As I sit back and rattle the ice in my cup, preparing to tell you about the first real road trip I ever took, I can’t believe how much the world has changed since then. Forty years ago, give or take, my lifelong friend and brother Richard Beaman and I began the plans for a summer trip, the impetus of which was largely flyers from roadside visitors’ centers and an occasional visit to the local AAA office. His parents, Dick and Jane (no kiddin’), were card-carrying members there; the first I ever knew.
We pored over the printed maps and activities brochures showing what was available in the southwestern Pennsylvania area known as the Laurel Highlands. There was history; Fort Necessity, for example; the site of a famous French and Indian War battle and young George Washington’s first military engagement. The architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” and “Kentuck Knob.” The grandeur of the Historic Summit Inn, one of the last grand porch hotels in America. The adventure of Laurel Caverns, Pennsylvania’s largest cave featuring an unexplored area. If you weren’t out in so many hours, they sent in a search party. Of course there was the natural beauty of the Laurel Highlands and other outdoor activities such as horseback riding. The only real problem with this particular plan was that Richard and I were 14 or 15 years old and had no way to get to this mountain oasis over two hours from home, so we did the unthinkable. We engaged the help of our parents.
As experienced bicycle riders (we had once ridden the whole way to the next major small town and back in one day and enlisted a half-dozen other riders to join us) we knew we were responsible and could handle it if we were given the chance. So we proposed that they drive us to a campground where we would pitch our tents in the “primitive” camping area, stowing our gear in a small, enclosed, homemade utility trailer for safekeeping. Important stuff like lanterns, BB guns, sleeping bags, etc. In return we promised to check in via pay phone at prescribed times each day. They went for it.
Benner’s Meadow Run Campground was our campground of choice and it still stands today. Nestled just 2 1/2 miles off U.S. 40, it had a swimming pool and a well-equipped camp store, without which we would have surely perished. I cannot imagine dropping off two teenage boys—neither old enough to drive—without any cellphones is even legal today. It’s probably grounds to get CPS involved. It may not have even been legal then— I don’t know. We either had the coolest parents ever or the most irresponsible, depending on where you stand on that sort of thing.
On the biggest day of the trip, we rode to the Laurel Caverns, which included getting the bikes up the considerable summit of Chestnut Ridge. Aside from the cave exploration, the highlight of the trip was to be the descent of the summit, at what we imagined would be death-defying speeds. For the sake of accuracy, I Google mapped the trip. It is almost 11 miles from the campground to the cavern. That’s a real adventure for two boys on two bikes laden with the latest in bicycle-touring equipment. I had an Archer Road Patrol Bike Radio, handlebar-mounted AM radio, horn and 3″ safety reflector, catalog number 12-193. Richard had the Kmart equivalent. As I recall, independent speedometers and headlights were also attached, along with luggage racks.
As we exited Skyline Drive, ready to drop in on Route 40, the anticipation was unbearable. How fast would we go? Would we be able to stand the tremendous G-forces exerted in our rapid descent? Every fiber of our being was sure to be tested on the road ahead. Man and machine working as one until… the vibration caused by the unprecedented high speed attained was more than the latch on Richard’s Kmart radio could bear. It self released, so to speak, and lie spent in the center of Route 40. By the time he could stop to retrieve it, what was left of it had been run over by a truck. The unit was returned for a refund following the trip; this was back in Kmart’s “Satisfaction Always” days.
Notwithstanding Richard’s equipment failure, which makes me laugh to this day, the trip was a complete success. We had the time of our young lives and have the memories and a few Polaroid pictures to prove it. I even still have the single-speed Schwinn Heavy Duti bike that saw me safely through that ride, but I’m not sure what became of the Archer Road Patrol.
No doubt we will begin planning a reunion trip on real motorcycles for this summer since that is where we first answered the call of the open road. The Summit Inn just added a Treehouse Master’s treehouse bungalow for limited private dining. Maybe we’ll be able to check that out. But I’m not sure life gets any better than camp store chow when you’re 14.