As I write this, my elbows stick to a rubber, paisley-decorated, red and white table cloth; there are others, perhaps 20, clamped to long rows of picnic tables. In the parking lot, parents ready their children for a day outdoors, adjusting their strollers, applying sunscreen, putting on their hats, screwing tops on water bottles. White butterflies drift by, birds chirp in trees, fathers clean out the blackened barbeques and squish the moths.
I’m sitting in Scott Park, just south of Pittsburgh after a morning workout. Earlier, a couple, Chrissy and Joe, came by to set-up the tables, inviting me to their Italian family reunion at 1:00pm where there would be plenty of traditional food. At the jungle gym I met a father watching his kids; he commented on the friendliness of people from Pittsburgh. They’ll talk to you, he said, they’re interested in getting to know you, and if there’s food, they’ll invite you to eat. He suggested I stay at his house, in a big room on the third floor, and gave me his business card.
I had a similar experience the day before, as I entered Pittsburgh, passing bridge after bridge after bridge, and landed in a parking lot near the Any Warhol museum. It was nearly full, people were tail-gating, reclining under Pittsurgh Stealer shades on lawn chairs, with coolers of beer and rum and coke, tables piled with Yeungling-soaked bratwurst and Chick-filet. The food was there and I was invited to eat it.
The revelers had accumulated in cut-offs and straw cowboy hats for a Chesney- McGraw concert, and with little effort, coaxed me into my first game of “Cornhole”, tossing beanbags across 20 feet of pavement aiming for a hole in a slanted board. My team won, 21-1. They handed out wet-wipes to those who peed in nearby bushes.
Heads filled the Warhol Museum, some talking, some not; so did Brillo Pad boxes, Campbell’s Soup Cans, and Mao among pink cows. Sadly, I missed the Mattress factory, another museum not too far away, famous for its installations. As afternoon deepened, I ended up at Point Park over the convergence of 3 rivers, where the Monangehela and the Allegheny merged to form the mighty Ohio. Kids chased bubbles among the trees. Gyros, lemonades, hotdogs, and nachos were sold at temporary stands while Marines in thick military dress suffered through their parade maneuvers on the great lawn; the entire country was experiencing a record heat wave. I commented on the sweat bleeding through a soldier’s uniform as he shined his silver tuba. He said it was nothing, his brothers were sweating in Afghanistan; he had it easy.
The sun dipped while I sat on wide tiered steps near the Allegheny, listening to the roaring crowds and electric guitars bounce across the river from the stadium, a river filled with boats of all sizes, and people of all sizes sitting in them, drinking beers of all sizes and getting sunburned. A flock of Canadian geese paddled boat to boat, looking for snacks. The police picked up a man who swam across the river, a hapless victim singled out from the hordes on their inner-tubes and floaties. I asked a family to watch my stuff as I jumped in, returning to them dripping, to share the sunset, the kids in the sandboxes lining the walk.
On Monday I’d entered Pennsylvania from New York State, and was immediately surprised by the towering vine-engulfed forest that walled the highway, opening slightly as the Chief clambered to the small town Nescopeck, where my friend Melanie had invited me to stay with her family. She hiked me onto the mountain, and over a few beers swatting mosquitos, we watched the day’s brilliant end, coloring the horizon between the towers of a nuclear plant, framed below by the lush hills and silver thread of the river. If I put my hand out, obscuring the stacks, the image was idyllic, a paradise. Under the dense canopy in the deep black, our phones lit the way back to the cars. At the house I met her parents, and as fireflies danced beyond the screens her father built, Melanie had me lay on a futon, placed a big gong beside me, and played a haunting, deep and resonant song that drew me down to sleep.
Her mother Patricia and I took her to the airport the next morning; Melanie was headed to Montana. Not far away, at Hickory Run State Park, Patricia and I engulfed ourselves in a forest of ferns, lolled on a geologic anomaly called the Boulder Field, and soaked our feet in a cool stream. She made a delicious steak and potato dinner that night, after Melanie’s father helped me with a locking mechanism on the Chief. The next morning I awoke with the dog sitting on my chest. It was time to get up.
Narrow two-lane roads twisted through tiny settlements towards Ricketts Glen. I almost ran out of gas, but found a station near the park entrance. Trails led past 22 majestic waterfalls, each as surprising and beautiful as the last. The ride back to Bloomsburg was dotted with red barns.
There, Natalie, another friend of Melanie’s, took me crystal hunting. She knew the secret rural byways from her quests for crystals. I marched with her through meadows and climbed over logs to her favorite spot, where she’d been working for months, splashing water against the rocks and carefully prying them apart for their treasures. Yellow light speared through the leaves in a shower of green; I closed my eyes and listened to her voice and the trees.
On the way out we hit Knoebles, a family-owned theme park in the hills surrounded by forest. It’s the largest park in America with no entry fees, tickets are purchased for each ride, including a giant wooden roller-coaster whose main fear-factor is its age, the rattling track and the thought of all the rusty nails and rotted wood creaking and swaying below.
Later, at an organic restaurant, I bought a hula-hoop, and the young woman taught us some basics on the lawn. For the patrons eating on the veranda I affirmed what I establish each week dancing the State Sign…a peculiar lack of coordination, grace, and rhythm.
I’d visited Philadelphia a few weeks before, standing in Rocky’s footprints, eating hoagies and cheese-steak sandwiches, and staying with my playa friends, Dan and Rachel. So I skipped it and headed straight south to the Hershey museum and factory, then onto Amish country for farms and overalls, beards, bonnets, and buffets. In York I stayed with the Sauder family and had an amazing home-cooked dinner conjured up by Shannon, a chef, who also armed me with sandwiches to attack my next destination, Gettysburg.
The heat was horrendous, but I blazed a trail to the famous battle monument, imagining all those soldiers, on a day like this, sweltering in their uniforms, dying by the thousands in the fields. A young man at a hotdog stand took pity on me as I poured out of the van’s 120 degree cabin, and gave me a free bottle of water.
Jump forward. It is now Monday morning and of course the Sunday Evening Post is un-posted. I spent the day at the Italian reunion and got to know the wonderful people there, drinking homemade wine and eating chocolate chip cookies, receiving a kiss from the 94 year-young matriarch, and plenty of smiles and hugs. Marianne and Terry, a kind couple at the BBQ, invited me to their underground home for a shower, where I duly cleaned, only to collapsed on the carpet as the family talked about Disneyworld and read excerpts from their deceased mother’s diary. The birds aroused me before dawn, just in time to hear Terry leaving for Mass, his practice every day since he retired years ago. Marianne made me an omelet with fresh-picked greens from the garden, and said Terry was a good man.
With that, and a bunch of food donated by the families, I turn the Chief toward Ohio and think about what I might do for the 4th of July…