Our itinerary has brought us past the NY/NJ metro area and down to eastern Pennsylvania for the weekend. Eleanor and I felt that Emma was at an age where she could stand to learn a bit more about how and where this country came to be, so we booked the weekend at French Creek State Park, in Elvorson PA. It’s about 45 miles from central Philadelphia, an easy one-hour drive down Rt 422 and I-76. Our intent was to drag Emma through a lot of historical sites and try to interpret early American history in a way that would keep her 10-year-old mind attentive. That’s quite a challenge when the competition is dragon tales and talking owls. She’d much rather be reading her Kindle.
The weather is beautiful here, and that has caused the state park staff to open up a previously-closed loop of the campground. The park is full, which is nice but not surprising. As I’ve noted before, state parks have been very busy since the recession began a couple of years ago, and it’s good to see that some states have the sense to continue running their parks for the benefit of the people.
But although we’d rather stay in a state park that almost any other place, it does get a little tiresome with the campfire smoke. I like a campfire as much as the next guy, but maybe lessons should be given to people who don’t know how to make them. We’re always surrounded by people who can only make smoke, and no flame. As a result, the entire campground — all four loops — and much of the surrounding area is completely engulfed in smoke. It’s like camping in the middle of a major wildfire.
Last night when we came back from a day in Philadelphia, we were still a mile from the campground turnoff when we drove into the wall of smoke. It was thick enough to look like fog in the car’s headlights. One or two of the fires in the camping loop was actually a fire, but our neighbors were busily tending what appeared to be an attempt at smoke signals. They’ve been feverishly carting wood from their van (apparently half a cord, from the looks of it) and adding it to the heap like squirrels collecting nuts before winter. Twenty-four hours a day they tend the smoldering pile, as it their lives depended on it. And so, smoke fills the campground day and night, morning and evening. There is no escape, except to leave the park entirely.
Fortunately, we spent Saturday in Philadelphia. I can report that the birthplace of American independence is alive and well. The picture at left is a little complicated, but it shows three levels of activity all happening outside the national park building that houses the Liberty Bell. Crossing from right to left you can see a line of tourists fresh off the bus, each wearing a badge to identify them as people who paid to ride a bus to Philadelphia.
They are going to get in the very long line you see at left (background), which winds along the side of the building and around the corner. If you stand in this line for about 40 minutes, you can see the Liberty Bell up close. There is no charge, except for the loss of your time.
Or, you can walk another 50 feet to a window and see the Liberty Bell from a distance of about 20 feet with no wait at all. Your choice.
In the middle of the photo, the Falun Gong are very peacefully exhibiting graphic photos of the abuses they’ve suffered at the hands of the Chinese government. Three of them (not visible) are sitting on the grass, in a meditative position with a hand held vertically below their face, as if praying with one hand. I’m sure they appreciate the symbology of demonstrating for their religious freedom in the birthplace of American liberty.
Having been to all of the major historical sites in Philadelphia before, we decided to skip the most crowded ones and instead give Emma a light-weight version of the birth of American independence from the street. Our version is rather like a novel, with the oppressive King George and his army, the brave George Washington, the clever Ben Franklin, epic battles and setbacks, the risk of failure (“We must hang together or we shall certainly hang separately”), and finally (when things looked grimmest) the unexpected rout by the underdogs to achieve a lasting freedom. For good measure we threw in some gory anecdotes like “how to use a bayonet,” and a short lecture on the importance of symbolism (such as the Liberty Bell).
Philadelphia is of course loaded with interesting historic cemeteries. Despite our efforts, we had already lost Emma’s interest back in the Independence National Historic Park visitor center, so we figured we might as well try to kill her with boring history by browsing past mausoleums and grave stones. If she died of boredom, at least we would not have to tote her far. Amazingly, she survived this because she actually likes gravestone art.
As far as Emma was concerned, there was one reason to come to Philadelphia, and that was the famous Philadelphia cheesesteak. Legend tells that Jim’s on Summer Street is the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia, but of course on a gorgeous Saturday in September the line was out the door and around the corner. We decided to try an alternate restaurant, and settled on Steve’s, just a few blocks down.
Jim’s has been making cheesesteaks since 1929, and Steve’s sign proudly proclaims “Since 2003″ but he seems to have figured it out because the end result was just fine. A cheesesteak isn’t remotely health food; it needs to be glistening with melted cheese and a fair bit of grease in order to taste right. There ain’t no whole wheat bread or “lo-cal” options, either. Toss in a Barq’s root beer and you’ve got a combo that will simultaneously satisfy and fill you with guilty pleasure. It’s simple and direct: fat and sugar makes the brain happy. There were no leftovers.
But after that we did feel the need to do some more walking. If we’d sat too long, I think we might have become semi-conscious. Emma, having had her pinnacle moment, resumed grumbling about the boredom of street hiking and looking at architecture. (She’s practicing to become a teenager, you see.) Eleanor and I, practicing to become hardened parents of a teenager, resumed our process of humorizing and/or ignoring her attempts at pathos. We all felt good about our efforts.
Jeweler’s Row was next. This was an error on my part, for obvious reasons. If I’d known, I would have picked another route. Fortunately, many of the shops appeared to be run by Orthodox Jews who were closed on Saturday. I was ultimately only obliged to enter one store (run by Chinese) and while Eleanor loved the ring it was predictably not in our budget. Still, I was a bit spooked by Emma’s interest in looking at jewelry through the windows, and her comment, “I’m glad I’m going to be a wife and not a husband, so I get jewelry and don’t have to buy it.” Where did that come from?
For Eleanor, if there was one place we had to visit while in Philadelphia, it was Reading Terminal Market. We always visit the big city food markets when we can (such as Cleveland’s West Side Market, three years ago), because that’s where Eleanor gets ideas and rare ingredients. Reading Terminal Market is housed in a former train station next to the convention center. Its present incarnation began about 30 years ago, when Amish farmers were invited to vend in what was then a seedy neighborhood known primarily for X-rated theaters and dive bars. Amazingly, they came and gradually turned Reading Terminal Market into a major phenomenon.
The Amish are still the backbone of Reading Terminal Market today. It’s not just fruits and vegetables, though. The famous local L.D. Bassett ice cream has been here for many years, along with vendors of beeswax candles, meats & cheeses, coffee, fish, baked goods, and much more. You can really spend a lot of time (and money) here if you care to browse, and there’s a little room to eat on-site.
We were there for about two hours, until closing. Eleanor came away a relatively light load because she didn’t want to get a lot of perishables: five different cheeses, and some Chinese eggplant for Monday’s dinner. While walking around, she tried green tea infused with pineapple (not bad) and Emma and I split a dark chocolate milkshake at Bassett’s.
The final stop of our city tour was Chinatown, where along Race Street a celebration of the Autumn Moon was going on. We had thought it was later this week, so this was a nice bonus. Eleanor and Emma usually like to make Moon Cakes but since were there, Eleanor decided to buy some instead.
And of course since she was in the Chinese pastry shop, she picked up a few other things: a cream-filled coconut bun, a raisin bun, red bean cake, lotus bean cake, and a coconut tart. We ate the coconut bun right on the street — fantastic — while watching celebratory dragons on the street (video). The raisin bun was gone a few minutes after we got back to the Airstream.
I think it’s fitting, that as the birthplace of this country, Philadelphia is so ethnically diverse. It’s a good reminder that while we started as a breakaway British colony, this country was founded on the principle that All Men Are Created Equal … and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …” regardless of where you might have come from originally. Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness were rights well-exercised this Saturday in Philadelphia.