A postal clerk named Luis sounded our first “Godspeed,” within sight of the sign that says “Route 62 North Ends.” He stamped the local postmark on “We’re off!” cards to our family and we pledged him a line from El Paso. He was glad we had come.
Route 62 South, begins unannounced, an omen. We started from beneath a 20-foot plastic swirly cone called “Twist of the The MIST” frozen custard stand. For the first 150 miles, we will try to see familiar territory through unfamiliar eyes.
Historic icons abut Route 62 South — the former Bell Aircraft plant, blueprint of victory in World War II, and the organists’ origin, the Wurlitzer plant, now an architecture of lost chords.
On Niagara Falls Boulevard we breakfast big-time at beat-up old Betty’s (the restaurant’s beat up, Betty’s fine) and overcome a navigational challenge: the men’s room light is out.
In North Tonawanda, Route 62 crosses the unmarked Erie Canal and then it’s on past Menne Nursery into Amberst’s wretched refuse of malls and muffler shops. Through much of Buffalo, its second largest city, The Other Road is Bailey Avenue, 11 miles of traffic lights and transitory enterprises, such as Ruby Green’s Barbecue Take-Out and Picture Man (and Aluminum Storm Doors).
It feeds into South Park Boulevard, past a 19th Century Botanical Gardens dome, then Our Lady of Victory Basilica, seemingly beamed from Vatican City to Lackawanna. Its parishioners seek sainthood for its patron, Father Nelson Baker.
Route 62 shakes free of the city now, tracing dairy farms, cornfields and pumpkin patches through Hamburg, Eden, Bagdad and Persia. Next stop. Leon, Amish country.
The industrious Plain People began settling before World War II. In contrast to the “Amish Tourist Industry” of Southeastern Pennsylvania, only handmade signs promote their commerce: “Baked Goods, Eri. & Sat.” or “Harnesses, Worms and Minnows, No Sun. Sales.” We follow a dirt driveway to a tidy farmhouse with an octagon weathervane and a bakery shed, to .stock on bread and maple-glazed doughnuts the size of lawnmower tires. Motel breakfasts mean both economy and efficiency. There is a cash box on the counter.
There is a rustle behind us; we turn to greet the Amish wife who, with her daughters, has wrought this oven cornucopia. She is making sure we will not reap without sowing.
For 25 years we have small-talked here about the weather and the harvest and have never seen one of these busy people constrained to monitor the honor box. “Some not paying?” we inquire. Her silence tells us only that she will not bear a witness she can not prove.
We take solace in a doughnut as we pass Frewsburg across the state line into Pennsylvania at a barn advertising “Gun Bingo.” In Warren, the railroad tracks are paved ‘neath a street where we lived and a train bleats a blast from our past just a few blocks away. We tack southwest along the, low-running Upper Allegheny River, where a landowner has street-signed his driveway “Bullshit Boulevard.”
The next three miles have been “adopted” by the Simpler Times Museum of Tidioute (rhymes with Biddy Hoot.) It’s an attractively weatherbeaten shed with gas pumps and signs and early farm implements on display out front. Admission, it says, is $3.
A man we suspect is curator of the Simpler Times Museum approaches, brushing garden dirt from his overalls.
“What’s in there, sir?” we ask.
“Oh, just a lot of old things,” he says. It’s not the three dollars, but we’re overdue for lunch and he seems primed to chat. We say thanks, and drive on. Maybe some day, in a simpler time.
At least a third of a century ago, we drove over Tidioute’s rusty green truss with Polly’s mother Hazel, and a few minutes later drove back. “My,” said Mother Hazel, with a keen eye for detail but not for orientation. “All the bridges around here look alike.” It still does, as “Nana’s” great spirit visits us a moment.
US 62 crosses the Allegheny at Tionesta and angles up through a place called President to Oil City, which we failed to experience at all. A bypass leads us over a reconstructed bridge and out of Oil City before we knew we were in it. We do not make the same mistake in Franklin, Oil City’s twin.
Franklin has the first of many courthouses we will encounter and a broad Main Street. (Route 62 is Main Street in 41 communities; it’s Broad Street in about a half dozen, ‘though 722~ none of those streets are broad.) The hoary old columned Franklin Club conjures images of monopolists soaking cigars in brandy. At a gift shop across the street, we capture high-quality backyard banners at half price.
In Cauvel’s barrel-roof diner, the cash register clerk tells us “Fella’ came through here once who went from one end of Route 62 to the other..” adding, matter-of-factly: “…on a bicycle.” She wondered, “Why would anybody want to go to El Paso?”
Afternoon fades as Route 62 jogs and angles past the State Hospital in Polk (our third such institution in 125 miles), around Mercer’s courthouse, through a concrete arch viaduct engraved “Bessemer & Lake Erie” and past the Route 62 Motel, also trafficking in 7-Up, its sign said.
Next stop is Sharon, deliberately. Route 62 now bypasses it altogether. Avoiding a Sharon, population 11,000, seems counter to our mission, so when a “Business 62” presents itself we seize it, malls and all.
Then by dimming light we behold a profusion of American flags, beyond counting. Somebody has done it for us; it is, without further explanation, “The Avenue of 444 Flags,” entranceway to a cemetery with its own a funeral home. It is well past office hours, even in the round-the-clock business of death, so can only wonder what it means.
We give thanks for this discovery and for Business 62, almost certainly the original Route 62 back in the 30s when highways sought to bring people into the cities, not to keep them out.
In Ohio, at Hubbard, our cupboard is bare of momentum.
There is a great-looking diner, the Emerald, but its attitude, cuisine and merchandising all make it better to behold than to visit, and we crash at a trucker’s motel.
Unwinding with Maker’s Mark and cheese crackers, we miss the TV remote and so interrupt the desk clerk’s microwave supper.
“We don’t give ’em out,” he says. “Everybody just steals ‘em. They steal anything that isn’t nailed down.”