July 24, 2000

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the town where I live, is the capital city of the state but by far not the largest. Reading, which is in my beloved Berks County, is much larger. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to get there directly along an interstate. Usually I take I-81 about 30 miles to where it splits off north to the coal regions. There I take the I-78 branch, which goes east toward Allentown and New York City. (Berks County, incidentally, is shaped like a baseball diamond. Reading is the pitcher’s mound. Wernersville, the site of most of my research, is half way between third base and home.)

Yesterday I was coming back from my day of location writing about 8:00 in the evening. After I passed the split and was on I-81 headed for home, I noticed that the overpasses were lined with people. At a rest stop 20 miles out of Harrisburg I saw perhaps two hundred people sitting on the embankment. They’d come prepared, with chairs and coolers and signs touting their favorite NASCAR drivers.

There’d been a big race in the Poconos Sunday afternoon. The people were dedicated NASCAR fans who line up along the route to the next race (down south some place, I was told) to see the equipment trucks and the motor homes the drivers live in pass by.

I remembered this event from last year. Right at the exit where I get off for my house there is a large office parking lot overlooking the highway. Last year the township police came and made all the fans leave. The insurance company that owns the lot had called them. It seemed that Nationwide did not want these people by THEIR side, possibly littering or vandalizing or getting involved in accidents they could sue over. The whole thing resulted in some very bad press for Nationwide.

Evidently Nationwide had rethought their objections, because the NASCAR fans were there in force last night. So instead of going straight home when I got off at Exit 25 (soon to be Exit Something Else – they’re renumbering everything for reasons that are not exactly clear, except maybe to Pennsylvania’s sign fabricating industry), I drove up to the Nationwide parking lot (a writer at work, I guess).

I spent some time with a middle-aged couple who do this every year. Despite the fact that it was rapidly growing darker, the man kept taking pictures of the trucks as they flashed by. (The NASCAR vehicles are easily identifiable. They have the driver’s number and his sponsors’ logos prominently displayed.) I talked to some other people, and found that many of them follow the NASCAR circuit in much the same way that some of my friends have followed the Grateful Dead.

I stayed on the hill talking to people until darkness had fallen and everyone began to leave. It was a good way to disengage my head from the nineteenth century and come back into the present.