An adventure in northeast Pennsylvania, Oct 1998
Text by Michael Broschat, with Melissa Meier
Let’s see, how did we manage yet another trip? Let’s blame this one on the Internet. I had acquired a fascination with a now obscure British author named Lord Dunsany, and as I was looking around the Internet one day to see whether anyone else had the same interest, I chanced upon a woman who’d asked someone about this writer. Seeing no answer, I wrote directly to the woman to ask whether she’d gotten an answer. Turned out, her odd email address reflected its Uruguayan origin, and I was soon in communication with a Uruguayan professor of Spanish literature. I was even able to tell her that as I wrote my feeble little words to her, I could see the Uruguayan embassy out the corner of my eye (it’s across the street).
We began corresponding, but more importantly reading together the novel that had started this interest in me. I sent her the English version (which I had created by scanning the physical novel I have here), and she also worked with a Spanish translation she’d found in Buenos Aires. We had a great time, and uncovered many things that each would never have noticed on his/her own. We plan, not entirely seriously, to publish a “definitive edition” some day.
Anyway. She happened to write that she’d be in the United States in early October at a place called Wilkes-Barre. Did I know it? Well, I, for one, had heard of it, and it turns out that Melissa didn’t know much more about it herself, because even though a native of Pennsylvania, she had never gone further north in Pennsylvania than what she calls its “equator.” That certainly had to be remedied. So, Beatriz’ free day coming on a Sunday, we planned to travel first to Philadelphia (we took in the Delacroix exhibit and the American wing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and then to the aforesaid Wilkes-Barre to meet my Internet correspondent. Any excuse for a trip.
We knew she had grown children (and was in fact flying from France, where one of her daughters lives). Turns out, she’s at Montevideo University, and she was at a Charles Dickens(!!) conference to give a paper on a Spanish-language article some famous Argentinian had written upon seeing Dickens speak in Washington, DC!! (just after the Civil War, I think) Small world, eh? She’s focussed, for some years, on English language literature as it has been received by the Latin and South American public.
We knew we needed to find something to do. Beatriz is a bit reserved, and of course we didn’t “know” each other until that moment. Melissa searched the guidebooks not only for something to do but for something open! This was, after all, both a Sunday and also no longer tourist season. We settled on a local national park—Steamtown National Historic Site, just 20 miles or so north, in Scranton. It was a success. An absolutely wonderful place, one of the finest museums I’ve yet seen (perhaps, the Holocaust Memorial is the best designed museum I’ve encountered). A genuine piece of Americana. The steam trains of this late 19th and early to mid 20th century period were proud of their use of anthracite coal, and featured an advertising figure by the name of Phoebe Snow, a beautiful blond woman who wore only white clothes, and who thereby ably showed the benefits of this (almost) soot-free form of transportation.
After they threw us out of there, we ventured on to Melissa’s next idea—a pumpkin farm. Now, I have yet to mention that as we drove up to Wilkes-Barre from Philadelphia, it became Fall. You’ve heard of the famous Fall colors of New England. Well, they’re not currently visible in either DC or Philadelphia, but they begin not far outside that area of northern Pennsylvania. Amazing, really. Millions of trees, all seemingly of different kinds, and all gorgeous. Perhaps because of this, Halloween is the big holiday around there (or so one would guess). I had never, until writing this, made the connection between Fall colors and the colors of Halloween, but it just hit me over the head. No wonder these people revere Halloween. Nearly every house is decorated with everything from pumpkins to broomsticks. For Beatriz, it was a bit like being in a Disneyland bigger even than Disneyland.
We saw a lot of the countryside as we searched in vain for the pumpkin farm. These people had to have gotten their pumpkins from somewhere (in reality, you could almost have picked them up from any field in the vastly fielded countryside). We knew the place was only open until 6, and it was 5 minutes to 6 when we finally pulled into the nearly empty parking lot. The place, especially in the near evening light, was magical—so real but so eerie. All decorated, of course.
As we stepped into the shop, it was like stepping into Santa’s workshop, only Ms Claus was dressed in orange. The place smelled like the kitchens of the grandmothers none of us ever really had. I went into pie mode. I don’t care for pumpkin anything, but Melissa had promised me they’d have apple pie. I moved immediately to the nearly empty pie area, and saw only a cherry pie. “Don’t you have any apple pies?” I nearly cried. “Let me check the oven,” said Ms Claus. “Yes, they’re ready now,” she proclaimed from that little piece of heaven just beyond my reach. We spent several minutes in that place, one of us with a big grin on his face. Beatriz was captivated, too, by this other piece of Americana. Apparently, they don’t have Halloween in Uruguay.
[Edit 2014: I can’t quote from my source, but I’m sure that I read somewhere that Halloween is now a big deal in Uruguay and a whole lot of other countries. We take no credit for this. Just report the facts.]
So, it was dinner time. By American standards, of course. Beatriz told us what we already suspected, that in Uruguay dinner is a 9 o’clock affair. Hey, she had to make concessions, after all. We decided on the ritziest restaurant the AAA guide could recommend for the area. Turned out to be in Scranton, a city nearly twice the size of the 50,000 Wilkes-Barre. The guide told us it was Carmen’s, in the Lackawanna Station Radisson Hotel, a renovated train station; but of course that can be done both well and poorly. This one was good. Very good. The restaurant is located in most of the main waiting area of this very beautiful building. Rooms for the night (or for however long you can afford) ascend up from there.
We might have started at an American time (7), but finished at a European time (10). Melissa and Beatriz share both a fascination with French everything, and also a facility with its language. Turns out, her doctorate came from the Sorbonne—by mail! Uruguay does not have an institution that grants the PhD, so she invoked an earlier French connection, and wrote her dissertation for a French professor. Our conversation thus turned on things French and things Dunsany.
We said goodnight and also goodbye (she left early the next morning for New York), and spent the night in Wilkes-Barre. Then, we wound our way home through the most amazing small roads in Pennsylvania. They’re on the map and even have numbers, but they’re the roads that go by the Foster farm and the Wilson farm and, oh yes, Grandma Perkins place—you know, the old woman who makes the great doughnuts (and Diffenbach’s homemade potato chips). We would have stopped in to say hello, but realized it would have taken several months. The countryside has to be experienced to be believed. We appeared to be seeing a rather large concentration of dairy farms. At one point, a colorfully dressed Mennonite woman came out into the road (visible for a half mile or so), and held up her hands to stop the traffic. Being the only car for miles, we dutifully obeyed. As we approached the point of stopping, we saw the reason—a herd of cattle needed to cross the road. It was just like being in the middle of a fairy tale. I was even pleased to see one of them go back across and moo before returning to her buddies in the new pasture. Independence among the cows.
The reason for the large number of dairy farms became clear with the next Melissa surprise—Hershey Park. You know, where they make all (and I mean _all_) those candy bars. Milk is a very big component, and they’re proud to be getting at least some of their supplies from the immediate vicinity. We had seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory just the night before, so knew what to expect. Besides, Melissa had spent much of her childhood there. It was fun, but we were tired not-kids-anymore by the time we made it to the car and started on the final leg home.
The boss hounds are baying at my door (that’s resume speak for: I’ve started looking for work and one of these days I’m going to hear from someone), so we don’t know how much more traveling we’ll get to do. Fortunately, our part of the East Coast is rich in local interest, so we’ll find more to do closer to home.
Hope all is well with you…