A to Z of Destinations
Australia, NZ and South Pacific
A to Z of Experiences
Walking and trekking
Diving and snorkelling
Wildlife and safaris
Meet the locals
Frontier and expedition
Cycling and Mountain Biking
Visiting the Poles
Career breaks and BIG trips
Body and soul
Volunteer and conservation
Australia, East Coast
Everest Base Camp
Aurora Borealis/Northern Lights
Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail
Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian railway
Climb Mount Kilimanjaro
Cruising the Nile, Egypt
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.
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.
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