This is the sixth part of a serial travelogue entitled How I Spent My Summer Vacation, starring Artificially Sweetened (AS), Cupcake, and me, The Nittany Turkey.
The comfortable quarters at Tam Manor are conducive to getting a good night’s sleep. The outside temperature was cooperating, too. Sleeping with the window open is a rare luxury, something that’s not usually an option in Central Florida. A window air conditioner is installed in the guest room for warmer nights; I used only its fan to provide cross-ventilation and for white noise camouflage for snoring.
I’ve never heard myself snore, so I’m not sure who is the champion at it, AS or I. According to Cupcake, I’m the louder one. I know that she’ll get no argument from Toejam on that subject, based upon the heat I’ve taken when sharing a room with the Tams for football games.
AS and I got up around 9 AM. There is no bathroom competition at that hour, so I strode over Cupcake, who was still bagged and tagged on the floor. (Later, Judy told me she had counseled Cupcake, “Honey, you should move over a little bit so you don’t get stepped on.”) After taking care of business, I went downstairs for coffee and the usual dose of disdainful crap about getting up so late.
The Tams are TV addicts, so the flat-screen in the enclosed patio is always on, usually at about the level of a gas powered mower. The amazing thing is that they do other things while the TV is on. Judy reads and Toejam does Sudoku and crosswords. With all that going on, they can even manage to hold occasional fragmented and disjointed conversations. I think Regis and Kelly was the background entertainment when I arrived on the scene to say my good mornings.
This is not to suggest that the Tams are TV watching perpetual couch potatoes. They’re both avid golfers, they love to travel, and Toejam puts a bunch of miles on his bike most mornings. Although retired, Toejam participates actively in an an engineering technology accreditation team under the auspices of IEEE. Judy is actively involved in fixing and selling her dad’s former house. But when they’re home and not sleeping (sometimes), the TV is always on.
I assumed my position on my favorite chair. Toejam and I discussed things we could do while there, as Regis went off on a rant about Notre Dame or something. Either Regis or Toejam also asked about Cupcake, who, to my knowledge, was still asleep.
The shower at Tam Manor was a late retrofit. The house is an old duplex in which Toejam grew up with his parents and his sister on the other side. When the Tams got married, they threw the tenants out and fixed up this side, in which they still live. Now, the original side is empty, as both parents have passed on and Toejam’s sister departed long ago. The bathrooms in both housing units had tubs, but no showers, so Toejam plumbed an area in the cellar for a prefab fiberglass shower stall. Accordingly, a shower involves four flights of stairs, assuming that one starts and finishes upstairs.
Last night, AS took Cupcake downstairs to acquaint her with the shower. Cupcake doesn’t have to deal with many cellars while living in Florida, so she was creeped out by the experience, but after her initial orientation she didn’t seem to mind going down there. Plus, all Toejam’s power tools were there to play with.
AS made it down shortly after I did. The Tams had made enough coffee for all of us, so we would have her full presence when the caffeine kicked in.
We decided that we would do some Geocaching around Schuylkill County (a.k.a. da Skook) today.
I’ve mentioned Geocaching several times in this travelogue, but I haven’t said much about what it is. Call it what you will, a sport, a game, a hobby, or an obsession, Geocaching is a treasure hunt using GPS satellites to find hidden objects. Before 2000, the accuracy of any civilian GPS receiver was purposely dumbed down for national defense reasons. Since then, the restrictions were lifted such that with a handheld receiver, one can find a small item hidden in the woods, in cities, and in every kind of place one could imagine. There’s even a t-shirt for Geocaching fanatics that reads “I Use Multi-Billion Dollar Military Satellites to Search for Tupperware in the Woods.” All one has to have to get started is web access and a GPS receiver that will accept position coordinates as input. Descriptions of the Geocaches are published on-line. There are well over a million of them worldwide. (For more information, see the Geocaching web site.)
Cupcake showed up, as cheery as ever. She was very polite in the company of her hosts. I was proud of her. She didn’t burp or fart or call them dumbasses.
Toejam was ready to roll. It was late morning, so we would have the afternoon to roam around the county. He asked me if we were ready.
“I was kinda waiting to see if Judy was going to make some lunch,” I replied.
Judy’s sweet voice boomed from the kitchen, “I put breakfast stuff out for yiz! If ya didn’t eat it, tough shit!”
I guess we were on the road. On the way out, Judy asked Toejam when we would be returning, so she knew when to put the lamb on. Joe said we’d be back at 6:00.
Joe wanted to do the driving. That way, I could navigate. Although I had brought a “real” Garmin GPS receiver with me, I have been using a Trimble Geocaching application on my BlackBerry more often than not. I have another application called CacheSense that also does a good job. With those applications, I not only had the coordinates, but also the descriptions, hints, and logs from prior visitors. We were ready for some cachin!
The first cache was in a neighboring town, at a cemetery where a Vietnam memorial had been created. There was a helicopter, a tank, and a memorial sign made from a huge chunk of coal. The rest of the group spread out, looking at all the hardware; meanwhile, I made a bee-line for the cache. Of course, I had the BlackBerry in my greasy little hand.
Geocaching enables us to see sights we wouldn’t ordinarily see. This is great for visitors from other areas, but they’re not the only ones who benefit. Last year, Toejam and I hunted in the woods close to his town, where he has lived all his life, for a Geocache hidden in an old wall built as a WPA project. Toejam had never known of that wall before. So, Geocaching can open up one’s eyes to one’s own surroundings, with surprising revelations!
While we found that first cache, our ongoing performance was not so good. Approaching mid-afternoon, we were about 1:1 on finds versus not-founds. This was consistent with my role as founder of ISAG, which stands for “I Suck At Geocaching,” so it served as a point of pride (or affirmation, as it were).
By that time, we had worked our way into Pottsville, and were searching for a multi-cache whose initial coordinates led us to the Yuengling brewery, which is purported to be the longest continuously operating brewery in the U.S. We learned an interesting fact. During Prohibition, with no revenue coming from beer, Yuengling manufactured and sold ice cream. Can you imagine asking for a Yuengling and getting a scoop of ice cream? I’m merely trying to distract you with this factoid because, alas, we didn’t find that cache, either.
The next cache was a couple of blocks away, and, true to ISAG form, we didn’t find it. We walked to the Masonic Lodge, where there was supposed to be another. Couldn’t find it, either. Yay! I was raising my DNF (Did Not Find) count by leaps and bounds. While AS, Cupcake, and I were ringing up DNFs left and right, Toejam went for the car and said he’d meet us at the location of a cache he and I couldn’t find in a parking lot last year. He thought we’d surely find it this year. (Wanna bet?)
However, the noise of being in the city, the mid-80s mid-afternoon temperature, the humidity, and an impertinent air conditioner that dropped water on AS’s head all conspired to piss her off to the extent that she was done with city caching. Once we reached Toejam, we had already decided that enough was enough in Pottsville. We longed for the wide open spaces.
Back to the “Burma Road” out of St. Clair and up the mountain where Toejam used to play with dynamite and tease copperheads in his youth. Without looking at the GPS, I knew where there was a cache I had found that the ladies hadn’t. I asked Toejam to pull over and showed them where it was. They “found” it, after arguing about who was going into the bushes and who wasn’t.
Our caching became a secondary objective as we realized that we were getting close to our designated ice cream break, which would take us to Heisler’s Cloverleaf Dairy, located in the middle of nowhere, but offering the best ice cream you’ll find for many miles. The plan was to stop for some refreshments and continue caching afterward. Later, we would return to pick up a couple of half-gallons for the freezer at Tam Manor; otherwise, they would melt in the car while we cached. Specifically, this was one of the few dairies that made teaberry ice cream, so we intended to get a half-gallon of it.
We arrived at Heisler’s and went inside to order our stuff. Joe checked the freezer to see that there was some teaberry in there so we could buy it on the way home after our remaining afternoon caching run. He confirmed it, and we all went outside to slurp up our respective cones and dishes of some very good and eminently refreshing ice cream.
After we washed the ice cream off our hands and faces, I sent those three off in search of a very tiny Geocache I had found here on a prior visit. I went to look for it, too, but didn’t see it. However, AS went right to it. Good eyes!
We left and cached on. We went to an abandoned Little League baseball field that was overgrown with weeds. It had been decommissioned in favor of a new one. There was a lot of poison ivy, and after a while, AS and Cupcake got bored with being careful while searching for it. They went exploring, in the process discovering what AS called a waterfall. One of the things I had promised AS and Cupcake was that they would get to see some real waterfalls, but as yet, they had seen none. I told them to look at this thing carefully, because it might be the only one they see.
“You’re mean!” said the Cupcake.
Back to the cache, Toejam and I stayed with the search and I eventually found it. It was in a poison ivy free area. (In those areas, you can get poison ivy for free. That’s a joke, son.)
We found that there was another cache hidden by the new Little League field a few miles away, so we navigated to that location. As we drove there, Toejam told us how the old field had served well and was not obsolete, but there had been some kind of political boondoggle that resulted in a whole new field. Typical! Communities have no money, but their politicians find ways to waste it, anyway. But I digress. As we started looking at our GeoCompass, we noted that it pointed to a large coal pile. Piles of coal tailings are common in Schuylkill County, and many of them have become hiding spots for Geocaches. They’re fun to climb because of the loose coal shards. Footing is treacherous.
This one was perhaps 80 feet high, so we started our ascent, our muscles still weary from intense shopping the prior day. On the way up, we heard some hellacious canine baying. I thought a coyote had lost its pups or something. As it turned out, it was a couple of beagle puppies playing. Is there anything more gratuitously noisy than a beagle? Yeah, two of them. But again I digress. At the top of the pile, I had to relieve my bladder (we all have bladders, you know, but only mine demanded relief atop the coal pile). I picked a spot behind a large pine tree growing out of the flattened top of Mt. Coal a couple hundred feet from where my comrades were, where I could make a puddle in relative privacy while admiring the surrounding scenery. Meanwhile, before I could even get zipped up, AS was finding the cache, giving me another ISAG merit badge. Nevertheless, the coal pile cache afforded us the opportunity for a little exercise and it sure as hell beat caching in noisy Pottsville. Plus, the view was terrific. It was the best experience of the day, ice cream notwithstanding.
Ascending a coal pile is one thing, but descending, one has to sort of trot, as the footing is uncertain at every step. One false step and you slide down the side of the pile on your butt. If you’re wearing light shorts, as we were, it can be a disconcerting experience. However, we made it without incident.
At the bottom we got to talk with the beagles’ owner, a local, who had momentarily lost the hounds in the bushes. He didn’t look like a coyote, though. He told us all about how this area was great blackberry picking ground until they built the damn ball field. That ruined everything. Then, the beagles came bounding out of the woods and we all went our separate ways.
It was getting late, so we pointed ourselves toward Heisler’s for the dinner ice cream. On the way, we pulled off the road for one last cache at a cemetery. It should have been simple, but it wound up as yet another DNF. A fitting end to a nice day of caching. At Heisler’s, Toejam left the car running with the air conditioner on, so we lazy folks could stay comfortable. He went inside and was back a moment later.
“That half-gallon of teaberry that we saw earlier was the last one, and somebody bought it,” reported Toejam. “What other flavor do you want?”
So, there would be no teaberry. We settled on black cherry or some such thing, and in a few minutes we were on our way over the mountain back to Tam Manor. As we closed in on New Philly, I looked at my GPS and determined that we would get to the driveway at precisely 6:00 PM, making good on Toejam’s promise to Judy. He called me a dick for bringing that up. Still, I thought it was remarkable that we were able to get back exactly on time.
Judy was almost ready with the lamb chops, and we were certainly ready for them! I took some pictures, only to be admonished by Judy to “put that fucking thing away and eat!” This made me feel right at home. It was a wonderful meal. To my delight, the Cupcake conceded that Judy’s lamb was better than the rack of lamb I cooked for Cupcake and her siblings for Easter dinner. I didn’t take it as an insult.
After dinner, we had ice cream, of course. We discussed what we would be doing the following day, Thursday. We settled on touring the countryside to enable Cupcake to photograph some hex signs on Pennsylvania Dutch barns, and then we would dip south to hit the heart of Amish country in Lancaster County.
Another good vacation day ended with a little TV and and a lot of bullshit.
Tomorrow, we go south to photograph Pennsylvania Dutch barns, and then truck on to Intercourse, PA, which is sort of the commercialized center of Amish Country. Read about it in our next installment.