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.

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