I visited a great tourist attraction today, too, right off Rt. 22 in Shartlesville. It's called Roadside America and talk about your ridiculous and your sublime, this place had it all. Did you ever have an uncle or friend or neighbor who was a model train enthusiast, to the degree that he'd filled the basement or garage with a little town or maybe some countryside with a mountain built to scale to run the train around? Well, the late Laurence Gieringer did the same thing, only he went out of control! He built a huge city, with little people and cars and pets and, yes, trains and trolley cars. The story goes that Gieringer, who grew up around the turn of the century in nearby Reading, spent many nights, as a young boy, staring out his window at the Hiland Hotel atop neighboring Neversink Mountain. The hotel had lights that twinkled and shone in the night and, to the young boy watching from far below, it looked small enough to pick up and carry home. He soon decided to pursue this plan of action. As you might guess, he got lost on the mountainside and had to be found by a search party but from that time on, he was fascinated by tiny structures. And that little boy, honey, grew up to be your grandfather - no, wait a minute, that's not right! No, he learned to be a carpenter and painter and he used this training to begin what would be a life-long endeavor, the huge yet tiny village featured at Roadside America.
Each section of the city represents a different period in time, beginning in the mid-19th century and ending, as far as I could tell, somewhere in the 1940s or '50s (Boys Town was playing at a tiny little movie theatre). We see an old blacksmith shop, a Pennsylvania Dutch farm like those found in this region, the machine shop where Henry Ford built his first car and over one hundred years of changes in American architecture. So, Roadside America can be an educational experience. One can learn a bit about architecture and the way people lived in the not-so-distant past. And even as you're asking why, you have to tip your hat to a man who devotes his whole life to such a project. It's quite an impressive display.
So much for the sublime. What's the ridiculous part? The presentation. In other words, if that same uncle, friend or neighbor who liked model trains had built something like this, you'd think it was pretty cool. But in these surroundings, it's ultra-cheesy. They've got a souvenir shop every bit as tacky as you'd expect, with lots of Roadside America T-shirts and knick-knacks, Taiwanese Indian headdresses, salt and pepper shakers, toothpick holders, and those amazing plaques with homespun humor and/or wisdom that you see in every such place: An old woman saying "My husband's retirement meant twice the man and half the money" or a rose-lined path, with that touching sentiment,The road to a friend's house is never long.
The most astounding part, though, was inside the exhibit. Without warning, the lights begin to dim and we see the sun setting behind the Statue of Liberty that's painted on the far wall (nobody explained to me just which small Pennsylvania town has a view of Lady Liberty). On the wall beside the lady in the harbor, we begin to see slides of Jesus - Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus as the Shepherd surrounded by children and sheep, a young boy at the helm of a ship with Jesus watching over his shoulder. And all the time we're hearing The Star-Spangled Banner, a scratchy recording of Kate Smith's rendition of God Bless America and other such inspirational and patriotic tunes. It really was an amazingly ridiculous moment, one that you shouldn't miss if you're within a hundred miles or so of Shartlesville.
I took in another drive-in movie that evening, in Haarsburg. Haar's Drive-in is a great spot that looks essentially as it has since the '50s. It's been run by the same family since the beginning, the snack bar is a deluxe one, and they even have great old ads running between films, urging one to rush down and pick up a refreshing, ice-cold Coca-Cola, along with some hot, fresh popcorn. Haar's is a great drive-in, well worth a visit.
I stayed in my first youth hostel that night in Gettysburg. It's rather a strange way to travel. I mean, if you stay at a motel or campground, you're pretty much on your own. You have some brief dealings with the clerk, of course, but then you're left to your own devices. Hostels are something different altogether. You share a communal bedroom and bathroom; also, any den, TV lounge or kitchen they may have is shared by all. Maybe I've become anti-social in my old age but the hostel experience didn't appeal to me when first I heard of it. But they're so darn cheap. I paid only $8 for the night in Gettysburg and it was so sparsely booked that night that I got a room and bath to myself. So, it was basically a no-frills motel. The other drawback is that the host can require you to do a little light housekeeping - washing dishes or sweeping up. No such request was made of me in Gettysburg but that will no doubt change down the road a piece.
Continue on the American Odyssey.
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