My oldest son has now made it through his first week in college at Penn State Altoona. It was such a busy week, I was unable to give a brief synopsis of the eventful trip. On that Wednesday night we packed all of his earthly belongings into his CRV and my Insight. His hockey stuff, amplifier and electric guitar took up 70% of the space in his car. His check-in time at his apartment complex in Altoona was 11:00 to 12:00. The plan was to leave in a caravan at 7:00 am for the 3 1/2 hour drive.
I slept like crap and got up at 5:00 am on Thursday and began the orderly shower progression . I put on a pot of coffee and walked outside to get the newspaper. As I reached down to pick up the paper, a flash of lightening departed from the heavens.
I should have known right then it was going to be a long day. The weather forecast was for scattered thundershowers. That usually means a late afternoon 20 minute storm. But Nooooo!!!! Not today. The rain started to fall and thunder and lightening increased. The path to Altoona is pretty straightforward – 180 miles west on the PA Turnpike and 40 more miles on Route 220/99. We got under way at 7:00, but driving through a heavy thunderstorm on the Turnpike with 18 wheelers sharing the road with you is stressful and much slower.
After about an hour on the road we blasted through the storm and into sunshine. We started to make good progress until the Administrator’s bladder filled up and we needed to stop at a rest stop. We made one more stop on the way to get some more gas and arrived in 4 hours and 15 minutes.
When you pull into Altoona you notice a Sheetz store/gas station every other mile. They are the Wawa – 7/11 of Altoona. The other thing you notice is the closed up deteriorating locomotive factories that haven’t built a train in decades.
We pulled into the apartment complex up on the hill overlooking the beautiful mountains that surround the campus. The clubhouse has a pool, workout room, game room and TV room. Not exactly like the hovel I lived in at Drexel in West Philly.
We unloaded the cars and started to move Kevin into his new home. We met two of his three roommates and their parents. They struck me as good kids. It must be just me, but I find most of the Millenials that I meet to be good kids with good manners who try their best. As we set up his room, we realized the missing piece was a floor lamp. We decided to cruise around Altoona looking for a place to buy a floor lamp and get some lunch.
Kevin took the wheel and we set off. We found a Wendy’s and pulled in. As usual, whenever I’m out among the masses I try to be observant. I noticed that just about everyone in the Wendy’s was a candidate for wearing Depends. Altoona has 30% more people over 65 than the US in general. This is surprising since it is a college town with 4,000 students skewing the demographics to the younger categories.
When you examine some other key demographic factors, you come up with a median household income of $28,000 versus $50,000 for the US. The population has declined from 82,000 in 1930 to 46,000 today. The population is 96% white. The poverty level is 18% versus 14% in the U.S. So, we’ve got very poor old white folks living in Altoona. This sets the stage for the next part of the story.
Kevin turned down what appeared to be the main retail strip in Altoona looking for a Wal-Mart or somewhere to buy a floor lamp. We drove five miles with no luck. Since I wasn’t driving, I was observing. We passed McDonalds, Olive Garden, KFC, Taco Bell, Red Lobster, Texas Roadhouse Grille, Outback Steakhouse, Applebees, El Campasino, Alegros, Cracker Barrel, Denny’s, Eat n Park, Friendly’s, Hoss’ Steak & Seafood, Perkins, Ponderosa Steak House, Pizza Hut, Ruby Tuesday, TGI Fridays, the Waffle House and a few other eating establishments. We passed a Veteran’s Hospital and about ten other medical related facilities and senior centers. For mile after mile there was nothing but strip malls. I did not see one business establishment that actually produced anything. Nada.
Eventually, there she blew – A Big K. We knew there would be a floor lamp in the Big K. I had not stepped foot in a Kmart in ten years. And now I know why. The staff and clientle at Big K make the People of Wal-Mart look like the upper class.
We found a Chinese floor lamp and tried to escape this asylum as quickly as we could pull out of that parking lot.
I found myself pondering how all these restaurants, retailers and strip malls could stay in business when the median household income in this area is $28,000. I come back to our entitlement society. The only way this mecca of consumerism and fast food can survive is from government transfers to the residents of Altoona. There is no other explanation for these businesses surviving. The entitlement stream will run dry. That is a certainty. The impact will be a collapse of our already crumbling consumer society. I don’t think those 20 restaurant chains listed above are anticipating this event. Too bad. It is happening.
We found our way back to the campus without running over any old farts and took a stroll on the beautiful campus. Then it was time to go. Avalon was tearing up. I contributed by asking her about the day her baby was born. We all hugged the Junior Administrator and set out for home.
It had been a beautiful sunny day in Altoona. I usually do all the driving, but I was a little tired. I asked Avalon to drive the first half of the trip home until we got to a rest stop to eat. On the way out to Altoona she had yelled at me for going too fast at 75 mph because Kevin was following. I said I needed to pass the 18 wheelers because being near them in a Honda Insight was a death wish.
Avalon took the wheel and we were off. In the first 15 minutes she cut off two cars and almost missed a turn. I knew I should have driven. I am not comfortable in the passenger seat. At some point it seemed like we were going pretty fast. I looked over at the speedometer and pointed out to Avalon that she was travelling 87 mph. She said OOHHH, I’ve never gone that fast before. I think she set a new land record for a hybrid. I was thankful when we pulled into the rest stop. After eating a half cooked “deep dish pizza” I was ready to assume control of the Insight.
We pulled away from the rest stop near Harrisburg with less than two hours to go. Then it happened again. Off in the distance.
WTF!! What did I do to incur the wrath of God? I continued to see lightening far in the distance. I assumed it was just a passing thunderstorm and maybe it would pass before we got there. I had another thing coming. It got darker and darker. The lightning became more violent.
Then it happened. The most violent downpour I’ve ever driven through. Drivers began panicking all over the turnpike and pulling off the road. The 18 wheelers didn’t slow down and seemed to be surrounding me. Avalon was scared and telling me to pull over. I determined it would be more dangerous to pull over and risk being hit by some other idiot. My Insight has less metal than a Coke can.
The rain did not let up for about an hour. It was a tense hour of driving 50 mph on the PA Turnpike. It seemed like God was trying to get me. But he failed this time. We made it home in 4 1/2 hours and I slept like a baby.
This concludes the story about the day Avalon’s baby left the nest and started his journey to adulthood.