The Half-Planned Vacation: Central Pennsylvania

PA 008We love the “half-planned” vacation. We usually research a destination or two, but mostly we just head off “that-a-way”. Plenty of time to explore, get off the beaten path, and improvise as new opportunities present themselves. With the help of a GPS navigation system and wireless internet, it’s easier now than ever. Usually we experience awesome coincidences when random things from the trip seem to magically connect together (like the McCormick House below). At the end of the trip, we’re often struck by some “theme” based on what recurred. One trip to San Antonio turned into our “Masonic” trip, and other trips have had other themes.

We started the day at the Pittsburgh Airport Hyatt – a really nice airport hotel. Once you exit security at the entrance to the baggage claim, you’re just a couple of indoor moving sidewalks away from the hotel entrance. We had a nice corner room with two large windows with a spectacular view… of, well, the parking lot, but still it was impressive with all the lights and window space.

In the morning we rented a car and took off into a thick fog. We had hoped to get a close-up look at downtown Pittsburgh but we couldn’t see 50 feet in front of us. We went through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, which was fairly impressive – right through a fairly large mountain – but not as long as tunnels in NY and Boston.

PA 006We headed toward Dayton, an Amish community. We drove in and out of heavy fog until we reached Kittanning, so we didn’t see a lot of the countryside. What we could see was hilly and winter-bare. Spring is almost here, but not quite. The fog finally lifted and we discovered beautiful valleys between the hills, dotted with picturesque farms. We stopped at one small cemetery, off an unpaved country road. There were graves of Civil War soldiers and a few who died as early as 1858. We got the rental car good and muddy up there.

We didn’t see any “Amish” in Dayton at first glance, so we programmed its sister town, Smicksburg, into the GPS Navigator. As we neared the town, we began seeing black Amish horse carts with their little orange caution decals on the back. At the crossroads was a furniture store called “Amish Country” where we saw some beautiful pieces – a Mission-style dining room set, a solid wood high chair and several other items caught our eye, but all we left with was a Christmas stocking and a bag of kettle corn.

PA 007 From that point we decided to just wander a while. We turned off on a small country road and found ourselves behind another horse cart on a long stretch of “no passing” road. Being in no hurry we followed at 9 mph or less and enjoyed the scenery. Grace saw a creek bed filled with daffodils, and then she spotted a wild groundhog who popped up in a field near the car. We figured he must be related to Punxsutawney Phil, so we named him “Smicksburg Sam”.

We saw many quaint farms, but one house in particular caught our eye. A large, gorgeous stone house with a full-sized castle turret on it. Had to snap a photo of that one, and glad we did, as the story of that house would pop up later in the day in a most unexpected place!

We reached another intersection after a bit and programmed the GPS to take us to Punxatawney. As you approach town from the south you come down a steep hill that gives you an awesome vista view of the whole town. At the bottom of the hill is a special “runaway truck” lane filled with gravel berms and water barrels. We’d never seen one of those before. And at the very end of the lane past the last water barrels is (what the town map called) the largest groundhog statue in the world, which is really only a groundhog-shaped billboard. Why they would put a town landmark at the end of a in-case-of-disaster-only truck lane is puzzling yet amusing.

PA 012Being great fans of the movie “Groundhog Day,” we wandered around looking for familiar things and found none. (We learned later that very little of the movie was actually filmed in “Punxy” – as the locals call it.) We saw a sign that said “Groundhog Zoo” and pulled in to find it was part of the local library. Two groundhogs were housed there in an enclosure and we got an up-close view. We also ran into the town historian, who was perusing old newspapers from the 1860s, taking notes for a book on town activities back then. Then we told the librarians we were clueless tourists and asked  where we should visit in town. They gave us a map and sent us off to “Gobbers Knob” where the actual Feb. 2 festivities take place. It’s a big park with a big stage you may recognize – we took a few pics.

After we stopped at the “official” groundhog souvenir store for our usual Christmas ornament, we ate lunch at “Punxy Phil’s” diner, which was pretty good stuff. They served no groundhog to our knowledge, but they did have a quaint way of advertising for local businesses on every single thing within reading distance on the table: the placemats, the table tents, menus, coffee mugs, everywhere.

We decided to hit the road, but we didn’t know where to go next. The only other planned stop we had was Fallingwater, but it was too far away to reach before it closed at 5pm. So we pulled over at a motel and found they had wireless internet that we could access from the parking lot (this is called “war driving” and is kind of frowned upon but time was a-wasting). We searched a few central Pennsylvania tourist sites and found a town called Indiana where they had a Jimmy Stewart museum (it was his hometown). And we had time to get there before the closed, so off we went.

PA 020 The Jimmy Stewart museum is on the 3rd floor of the library, and the attendant was already turning off the lights when we arrived a half-hour before closing. But she let us in and we started browsing the movie memorabilia. Lots of great stuff from “Harvey”, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and his other flicks. Then we turned a corner and found a whole wall about his ancestry and genealogy. And there, on the wall about halfway down, was a photo of that same “castle turret” house that we had stumbled on in the middle of nowhere, over 20 miles away, earlier that day! Amazing coincidence. Turns out that Stewart’s paternal grandfather (whom Jimmy was named for) had been born in that house, although the turret part wasn’t there back then. An engineer/inventor named McCormick added the turret many years later.

By the time we returned to the car it was close to 5:30 and we had no idea where we were staying for the night, so we fired up the GPS again and told it to search for hotels, sorted by distance. The first place it suggested looked like a real fleabag, so we went to #2 on the list, called “Brickhaven“, a bed and breakfast near the local college. It was really nice inside, PA 024recently remodeled in a very ornate Victorian style and we immediately knew it would work for us. But would it work for them? The lady who answered the door was on the phone with another guest, and we waited a bit only to have her tell us “we usually don’t take walk-ins.” But then she told us we looked like nice people and she showed us a nice room. $95/night, private bath, full breakfast and good conversation. Turns out her husband was Ed Long, who was once a character actor in TV westerns like Gunsmoke and Bonanza. He even appeared in an episode of the original Star Trek series! He told us that on the set of Rawhide one day, Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef invited him to come to Italy to film a western. He had a new baby and doubts about the potential success of the thing so he declined, thus missing out on the “spaghetti western” phenomenon that made Clint and Lee famous world-wide.

Earlier that afternoon we had passed by a community theater on the main drag advertising a play called “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” and thought it might make a nice evening. It was a goofy affair as you might expect, but every enjoyable.

Tomorrow we’re off in search of a masterpiece of architecture called “Fallingwater,” but who knows what else we’ll find?

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