Pennsylvania Dutch Country
It’s been a while since my family has taken a vacation; various factors have played into this: buying a house that was a fixer-upper, raising a child, and having depleted bank accounts as a result of those two things. And so it was with great interest that my wife set about finding a good place to vacation this year. There were certain considerations that had to be reflected in the choice.
Number one, it couldn’t be too far away, as we’d be driving there since my wife is afraid of flying and long car trips with an ornery two-year-old are rather unpleasant affairs. It also had to be close because we had a limited time frame and at my job I accrue paid-time-off at a glacial pace. It had to have attractions that would appeal to a small child, as well as her parents, and it had to have a variety of fun bed and breakfast options as we generally use hotels only when necessary. Ohio, the state in which we live was off the list, because, well, we live there. Which left West Virginia (no, and if you have to ask, well, then you haven’t heard enough jokes), Indiana (no, and what exactly is in Indiana save the birthplace of Kurt Vonnegut, a rich history of KKK involvement, and the Indy 500; only one of these is of any interest to me, you guess which one, you win a prize), Kentucky (see above under W.V.), Michigan (maybe next year), and Pennsylvania.
On a tip from her sister, my wife chose the middle portion of Philadelphia in which we would find the family fun park of Idlewild, the chocolate of Hershey, PA, more Amish than you could shake a gas-powered stick at, and a wide array of farm-based bed and breakfasts. This portion, Lancaster County mostly, is also referred to as the Pennsylvania Dutch Country because of the high proportion of settlers from that area of Europe.
Pennsylvania is, in James Carville’s famous political formulation, Pittsburgh on one end, Philadelphia on the other, and Alabama in between. As we weren’t interested in ever going to Alabama for anything at all, this would be sort of like going to an Alabama theme park. I was interested to test the truth of Carville’s statement and since the Amish and Mennonite communities are filled with backwards, superstitious, ignorant folks, I thought it couldn’t be too far off base.
Driving to and through Pennsylvania along Interstate-76 is a kind of buttock and mental stupor endurance test. There is simply nothing to look at but trees and other cars for hundreds of miles before you get into mountains and tunnels under those mountains and other sights of interest. Also, I-76 is a toll road, which means there are exits on the order of one every seventy miles or so apart. There are some curious things about those exits too. Firstly, they were once simply numbered (1, 2, 3, that sort of thing) and many places have directions referencing this fact, notwithstanding their newer designation based on what mile they are from the border (16, 81, 145, etc.). This can prove decidedly confusing to an out of towner. Secondly, there must be some kind of asphalt shortage in the state, as Pennsylvania’s highway lanes are noticeably narrower than Ohio’s. I’m not sure how much asphalt you can save if you shave three inches off the width of each lane, but it must be a ton.
The remainder of this asphalt is clearly not being spent on the ramps themselves. Or more precisely, it isn’t spent on the entrance portions of the lanes on which you might merge into traffic (at 65mph). Instead, there are exit lanes leading off the highway that stretch on for glorious half miles and lanes leading back on to the highway that are shy of one hundred feet. If you want to successfully drive in Pennsylvania, stay in the left-hand lane until absolutely necessary. Of course, you won’t know when it’s absolutely necessary until too late, because Pennsylvania doesn’t like to spring a lot of cash on signs either. Instead, there will be one sign informing you of your upcoming highway junction that will stand no further than thirty feet from the junction, then another at the junction itself. Luckily, many towns allow for U-turns.
Idlewild Park, our first destination is near the ridiculously small and ugly town of Ligonier. It is unlikely that anyone ever visits Ligonier save to sojourn to this amazingly fun little park nearby. It is a mark that you have reached full mature parenthood when you can go to an amusement park, have the best time ever, then realize later that the only ride you went on was a small turtle roller coaster you could have easily fit in your living room. You can even say that if you climbed into a giant pit of little plastic balls that smell like dirty socks and find yourself sinking down to the bottom. You can even say that if it is hotter than shit and you didn’t win the Hello Kitty doll your daughter is begging for.
Idlewild contains essentially three amusement parks or more in one. There is a water park with a fast slide and a “slow slide.” If you lay down on the latter, you might just fly over the edge on one of the “slow” turns, as I did, and plummet some two hundred feet to your death (which I did not, clearly). The water park, as every other aspect of Idlewild, has stuff for big kids and little kids both, and I heartily recommend it for any parent of small children especially. For the very littlest visitors, there is a long stroll through Storybook Forest featuring Gepetto’s Workshop, Humpty Dumpty on a wall, the house of the Seven Dwarfs, the Crooked House of the Crooked Man, and nearly every other nursery rhyme come to life. There is a timeless gentleness to these children’s park attractions that doesn’t rely on “Exxxxxtreme” whatever to capture young one’s fancies. What’s more, how can you not love an amusement park that worked hand in hand with Mr. Rogers to create a special trolley ride into the Land of Make Believe?
Our next three nights were spent in the small town of Mount Joy, the first of many sexy sounding things in this uptight and repressively religious area. We stayed at a bed and breakfast called Green Acres Farm where we were treated to hearty home cooked breakfasts every morning consisting usually of eggs and bacon, pancakes or waffles, fruit, potatoes, coffee, water, juice, then a breakfast dessert. No kidding. After blueberry pancakes with syrup, you are expected to eat a slice of coffeecake with strawberries in a sugary glaze. Fortunately B&Bs also force me into doing what I’m normally not comfortable doing, which is socializing with strangers, and they do so around a communal meal which definitely makes it easier. After the first morning’s reticence, I was launching into conversations with my neighbors unprompted and enjoying myself as well.
After breakfast, you feed the leftovers to the black lab, the three donkeys, the numerous goats and sheep, the chickens, and the cats. Then you take a hayride, and when you’re done with that, you go and fetch some eggs from under the hens and then you can go play in the giant doll houses. It’s all very fun, especially for the kids of which there were many. Our room was clean, cool, done up, as is so common in B&Bs, in Victorian style. If there was a drawback to our room it was that our television received absolutely zero channels and sometimes on vacation, after a long, event-crammed day, you wish to simply unplug but not go to sleep right away. By the time we left, however, I was glad for this forced deprivation too. Nearly a week of not seeing George Bush’s face? Sign me up!
Surrounding you in Lancaster County is nothing but corn and soybeans corn and soybeans corn and soybeans. Our second day was spent in Hershey visiting the chocolate factory, in the small gap in the corn and soybeans, and, Readers, let me assure you that I was as generous with the Hershey Highway jokes as we drove in. For crying out loud, the Hershey Highway is brown even, brown!
The Hershey Factory at Hershey’s Chocolate World is free, which is sort of misleading, as it is free to get in and free to take a little ride in a car that entertainingly drives you through a video about making chocolate, but it drops you off at a candy gift shop filled with novelties like Hershey’s Kiss filled wine glasses and such. After eating a complimentary chocolate following the ride, it’d take a greater sense of control than I have to not buy more. We bought our daughter a small packet of Kisses and proceeded to let her get hepped up on them like an addict. “More chocolate?” she kept asking in ever-higher pitch and volume. This culminated in the adorable sight of her calling after a woman dressed up in a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup, “Chocolate! Chocolate Come Here, Chocolate!” and chasing her around the Kit Kat Café.
There are a number of diversions in Hershey’s Chocolate World, and like the ride, all of them dump you out at a different gift shop. The best of the bunch is the 3-D movie presented as though it were a lecture on chocolate interrupted by a cartoon showman. I hadn’t known there’d been such advances in 3-D technology in recent years, but damn if there weren’t times I squirmed back in my seat and jerked my head around to follow the action off-screen. My daughter cried a little then quickly forgot what had frightened her when the next song and dance started up, then cried again and again forgot why in the next distraction. Little blasts of steam shot from up under your seat, the scent of chocolate filled the air, streamers shot out from around the movie screen, little strings like cobwebs fell from the ceiling. All in all, a knockout experience, but filled with the kind of empty nutrition good candy has.
After the first two days, it was kind of downhill after that. We visited just a few small things. The Hands on House, a play area for kids with a fake grocery store, two well-stocked Mr. Potato Head stations filled with parts, among other things. Intercourse, PA, with its mall of hand-crafted wood stuff, led my wife to this observation of particularly pungent hypocrisy, “The Amish reject modern society’s crass materialism for their simple life, then charge you ten bucks to come and get a look at their simple life and ride in one of their buggies.” Believe me, there’s more Amish business in the area than not and they make out like bandits.
(What follows is the culmination of two degrees in creative writing and a life of trying to get the perfect sentence down pat.) Intercourse proved so hot and sweaty, we went back down the Hershey Highway a second time. (Thank you, thank you.) Back in Hershey, we visited the surprisingly pleasurable Zoo America, which isn’t spectacular but very intimate when compared to more metropolitan zoos. It is focused on North American animals and features a large number of birds yet remains interesting for all that. For comparative purposes we also visited Lititz, PA to check out the Wilbur Chocolate Company, a one time rival to Hershey, with far better chocolate but poorer marketing savvy. The town’s small but smells so delicious you’d want to live there forever.
And chocolate was about the best thing we ate in Pennsylvania, not counting the Green Acres breakfasts. A word of advice to the wary traveler: if you are, like me, a vegetarian, there is almost nothing to eat in the Keystone State’s Dutch Country. Ethnic eats are a dicey proposition. The one bright spot was Isaac’s Restaurant & Deli, a progressively run café featuring succulent sandwiches at excellent prices and in a fun atmosphere. If you take a child, be sure to check out the rainbow bread. Their sandwiches are named for birds, save the veggie ones, which are named for flowers. And just check out their benefits page — full benefits for employees working 25 hours a week. Alabama, my ass.
In Ligonier, however, we ate at a Mexican restaurant named Cozumel, which clearly ranks up there among the decidedly worst experiences I’ve had involving Mexico, which includes being slipped a Mickey in a seedy strip club and vomiting and shitting for one solid day. Their salsa was spicy, their beer was cold, but their food was rancid and the two dishes we selected were indistinguishable from one another. Most dishes with a guac- prefix usually involve some kind of avocado confection, but not so here where guac is just kind of a fun sound. Ligonierites don’t know much about Mexican because this place was hopping.
In Lancaster, we ate at Lombardo’s Restaurant, a shit joint that tries to be elegant but is outclassed by reheated Ragu Old World Style. Their advertisement claims they welcome children, but apparently this only extends to the two-dimensional Kodak printed kind. The maitre d’ (this dump actually thought they needed one) actually frowned when he saw our daughter, we were shoved into the back back of the place, and our waitress mau-maued my wife into ordering our daughter a fruit plate even though we told her she’d just eat off our plates. Then she brought us an extra plate to feed our daughter off of and charged us four dollars for it, without any explanation. I rarely tip lower than fifteen percent, which was the best Cozumel rated. Lombardo’s rang us up at fifty dollars for two small plates of the weakest, runniest marinara I’ve ever eaten over blah noodles, a half carafe of wine, a fruit plate, and a cup of milk in a take home cole slaw tub with a hole scissor-cut in the top for the straw. Child friendly my ass. I stiffed our rude, slow, cheating waitress with a two-dollar tip, the fabled Grampa tip, the lowest gratuity I’ve ever given, even counting dining experiences in junior high.
The problem is, like other states (Kansas, notably), Pennsylvania was settled by Dutch and German immigrants, two nationalities of people whose sensibility in the culinary arts festered, died centuries ago, was embalmed, and is now served up as cuisine. And I say this as someone of Germanic ancestry. They’re still dishing up the same unpalatable dishes that led to the Bubonic Plague seeming like the best option available once upon a time. And their sheer perversity in things foodish has apparently managed to suck the savor out of everything in its vicinity. Our two dining experiences were so disheartening we had two responses: one, to eat at nothing but chains from thereon out, a vacation sin, and two, to hasten ourselves back to Ohio where we have real immigrants and a paucity of Germans to spoil the broth.
And that’s what we eventually did.