Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Wet and Windy Road Trip

Yesterday morning I awoke at daybreak to prepare for a long planned and much anticipated road trip with my good friend Michael Stewart - a day-long romp into south central Pennsylvania to visit a few diners and to attend the annual livestock auction sponsored by the Eastern Bison Association and held at the Pennsylvania Farm Complex, in Harrisburg. When I got up around 6am the rain was falling steady and the wind was gusting up to 35mph. The forecasters were calling for a brutally raw day with a storm sweeping through the Mid-Atlantic states and into New England just a month after this same area was pounded by the worst blizzard in almost a century. Upwards of four inches of rain were predicted with local flooding along the Potomac River and its tributaries large and small. The Ohio River in western Pennsylvania was supposed to reach flood stage - a mix of heavy rain and record snow melt and possibly the worst flooding in that area since Hurricane Ivan swept through the area back in September 2004 - and southern and eastern Pennsylvania were battening down the hatches. And that was right where we were headed . . . but we would not be deterred.

I brewed a large cup of black coffee and was on the road before 7am. The rain was falling steadily and the wind gusting when I picked up Michael at his place in Olney, Maryland some 45 minutes later. The first leg of our trip took us through the rolling farm country west of Baltimore, and the wind and rain continued to buffet us as we made our way north to Interstate 70 and then east to the Baltimore Beltway (I-695). From Timonium we cut due north on Interstate 83 to the Pennsylvania border and through York until we arrived in the environs of Harrisburg. Along the way we took note of a few remaining patches of drifted snow along the highway, the last vestiges of the recent blizzards.

Soon we found ourselves in the rain-swept parking lot of the West Shore Diner, on West State Street in Lemoyne, just across the Susquehanna River from downtown Harrisburg. Michael and his son Spencer, who are diner afficionados of no small repute (see Spencer’s "Dinerman" blog at where he has also commented on his father’s and my road trip), had been here before, and I was told that I was in for a treat. What I found is possibly the last of the Silk City barrel-roof diners originally manufactured in the 1930s. It is slightly altered - a rear addition provides for an enlarged kitchen - but the original diner is a giant step into the past. Michael commented that the food is going to be good, if the waitress called you "honey." She did and it was! A bottomless cup of coffee and a platter (not a plate) of toast and home fries covered with an extremely generous serving of cream chipped beef set me back $5.47 and that was including tax! The rest of the menu seemed to be an interesting coalescence of Greek and Pennsylvania Dutch dishes.

After breakfast we made our way across the Susquehanna to the Pennsylvania Farm Complex located just east of downtown and across the State Street Bridge (the sculptures adorning the two tall concrete pylons bracketing the bridge were designed by Ira Correll, Spencer Stewart’s great grandfather) where Michael and I were able to get up close and personal with approximately five dozen American Bison at the annual bison auction. Sally Ann and I attended the auction last year and I found it sufficiently satisfying to want to return again this year (see my April 12, 2009 posting). And I promised Michael some good photo-ops. We watched the auction and wandered around the pens where these grand and noble beasts awaited their turn on stage. They were fetching a pretty good price this year and buyers and sellers alike seemed to be pleased with the results.

With the lunch hour approaching and a desire to settle the dust, we adjourned to the nearby Appalachian Brewing Company for a bite to eat and to taste the local brews. This brewpub is located in an old factory warehouse on Cameron Avenue, just south of the Farm Complex. I had a large crock of potato leek - the soup de jour - and we shared a sampler of six current offerings (and I followed up with a pint of the Scotch Ale, my favorite of the bunch although they were all extremely good! This is quite a popular place. It was all decked out for St. Patrick’s Day and from the looks and sounds it appeared that the good folks of Harrisburg were getting an early start on the festivities.

Following lunch we continued our explorations, driving through the nearby residential neighborhoods to the American Dream Diner (circa early 1950s) where we figured we would stop in for a cup of coffee at the very least. Michael and Spencer had been here, too, and so I knew from Spencer’s description that the food was good even if we had already eaten. We were disappointed to find it closed (and apparently out of business), but we nevertheless parked and braved the rain and wind to take a few photographs to record our visit. From there we followed State Street across the bridge and around the State Capitol before crossing the Susquehanna again to Lemoyne and Camp Hill in search of US Route 15 which would take us to our next adventure.

We left Harrisburg behind and headed southeast, in the direction of Gettysburg. We soon arrived at Dillsburg and in the parking lot of Wolfe’s Diner, an almost pristine (inside and out) O’Mahony diner manufactured in Elizabeth, New Jersey, probably in the early 1950s. The uninterrupted rain and wind curtailed any extended appraisal of the exterior (just a few quick photos), but the inside was warm, dry, and inviting and so we settled into a front corner booth complete with a Wall-O-Matic table jukebox (also from the mid-1950s) and ordered cups of coffee and generous slices of chocolate cake with scoops of vanilla ice cream served us by our extremely friendly and perky waitress who, we found out, was the creator of the cake which she has just finished baking and icing. Dessert seemed in order.

Between Dillsburg and York Springs are thousands of acres of apple orchards which I have been visiting and exploring for years. This is Latimore Township, the native ground of the paternal ancestors of the American writer Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938). I have driven the many back roads of this section of rural Adams County for the last two decades, in every season, as I have documented Wolfe’s Pennsylvania roots and the impact they had on his life and his literature. I wanted to share some of this with Michael and so we took a detour into these same back roads as we wandered the Gardner Church cemetery where many of these ancestors lie buried under crumbling and deteriorating tombstones. We drove past the old and woefully neglected homestead near where W.O. Wolfe, the writer’s father, encountered Confederate General Fitzhugh Lee and his brigade of J.E.B. Stuart’s calvary as they swept north of the Union positions in Gettysburg on a warm, dry day in early July 1863. Now, almost 147 years later, it was anything but warm and dry. Still, I could almost see those men in butternut as they advanced on the killing fields less than 20 miles to the south. The streams were running high and muddy and water puddled in every rut and depression. Near here are some of the best trout streams - the Yellow Breeches and the Letort to name only a couple - in the East. Not on this day, however. One of these days I will get back up there and that will be another tale to tell.

We passed Gettysburg as we continued on our southbound return journey. The rain poured and the clouds dropped over the Catoctin Mountains of northern Maryland near Thurmont. Dusk added to day’s dark and dreary nature as we journeyed down through Frederick and back to Olney twelve hours and nearly 400 miles after we had set off on our wet and windy road trip. But it was a good day regardless . . . good times (and good food and drink) shared with a good friend.

NEXT: Dispatches from the Sunshine State

1 comment:

  1. felt like a spur of the moment weekend outing into the country, this could be a syndicated travel series on PBS!

    Danl Lawrence, Richmond VA