Route 422 turns into a parking lot every weekday afternoon. Starting from the point where the Schuykill Expressway and on-ramps from King of Prussia converge, the road to Pottstown chokes off into a line of angry brake lights which stretches like a crimson snake into the distance.
Foolishly loitering at the mall one afternoon, I found myself staring into the abyss of this concrete logjam. I was distressed I wouldn’t reach my house in Upper Bucks County until well after dark.
Convinced I was cleverer than the throng of frustrated commuters before me, I decided to cheat my way around the congestion using local roads. Even though I didn’t have a map or a GPS, I figured that, as long as I kept the setting sun to my left, I’d be heading north toward home.
Smugly winding my way through several neighborhoods, I almost threw my arm out of joint patting myself on the back. Sure, the speed limit at times dropped to 15 mph and there were a couple speed bumps to negotiate, but, every time I glanced at the knot of cars on the freeway, I knew I’d chosen wisely.
My first sign of trouble came when I emerged from one such neighborhood. Stopped at a traffic light was a substantial snarl of cars, moving every bit as fast as the gridlock on the highway. Meaning not very.
Despairing of making up any lost time, I was waved into the mass by a weary-looking motorist who figured she may as well let me in front of her. She wasn’t going anywhere fast. Besides, misery loves company.
Eventually, we inched across the intersection after several cycles of green-yellow-red. My hopes for a speedy getaway were dashed as I joined a procession of vehicles every bit as imposing as that which I had avoided. Only this time, I was crawling on one lane, instead of three.
Since I had ample time to gaze at my surroundings, I marveled at the rolling beauty which lay on either side of me. A wide expanse of what I’m sure is a deep carpet of green in the spring stretched from the edge of the road to a dense line of trees. A jogging path paralleled the road and a series of charming rail fences criss-crossed the property.
Just as I began to wonder where I was, I was greeted by a brown wooden sign with “Welcome to the Valley Forge National Historical Park” etched on it.
I knew Valley Forge was close to the mall, but I hadn’t realized just how close. What’s more, I never thought I would blunder into it in an attempt to dodge the afternoon commute.
Aggravated as I was by the turtle line in which I now found myself, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the panorama of early American history which unfolded around me.
Faced with the occupation of Philadelphia by the British army in December, 1777, General George Washington’s Continental Army took up winter quarters on the plateau of Valley Forge, near where the Schuylkill River and Valley Creek meet.
Barely twenty miles away from each other, the two armies could hardly have lived in more different conditions. Where the troops under General Sir William Howe lived in the metropolitan cradle of liberty, the colonials had to undergo many hardships brought on by scant food, lack of provisions, and wretched living conditions.
Eventually, Washington’s men built approximately 2,000 wooden huts laid out in parallel lines, emulating some sort of order. As miserable as conditions were in those drafty, windowless structures, they were a substantial improvement over canvas tents.
But, that didn’t help with the continual struggle to find enough food to feed thousands of poorly-equipped soldiers who had to endure the harsh winter, many of them in rags.
Inexorably inching towards the traffic light on the far side of the park, I took in the several cabins which remain for tourists’ (and motorists!) inspection. I was struck at how small they were; surely, the American soldiers weren’t living at the Holiday Inn Express! Even though each log was sealed with cement, I realized that was a relatively modern innovation to make sure they didn’t fall apart like a child’s Lincoln Logs set.
There was no doubt in my mind that bags of Kwik Krete weren’t available to the bedraggled Continentals. I’m sure all they had on hand was river mud to plug any holes in an attempt to staunch the biting wintry winds.
Even though I spotted a pretty sizeable herd of deer loping through the field, I bet what few were left after foraging parties scoured the woods gave the encampment a wide berth. Since there were no Papa Johns or Dominos in 1777, the Americans were forced to find what food they could from the surrounding forest or from locals who many times weren’t that keen to get involved.
Congress, holed up in York, either couldn’t or wouldn’t help the men who did the hard slogging against the greatest military power on the planet.
Funny, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
As I edged closer to the exit, I understood that any bellyaches I had about being stuck in traffic were meaningless compared to what these men had to face.
I realized our complaints about life in general are pitiful when stacked up against how these patriots suffered. Without their sacrifices, I wonder how many two-car garages, 401Ks, and trips to Disney World there would be.
They bequeathed to us a nation where we have the freedom to yammer at each other about how wrong the other one is about this, that, or whether it should be against the law to own a chimpanzee.
And complain about how bad traffic is.