Thursday, July 31, 2008

27. Massachusetts

Mother Nature blessed us with a torrential dumping on July 24. Fortunately, that was our stay-in-camp day to relax, tidy up the rolling abode and do some travel planning. The next day was beautiful. We got an early start and drove through southern New York, over the Hudson River, through Connecticut and Rhode Island, and arrived at the Canoe River Campground in Massachusetts in mid-afternoon.

The campground is fairly large but we arrived on Friday and nearly all the sites were full of summer weekend campers. We were lucky to get a spot next to Earl’s fifth-wheel. Earl is single and a truck driver. He grew up in Providence, Rhode Island and has lived in this campground for five years in his trailer. Earl is one of those interesting characters that we occasionally come across in campgrounds. He drives an old rusty Cadillac stretch limo and keeps a flock of more than 40 ducks as pets. The ducks waddle around, chase each other and quack a lot, but don’t cause any trouble. They amuse the other campers and kids love to chase them. During the five days we were there, a momma duck laid half a dozen eggs in a little nest about five feet from our RV and sat on them the whole time (photo below). We left before they hatched. Earl has a sign posted in front of his trailer that says, “Welcome Friends – Now Leave”. That says a lot about Earl.

We targeted four places during our stay in Massachusetts; Hyannisport, Fall River, Newport and Plymouth. Each was different and interesting in its own way.

Hyannisport: Our campground was about 50 miles from Hyannisport, home of the Kennedy clan. Senator Edward Kennedy was recently treated for brain cancer, so we thought we’d go down and wish him well. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and half of Massachusetts seemed to be heading for Cape Cod. We ran into a ton of stop-n-go freeway traffic but made it to Hyannisport. After a quick burger at Mr. Dude’s, we caught a harbor cruise on the Prudence that took us out into the ocean to view sailboats, coastal homes and the Kennedy compound.

Around the corner and along a stretch of nice beach was a line of big beach homes, including the Kennedy compound. The main Kennedy house is the large white one with the multiple gables. That's where Senator Ted lives. The next photo is Ted's sailboat. According to the tour guide, he sails often.

After the tour we drove down the beach to Kennedy Memorial Park. It's a very nice little park with a bronze memorial plaque on the rock wall behind the fountain and lots of rose bushes and other gardens overlooking the ocean.

We also snooped around the neighborhood to see how close we could get to the Kennedy compound. There were no high walls or gates and we got within a block or so before encountering discouraging signs. The Senator wasn’t home anyway, so we didn’t stop to chat.

Fall River: Ron likes to climb around on old Navy ships, so we drove down to Battleship Cove in Fall River. The destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy was on display, along with the attack submarine USS Lionfish and battleship USS Massachusetts. Inside the battleship was a small museum and memorial to Massachusetts residents who gave their lives in World War II and the Persian Gulf War.

We came across an unexpected surprise next to the Navy pier. Inside a special Victorian building was a restored 1920 carrousel, complete with four dozen hand-carved horses and a genuine Wurlitzer organ. It was a real gem. There were very few people there so we paid our dollar and went for a ride. For a few minutes we felt like kids again.

Newport, Rhode Island: South of Fall River and Providence and on a hill overlooking the ocean and Narragansett Bay is Newport, home of the rich and famous. Among the many beautiful homes are some of the finest mansions anywhere. The king of the mansions, and most popular tourist stop, is The Breakers. The first home by that name was built for tobacco businessman P. Lorillard. In 1885, Cornelius Vanderbilt II bought the house for $450,000. At that time, he was chairman of the New York Central Railroad and director of 49 other railroads. At that time, the Vanderbilts were the richest family in America. After the house burned down in 1892, Vanderbilt hired architects to build the present 70-room “summer home”. The house has the dimensions of a hotel, but the details and personality of a home. The central Great Hall is at least 3,000 sq. ft in area with 45 foot high ceilings, heavy chandeliers and lots of paintings and detailed carvings. The 2,400 sq. ft. formal dining room has two priceless 12 ft. chandeliers made by French glassmakers Cristalleries Baccarat. The dining table can be extended to seat up to 34 guests. Simply incredible. [No photos allowed inside.]Outside the main house is a children’s playhouse (below) with all the details of a full-scale house, and some extras. Note the carved porch posts. There was also a separate house for the manager who managed the household and all the cooks, maids, groundskeepers and other servants that kept the place going.

We also toured Marble House, which was built for Alva Vanderbilt, a local society hostess and a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. Her husband William Vanderbilt gave her the house as a birthday gift. She divorced him three years later and married another Newport millionaire. This house was built primarily of marble in all colors. Much of it was brought by ship from Europe and cut and shaped by Italian workers on the site. The house is hard and cold but is lavishly decorated and very impressive inside and out. It cost $11 million to build in 1892. Imagine what it would cost in today’s dollars. Again, photos weren't allowed inside, but the house is incredible. Bonnie bought a book describing all the great mansions of Newport.

Downtown Newport is also a fun place to look around, shop and get a bite to eat. The old part of town still has original cobblestone streets and lots of old buildings.

Plymouth: A couple months ago we were in St. Augustine, America’s oldest continuous community. As a follow-up, we had to visit Plymouth to see where the Pilgrims landed in 1620. Plymouth is very attractive with some of the oldest buildings in the country and its harbor full of boats. It's a very pleasant and comfortable community to visit.

The Mayflower II, a replica of the original ship, is moored at a pier a block from the Plymouth Rock monument. It was actually sailed across the Atlantic in the 1950s and is now a tourist attraction.

Do you remember Massasoit from your history books? His statue stands in a small park overlooking the harbor and Plymouth Rock. He was the Indian who gets most of the credit for assisting the Mayflower immigrants. Many of them died during the first winter and they all might have died if they weren’t helped by the local Indians. Sadly, the newcomers later turned on the Indians, killed many of them and took their land. A plaque next to Massasoit explains that the local Indians now congregate on Thanksgiving Day each year as a day of mourning.

We had a very nice relaxing day in Plymouth. We had lunch at the Lobster Hut overlooking the harbor. Bonnie had her first lobster roll, which is a hot ticket food item in this area. Most eateries offer lobster, crab or clam rolls. Thanks to high gas prices, bad economy and reduced tourism, the price of lobster is lower than average this summer, which means we can eat more. That’s good news for us.

We liked Massachusetts a lot. The people were all very nice and friendly, the countryside is woodsy and pretty and there’s lots more to do and see than we had time for.

Monday, July 28, 2008

26. The Big Apple

Frank Sinatra sang, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” We were in the neighborhood, so we wanted to pay a visit to the “Big Apple” . . . New York City. We camped in the village of Florida, New York, about 50 mi. north of the city. Florida’s claim to fame is the former home of Mr. Seward who was largely responsible for the purchase of Alaska (Seward”s Folly). But that’s another story.

We chose the Black Bear RV Park because a guy named Al runs a van tour of New York right from the campground. His all-day tour began at 8:00 am. Al provided a non-stop flow of factual information and interesting stories about the city as he drove us down the New Jersey Turnpike, past the Giants stadium in The Meadowlands, past Sinatra’s home town of Hoboken and to Liberty State Park and the ferry terminal for a boat ride to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Along the way he pointed out huge mounds of new industrial lands that were once “worthless wetlands” but, after years of channel dredging and sanitary landfilling, are now productive industrial lands. (Not wanting to ruin the tour, we withheld our comments.)

Many of the European immigrants stayed in New York, but most were sent to this New Jersey terminal where they boarded trains for other parts of the country. The old rails and train sheds remain but are deteriorated and weed infested.

Ellis Island was one of the most interesting places we visited. The immigration station on the island opened in 1892 and processed about 12 million immigrants who came to America looking for new opportunities and better lives. This process only lasted until the 1920s when most of the operation was transferred to the U.S. consulates.

The old buildings deteriorated until the 1980s when the main building was restored and opened as a museum telling the immigration story. It now contains lots of old photos and documents and it’s a very fascinating place to visit, especially for those who had an ancestor enter the country through Ellis Island.

The ferry ride from Ellis Island to Liberty Island took only a few minutes and offered front porch views of the city and harbor activities from the Brooklyn Bridge to Verrazano Narrows. It was an overcast day but the rain held off.

It was a special feeling to finally set foot on Liberty Island, at the base of its famous statue, which was a gift from France in 1886. It was very interesting and, to many, an emotional experience. Visitors can no longer climb into the statue itself, but that was okay. Just being there was good enough.

Al drove us through the Holland Tunnel and into the heart of Manhattan. Our first stop was “Ground Zero”, the site of the former twin towers of the World Trade Center. We walked around the area and looked through the heavy steel fence into the massive pit. It was hard to find a good picture angle, but you can see that the rubble is gone and the new “Freedom Tower” is under construction. When finished around 2011, the tower will reach a height of 1,776 feet. The Empire State Building is about 1,250 feet high.

St. Paul’s Chapel dates back to the 1700s. George Washington attended church there. His pew and personal chair are still there to see. The chapel is near the Ground Zero site and was one of the most important staging areas during the 9/11 tragedy. Today, it has memorials to those who lost their lives.
The final piece of steel salvaged from the twin towers was in the shape of a cross and has been placed near the chapel as another memorial. Several other wall sculptures and murals adorn nearby buildings. The Sept. 11, 2001 event made an impact on New York City that will never be forgotten.

Al drove us all around Manhattan, through the financial district, up the East River, past the Brooklyn Bridge, along the west side of Central Park, and past the Empire State Building, Trump Towers and other interesting sites.

We spent some time walking around Times Square and the Broadway theater district. This was a pretty intense part of town, especially on Wednesday which is matinee day at the theaters. Traffic was near gridlock, horns were honking (against the law in NYC), pedestrians were scurrying in all directions, bicycle taxis were weaving in and out of traffic, sidewalk vendors were selling their wares on the walkways, and street sweeping guys with rolling cans were cleaning the streets and gutters. The huge animated flashing signs of Times Square seemed out of control to us, after spending years dealing with sign regulations in our jobs. The total combination of sights and sounds was a challenge to the nerves and senses. It’s a different world.

We were advised not to drive downtown. It was good advice. Al gave us a white-knuckle ride that left us impressed with his ability to weave his van through heavy traffic and wedge it into the tightest places, inches from other vehicles, pedestrians, utility poles, etc. New York drivers are very assertive and not at all polite. They have no respect for bicycles or pedestrians. In turn, cyclists weave in and out of traffic and pedestrians J-walk everywhere. Many of the downtown streets are one lane with parking on both sides. It’s very congested. Driving in the Big Apple requires a different set of skills. It’s not for the timid. Al does it every day.

We left Manhattan around 5:00 pm. We didn’t think we’d ever get out of town during rush hour. But, once we got out of downtown, it was an uneventful ride back to the campground. Freeways flowed smoothly and Al put on a Joni James cassette tape for our listening enjoyment. Just before arriving at the campground, he played Frank Sinatra’s classic “New York, New York”. It was the perfect ending to a full and interesting day. Our one-day tour barely scratched the surface of New York, but gave us a quick overview. Maybe we'll return some day and take in a Broadway show or a game at the new Yankee Stadium. In the meantime, we're happy to continue into New England in search of a good lobster dinner.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

25. Pennsylvania and the Amish

We associated Pennsylvania with the Amish, but really didn’t know much about them. Amish people were often characterized as a strange clan of very religious but poorly educated folks who made sturdy furniture and fine quilts but refused to adopt the conveniences and lifestyles of modern society. Since that’s what we heard, we wanted to learn more about their unique lifestyle and see their farms and products. So, we headed west toward the largest settlement in Pennsylvania in the vicinity of Lancaster.

The terrain changed from flat to rolling hills as we got into Amish country. Small farms dotted the landscape and each was surrounded by its own patchwork of mixed crops and woodlands. It was some of the prettiest countryside we had seen so far. The farms were very neat and well-kept. Most had good sized farmhouses, a barn or two, a couple silos and an assortment of farm animals. Not all of the farms were Amish. If there were no utility lines going to the house and a buggy or wagon was parked in the yard instead of a pick-up truck, it was most likely an Amish farm. We saw lots of horse-drawn buggies along the country roads and in town.

Mennonites and Amish share similar backgrounds and customs. They live and work side by side in the area. The Old Order Amish are the ones we see on post cards and calendars. They are very religious and stick closely to the old traditional ways. The men typically wear overalls with solid color shirts (usually blue) and black hats. The women wear long solid color dresses and small bonnets. Amish men are expected to grow beards after they’re married. Older men who have failed to marry, may also grow beards as a sign of their maturity.

We saw an excellent movie and picked up some literature at the Amish/Mennonite Information Center. Bonnie loves horses and wanted to ride in one of the buggies. So we hopped aboard a horse-drawn wagon for a back roads tour of the countryside.

Our driver/guide was a young Mennonite bachelor with several earrings, a plaid shirt and good sense of humor. He explained that Mennonites aren’t as strict as the Amish. They wear colorful clothing, drive cars, use electricity and tend to blend in better. Both groups encourage their kids to leave the nest and explore the world after finishing their 8th grade education. Some find the outside world to their liking, but many return to the family. Once they decide to stay with the faith, they are baptized. If an Amish member decides to leave after being baptized, he/she is usually banned and not allowed to return. When they marry, it’s for life with no provisions for divorce. You have to be seriously dedicated to faith and family to be Amish.

Our guide explained that the Amish are determined to remain as independent as possible and refuse to be hooked up to the electric system. They can provide everything their family needs on a 65 acre farm and they manage very well without electricity in their homes. If they have more acreage, they raise additional produce and animals to sell. Horses are essential for farm work and for transportation so they are very careful to take good care of their horses. Our guide was a horse dentist for a while and gave us an overview of what that job entails.

While the men of the family are out tilling the fields and tending to the livestock, the women are taking care of the domestic chores. They are also producing beautiful quilts, canned and baked goods, jams and jellies and other things that fill the local stores. The quilts are works of art and the ones we looked at were selling in the $1,000 to $2,000 range. It would be nice to know how many hours of work went into them. The cultural center of Amish country seemed to surround the small towns of Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse. Tourists like to have their pictures taken by the latter's town sign. Both towns are rich in small stores, quilt museums, farmers markets, buffet style restaurants and very nice old brick buildings.

Many Amish women and young girls work in the stores. It was also interesting to learn that they have adopted cell phones as one of their tools. It makes their work much easier. They get around the electrical hurdle by having a non-Amish friend take the phones home with them to charge them up for the next day.

Workers use mechanical horse-drawn farm machinery in the fields and small buggies trot along the roads, oblivious to the cars, trucks and motorcycles that surround them.

It appeared to us that the Amish and Mennonites continue to enjoy their simple productive lifestyle. But we couldn’t help feeling that they are being caught in a sqeeze. New growth, development, traffic and congestion are closing in. We also noticed lots of non-Amish businesses that are cashing in on the Amish image. Many stores sell quilts, furniture and other items that are not authentic Amish products. We also noticed a certain amount of disrespect. Some stores carry amusing (but insulting) products such as bobble-head Amish, goofy Amish cartoon figures, funny dolls, etc. They don’t deserve that. Based on our observations, the Amish are simple quiet productive people who prefer to live in a manner that's different than ours. They came here from Europe to exercise that freedom and, as long as it works well for them, we hope they’ll be able to continue their choice of lifestyle well into the future.

The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania was a few miles from our campground. Ron didn’t know it was there, so it was a pleasant surprise and became a “must see” item on our list. It was a terrific accumulation of old full-sized engines, train cars and other railroad related memorabilia.

After a couple hours in the museum we went across the highway to the depot and boarded an old train for a slow ride through the farm country on one of the oldest RR rights-of-way in the country.

We’ve probably eaten our weight in Hershey chocolate over the years. So, we took a side trip to the factory in Hershey, PA, not far from the capital city of Harrisburg. We expected the usual factory tour, but were a little surprised and disappointed at what we found. It was a huge Chocolate World complex, consisting of a Disneyland-like amusement park ($47 admission), a chocolate museum, a food court, gift shops and other candy-related things that we really didn’t need to see. We did go on the free “simulated” tour of the factory. It whisked us through in a matter of minutes on a roller-coaster like conveyor complete with animation, hi-tech video and continuous singing of candy songs. It was obviously designed with kids in mind, and the place was full of kids. It was a unique experience indeed.

Bonnie’s niece Nancy and her husband Ed invited us to visit them in their new home in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. They let us park the RV in their driveway next to the pool, which was very convenient. They also let us take a refreshing swim and lounge around for a few days. Ed came to our rescue and replaced some broken bolts that were holding a stabilizer bar under the motor home. It steers a lot better now. Thanks again, Ed. They were great hosts and we had a very nice time there.

Ed’s company was having its annual picnic that weekend, so we tagged along. It was held at Knoebel’s Amusement Park. It’s an old park with roller coasters, carousels, flume rides, a ferris wheel, lots of food, etc., and no parking or admission fees! It’s located in a heavily wooded little valley far from freeways and urban areas. It was a hot day and the place was full of people having a good time.
Ed and Nancy took us on a long all-day tour of the farms, covered bridges and small towns of central Pennsylvania. Many of the farms were Amish, but without the tourism that they would have to put up with in Lancaster. We were amazed at all the beautiful large old homes in the small towns, and the very low prices. Ron was ready to buy and renovate a few of these relics.

Ed also took us through his hometown of Shamokin, an old coal mining town. It has seen better days, but is still very interesting in its classic architecture and narrow streets. We had some really good pizza at James Pizza, a small old corner tavern that probably hasn’t changed much in 50 years. Ed’s dad was a regular there.
After lunch at a roadside cafe with Ed and Nancy along the Susquehanna River, and a great week or so in Pennsylvania, it was time to move on down the road once again.