Marietta Schirf was my dad’s youngest sister. He said he didn’t know how she snuck into the Armed Forces because he was sure she didn’t meet the minimum height requirement.
At a 1980s July 4th concert on Capitol Hill, E. G. Marshall officiating, veterans by branch were asked to stand up. When the turn came for the Air Force, she stood and whooped, to the surprise of our neighbors on the grass. I asked why Air Force, and she answered she’d been in the Army Air Corps. That’s the first I’d heard that.
Aunt Marietta died in the mid-90s. How she would have appreciated the resources of the internet. She once took me to the Library of Congress to look up articles on sugalite.
I will have to look up Front and Center. On the internet.
In December I’d checked out Horseshoe Curve from the parking lot, but hadn’t been up to the top since September 1988 — er, 31 years ago . . . Not long after, a visitor center and 288-foot funicular were built and opened in 1992. Not knowing anything about the funicular, I was surprised to find it doesn’t run constantly, only on the hour and half hour.
We spent about 15 to 20 minutes looking over the exhibits while waiting. I appreciated the one showing how the Curve had been carved out — I’ve never been able to visualize it or how it would have looked before. Another highlighted the wreck of the Red Arrow in 1947, which killed two dozen and injured more than 100.
The funicular cabins, which were made in the Durango and Silverton Railroad shops in Colorado, ascend and descend at the same time. They pass at a circle part of the way up (or down). I expected the cabin to veer to its right, but they swing to the left to pass. Very British.
Up top the cars from the summer derailments (two!) are visible but not close. We’d picked up a list of scheduled trains at the visitor center, but am not sure we matched any that went by to it — certainly not the “Oscar” (trash train) heading west. In addition to the Oscar, we saw an intermodal plus helper locomotives returning in pairs as they do. No Amtrak — the eastbound Pennsylvanian had gone through earlier. I’d be on the westbound Pennsylvanian later in the afternoon, while it was still daylight.
While we watched the trains we found ourselves plugging our ears. One thing I didn’t remember from all those years ago was the screech of metal on metal, the wheels and brakes as they fight the curve and the incline.
It seemed fitting we got a wave from the locomotive of the last train we saw — one of the few times I’ve seen a woman engineer.
Our final shopping stops were Hillside Farm, where I bought whoopie pies, and Ridgeside Cider Mill, where V. picked up their first cider of the season and I added to my soap collection.
Years ago a relative had posted about Tytoona Cave (more formally, Tytoona Natural Area Cave Preserve), the name an awkward mashup of “Altoona” and “Tyrone.” Previously, its location had seemed a mystery to me, and December wasn’t the best time to visit it. I’d looked again recently and found out it’s connected (more or less) to Arch Spring in Sinking Valley which my cousin had pointed out to me a couple of years ago. Now I could find it easily on Google Maps — as it turns out, it’s on T495 off Kettle Road, less than a half mile from Ridgeside Cider Mill. Off we went.
There’s a slight cutout parking area, with the trail entrance marked by green barrels. Steps, some eroded, built in 2001 by the Tytoona Cave Preserve Committee and members of the Huntingdon Co. Cave Hunters, lead down into the sinkhole. Normally a stream flows into the cave, but it was bone dry. This made walking in without hiking shoes a lot easier.
If you walk far enough into the cave, you can sign a register. I didn’t make it nearly that far. I didn’t have a flashlight, and was surprised by how dark it became a short way in. It’s easy to see why people in Tytoona Cave videos wear helmets with headlamps — it’s too dark to see the low ceiling that your head will hit.
The stream bed through the sinkhole may have been dry, but there was running water somewhere in the darkness. In this video, the cave walls and ceiling amplify the sound, but I suspect the cave’s water would make a respectable noise without the help.
It felt weird and creepy to hear water rushing nearby without being able to see it. If I’d had a light, a helmet, and a better physique, I wonder if I could have gone as far as the register or even the first sump . . .
On the way out, we saw a poster about Pennsylvania bats. Short version: Tytoona Cave is not the best place to find them.
And so back to packing for the return trip on the Pennsylvanian and Capitol Limited.
First, we returned to Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, where the buildings were open. The center has a discovery room with amphibians and reptiles.
On the earlier visit, we hadn’t noticed the raptor aviary behind the main building. Shaver’s Creek is home to a surprising variety of raptors — peregrine falcon(s?); bald and golden eagles; broad-winged, red-shouldered, and red-tailed hawks; barn, barred, eastern screech, and great horned, screech owls; and black and turkey vultures. My favorite was black vulture Matilda. I’m not sure I’ve seen one in flight ; turkey vultures are more common at this latitude. I know I’ve never seen one this close up. No photo due to the cage, but Matilda has a surprisingly sweet face attached to her bald head. The darker coloring may make them more appealing than turkey vultures to human eyes.
Before leaving, I sat by the windows overlooking bird feeders. As seems to happen to me, a hummingbird flew up, looked at me tauntingly, and flew off before I could take a photo. Typical.
Off to elk country in Benzette (sometimes “Benzett”). This time we didn’t see any elk at the campground. We made a stop at the visitor center, where tables with local goods had been set up next to the gift shop. It was here I discovered Moonshine Chocolate . . .
At the Winslow Hill overlook, we didn’t see anything at first, but a handful of turkeys and a white-tailed deer family (buck, doe, two older fawns) appeared.
After we ate dinner at the Benezette Hotel (where none of us ordered the elk burger), this one crossed the road while following others into the woods.
In another place, we joined a little crowd watching a small herd at some distance, including nursing offspring.
In all. we counted 45 to 50 elk (or wapiti), including this last one on a rise next to the road.
When I visited Pine Creek Gorge (Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon) in 2015, I hadn’t expected to return. My cousin and his wife suggested a trip there, so off we went. A stop in Wellsboro for lunch was my idea. After visiting Wellsboro in 2015, I’d read it’s one of Pennsylvania’s most picturesque towns. Soon after that, I’d heard about the Wellsboro Diner, which looks like an old rail car but likely isn’t. I never thought I’d be able to go there and am grateful for the chance to put away a grilled cheese and a side of cottage cheese. (I’m strange.)
Wellsboro itself seemed busy, perhaps due to a lot of road construction. I think it’s best approached from the west, where it seems like a surprise after miles of hills and countryside.
I remembered a red church on the way to Leonard Harrison State Park and asked to stop there again. A room, still in progress it appears, had been added to the back since 2015. This church is so distinctive the state park gift shop sells postcards of it. From the back of one of them:
Before entering Leonard Harrison State Park at the PA Grand Canyon, one will pass The Little Red Church. This landmark was buil in 1897, and donns [sic] eight beautiful stained glass windows. Because bricks were expensive, it was built of basswood siding with dado cuts to resemble brick. Electricity was installed in 1954.
Our next stop was Leonard Harrison State Park with its visitor center and gorge overlooks. No spring flowers this time, but the views of the now second-growth forest that’s covered the scars of 19th- and 20th-century clear-cutting are inspiring. If I lived in the area and were more mobile, I’d take the trail down past waterfalls and other wonders. (And, of course, have to take it back up.)
As we headed out, we passed a statue I didn’t remember from 2015 — a tribute to Civilian Conservation Corps workers. It appears the CCC was active all over the Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, replanting Pine Creek Gorge and building the facilities at our next destination, Colton Point State Park on the western rim.
I had not gone to Colton Point in 2015. It’s described as more “rustic” or “primitive” than Leonard Harrison — take your pick. Not surprisingly the road up to Colton Point is twisty with steep drop-offs. At the top it turned into a choice of more “rustic” roads. We looked for an overlook and found a couple of places where you could see a little through the trees. We found only one parking area nearby, and someone had managed to crowd both spaces.
We noticed the same rocky wall we’d seen from Leonard Harrison. I read later that when the trees are bare Pine Creek Gorge sports more of a western canyon look.
When we got back to the main road/entrance, we saw what I had half noticed before — a small parking lot. Across from the parking lot? A fancy overlook with a view rivaling those from Leonard Harrison across the way.
As we stood in the circular overlook, which reminded me of Letchworth State Park in New York minus the waterfall, a parade of heavy construction vehicles headed past us uphill — strange, we thought, since it was now late afternoon. We tried to imagine them navigating the narrow “rustic” roads through the trees at the top. I wondered why they were there. Rustic road repair?
We visited my parents’ graves at Logan Valley Cemetery, located across from the high school. A cousin I haven’t seen in decades had left flowers at my dad’s grave. His flag holder for veterans still has a metal medallion. The newer medallions are plastic thanks to theft. Once upon a time I was young enough to find it shocking someone would steal the flag holder from a veteran’s grave.
In Sinking Valley, this little mare and her young’un attract customers to Hilltop Farm. There’s also a wee donkey.
On to Whipple Dam State Park, which was new to me. It’s yet another part of our legacy from the Civilian Conservation Corps. As it was Labor Day and central Pennsylvania isn’t rich with beaches, a college-age crowd had gathered at Whipple Dam’s postage stamp of sand to play volleyball and stand in the relatively shallow water. Despite the crowd, the surrounding woods gave the lake and beach an isolated feeling that reminded me of Pewit’s Nest in Wisconsin.
We’d passed the road to Shaver Creek Environmental Center and stopped on the way back. The buildings were closed for the holiday, so we relaxed on the deck’s Adirondack chairs. I kept hoping to hear a creek.
On the way to the park, V. spotted a plant she thought might be teaberry (ICE CREAM!). According to the folks of iNaturalist, it’s partridgeberry. Pretty, but perhaps not as weirdly tasty as teaberry. If you can’t get teaberry ice cream, try Clark’s teaberry gum. You won’t thank me, I think. It’s an acquired taste, associated with childhood 50 years ago.
My journeys on the Capitol Limited and Pennsylvanian were uneventful. The Capitol Limited arrived in Pittsburgh 40 to 50 minutes before the Pennsylvanian left, so it was a little close — but no Greyhound this time. I got my eastbound trip around Horseshoe Curve, although by looking to the inside I missed the derailed center beams on the outside – on both sides. (There were two derailments at the Curve this summer.)
I arrived in plenty of time to go on an outing to load up on spring water at Elk Run near Tyrone. Many, many bald-faced hornets were feasting on the plants by the stream.
We also stopped at a farm in Sinking Valley to pick up what turned out to be the last corn on the cob of the season and later shuck it for an evening “mountain pie/hotdog cookout and corn boil.” I wish I’d taken a photo of my ham and cheese mountain pie. Delish.
December 27, 2017: After seeking elk in the outlying areas of Benezette, we found a little herd at the campgrounds in town, which they favor. I handed my phone off to my cousin, who was in a better position to capture them. Benezette is part of the area that’s been rebranded “Pennsylvania Wilds” to attract adventurous tourists of the have kayak, will travel variety.