Homespun, USA

Matt Rudd | Issue 52 | 52 june-july 2002

The trouble with being a tourist in America is that you’re treated like an idiot. Anything of even the most passing historical, scenic or cultural significance is seized upon by smiley, badge-wearing people who like saying “Have a nice day”. And before you know it, you’re not walking around an old Shaker village, you’re being carted around a Genuine Shaker Experience™ on a toy train, by a man with braces and a fake beard. Who, after all, wants to go to Pioneer World, with its authentic re-enactments complete with the sounds and smells of the Frontier, when you could experience the real thing?

Is there any part of America where travellers can travel in peace? Where Disney syndrome hasn’t taken over? Yes, of course. But you need a car and you need to get yourself to northern Pennsylvania. Welcome to the USA without heritage trails and scenic viewpoints. Welcome to the wholly unproduced US Route 6.

On my second day out of Philadelphia, I began to realise just how beautiful America can be when the tourist chiefs haven’t had their say. I woke at Renard House, a charming B&B just outside the one-deli village of Waverly.

Out of the bedroom window I could see only old trees, green fields, birds and butterflies – a near-nauseatingly perfect rural scene apart, of course, from the road – my road for the next week. If I headed back the way I’d come I’d eventually drive into the Atlantic at Cape Cod. Heading west, I would have to pass through ten states before pulling up at Long Beach, California.

The night before, I’d eaten a 15-kilo steak in Scranton so I wasn’t particularly hungry. The owner of the B&B wasn’t to know this and, quite reasonably, confronted me with a Bismarck – a kind of Yorkshire pudding the size of a German battleship. But that’s part of the fun of small-town America. You spend half your time eating and the other half praying you never have to eat again.

Having escaped the clutches of breakfast, my first stop was just a mile down the road at Waverly’s cemetery. Hickory Grove is the kind of place in which I’d like to be buried… tranquil, breezy and, dead people aside, uplifting. It’s also a good place to picture the migratory history of the region. Route 6 was taking me east to west, as it had taken the pioneering frontiersmen two centuries ago. But Waverly was also a junction on an even tougher route – from south to north.

After the abolition of slavery in the north, Harriet Tubman – Waverly’s most famous personality – established the Underground Railroad to help slaves fleeing from the plantations of the Deep South. After crossing the Mason-Dixon line, the fugitives would pass through Waverly on route to New York State, then on to Canada and safety.

Not all of them made it. Wandering through the shaded rows of well-tended graves, I found a stone for Edward Smith – “40 years in slavery, now safe in the arms of Jesus”. Northern women still go to the cemetery today to decorate these sad memorials, as well as those of southern boys who never made it back home from the Civil War.

Bob, the Hickory Grove caretaker and a deadringer for grandpa in The Beverly Hillbillies, took a break from his weeding to give me a guided- but toy-train-free-tour of the graves. The oldest was from 1807, and one of the more recent marked the resting-place of Stanley James-Smith, hairdresser to The Supremes. My favourite was for its simplicity: “Husband: Gone but not forgotten. Wife: Gone”.

By mid-morning I wasn’t hungry but the promise of some of what the girl at the gas station described as the best ice cream in America made a stop at Shadowbrook Dairy Bar mandatory. I went for two scoops after seeing the five-scoop special winched from the kitchen to my neighbour’s table. I was surrounded by huge, marshmallow people forcing pint after pint of ice cream down the fatty necks of their gluttonous children – much like the French make their foie gras. I lost my appetite long before the rum ’n’ raisin.

In the next town, a big sign promoting ‘Lawnmower Racing’ made an effort to stop cars driving through. It wouId only work on Sundays though, between two and five. It was Monday so I was too late and pressed on into the Endless Mountains.

I flicked around the radio dial to discover I had two choices of station. Froggy 101 claimed, in tireless jingles, to offer Pennsylvania’s best country sounds – bearable for no more than five minutes at a time. Second was Christian Radio, fronted by a patronising bloke peddling cassettes on discipleship. Muriel Lovechild (I’m sure that’s what he called her) popped in to give a Mission News update, encouraging us in monotones to pray (and send in cash) for the poor children of Mexico.

Reprieve came at the bar of the Wyalusing Hotel in the form of proper Pennsylvanian drinkers with caps and mullets and elbows on the table. No hint of shallow evangelism here – just a bunch of guys drinking their pay checks (sic) in peace and quiet. I ordered another half cow to chew on and quietly admired shelves full of minor league baseball trophies amid excessive neon signage.

In the afternoon, I crossed another one of America’s great migratory routes – the Susquehanna River. As the name suggests, this was once a great Indian highway, running from the Carolinas up to New York State. At a scenic viewpoint on top of Lime Hill (not marked as such, I found it all on my own), I imagined what it must have been like before settlers cultivated the river banks into such a neat patchwork of fields.

Now, it looked a bit like the more genteel parts of Kent but only a couple of centuries ago it was an untamed wilderness. This hill had been the scene of a grim battle in 1782 – British troops had tried to rescue a kidnapped woman and her four children. Only three of the children survived. And I’m sure the Susquehannocks wouldn’t have done too well either.

Soon after the end of the Endless Mountains (all good endless mountains come to an end), I reached my B&B at Galeton. No one was in when I arrived so I sat in the living room trying not to feel like I’d broken in. Terri – the owner – turned up a few minutes later and instantly made me feel less like a burglar and more like one of the family or a part of the furniture – a welcome, if temporary, resident.

After a half-hour stroll around town, I had seen all there was to see – a grocery store, a few shops, a dodgy bar and a few streets of clapboard houses rising away from a peaceful lake. “How could a tourist cope without any meeters and greeters, any heritage paths or souvenir outlets?” those tourist bods would cry. Very well, thank you very much. Galeton was a perfect place to hole up. And Terri clearly loved it as well.

“I can tell you exactly who will be at the coffee shop at 7am every morning,” she said. “Everybody knows everybody else and we all look out for each other. You can even leave your car running when you pop into the grocery store. Try doing that in New York.”

Even when she mentioned she was running for mayor, I couldn’t get her to say anything nasty about the rival candidates. There were no dirty tricks in this race, even if her main opposition went by the thoroughly suspicious name of Doug Dropper.

Away from the bright lights of a town like Galeton, you make your own entertainment. So that night I drove into Cherry Springs, the adjacent state park, for some impromptu astronomy. It’s one of the few places with dark skies left in North America – a good indication of northern Pennsylvania’s lack of urban development. With the help of an astronomy expert, I learned about the aurora borealis, saw how amazing the moon looks through a telescope (not at all like cheese) and was told how likely the chances were of a meteorite crashing into the Atlantic and unleashing a tsunami big enough to wipe out the population of the Eastern seaboard (not very, you’ll be relieved to hear).

Perhaps the most telling statistic gleaned from my night under the stars was that the cost of electricity wasted in the USA was enough to put every American child through college. I’m sure the Brits aren’t much better but will someone please tell George Bush to think about that – he’d get the dark-sky-loving astronomers’ vote for starters.

Not far from Galeton is Pennsylvania’s very own Grand Canyon. It’s not nearly as grand as Arizona’s but it doesn’t have the tourists either. I did go on a vaguely touristy wagon trail ride, and Pat the wagon driver did have braces and a beard but he hadn’t been Disneyed. He didn’t have a badge or a permanent grin and he was actually quite funny. Shaggy dog stories all the way up and all the way back down again.

He talked about what life would have been like as a frontiersman – if you couldn’t shoot straight or cut down a tree in a few seconds, forget it. A hundred years ago, the Grand Canyon was an ecological disaster – trees had been lumbered away and, without the support of root systems, the rivers were ruined. Now, the trees are back and so are bar beaver, river otter, mink, rattlers, skunk, black bears, coyotes and wild celery. Pat hinted at mountain lions but in all his years he’d never seen one.

In the afternoon, I continued west in search of a barber shop. In Coudersport, Geoff the barber was apparently down at the station sorting out some trouble between his son and daughter-in-law. “Never had a phone, never needed a phone and he’s in when he’s in,” read his unhelpful sign. So I went to the Hotel Crittendon instead to ask about Al Capone.

This was, after all, the bar where Eliot Ness, author of The Untouchables, used to sit around telling exaggerated tales of his role in the demise of America’s most famous gangster. Ness also had the misfortune to die here, a broken man. Not that there’s anything wrong with Coudersport. It’s a beautiful, red brick and white clapboard place with a striking central clock tower and my favourite building in America – a spindly house with a tower that may have fallen down by the time you get there.

I walked into the bar at 5pm and the young tender knew nothing about Ness. But he was good at yelling. “Hey, this guy wants to know about Eliot Ness? You help?” “Sure.” And I was joined by the daughter of a 1950s major league baseball player. Then a construction worker came over who’d just broken his arm but still had a line on Capone. Then the editor of the local paper who preferred maple syrup to gangsters as a conversational topic. “Vermont actually buys the sap from Pennsylvania,” he alleged scandalously.

I left them all chatting about the forthcoming maple syrup season to head for Smethport. I hadn’t seen a McDonald’s for three days – a concept almost unimaginable on any other US road trip. At Smethport, nothing seemed to have changed much since the 19th century. Old and beautiful clapboard houses on the main street, a couple of shops and the McKean County Jail – now a museum but many decades ago a better alternative to the streets for vagrants facing winter. Panhandling a cop would get you banged up for enough time to escape the cold, according to Jim, my jail guide, who put new basins in 57 years ago.

I had more comfortable digs for the night and set off well-rested on the last leg of my Route 6 journey. On a detour north into the Allegheny hills, I briefly dipped into New York State. I considered making a dash for Manhattan just for the culture shock of it all. But I didn’t like the look of the road ahead. The markings were too yellow, the signs too clear. I felt like a betrayer so I turned around and stayed faithful to the original plan.

I liked having to ask about history rather than have it presented in 3D re-enactments. I liked the fact that ‘convenience’ living hasn’t touched this part of the world – the shops close at five, restaurants won’t serve after nine and trying to find a barber open at any time is impossible. I liked the fact that I could watch Jurassic Park III, the worst film in the world, and enjoy it because I was at a drive-in with a car full of root beer and popcorn.

On the sixth day, I turned off the best road in America just after the town of Warren to head south for Pittsburgh. Within minutes I was in Oil City, carving my way past refineries, outlets and fast food joints. The magic of Route 6 was over and, apart from a near miss with an Amish grandma hogging the road with her horse and cart, my brush with small town America was over. Sad… but at least I know it still exists.

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    Guide to meeting the locals, homestays and community-based tourism, including homestay contacts, local guides and community-based travel advice

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