Friday, October 28, 2016

Cool Stuff in Berks County, Pennsylvania

[Added later: great collection of Berks County nature links here.]

For going on two decades I've been a Californian, but I emerged into this world in old Berks. And when you move, you change quickly. First the leafless winter forests start to look shockingly barren, and then people start to sound (and think) funny, and then it just doesn't feel like you belong there anymore. But since I've grown into my foreignness, I've been able to see Berks with new eyes, and I now really enjoy visiting as a tourist. The almost tropical green canopy of a Pennsylvania forest in summer, the dusting of snow around an old stone house, windows glowing warmly next to a stubbled field - these are things you don't see in California. I can also appreciate as well that Pennsylvania is one of the most culturally and historically unique parts of this country, but of course both visitors and residents of Berks might point out that cultural uniqueness doesn't give you anything to do - it's not an event. I kind of did convert culture into an event last year by literally stumbling across John Updike's grave in Plowville last year, although I'll grant that grave-stumbling is not something you can plan.

So without further ado, here's my list, which is just as much to advertise Berks as it is for me to revisit when I'm back home. (If you want the full on promotional experience, you can go to, which is actually a pretty good resource.)

CREATORS:[Added later, why didn't I think of this before?] writer John Updike, artist Keith Haring, and musician Taylor Swift (or is that "musician"? depending on your taste).

PROXIMITY TO NATURE AND THE URBAN NORTHEAST: it's cliche, but in Berks you're close to many other things, without paying big city prices. There are not a lot of other places in the country that can say this. In particular, do NOT underrate the opportunities in the Appalachians - the Appalachian Trail, Glen Onoko Falls (and here are my photos), Ricketts Glenn, and a million other forests and parks and gamelands. Do you ever get up to State College? Do you get out on the mountain trails every time? Why not!?? (When I was in college I did, and I still don't think I did it enough.) A friend from California who spent his childhood summers in Yosemite said that he thinks the Delaware Water Gap is the prettiest place he's ever been (it sure has more bald eagles than Yosemite). And of course there are day trips to New York and DC and the shore in the summer. (I kick myself for not going to New York, Philly and DC more before I moved away.)

BERKS OUTDOORS: good in ANY season. The way I used to think, winter put a stop to any outdoor activities. But if you live in the West (including California) it's just a time to do a whole other set of activities. Get those boots on, the silence and purity of a winter hike is amazing!

- Remember, the Appalachian Trail - which from Hamburg you can take to the Pinnacle, and from 183 you can take to the highest point in Berks.

- Blue Marsh and Tulpehocken Trail - every time I'm home I'm just amazed how pretty this lake is (and since I ran around the whole thing I'm something of an authority on the matter.) And in the summer, the Rock in Hamburg may be closed, but the Cliff in Bernville is not. Of course there's an ultramarathon if you want to do it all at once and have people hand you water along the way. (Actually a lot of good races like this in the area.) Also remember Gring's Mill and the Canal Museum!

- Mt. Neversink - cool trails from near 422. Looking down at the Schuylkill there it almost reminds me of parts of Oregon; the view actually makes it feel isolated.

- Mt. Penn - VERY cool trails and even some ruins.

- French Creek - an oddly under-discussed park, and there is more and more land connecting to it, making the contiguous conserved area much bigger, i.e. Hopewell Woods, and now Gibraltar Hill, which is now open. (Views from the top are excellent.) Also odd in that these low hills are so steep - at one time they were probably the highest mountains on Earth, hundreds of millions of years ago. True story, French Creek is the only place I've heard an extended first-language conversation in Pennsylvania Dutch.

- Nolde Forest - as a kid I used to think it only served the function of lame destination for field trips, but I really enjoy running there now. After all, one New York Marathon winner trained there...

- Schuylkill River Trail - already pretty cool, with signage from Hamburg down to Reading, and then with rare exception connected all the way to Philly (and already connects almost continuously from Philly up to Pottstown.) Needless to say I'm going to be through-running this whole thing too.

- Pretty drives - I spent my teen years driving around the back roads of Green Hills and often comment that Napa is the closest thing California has in terms of rural scenery. And that Fleetwood-Lyons/State/Main/Weis road parallel to 222 up in the northern part of the county is also very pretty.

HISTORY: there are preserved canals (in Gibraltar and Wyomissing), and Routes 724 and 10 were both already used as wagon paths in the mid 1700s. Route 61 was used as a footpath by Unami-speakers for who knows how many centuries!

- The AME church in Reading - not only the sixth AME church in the U.S., but a place used to smuggle slaves on the underground railroad, with the preserved underground chamber still viewable. The late Frank Gilyard was kind enough to give me a tour.

- Homesteads - Conrad Weiser, Daniel Boone, Morlatton (oldest building in Berks), Hopewell, and nearby Ephrata.

FOOD: first, it must be said, there really is nothing like Wawa, or for that matter Sheetz, anywhere else in the country. Berks has great Italian and PA Dutch food and I've found some fun night life too. And in a half hour you're in Lancaster with all the smorgasbords, buggies and shoofly pies you could ask.

- Mom Chaffee's in West Reading - great Italian

- Mangia in Mohnton - get the cheese wheel (thanks Dan)

- Chatty Monk and Winedown - is it just me, or did Penn Avenue in West Reading get a lot more interesting in the last ten years? Vertigo Records was a fun find too.

- Hong Thanh - in the Weis plaza in Spring Township, one of my favorite Vietnamese places anywhere, even including the West Coast.

- Beer - Goggle Works has the best beer selection of any place I've been in Berks (although if you're reading this and know of more, I'd be happy to be proven wrong). And Stoudt's brewery is just down in Adamstown.

- Ridgewood Winery - I haven't yet been but I love that there's a winery right there.

- Mike's Tavern near CarTech - the crowd is one of the more interesting mixes I've seen in a while, I'll be getting in there when I can.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Pennsylvania, October 2016

The usual nonsense. (Lots of stuff just in Berks County outside of Philly, go here for a list.)

We hit Pat's Steaks the night we landed, but I'm still a Jim's guy. On the way into the hinterlands I visited the oldest building in Berks County, built by Swedes who had ventured up the Schuylkill to build the first stone structure (Morlatton House ca. 1716), three decades after William Penn's ride up the icebound river to negotiate with the locals. Daniel Boone would be born not quite 20 years later a couple miles further up the road. My inevitable surprise in Berks County though is Blue Marsh, whose prettiness somehow still shocks me. Also, I"m now so old that I an't remember how to find the Cliff without looking online. I did a very nice 6-miler just from the Cliff to the Heidelberg Bridge in Bernsville, and needless to say I can't just enjoy it for what it is so next time I have to run around the thing.

Above: online map courtesy Blues Cruise Ultra.
Below: Blue Marsh and trails.

I wasn't nearly the trail maniac in college that I am today and regret that I didn't spend more time exploring Central PA (Allegheny National Forest for one thing.) It was fun getting to State College but it's been long enough that I'm quite ambivalent about these visits and in truth I'm not even nostalgic anymore, since PSU doesn't feel like it's "mine". I knew this was very likely my last visit and it was a nice swansong. I got into the Rathskeller for a beer in honor of my dad. I foolishly didn't drink in college so, oddly enough for an old alum saying goodbye, this college staple was actually a novel experience for me. (Worry not dear reader, I stopped that nonsense and now I drink quite heavily.)

After the obligatory crowded post-game-day hike up Mt. Nittany, we headed down to the area between Huntingdon and Mt. Union to bag the Thousand Steps. Also very busy! A part of the nifty Standing Stone Trail, I've had this one on my bucket list for a while. I recently became obsessed with the Allegheny Front and Plateau, and noted how north of the PA Turnpike, the escarpment gets steeper as it ascends rather than rounding off as the ridges to the east do. The boundary between Alleghenies and Ridge-and-Valley in PA is also the watershed boundary between the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. There is very little conserved land right along the front and this is a fascinating and unique area of Pennsylvania and the Northeast generally.

Above and below: view from Mt. Nittany; second is zoomed on Beaver Stadium. I never learned if it was really true that every seat facing Mt. Nittany had to be able to see it. (By the way, did you know they already had the Nittany Lion in Tang dynasty China? See if you can find it in the photos here.)

Above: hey THANKS.
Below: view from the top of the Thousand Steps.

Above: you don't have to be a geologist to see the Allegheny-Ridge and Valley boundary here. The Turnpike climbs onto the Plateau between Bedford and Somerset, fittingly enough where you pass through the Allegheny Tunnel. The Flight 93 site is nearby (already been) and there's a cave in nearby Mann's Choice with coral fossils from the Paleozoic but dammit it's privately owned and hardly ever open.

Above: the Allegheny Front (in red) is also the boundary for central PA dialects, not unexpected as people's travel would historically be impeded there, and the differing geology has probably led to different economic activity. Nice illustration of the principle that geological barriers obstruct both gene and meme flow. Below: another box checked: view from the top of Mt. Davis, the highest point in Pennsyvania, at 3,213'. Yes, lower than Foresthill. But still neat and felt very plateau-y.


Another point! The PA-MD-WV tripoint! I'd previously seen Fort Necessity (where young George Washington learned the value of guerilla warfare from the French), Wright's Fallingwater, and Ohiopyle rapids, and my travel companion was satisfied merely hearing the eloquent orations I delivered on these and many other topics during the drive. Unknown to me until this visit: a few miles from Fallingwater is Kentuck Knob, another Wright home. (And very unpatriotic of me to say, I saw a restored Qing Dynasty official's home in Chengdu, Sichuan, China, that I thought was much cooler than Fallingwater; scroll down here for some pics.) For a while I have been scheming to run up Mt. Summit, the face of Chestnut Ridge, the very last of the Allegheny-Appalachian system as one heads from the East Coast into the Midwest - but there is no safe way to do it. Yes, the local club holds a race once a year where (I verified) they run up the highway - not safe! - and there's a road that comes up the back way right past where Washington (or his native ally) killed the French officer Jumonville that sparked the Seven Years War (or the true first world war, depending who you ask). Either way, also not safe.

Above: your blogger at the tripoint. In the background are West Virginia border guards, who scrutinized our entry papers closely, and then ate them. Below: Mt. Summit Hotel at the top of Chestnut Ridge, the edge of the Alleghenies, looking west over the start of the plains. Washington's French-killing spot is about three miles from here.

Above: supposedly the steepest street in the U.S., Canton Avenue. Below: to the extent that the Whiskey Rebellion had a headquarters, this was it. George Washington just could not stay out of Western Pennsylvania to save his life.

Above: Pittsburgh and the start of the Ohio River. Note the sediment coming from the Monongahela. Below: looking down the Duquesne Incline tracks back toward the river. Again you can see the sediment boundary from the Mon River.

Other silly PA projects for the future:
- Laurel Highlands Trail
- Standing Stone Trail (Thousand Steps is part of it)
- Ascent of the Allegheny Front (route 30)
- PA-MD-DE tripoint (the only other one in PA that's not underwater)