Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Who The Hell Moved The Allegheny Mountain Tunnel?

Yesterday, I listened to a Radiolab podcast entitled “You Are Here".  It is in the Lost and Found episode of season 9.  You can hear it at this site:

Radiolab, January 25, 2011, You Are Here

It is about a woman who has a unique problem.  Her internal maps of her surroundings can shift by 90 degrees making navigation about a room or a city difficult.  She can reboot her maps by closing her eyes and spinning around a few times.  It turns out her condition is known as developmental topographical disorientation.  It is believed to be caused by a lack of development or injury in an area of the brain known as the hippocampus.  

Note! Click on images to view full size. 

There is a far better image of the hippocampus in the Wikipedia article showing the hippocampus in 3 D in an animation. 

Wikipedia, Hippocampus Animation

Well this woman’s plight reminded me of a navigational faux pas that I pulled back in August of 2003.  I pride myself in knowing where I am at and knowing how to get places.  It is a false pride.  One should not confuse interest with ability. 

Summit Diner, Somerset Pennsylvania
My wife and I had been Geocaching in Somerset County Pennsylvania and as usual I pushed the last cache into deep twilight.  We hadn’t had supper yet so we decided to go to my favorite restaurant in the entire world, the Summit Diner.  Have I told you that I have the culinary sophistication of a typical nine year old?  No surf and turf for me, not when you can have the world’s greatest cheeseburger.  It is small, not at all fancy, and rather inexpensive but it has one thing going for it.  They use locally grown beef and prepare the patty from scratch.  It is simply magnificent!  Yes it is small so buy two, you will still spend less than 5 bucks!  Truly a 5 star greasy spoon.  I love the place.  Fortunately it is 70 miles from my home or I would have died of heart attack 10 years ago.  

Any how, we ate our dinner and left the Summit Diner at 11 PM.  It is straight shot on the Turnpike to home so I figured we would be home by about 12:10.  I made a left on to 601 from the diner parking lot, went up to the first light, and hung a left to go out the entrance road to the turnpike.  This was before I had EZ Pass so I got my ticket and hung a right on to the turnpike to go west to Pittsburgh on I-70, I-76.  We were driving along making good time, but boy we were heading into a really bad storm.  The entire horizon was illuminated with lightening.  Man this was going to be bad. 

West Portal of The Allegheny Mountain Tunnel
Note the direction the little guy is facing. Also
note, ponderous amount of concrete, does not lend
itself to being easily moved.  
Suddenly, the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel appeared.  In perhaps one of my most intellectual insights of my life, I shouted to my wife “Who the hell moved the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel?”  My wife gave me the look that only women can muster when their husbands say something truly bizarre.  “What?” she replied.  My wife doesn’t know anything about where things are located or how navigate to places.  She’s a woman, what the hell does she know about maps and locations.   I replied, “The tunnel is east of Somerset, who moved it?”  As the total absurdity of my comment slowly seeped into my consciousness, my wife said “Well, then you have to be going the wrong way.  What does the GPS say?”   She is a woman she doesn’t know how to read it.  I looked at the GPS and it confirmed what my commonsense (and my wife even if she doesn’t know where she is at) were stating.  Sure enough the little triangle was facing south east.  I was going the wrong way.  A moment before plunging into the tunnel, the mountain was silhouetted in the lightning from the storm raging on the east side of the mountain.  We went through the tunnel and exited out the other side into a wall of water.  It was like driving into the base of Niagara Falls.  I had to slow down to 10 to 20 mph.  Everyone except me had their flashers on which just blinded the hell out of you because there was an inch thick layer of water on windshield with the wipers going high speed.  I could just barely make out the lane lines directly ahead of the car, in one second increments.  Every time the flasher on the car ahead of come on, the world disappear in blinding flash of red or amber. This was really terrible! 

Like Ralphy’s father in the Christmas Story, I began to weave a giant tapestry of obscenity that still hangs on the east side of the Allegheny Mountain.  “Dumb son of bitch!  Goofy bastard!  How in the hell do you get on the turnpike in the wrong direction with a GPS sitting on your dashboard?  What the hell is wrong with you, you dumb bastard.  You could screw up a two car funeral.  And am I the only stupid son of bitch on this damned road that can figure out that your frigging flashers are blinding the other poor son of a bitch  Don’t these bastards have eyes?  You dumb son of bitch.  Going the wrong damned way.  Didn’t you look at the big huge son-of-bitchin sign when you got on.  Dumb bastard.  You are a first class idiot....”  An endless litany of self aggrandizement…all the way to Bedford, the next exit east which is 36 miles from Somerset.  Meanwhile my wife is invoking quiet prayer.  I am not sure whether the purpose of the prayer was to get us through the storm safely or to strike me mute.  Perhaps both, but she sat quietly mumbling to herself.

My Internal Map Of  Somerset
We finally got to Bedford, explained our plight to a gleeful toll collector, turned around, READ THE BIG GREEN SIGNS, and got back on the turnpike heading west back to Somerset.  The deluge continued for another 10 to 15 minutes, and then slowed down to a moderately heavy rain.  I was able to speed up to about 35 mph.  When we got back to Somerset the rain reduced to a sprinkle and I was able to drive normally back to Pittsburgh.  We got home about 2:15 AM.  The entire time I was driving, I kept wondering, how the hell did I get on the turnpike in the wrong direction?  

I had to figure this out.  I know where I am going in Somerset.  I have been there many times.  How could I make such a potentially devastating mistake?  I got to thinking, Somerset has always been just a bit confusing to me.  Nothing that sticks out, but for a one horse town, nothing ever seemed to be in the right place.  I am going to look at the map but before I do I am going to draw a simple map of how Somerset lies in my mind.

My internal map superimposed on
Google Maps. 

So I drew the figure above with the main drag, turnpike, and the main visual landmarks, the court house and the Georgian Place Mansion.  Highway 601 runs east and west and the turnpike lies south of the court house.  So let’s superimpose my mental map on a screen dump of Google Maps.  Hmmm if you note, the words are hard to read.  If you turn your head so that your right ear touches your right shoulder, it will be much easier to read.  But looking at my version of the world, as you can see to head west to Pittsburgh, you would turn right on to the turnpike.  I guess I never noticed that the Georgian Place sat directly below the North Star when standing in the diner parking lot.

So let’s spin my map 90 degrees counter clockwise.  Hmmmm.  In this version, the main drag, highway 601, runs north and south and the turnpike is north of the courthouse.  You will notice that you can read the words without straining your neck.  So in this version you don’t bear off to the right.  You go straight across the turnpike and loop to the left on the other side.  Oddly enough, the BIG GREEN SIGNS mounted at the entrance confirms this fact.  All that you have to do is read them.  When using this version of the map, the Allegheny Mountain and Tunnel remain stationary, east of Somerset.  No mystical movements are required. 
Real World. 

So did I have some sort of temporary manifestation of developmental topographical disorientation?  No.  I don’t believe that I had a problems with my hippocampus.  I think the problem was endocrine in nature.  You see, us men, we have those things swaying between our legs, you know what I mean.  And as they are pumping out testosterone, they make us think that not only do we know what we are doing, but we also know where we are going.  As such, we never stop and ask for directions, and apparently we don’t bother reading those BIG GREEN SIGNS.  Ahhh! They put those up for women.  Us men don’t need ‘em.  Uh huh.

So you see, not only did I almost kill myself chasing three women on the Augusta Canal, see: Navigating The Finite, Testosterone,  but I almost killed my wife and I in a dangerous thunderstorm because I like to think with my gonads. 

The Somerset Entrance To PA Turnpike
Note big green signs.  A wonderful, free, navigational
innovation available to men as well as women.  Note, the
little guy faces north east, in my world he should face
southeast .  I am rotated 90 degrees clockwise.  

What is somewhat frightening for the species, is that I would not consider myself to be excessively macho.  Actually I am a little on woossie side of the macho spectrum, yeah about normal but maybe slightly to the left side of the clapper on the bell curve of micrograms per liter of testosterone in the blood.  Generally I am not into sports, fast cars, or fights.  So if I can be that damned, hmmm, what?,  manipulated, yes that's it, manipulated by a hormone, what are the truly macho brutes like?  Think of the amazing things that must go on in their minds! 

The other thing I did when I got home, and I wished I had done a screen dump, was I looked at the radar map.  It was amazing.  There was this small localized elongated cell that just sat stationary over the turnpike.  I have tried to reproduce the map from memory.  The inside is light pink on my map.  It should be brilliant red but I don’t have transparent shades like the weather maps.  If I duplicated what the map looked like I would obliterate all the detail. 
Artist conception of the radar map.
Entire circled area should be bright red. 

So as they say in the Mastercard ads:  Cost in additional travel: 2 hours, 72 miles, 7,195 obscenities, 54 prayers.  Cost in extra tolls: $2.90.  Lesson in navigation: priceless.

Image Credits:

Hippocampus:  Wikipedia, hippocampus

All Others:  Google Maps


Some photos of the Summit Diner

Diner Hunter, Summit Diner

For more information on the woman with the 90 degree rotations see:


  1. You mean you had to drive 36 miles to turn around for the next exit ?
    Geez, you would have been better to put ur 4 ways on, turn around on the highway and drive the wrong way down a one way street.
    I talk big,,,,I have never been on a turnpike or a toll road. Up here in Canada, if you have to drive more than 1 mile to the next exit or curb cut...that's lots.
    Doesn't hurt to eat humble pie every so often. Doesn't taste great, but it's real good for nourishment. lol.

  2. Are my eyes wonky, or does that yellow sign in the parking lot on the Summit Diner photo, say " Liver " ......???

  3. That particular stretch is one of the longest between exits. I was about a third of the way through it before I realized my error by seeing the tunnel. You are not allowed to do U-turns and they have a pretty hefty fine for it. I think under the circumstance I may have tried, but most of the turnpike in that stretch is separate by jersey barriers. Where there may have been turnarounds, were not visible from the heavy rain. I could see about 10 feet in front of me. The flashers were terrible.

    Yes humble pie is very good for you. One thing this incident taught me is that my internal maps ain't worth a shit. Prior to this they were holy. The GPS has of course changed much of my mapping in strange places. But Somerset was not a strange place and the GPS in this tale was my trail unit which had a small monochrome screen that was hard to see while driving. Without wearing my computer glasses, the screen was a blur.

    One time I missed an exit in Columbia South Carolina, and didn't realize for several miles. So I had to use my trail unit to get me back to the Interstate 20 in very urban Columbia. This is before I had the big screen car units. I set the glasses on the end of my nose and kept glancing at the GPS. OK go left, right here.... It got me back. The car units do have nice maps and are great for automotive navigation, but I wished they were a little more GPS and a little less toy. I don't need my GPS to play music of display pictures. I would like a true heading like 42 degrees rather than NE, and a true navigation screen. Alas these companies are more interested in selling units to the masses rather than the purists. I suppose most people wouldn't know a heading of 225 degrees is south west.

    I believe your eyes are correct. Liver is beyond the culinary sophistication of a typical 9 year old so I can make no recommendations regarding the liver at the Summit Diner. In fact I had liver once in my life, in basic training. I didn't know what it was and had to ask one of my fellow recruits. Fortunately my mother hated it, or otherwise I would have eaten it many times. What Ma liked was good for everyone and she ran her table with an iron fist.

    If you are ever on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Somerset, definitely stop and get a two cheeseburgers--one is too small. It is only a 2 minute drive from the pike. Heaven on Earth. Damn, I am getting in the mood for a road trip.

  4. Ok...well I guess I didn't realize you were a 1/3 thru your incredible journey. Speaking here for myself only........I have a very short fuse when it comes to F**king up on the drive to anywhere. Once I realize my mistake, I wanna get the hell out of Dodge. If it means breaking the law, disobeying traffic signals, whatever...color me gone. Unless Smokey's on my ass and has my plate #. Too many years driving "marked" cars I guess ( prev. job )

  5. I agree for the most part although I don't mess around with the fuzz at all, having no shared professional background I can only lose in that game. But in this particular case, I couldn't see the turn arounds due to the rain.

  6. Forget that big brain--humans are truly, fully at the mercy of our biology.

    1. Very true, and we often forget that at our peril. Thanks for dropping by and commenting.