North Fork, Big Bend, Tygart Lake, Cowans Gap, Ohiopyle — to most foreign travellers in the US, these names mean very little as they hop from New York to San Francisco, perhaps visiting an ‘out of the way’ destination such as New Orleans, Chicago or Austin.
But to us these tongue-curling names signify the series of beautiful state parks maintained with a German-like attention to detail where we park the RockVan most nights. When we need to stay closer to medium-sized towns, we rely on the private RV parks, which have the bonus of ‘free’ wifi, but their fees are usually higher. Average fees in the state parks are around $30-40 per night for electricity and water hookup, whereas the private parks tend more towards $50-60 per night.
In most of the state parks, the sites are far enough apart to have a sense of privacy, as well as enabling us to open the blind to my daily morning view of intense greens — a view so compelling we have re-designed plans for our upcoming shipping container bedroom/bathroom/study to add a huge window from waist height next to the bed, so we can replicate the sensation of waking up on a warm, soft bed of moss in a faerie’s garden. The parks are spotless — no rubbish in sight and always hot, sparkling-clean showers evenly spaced between sites.
We thoroughly tested the RockVan’s new brakes and distributor by driving straight up the Appalachians and straight back down the other side on our first day out of Front Royal. In those first few days of well-earned freedom as the highway enticed us onwards, we luxuriated in the verdant hills and their bountiful river systems, before easing ourselves into actual ‘tourism’ by first visiting Fallingwater in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Fallingwater is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s visionary architectural legacies dotted around the country. It may not seem all that clever to build a house into a waterfall, but you can’t deny it’s a remarkable engineering achievement (and one that cost the state many millions to renovate a few years ago due to the constant stress of a structure built into a spring system…), especially considering it was completed in the 1930s. One of Wright’s design principles was low ceilings — he believed that this would draw an inhabitant’s view to the outside, where ‘-sylvania’ truly envelopes one. The Jonai decided we disagreed with that aspect of Wright’s design and that cathedral ceilings with huge windows make one truly feel leafily cuddled by the outside world rather than telescoped into it, but we couldn’t deny the beauty of the structure and its materials, including the warm, springy cork on the floor and walls of all the bathrooms.
It would be unthinkable to cross southern Pennsylvania without stopping in at Gettysburg, the scene of one of the major turning points in the Civil War. Therefore come mid-week we found ourselves amongst the many tourists who flock there each year to see the battlefield and excellent museum full of memorabilia and stories of bravery, treachery and a nation divided.
Gettysburg was the site of a three-day battle whose violence shattered families, the town and the South’s powerful march northward, and though it happened 150 years ago, the torn remnants of uniforms and rows of headstones of fallen unknown soldiers remain poignant reminders of the horrors of war. Listening to 10-year-old Antigone read Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address to 7-year-old Atticus (‘Four score and seven years ago…’) brought tears to my eyes.
And yet what I found myself reflecting on repeatedly was notions of ‘authenticity’ and a living present in Gettysburg. As countless individuals are drawn to this beautiful historic town to feel the pulse of its part in America’s Civil War, where is its heart beat today, and why do all the visitors not really seem to care? I was reminded of my first visit to Vietnam in 2007, when I had similar qualms about many of the Americans’ expressed relationship to the country via their knowledge of the Vietnam (or American if you’re Vietnamese) War. Their perspective was entirely framed by what they knew of that war, with very little sense of what Vietnam is now. Vietnamese I spoke with repeatedly resisted this anachronistic interpretation of their vibrant modern society.
Visiting places purely to understand their past all too often seems to elide, and perhaps inhibit, their present, and indeed their participation in the project of modernity. While we all travel to learn and experience the history of places, it seems important to really take note of their contemporary everyday cultures as well.
Hundreds of dairies are nestled in the Pennsylvania countryside, and we found plenty of rich, full-cream milk from regional and even small, local producers. We also discovered the nose-to-tail local specialty, Scrapple, which is one of many ‘breakfast meats’ on nearly every greasy-spoon diner’s menu.
Scrapple is a processed mass of pig bits mixed with buckwheat and corn meal, typically served sliced and fried. The one we tried had a crunchy exterior, but the interior had the consistency of wet bread, so wasn’t really to my taste… Although it seems a step up from Spam and it’s honest about its ingredients, I’ve never really taken to ‘spreadable’ processed meat products (with the exception of paté).
But speaking of authenticity, processed foods are, of course, more prevalent than whole foods — something which is true of Australia as well as the US. But here processed foods have truly jumped the shark — everything that can be processed and praise be, packaged, will be — cheese comes in boxes, most dairy is fat-free or low-fat, not to mention flavoured, and even the spinach crinkles sadly in rows of plastic bags.
So it was with some relief that we coasted into Dutch Pennsylvania — home of the Amish and Mennonite communities made famous in the Harrison Ford thriller Witness. Here we reckoned we would find our kindred spirits (except for the religious bit) — people who still want to bake bread, grow food, preserve the summer harvest for the lean winter months. Finding them was easy, as they stand out rather a lot from the rest of the modern world.
We scanned eagerly for the ‘Plain people’, as they’re called, as we meandered through the country’s oldest continuously operating farmers’ market in Lancaster (operating since the 1730s!), but to no avail. It wasn’t until the road east that we started to really get a glimpse of the famously mod-con-eschewing Amish. As we ate a lusciously creamy ice cream (which by happy happenstance we got for free after agreeing to be photographed for some ads they were shooting) at the crossroads of the charming little town of Strasburg, a number of the diminutive carts waited patiently at the lights as their equine engines nonchalantly fertilised the asphalt.
Stuart commented, “they must think even the RockVan is absolute decadence” –– particularly ironic as it was around 100F (38C) and we were in search of some mod-con air-con ourselves — when we saw one of the carts go through the drive-through banking.
Then we read that the Old Order Amish aren’t allowed to ride a bike, but can ride a scooter, as it won’t take them as far from home. And according to the Lonely Planet, “Tractors are permitted around the barn and to power machinery, but not in the fields” and “Phones are allowed outside homes but not inside”. While I can see the logic of some of this (phones, like other technology, being pretty distracting and disruptive to the family unit), some of it is rather baffling.
Preserving is apparently still common, and many of their products are available for sale in the local markets. But then I bought a little, local cookbook at the Bird-in-Hand farmers’ market, and read some of the ways industrial agriculture has changed the Amish kitchen. I expected they didn’t grow and mill their own grains, and that surely cheese, bacon and other cultured, cured, fermented and dried foods were often bought or bartered. But along with ‘ingredients’ such as ‘can of cream of mushroom soup’ in the recipes, some lines from the opening pages, a sentimental tribute to the author’s grandmother by way of comparing their pantries, caught my attention:
She had no food pre-cooked, or mixes of cake,
Which promise no mess and saving of time.
Now coffee is instant, or tea if you please
Jello and puddings, ready mixed cottage cheese,
Sliced bread within wrappers, prepared food in tin,
Ready to eat breakfast in boxes come in,
Minute hot cereal, long cookings outdated,
Meat and a bun that need not be heated,
A pop out biscuit, a “just brown” roll.
A barbecued chicken, cut up or whole;
We have come a far way since Grandmother’s days.
Where the time is we save, I wonder always.