My mother used to visit my husband and me in Connecticut for a few weeks in the summer. She was in her early eighties then and, except for some hearing loss and eyesight issues, in remarkably good health.
One July I asked my friend Sue to drive out with me to Ohio to pick her up. On the way back, we decided to treat Mom by swinging off I-80 in mid-Pennsylvania to Woolrich, the company town headquarters of the eponymous sporting wear line.
My mother had some kind of recessed, Paleolithic hunter gene. She loved to shop and when she discovered a great bargain, an archetypal hunt lust was satiated. That afternoon we shopped the cavernous factory store until finally, knowing we still had a six hour drive ahead of us, I eased Mom reluctantly back to our car with her bags.
Sue and I take a lot of trips together. She drives and I navigate. I believe my genetic lineage descends directly from Odysseus; Sue’s, from A. J. Foyt. In that pre-Smartphone/GPS technological era, I was the maven of maps. Worried about time, I spotted a road that avoided the long highway looping around Williamsport. This one looked to be a straight shot back down to an I-80 interchange.
Pine Mountain Road, as its name promised, wound through a pleasant green forest. Shortly, we began to climb. As distances between houses grew, I reassured my mother, inquiring somewhat nervously from the back seat, “Are you sure we are on the right road?”
My mother, always the worrier.
The houses became smaller, quainter, more like cabins. Towering pines blocked out nearly all the sun. I noticed the road sign had four numbers on it now, instead of the usual two or three. We continued to climb. Abruptly the paved surface turned to dirt. I heard my mother in the back, rustling around in her purse. Mom kept things inside it carefully sorted into various, little plastic baggies and I was used to hearing her sound like a loose squirrel whenever she fished out something she wanted.
We passed a sign to keep alert for moose. I asked Sue if she knew when mating season started. She didn’t. She’s from Boston. We passed another sign naming the area a state forest—something to do with bears. Behind me I heard an occasional, faint clicking sound.
The road surface turned rutty and gravelly. Sue downshifted, even though the J-30 had automatic transmission. The engine sounded different, whiny, as we continued to climb. I mentioned to Sue that my ears were popping. Her's were too. My mother began to whisper to herself, which she often did. I think it had something to do with not hearing well anymore.
Sue downshifted again. The odd clicking sound in the back grew rhythmic. I asked Sue how many more gears the J-30 had.
“This is it,” she said, when suddenly the road crested. The engine returned to normalcy and we speeded up. I was glad because so far, we hadn’t saved any time driving in first gear.
We flashed through more pine forest and soon began to descend. I consulted my map again. Our route wasn’t shaded green like most maps do to show the strips of mountains piercing up through central Pennsylvania. In fact, it promised a straight drive down to the interstate.
At that precise moment the road angled sharply to the right into a steep, 180° switchback. The J-30’s rear end fishtailed on the loose gravel, tires skittering to find traction as Sue fought the steering wheel.
When we finally pulled out of the skid and slowed, Sue and I both let out expletives.
And in the backseat, my mother’s voice rose, calling out an audible to the heavens:
"Hail Mary, full of grace . . . may the Lord be with us,
now and at the hour of our deaths. Amen."