I grew up in Pennsylvania, where winters tended to hang on like a bad case of pneumonia. When spring finally arrived it seemed to snap rapidly into the summer doldrums, long before we fully got to enjoy that transitional phase.
I attended Penn State, and for us students, the true harbinger of springtime was the opening of the Train Yard, a long, narrow, fenced-in outdoor bar that was a sort of backyard extension of a restaurant called the Train Station (late-lamented, as the property on which it sat was sold to a universally-despised Burger King a few years after I graduated). The drink of choice was their trademark Release Valve, accompanied by a basket of gratis beer pretzels (of course anything free to a college student becomes memorable) and the tangy-sweet Herlocher’s mustard (all Penn Staters worth their salt know about this).
The first warm evening beckoned us toward the Train Yard, and the wise student blew off late-day classes, because the Yard would fill to capacity rapidly, leaving hangers on to wait in vain for patrons to leave in order to gain access. College students seldom leave bars before closing, however, so many latecomers were relegated to loser status, just outside of the fence, within tantalizing sight of the bartenders mixing release valves and serving up pitchers of beer with the happy customers reveling in those early spring evenings.
I suppose it was the tug of the memories of spring-time freedom, the yearning for sun-induced warmth, the desperate need to flee the snow, sleet, darkness, term papers, ramen noodles and stale beer that led me to my impulsive and (some would say) insane senior year spring break road trip. This was the year everyone was headed to Florida. Fort Lauderdale, the then-capital of debauchery, the Sodom and Gomorrah of the deep south. Fort Lauderdale was where it was at.
All of my friends were flying down there, but I was broke. Instead, I was doomed to languish in wintry Pittsburgh freezing my butt off amidst the filthy February slush and snow, while suffocating beneath the hostile ambiance created by my warring parents (then teetering on the threshold of divorce). As I was headed to the Greyhound Bus station to purchase my ticket home, I ran into some friends who were brothers in the fraternity in which I was a little sister. They told me they were renting an RV and driving to Lauderdale and invited me to join them. I just had to come up with $20 for gas.
I weighed my options: sun, sand, bikinis and guys. Or tundra-like weather, a week of watching endless re-runs of Leave it to Beaver on TV (to counter the real-life anti-Leave it to Beaver with which I would be living), and absolutely no guys (with the exception of my dog).
I made some calls to friends who told me I was welcome to crash in their hotel room for the week, and suddenly spring had sprung for me, despite it being so cold my breath hung in the air as I talked.
The glowing promise of what-would-be was heavy in the air as the Party Van chugged out of State College: just me and some eight guys (all friends, honest!), headed south or bust. We had several cases of beer along; there was a bathroom on board. What more could we ask for? I soon realized that 24 hours in a van with a bunch of guys is not all it might have been cracked up to. There was a lot of odor involved, for one thing—this happens with guys, beer and burritos. And then there was that niggling problem that those cases of beer that were being consumed were being sucked down in large volume by guys who were then driving this large, unwieldy death trap. And driving really, really fast. So fast that the vehicle lurched from side to side at times. After sleeping for several hours and waking to the wobbling mobile traveling at warp speed along I-95 somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, I started to see more charm in that crotchety Greyhound Bus I otherwise would have been riding.
By the time we finally arrived in Fort Lauderdale, I was thrilled to plant my feet on terra firma, and spent a a good part of the week in Florida focusing on my tan and not thinking a whole lot about the gruesome ride home.
However, several days into the trip word got back to me that the Party Van—in which my fellow passengers had been camped out the entire week—was downright condemnable. Apparently they’d neglected to call either a housekeeper or a crime scene clean-up crew in to rid the vehicle of the toxic stech of bodily effluence best left far from one’s olfactory system. I was given fair warning that I’d be better off hitchhiking my way home than riding in that Animal House on wheels.
I took the warning seriously and booked myself on a flight home, tanned, rested, and mercifully spared the worst half of the road trip, thank goodness. I heard from the guys who had no choice in the matter that it was not a pleasant time.
By the time I graduated from college I knew I had to head south for good. I didn’t have the tolerance for frigid winters and the accompanying endless gloom that pervades the season. I went in search of certainly not endless springtime, but at least an extended one.
And today, as I gaze outside into the early morning April mist, I am reminded that spring might not always keep its promises, but I know at least that she’s more likely to stick around here than anywhere further north once she finally does arrive. And at least here I don’t ever feel a need to flee winter so desperate that I’d do just about anything to escape, like I did those many years before.