland at 8:30 a.m. the next morning. I didn't stop to sleep at all. I just kept driving. I'm not bragging or anything, but I'm pretty sure that you would have stopped by 2 a.m. and collapsed at a rest area with sheer exhaustion. But not me. I just kept driving. All night through.

While some roads in states other than Pennsylvania and Ohio are technically termed "roads," the major roads in Pennsylvania and Ohio are termed "turnpikes," which of course means that they are roads which are permanently being repaired, and which cost an arm (in Pennsylvania) and a leg (in Ohio) to drive on.

It is worth pointing out that the Pennsylvania Turnpike was America's first Superhighway, and is even older than the Information Superhighway!

If you travel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, be sure to pick up a copy of the Turnpike's cleverly-named newsletter, the "Turnpike traveler." On page six, you'll find a color two-page spread describing a "day in the life of a toll collector." Pictured are Christopher Golan, who works at the Philadelphia Interchange, and Darlene Frist, who works at the Gateway Interchange. By the time the newsletter went to press, both had quit to pursue better jobs. However, at the time the article was written, Chris and Darlene offered valuable insight into the exciting job of collecting tolls.

Chris thoughtfully remarked that working at the Philadelphia Interchange was no different than working at other interchanges, in that there is a "never-ending panorama of vehicles as far as the eye [can] see, ready to exit the Turnpike." As an exercise to the reader, prove why this job is boring. [Hint: Use mathematical induction.] Prior to becoming a toll booth collector, Chris was a Black-Jack dealer in Atlantic City. Darlene has been a toll booth collector ever since she was born.

Darlene comments on her work at the Gateway Interchange, which is similar to the Philadelphia Interchange, in that both are barriers placed on exits to prevent motorists from leaving without first waiting in a long line to pay lots of money.

Darlene describes the thorough on-the-job training that all tollbooth collectors are given, which includes learning the subtle differences between a "one" dollar bill and a "five" dollar bill, and how to ward off gargantuan mosquitoes who might try to pay with Canadian currency, which is accepted neither on the Pennsylvania nor Ohio Turnpikes, nor in Canada, which has no roads anyway, much less turnpikes.

Darlene describes the process used by tollbooth collectors when a motorist has a problem. If the motorist's problem can't be resolved by her, she calls a shift leader. If the shift leader can't help (for example, they have just quit to pursue a better job), then a state trooper may be summoned to shoot the motorist, which is legal in Pennsylvania, but not in Ohio. In Ohio, tollbooth collectors are legally allowed to shoot motorists, preferably after they have already paid their toll.

The other main difference between the Pennsylvania and the Ohio Turnpikes is that the Pennsylvania Turnpike claims to go through "mountains." In actuality, you folks in Pennsylvania are fooling yourselves if you think there's any mountains around here. What you have here is big hills. If you've ever made it west of the Mississippi, you might have seen the Rocky Mountains. Those are real mountains. The Andes is a bona fide mountain chain. The Appalachians weren't much of a challenge for the settlers to cross in 2,000 B.C. They hopped over them in a day. It was the Rocky Mountains which caused them to struggle, taking the better part of ten centuries to cross, and requiring the invention of the steamboat, the cotton gin, and electronic commerce.

Nonetheless, back in 1400, when the Pennsylvania Turnpike was built, the Commissioner realized that more money could be charged if the Turnpike went through "mountains." To make the big hills in Pennsylvania seem like mountains, several tunnels were carved to allow the road to go through the hills instead of around them. Several thousand men died blasting their way through "mountains" such as the Allegheny Mountain, until construction engineers determined that dynamite makes a better explosive than several thousand men.

Construction continues to this day on the turnpikes. Riders with alert eyes might notice deer crossing the turnpike, or splattered along the shoulder for the better part of a mile, or perhaps a construction crew grazing by the side of the road. One might wonder why there is always one person working, usually laying cones to close lanes for no apparent reason, while ten people stand idly by. The ten people are actually performing a very important duty: coming up with the text for new construction signs.

One might think that construction "engineers" need only legs and a pulse to qualify for the job. This is not true. Most need arms too, and at least a Masters-level education in literature and poetry, preferably with an emphasis on Haiku or at least rudimentary grammar structure. Those construction workers standing by the road are busily working on new phrases to entertain you as you realize traffic is about to crawl to a stop: phrases such as "We're ReNEWing America's 1st Superhighway," and "We're Breaking New Ground to Get You Around." Aren't those clever?

If you do travel along the Pennsylvania or Ohio Turnpikes, be sure to stop frequently for food at the many convenient "Service Plazas." These Service Plazas offer restaurant choices such as McDonalds and Burger King. Prices at these restaurants are typically high - for example, $34.95 for a cheeseburger - and your house mortgage to "super-size" a value meal - but this is because the McDonalds employees and delivery trucks must pay large turnpike fees to get to the Service Plazas.

If you're driving along a turnpike at 2 a.m., and you get tired, be sure to stop at a Service Plaza to take a nap. I didn't need to, but I'm not bragging.

Byline: M. Scott Smith is almost a senior majoring in computer science. He did not mean to offend tollbooth collectors, construction engineers, or gargantuan mosquitoes carrying Canadian currency.

- By M. Scott Smith, June 30, 1995. All rights reserved.

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