Sunday, April 27, 2014

Racing Along Through Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut

Janna supporting the local economy in Intercourse, PA
After escaping from the grit of Philadelphia, we were delighted to descend into Lancaster County, PA., home to many Amish and Mennonite farmers and land of nitrate-free sausage, non-GMO corn and wheat products, and free tasting rooms for all sorts of preserved foods.  We loved the Amish horses, tried not to gawk at the beautiful buggies, and had a couple of great cultural immersion activities: one at a huge grocery store called Shady Maple Farm Market in East Earle, PA, and then at Zook’s Fabric Shop in Intercourse, PA. We felt warmly at home in rural Lancaster County and were momentarily tempted to settle in and buy the Quilt Museum and Country Store (which we never saw because the owner had passed away and the place was closed and on the market.)

Bikers and hikers share the Appalachian Trail at mid-point
Instead we went on to Gettysburg where we toured the battle site, museum and historic town. Here Captain George Pickett suffered his ignominious defeat, forever captured on a huge painting called a Cyclorama which covers the space of two football fields on a 360 degree wall space inside the Museum and Visitors Center. The painting was completed in 1883 by the French artist Paul Philippoteaux, then lost, nearly destroyed, found, restored and brought here in 2008. The story of the restoration of the painting is as interesting as the painting itself. Leaving Gettysburg, we found a lovely state park called Pine Grove Furnace which, we soon learned, is the half-way point for the Appalachian Trail. It was fun learning about the trail and talking to pilgrims who were making the 2,184 mile trip. Then we ventured north to Carlisle, where we wanted to learn more about the notorious Indian boarding school there, but found no museums or historical markers commemorating this important and tragic history.  On to Hershey where, in addition to tasting chocolate, we learned of the philanthropy of Milton S. Hershey and the still-thriving school and company town he created. We also went to Nazareth, PA and toured the Martin Guitar factory, a refreshingly different corporate model. 

Vassar quidditch team scrimmage
So much in such a short time.  Crossing from Pennsylvania into New York, we visited an art museum at Vassar College, then stopped to watch the quidditch team practice for a game (yes, muggles quidditch, as in Harry Potter.) Next was two days in Hyde Park touring the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt sites. The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Museum and Library has just undergone a $53M renovation and has emerged as a five star attraction. We were reminded of what was accomplished during the New Deal including Social Security, the National Labor Relations Board, the Works Project Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Recovery Administration and the Civil Conservation Corps. This extraordinary flurry of legislation pulled the United States out of the Great Depression and put millions of people back to work. Janna’s father was one of them, saved from hunger by joining the CCC’s , he was a great admirer of FDR, and we were happy to note that our visit to this museum coincided with what would have been his 99th birthday.

Liz visits with the Roosevelts at their home in Hyde Park
It took us two visits to get through the Hyde Park offerings, but that included a break for lunch at the Culinary Institute of America down the road, where we dined at the Catarina d’Medici Restaurant , and ate excellent Italian food served by students in an ongoing class. Then there was the information about Eleanor and the visit to Val-kill Cottage, her refuge and last home. Eleanor, of course, is much to be admired in her own right, especially for her progressive stands on integration and civil rights. Then after FDR’s death, she lived into old age writing a newspaper column and many books, and serving as a delegate to the United Nations where she chaired the committee that wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At her Val-Kill home she entertained many famous people including John F. Kennedy who came there to gain her support for his presidential campaign.

Janna got to celebrate her birthday this week in our favorite kind of campground: a free one. We were delighted when we crossed the border to discover Connecticut is one of the few states that allow overnight RV parking at rest stops. We happily queued up with the north-bound snow birds (returning from Florida) and climbed into bed. After breakfast and birthday presents in the rest stop, we headed to the coast for a lobster roll lunch, then spent a rainy afternoon and night at the Indian-owned Mohegan Sun Casino, the largest gaming facility in North America and a very interesting and impressive place. We are not big on gambling and shopping, and the local museum was closed, but we were delighted to learn a bit of history from the shuttle bus driver who,with only a little prodding, turned out to be a wealth of information about the Mohegans and the area in general. 

We find ourselves wanting to slow down a bit: tour less, read more, but we do have a date for another birthday-related treat in Boston in a few days. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What We Saw in Philadelphia

Driving into the city - do we want to do this?

Philadelphia is notoriously inaccessible for RVing visitors. Some high-priced campgrounds serve the area but were not in our budget, and the ever-reliable Walmart option was too far away. But the visitor information center recommended the Callowhill Bus Center, just a few blocks from the heart of the city, where tour buses park.  Not for the delicate or faint of heart, the bus yard, although fenced, is literally sandwiched between two interstates in a seemingly unsafe neighborhood, graffiti-tagged with much-littered sidewalks. But heck, they allowed us to park for 24 hours for only $30. We figured out how to use the subway (old and grubby compared to the Metro in Washington DC)  (but free for those of us over 65,) so we left Lilypad with the buses and launched off to explore the historic district.

We remembered very little American history from our schooldays and found ourselves learning a great deal about the beginnings of American government here in Philadelphia. We took the tour through Independence National Historic Park including Independence Hall where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and signed. As always we were awed to see a place where history has actually taken place. Whether it is the bus station in Montgomery or the church in Birmingham or the house in Appomattox or the room in Independence Hall, there is an indescribable feeling throughout your body when you are standing there where it happened.

We also took in the American Jewish History Museum.  It was exciting to see the influence cultural historians have had over the years, now including the perspectives of women and other disenfranchised people as a part of the story. This museum included an exhibit called: “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American” about the assimilation of Jews and other minorities into the American mainstream and the role of baseball in that process. Thinking about baseball reminded us of our goal of visiting America’s Major League Baseball stadiums. So back on the grubby subway we went, following the crowd of Phillies fans to find the stadium. Following the advice of our visitor center advisor we called for a cab to take us “home” on the return trip. Even the cab driver seemed to be a little concerned about our neighborhood, but we were exhausted and the roaring freeways lulled us to sleep very fast. 

We decided not to spend another night in the bus lot, so the next morning we followed the route of the ubiquitous sight-seeing buses and drove through beautifully sunny historical Philadelphia. Passing the zoo, we noticed oversize vehicle parking in the “Giraffe Lot” so we parked Lilypad and jumped on the local transit to head back downtown. The ancient trolley reminded us of the bus in the Rosa Park Museum: it seemed to be of the same vintage. The trip was long, the bus was crowded; but the sometimes beautiful, often dilapidated places we passed and the humanity aboard were both quite interesting.

Back in historical downtown, our first stop was lunch at the Central Tavern. Touted as the favorite haunt of Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers, it serves colonial period foods accompanied by costumed servers. One of us tried the tofu made from an actual recipe by Benjamin Franklin and the other went for the meat pie. Neither was a disappointment.  From there we walked up to see the Liberty Bell and learn about its history. It was smaller than we had imagined, but a powerful experience to stand next to it. 

Jefferson and slave names from Monticello
Next we ventured into the National Constitution Center which houses the imposing “We, the People” exhibit, all about the US Constitution. From an introductory live theater performance to interactive social media displays this museum goes all out to make the US Constitution a living document.  Discovering in ourselves a desire to actually study the constitution, we both would have liked to spend more time here and thoughts are germinating about a future “Road Scholar” visit. The Center also had a special exhibit: “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello.”  A huge amount of research was done to tell the moving  and powerful stories of six enslaved families who lived and worked at the Jefferson plantation, including the contributions their descendants have made to civil rights and other aspects of American history. 

After a tour of the Betsy Ross House, where we learned she had to sew flags in her bedroom, because the act was so seditious in the British-occupied city, we got back on the bus, back to Lilypad, and out of the city. And we made a quick stop at Valley Forge to learn what really went on the winter of 1777-1778.

In fact we could have spent a lot more time in Philadelphia in general and we find ourselves joking that this blog might be longer if we wrote “What We Didn’t See in Philly.” We regret that the grit, traffic and feelings of not being safe kept us from spending more than a couple of days there. The city is obviously home to many creative (and courageous) people and has many nooks and crannies that could be explored. There is much to learn and experience in Philadelphia.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Following the Blue Crab Byway

We had never heard of "Delmarva" until we crossed over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and landed on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Delmarva is the peninsula that Maryland shares with Virginia and Delaware on the eastern side of Chesapeake Bay and it took us a while to realize that the name comes from the three states. It is mostly a land that modernity has left behind, full of farms, 300-year-old buildings and folks who make their living from the sea. Delmarva also boasts the Blue Crab Scenic Byway, 15 state parks, 9 National Wildlife Refuges, the Assateague National Sea Shore, dozens of wildlife areas, museums, state forests, heritage sites and a handful of charming villages.

In Maryland we ate crab cakes nearly every day, starting  with a lunch shared with Gretchen Krampf, an Orcas colleague of Liz’s who grew up in the area and met us at Holly’s, an iconic diner just over the bridge. We were ready for a treat after the harrowing experience of driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is over four miles long and, at the highest point, 200 feet above the bay. The side rails are remarkably low and the winds are remarkably high, making driving over the bridge in a motor home not for the faint of heart. 

The next day we drove to St. Michael’s, a tiny historic fishing village down the coast of Maryland, where we visited the Chesapeake Maritime Museum. This impressive museum sprawls out over several acres and covers all sorts of human interactions with the bay from early oyster harvesting to hydroplanes, sailing, lighthouses and ecological restoration.

We camped at Pocomoke State Park, one of a dozen Maryland parks that host aviaries and nature centers.  Liz greatly enjoyed an “Owl Prowl” at the nature center which shelters birds of prey and reptiles that cannot be released into the wild. After meeting the resident owls she happily marched into the dark woods with a ranger, calling and listening for wild birds. (This ongoing program is called “Scales and Tales” for anyone interested in knowing more.)Then we headed to the eastern seaboard and Assateague Island.

The Virginia (southern) end of the island contains a feisty tourist village called Chincoteague as well as Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge which is home to the famous Chincoteague feral horses. Officially managed by the Volunteer Fire Department, the herd is rounded up and swum over to the mainland for veterinary treatment and the annual horse auction, thus keeping the herd to a manageable number. We left there, drove back to the mainland, and around to the other end of the island to see another herd of this same bloodline that lives on the northern end of the island (Maryland) and is managed by the National Park Service. There the mares are injected with contraceptives and allowed only one foal per lifetime. The animals are totally wild (even the injections are done from a distance) and are maintained much like the native white-tailed deer. There are also introduced Sitka elk on the island, and both the deer and elk are managed through a hunting program that is open only to wheel chair hunters and disabled veterans.
Note the separate bridge for pedestrians and bikers on the right!
The National Park Service hosts a spectacular visitors’ center which explores the quandary of protecting a fragile shifting landscape while preserving the historical herds. We enjoyed immersing ourselves in the wonder of wild horses at Assateague National Seacoast including watching them from LilyPad’s windows, as they roamed around in the campground.

We left Delmarva via the Lewes (Delaware)-Cape May (New Jersey) ferry, an 85 minute ride across 17 miles of Delaware Bay. The night before, we very much enjoyed a stay at Cape Henlopen State Park, a magnificent park with miles of waterfront and bike paths. It borders a vital urban area that includes several incorporated communities including affluent Rehoboth Beach.

On the New Jersey side, we were greeted by the Victorian effusion that is Cape May, touted as the first seaside resort in America. The whole of downtown is recognized on the Historic Register and must be seen to be believed. There are probably more B&B’s per acre here than anywhere else in the United States. Each building vies with the next for spectacular Victorian architecture, decoration and gingerbread. We enjoyed the historic homes trolley tour and twice bought fresh seafood from the Lobster House Fish Market, as good as anything one can find in the Northwest.

We are slowly heading north, still ahead of warm weather and crowded campgrounds, still avoiding the interstates, still eating local food and still counting our blessings.