Echo chambers

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highway to nowhereThursday was only my second time to ride on the newly opened section of I-99, central Pennsylvania’s infamous “road to nowhere.” This time I remembered to bring a camera, though the Bald Eagle Ridge portion was still in shadow. It’s amazing how quickly we can get from Tyrone to State College now.

I suppose a lot of people who had opposed this highway as passionately as we did might have a hard time using it, but we’re pragmatists, I guess. It’s kind of like voting even when you think the whole system is corrupt. Actually, the way this highway got pushed through is quite similar to the way candidates get pushed on voters: the local media presented it as a stark choice between an interstate highway on the ridgetop and continued carnage on the old, dangerous road up the valley — the “highway of death.” Any attempt to advocate for another position was drowned out by the baying of the interstate boosters. The sadly ironic outcome is that the new highway will result in far more deaths than the old one did, but the deaths will be largely of non-humans: increased roadkill of all kinds, with certain species of reptiles and amphibians probably suffering local extinctions in the long run due to inbreeding depression. And the highly acidic rock exposed by the removal of the mountaintop where the new highway goes over will undoubtedly be releasing some level of pollution into two different watersheds for centuries. From the perspective of wildlife and wildlife habitat, every highway is a highway of death.

As for “road to nowhere,” I see that even one of the biggest boosters of the project, the Altoona Mirror, has adopted the term. What does it mean when a leading local newspaper, the mouthpiece of the local chambers of commerce, asserts that this is Nowhere? Somehow, I doubt that they had the etymology of “utopia” in mind. With the completion of I-99 later on this year, the area will lose a bit more of its distictinctive character and come that much closer to generic Anytown, USA. And the elites will cheer and tell us how lucky we are, and assure us that prosperity is just around the corner. Sound familiar?

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

6 Comments


  1. Yes, sounds sadly familiar. We have a fight here against more freeways to ship containers by truck, arriving from China via our ports, to points east and south, over protected bog, farmland, rivers, etc. etc…

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  2. Oh yes, I can imagine. Maddening to think of such a beautiful and biologically rich area as yours being treated as a speed bump.

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  3. I moved out of the Bald Eagle Valley shortly after they carved off the top of the mountain. It really is an eyesore. I grew up traveling the “highway of death” on a daily basis, and a friend of the family has it to thank for her paraplegia.

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  4. Hi Rose – Something about that stretch of valley has always struck me as depressing: poor farms, sad-looking businesses… the Indians avoided it. The major road connecting Iroquois and Cherokee lands went through the gap at Milesburg and followed the SE flank of Bald Eagle Mountain – the route of the present PA 550 – all the way to the Tyrone gap. That’s probably because the headwaters of both Bald Eagle Creeks was impassible rhododendron-choked swampland. 10,000 years ago, it was a glacial lake. Anyway, I’m sorry to hear about your friend. I know someone whose brother and his entire family were killed in an accident near Port Matilda.

    Thanks for the comment.

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  5. Dave — just read this post from a link on your flickr photo. I too have mixed feelings about the new highway. I’ve been driving that stretch for years, since my oldest brother first started at Penn State. (My family resides in Murrysville, a suburb outside Pittsburgh.) It’s great that I can shorten the drive to my parents, and I always hated driving through Port Matilda because of your comments above — it’s so depressing. So for the past couple of years I would detour on 550. I loved traveling past all of the farmland. Every time I drive that road I fall in love with Pennsylvania all over again. Besides the environmental impact, I just don’t like the new highway for my own selfish reasons. I have no reason now to take 550 when going to visit the rents. Of course, I still *could*, but it’s hard to ignore the direct and quick route that the highway now provides. But the drive is boring and lifeless. Just a stretch of concrete. And, like you said, soon to be dead animals.

    Sometimes I think of you and envy your life tucked away in the forest. For the most part, you can ignore a lot of this commercialism and concrete expansion? But I guess at some point, they’ll come knocking on your door too.

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  6. Gina, thanks for the comment. It’s no easier to ignore here, if you know what you’re looking at. Every year the effects of air pollution, global warming and invasive species become more severe. To say nothing of the noise pollution from Tyrone’s own (the original!) stretch of I-99.

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