The Travelin’ Man’s road trip to Bethlehem-part I
Friday, Nov. 7: When I learned a few weeks earlier that I’d be making my third trip to Bethlehem, Pa. this year – this time to “work the keys” for a NBC Sports Network tripleheader topped by Amir Mansour-Frederick Kassi – I decided to take a different mode of transportation. Instead of flying, I chose to drive.
Why, you might be asking. The reasons are multi-layered. In general terms, I’ve always liked the idea of executing long-distance drives. Years before I got my driver’s license, I had been fascinated by the glamour of the open road and the prospect of motoring to places I’ve never been. That interest was stoked further by my growing up during the CB radio craze of the late-1970s when trucker shows like NBC’s “B.J. and the Bear” sat near the top of the ratings and the “Smokey and the Bandit” movie franchise thrived. I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a long-distance trucker when I grew up (a dream onetime 122-pound titlist Leo Randolph made a reality after he retired from boxing at age 22) but that impulse disappeared once my passion for boxing blossomed.
Another explanation for my choice was what happened last time I flew to Bethlehem. A canceled flight led to a chaotic but ultimately fruitful result. I may fly the next time I go there but for now, I didn’t feel like tempting fate a second straight time.
There were also reasons specific to this trip. First, there aren’t any direct flights from Pittsburgh to Bethlehem. On US Airways, the carrier with which I have the most frequent flier miles, all of their two-flight routes went through Philadelphia, then to Allentown, a hop, skip and a jump away from Bethlehem. Second, when I included the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Pittsburgh International Airport, the layover in Philly, the time needed to disembark from both aircrafts, acquiring the rental car and the drive to the hotel, I saw that my six-and-a-half-hour one-way drive was more efficient. Finally, driving my own vehicle afforded me the freedom to come and go on my schedule instead of the airlines’.
That part of the equation came in handy this morning because I needed to finish several work-related, “must do now” tasks and I had no idea how much time I would need to do them. As it turned out, they required a little more than two hours and thus I was able to leave the house shortly after 11 a.m.
Conditions were miserable, even for early November: dark, stone-gray skies, an unseasonably chilly 42 degrees and whipping winds that made it feel colder still. It was a good thing my heater and defroster were in good working order. In fact, everything about my 10-year-old Subaru was in good shape because just last week, it was in the shop for its scheduled 150,000-mile maintenance.
I had two possible paths to follow. Once I reached the bottom of Friendly Hill, I could turn either left on Route 2 South or right on Route 2 North. If I went south toward St. Mary’s, I would take a route that included Route 16, Route 50 East, Interstate 79 North, Interstates 68 and 70 East through Maryland and Interstates 81 North and 78 East en route to Allentown. If I decided to go north, the first 90 minutes would be the identical route I use to drive to the airport, except I would continue on Interstate 70 East until I reached the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-76 East). After that, I would take Route 11 North, I-81 North and I-78 East into Allentown. The former route was more scenic but I ended up using the latter because it was more familiar to me and it required less time to drive because it was 22 miles shorter. Also, it was the route chosen by my trusted Magellan GPS.
Because my fuel indicator was at the one-quarter mark when I started, I knew I had to fill up early but where? My decision was made for me when I saw a station in Clarington, Ohio that sold regular, unleaded gas at $2.94 per gallon, the lowest price I had seen in several years. As it turned out, I had made a wise decision because the lowest price I saw after that was $2.99 and most other outlets were still selling gas for $3.15 and above. Sure, the raw difference in filling up the tank would have been a little more than $2 but to me – as well as to most smart consumers – every penny saved counts.
Without a properly functioning CD player – it stopped working several years earlier and I hadn’t bothered to get a new one installed – I passed the time by listening to the radio. After one station faded out, it didn’t take long for me to find another with the same format. All the while the weather conditions fluctuated. I drove through brief patches of sheet-like rain, improbable bursts of sunshine and, most depressingly, snow flurries.
“I know it is early November but winter isn’t supposed to come for another six weeks,” I said to myself. Just before I left the house, I heard a report that the U.S. was in for another “polar vortex” and I had to wonder whether I was experiencing the opening salvos.
For all of the meteorological bobbing and weaving, most of the cruise-controlled drive was enjoyable and uneventful. Although the GPS was fully charged, I discovered during one particularly long drive earlier this year that its battery life was more limited than I thought. Knowing this, I hatched a plan: each time I saw that the next scheduled turn was 40 miles or more in the future, I looked at my odometer’s trip meter, did some quick math in my head and turned off the GPS until said turn was just five miles away. When I did, the device “found” me and after it directed me through the next series of turns, I repeated the process. It worked like a charm.
Traffic flowed smoothly until I neared the Allentown city limits. Even though it was 5:30 p.m., darkness had already set in and the Friday evening rush hour traffic was in full swing. It took at least 30 minutes for the situation to unclog but once it did, I quickly reached my final destination, the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Bethlehem.
I didn’t pick the best time to check in, for I arrived shortly after a children’s lacrosse team and its coaches had arrived. The kids ran around the tightly configured lobby and a few of them bumped into my luggage. I shrugged it off as kids being kids but I was happy when I finally got the key to my third-floor room.
Once I settled in, I returned to the car and ventured out in search of a mid-evening snack. I returned to a strip mall a few hundred yards from the hotel where I thought I had seen a few restaurants on the roster. I was right: there was a Japanese steak house I briefly considered but changed my mind when I saw a hot dog place with an irresistible name – “Yocco’s.”
“That’s the kind of place that Jack Obermayer (whom I call the original Travelin’ Man) might go to,” I thought. “Let’s see what their fare is like.”
I took a few minutes to scan the menu before deciding on the Yocco’s Hot Dog, described as “a well-done hot dog in a steamed roll, with chopped onions, tangy mustard and Yocco’s Chili Sauce.” Logic told me that if you’re in an unfamiliar restaurant, the safest item to order is the one that bears the franchise’s name because such a dish would be the business’ attempt to put its best foot forward.
So much for logic.
The optimist in me hoped I had stopped in on a subpar day because, sad to say, I’ve had better hot dogs at high school football games. Though warm, this particular dog, less than six inches in length, apparently had been prepared far ahead of time and while there was some chili sauce I barely could see the onions or the mustard. As a half-glass-full person, I did see some positives: The price ($1.41) was right and the accompanying fries and soda helped fill me up after a long day’s drive. And for better or worse, they do have a terrific name. I might try them again next time to see whether I experienced an aberration or a trend but then again, circumstances might prevent me from doing so.
Once I finished eating, I caught up on my writing responsibilities – but it wasn’t easy. My powers of creativity and concentration were challenged by the cacophony pouring from the room next to me. A father and son associated with the lacrosse team I saw in the lobby were hosting a get-together with three other members of the squad and the kids let everyone within earshot know just how much fun they were having. I tried to silence their squeals by opening the door and peeking out but my efforts at subtlety did no good.
I thought about knocking on the door and asking the group to quiet down or calling the front desk to lodge a complaint but I did neither. Despite covering the most confrontational of sports, I do my best to avoid it in my day-to-day dealings. When the noise got particularly loud, I opened the door again and this time I happened to do so when the group was leaving the room.
Surprised to see me, one of them looked up and brightly said, “Hello, sir.”
Seeing the party was over I smiled, replied “How are you doing?” and closed the door.
With peace and quiet restored, I spent the remainder of the evening getting the rest of my work done, then surfing the web before switching off the lights to begin what I hoped to be a refreshing slumber.
Saturday, Nov. 8: For me, this day began seven hours later and after getting ready, I pulled back the curtains and was delighted to see sunshine. The trees around the hotel still had many of their leaves, which were an almost fluorescent orange. Unlike yesterday, the wind was calm.
Although the call time for the crew was 10:30 a.m., I received word that I could wait until noon to be at ringside. Being the early bird I am, however, I left the hotel at 11:30 in the hopes I could give myself 15 extra minutes to maneuver through the venue, the Sands Casino Resort’s Events Center.
I needed every minute, for, at one point, the Magellan directed me to take a hard left turn that no longer existed and thus I had to work my way back to the correct street, which was West 3rd. Once I did, it was easy because I recalled from the other two trips that the Sands was located about a quarter-mile beyond the device’s “You have arrived” announcement. I found an easy-to-remember parking spot – Level 5, 15th spot along the wall – and walked through the casino toward the escalator that took me down toward the event center. My work station was situated next to the blue corner and once it was set up, the pre-fight checks went off like clockwork.
Andy Kasprzak, my punch-counting colleague, arrived at the arena shortly after 3 and soon after, we joined the others for the crew meal at the Steelworks Buffet. Knowing the next meal was more than eight hours in the future, I fueled up as much as I could and once we returned to ringside, Andy and I passed the time by chatting, either with each other or with other ringsiders like referee Steve Smoger. For me, boxing talk is the best way to make long waits seem much shorter.
Because one bout was canceled the day before, the roster of fights shrank to six and the opener began a few minutes after 7 p.m. The first two four-rounders were pre-taped for one of two reasons (1) filler material in case the live fights ran short or (2) for an episode of “Fight Night Future Stars.” If all went well, the show would be off the air by 11, allowing me enough time to drive back to the hotel and catch most, if not all, the Sergey Kovalev-Bernard Hopkins fight on HBO.
The question was: Did all go well?
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 12 writing awards, including nine in the last four years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or email the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.