A few Novembers ago, I drove up to Old Economy Village in Ambridge, which is about thirty minutes outside of Pittsburgh. I got lost. Very, very lost. First, I missed my turn off of the main highway, so I had to drive along another few miles of industrial parks, freight rail lines and factories. Being lost and late for a meeting with friends, I had an intense reaction to the area: This place sucks! I hate it! I knew I was being petulant, but I didn’t care because Google Maps was malfunctioning on my phone and I wanted to get to coffee and friends.
When I pulled over at a gas station to locate myself and waited for Google to figure out exactly where the hell I was, I thought how much the area reminded me of my partner’s hometown in Northeastern Pennsylvania. If not in building density, then in mood and character. Although I love my in laws very much and enjoy spending time with them, something about driving into coal-cracker country always makes me feel a bit gloomy. I think it might be the houses in town that appear to sag inward a little, with their tar-paper siding peeling off at the edges. (Because my mother-in-law might be offended at the implication, her house is not one of these.)
For trips to his parents’ house I always pack a cooler with snacks and tea (my “survival kit”) and grumble about the lack of decent coffee anywhere in the vicinity (my in laws now have a Keurig, so there’s always coffee, and I probably drink way too much of it). Of course, there is nothing in the vicinity of his parents’ house except some other houses and a cornfield. These are people who have their own snow plows and change their own oil and tires.
Ambridge seems to be much more inhabited than my partner’s corner of Northeastern Pa, but if you drive a while you will come to Ambridge-like industrial parks and factories. These days, that’s where most of the population works, since there isn’t much coal mining work anymore.
Eventually, after much driving up and down the Ohio River Boulevard and much cursing, I did get to that coffee and friends. On the way out of Old Economy Village, I saw a mural on the side of the water processing plant that depicted a large white bird and a water spout, and, I begrudgingly admitted, it was kind of beautiful. Driving back to Pittsburgh, I intentionally kept pace with one of those freight trains to see how fast it went (55 miles per hour), and I realized something.
It’s cliche to think about blue collar workers and the back bone of America, but here, spread out along the Ohio River, was a freight train carrying something that was going somewhere so that it could be turned into something else and sold to people like me, and it was hard not to think of the train like an artery. An artery delivering goods to people like me, who apparently forget who they are and start to think rather highly of themselves.
Suddenly, those industrial parks seemed beautiful, like that mural on the water processing plant. Suddenly, the sagging houses in Northeastern Pennsylvania seemed beautiful, too.
Too often we go through our daily lives and routines in the places we live and we don’t see them. We miss the petunia that’s growing in a crack between the street and the curb, or the great musical playing downtown, or the new restaurant that opened three neighborhoods over. Or the mundane beauty that’s right in front of our eyes.
It’s hard to think that driving thirty minutes outside of town counts as “traveling,” but it does—and it should. Traveling locally teaches us how to travel globally. It shows us how to open our eyes, how to navigate new experiences, how to make the best of plans gone awry (and go awry they will). It gives us permission to fall in love.