What possesses a man to wake up one day and say “I think I’ll buy a camel”? Matilda’s owner was just a regular joe farmer who drove to Ohio 20 years ago and brought back a camel. Did he look out over his fields and think, “I’ve got cows and horses and ponies and sheep – I need something new”? Why a camel and not a goat? There seems to be something in the American character that makes us dream big dreams – and follow them through. This farmer wanted something different and enjoyed sharing his dream with random passers-by like us.
Another Pennsylvania native, Laurence Gieringer, also had a dream. When he was 10-years old, he and his brother Paul hiked up a mountain and looked back down on the town of Reading. They were impressed with how small the buildings and vehicles and people looked, and it changed their lives. Paul was called to God and became a Catholic priest. Laurence started building miniatures and over three decades put together an exhibit called Roadside America. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Not just a miniature railroad, but a glimpse at our country’s past, with touching bits of mechanized humor (such as the hunter trying to aim at a rabbit who keeps disappearing down a hole). Mr. Gieringer raised the money and put up an entire building to house his miniature world, plonked on the side of Route 78 to attract as many visitors to Shartlesville as possible. Unfortunately for them, the highway was upgraded, widened, and bypassed the attraction. Instead of simply driving in off the road, you now have to go to the next exit and backtrack. Still, there were several other couples besides us there to see the “Night Pageant” (which I can’t adequately describe, but involved sitting in the dark listening to Kate Smith sing God Bless America as the vast diorama’s many buildings and trains turned on their evening lights and the stars shone down from the ceiling, and an ancient slide show of patriotic drawings was projected on the far wall). Mr. Gieringer has long since passed away, but his dream lives on, however dog-eared at the corners.
To get just a tad sentimental and creaky here, let me say that these two Pennsylvania men epitomize for me the true American spirit. It isn’t just New England (biased as I am toward that region). This whole country is full of dreamers and builders and folks who just DO so much to satisfy their right to the pursuit of happiness. We will always be a country of bright prospects so long as anyone wakes up and says, “Today I think I’ll…”
Roadside America 2013
God Bless America
“Welcome to camp, how can I help you?”
“We’re checking in for Labor Day Weekend. Last name is Thompson.”
“Um . . . I don’t see a reservation under that name.”
“Well that’s ridiculous, I have my confirmation email right here. I printed it out to be sure I had the right address for my GPS.”
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but that email is dated July, 2012 – last year. Our computer does show you were here last year, but there’s no current reservation.”
“Well where am I SUPPOSED to be?”
You know, I felt bad for her. She’d worked all week, pulled her family together, packed the tent, and driven 3 hours to spend 3 days camping – but had no idea what campground she’d booked. We were full, not a single site that I could put her on. There are at least 10 other campgrounds within 15 miles and the best I could do was give her a list of phone numbers to call. You’ve got to respect her attitude though. She laughed and said it was all part of the adventure!
Labor Day Weekend is the riotous end to vacation season in New England. It’s still summer time during the day with temps in the 80’s, but nights are starting to feel like autumn with temps falling into the mid- to low-40’s. Plants have stopped growing and fruit is ripening for harvest. The city folk are making their last forays into the country before kids go back to school and 4th quarter quotas demand attention. It’s some interesting to see what people will do to squeeze the last bit out of the warm season. As noted, every single one of 300+ campsites are rented. The forest is full of tenters and trailers and pop-ups and motor homes. The riverfront beach and the pool are both crowded with bikini-clad teens and some older women who should know better than to wear those things. The boys are showing off for the girls, and the men are back at their sites drinking beer with their buddies and keeping the campfires burning from 9am to midnight. The little kids are careening around the camp roads on bikes, trikes, and power wheels. People who’ve never been closer to nature than their community square park are kayaking down the Saco River at great risk to life and limb. Couples in color-coordinated Old Navy outfits and flip flops are starting their hiking adventures by attempting to climb Mount Washington (and didn’t they think I was crazy for suggesting different footwear and a backpack with winter jackets?!?!). Families are trying to cram a drive over the Kancamagus Scenic Driveway through the National Forest , a visit to Clark’s Bear Trading Post, and the Conway Railway dinner train, all into one day.
I have to agree with Mrs. Thompson – it’s part of the adventure. And what a wonderful adventure it is to live life to the fullest!
Happy summer! It’s been far too long since I wrote to you, my friend, but working at a campground means that July is VERY BUSY. Everett and I have been working opposite shifts and barely even seeing each other. The camp is full of folks with questions and problems and issues needing resolution, and the phone has been ringing off the hook with more reservations and . . . well, folks with questions and problems and issues needing resolution. I was beginning to get into a downward spiral of frustration with the general idiocy of city folk coming to the country for 3 days. Then I realized that I was missing The Big Picture.
As you know, I am generally a small picture sort of person. I love the minutia, the details, the small peripheral moments that – for me – make life a rich tapestry. But sometimes (like July in a campground) you have to step back from those to look at what’s happening OVERALL to appreciate the full fabric of this wonderful world.
For example – An irritable woman arrived at the front desk around 8:30pm one evening. Her family was already in camp, but she’d had to work later than expected and drive alone from Boston to join them. It was hot. She was alone. She was tired, but still cranked from her day of work and traffic and worry. She snapped at our staff and tried to hurry us through our (admittedly tedious) procedure of issuing her gate pass. She snatched it from my hand when it was ready and was out the door before I could explain how to use it. No surprise then, that when she tried to go through the gate it wouldn’t open for her. She honked her horn and screamed out her car window as I walked the 50 feet or so to the gate to help her. “It doesn’t work!” is about the only thing she said that I can repeat here. I took the pass and scanned it for her and the gate readily popped open. She took a deep breath and I was sure I was in for more screaming. But that tired, tense, anxious and frustrated woman simply took another deep breath and said, “Oh. I moved too fast – it has to be done in CAMP TIME.”
I hope the rest of her stay with us was in camp time, and that she can dip into that pool of peace when she needs it back home. I hope that all our visitors can take their big picture lessons from camp time back to their “real” lives. And I hope that I retain MY big picture lesson to help folks get through the tough moments and the ignorance and negativity that makes lives harder – I need to be on camp time too.
Saturday morning the gear heads and garage rats and even some young steam punks brought out their cars and trucks and tractors and antique engines (like the ones that ran our farms in 1900) and even a couple of steam boats. It was quite a spectacle and Everett took lots of pictures to share with you (see below). The hillside was covered with couples strolling hand in hand, kids running free, old men with their heads together planning next winter’s projects. Some of the kids were the children of the kids who’d been running around a decade ago making friends who became their spouses. You could see the spark of a lifelong obsession with engines ignite in a young man’s eyes as he got under the hood of a truck older than his father. The Lions Club on-site chicken BBQ Saturday evening only cost $10 for half a chicken, roasted corn on the cob dipped in melted butter, potato salad, bread & butter, a slice of watermelon, and a cup of punch. (You’d best be there by 4pm or the tables will be full and the wait will be long.) After supper, folks gathered for live music by Doc Barter’s All Star Wrong Road Band, and the fireworks started after dark. One family brought their portable fire pit out to the center of things. Remember, these are New Englanders – they hadn’t gone to Camping World and spent $89 on a factory made decorative fire pit. They’d salvaged the wash tub from an old Whirlpool clothes washer – it was light weight, tall enough to hold several hour’s worth of wood, and the little holes in the sides let the fire shine through like the twinkling of stars. There were red hot dogs on sticks cooked over the fire and dipped in Ray’s mustard as well as s’mores made with peanut butter cups and stale graham crackers being passed around. You could hear loon calls, small waves lapping at the lakeshore, and (less pleasantly) one hysterical 6-year old whose brother reassured her the spider was really more afraid of her than she was of it. As the fire burned down folks slowly carried sleepy children back to their campsites or cabins, a few hardy souls stayed up to be sure all was secure (or maybe to drink a few more beers), and the women quietly discussed how nice it was that – due to a mysterious lack of internet connections – even the teenagers had spent the day running, swimming, laughing and generally participating with their families. I believe that so long as the Watson Wheels & Water Show (and other events like it across the country) continue to happen every year, the America-we-want-to-be will stay strong and proud and free and there will be hope for the future. It’s not about the engines at all.