The Former Things That Have Passed Away

Interstate 80 stretches like a spine across the commonwealth’s equator. Just a few degrees north of Pennsylvania’s actual axis of latitudinal symmetry, the bituminous byway traces parallel paths of two- or three-lane highway across the white ash graveyards of our westerly neighbor.

As is now standard across the federal interstate highway system, I-80’s exit numbers across Pennsylvania correspond to mileposts. So, starting with Mercer County’s Exits 4A and 4B in the far west, and culminating with Exit 310 before the Water Gap, the exit numbers increase ever upwards for the homebound traveler destined for the spirited embrace of Jersey’s verdant shore. The exit numbers decrease accordingly for the westbound traveler (who, if discerning, will either take a last exit in PA or make a U-turn before he enters that malodorous state beyond Penn’s western flank).

But the exit numbers did not always correspond to mileposts. Scattered across the commonwealth still stand the remnants of the old numbering system, memorialized on seemingly random “OLD EXIT ___” signs accompanying the larger, contemporary placards. For example, the exit for the always dubious “Jersey Shore” is labeled “Exit 192” with a subtle “OLD EXIT 28” in neat white print beneath it. “OLD EXIT 50” helps us find PA-611 in Stroudsburg, “OLD EXIT 30” encourages us on toward Lewisburg or Williamsport at US-15.

The noteworthy aspect of this otherwise uninteresting observation is not that a state entity improved a flawed provincial system in favor of a universally sensible one. What is remarkable about the “OLD EXIT ___” signs is that they are 20 years old. PennDOT changed the exit numbering system (to great fanfare and publicity) two decades ago. George W. Bush was the President and Justin Timberlake was still in a boy band in 2001.

Who are these signs intended to help, now–in the year 2021? Who needs to know what the old exit numbers were? Who is acting on that information or speaking in terms of nomenclature from Drew Brees’ rookie year? In an age when even the few octogenarians behind the wheel have some sort of electronic performance-enhancing device aiding their navigation, who needs to read these signs?

These references to archaic exit numbers stimulate the imagination to remember things like AAA Road Atlases and a tracing a paper map from a rest stop. It isn’t too hard for *most of us* to remember printing directions from MapQuest or DeLorme and anxiously scanning our surroundings for the next exit, turn, or milestone. It’s almost comical now to recall the feeling of knowing that Exit 9 was next, but not really having any idea if it was two miles up ahead or 26 miles in the distance.

So the little green “OLD EXIT” squares signal to us as signs of a time long in our collective rearview. They blur in our periphery, unheralded and unheeded–outdated relics in an age of advancement and obsolete in the new order. Yet what these archaic aphorisms still do is stand. They still have an objective message and, for now, a means to convey it. While the last of them still remain affixed to their posts, they will remind us of What Was.

“Stand by the roads, and look,

and ask for the ancient paths,

where the good way is; and walk in it,

and find rest for your souls.”

Jeremiah 6:16

August 4, 2021

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