Part 1: In which the mountains change character
If you look at a map of Pennsylvania, you will notice that all roads through the central part of the state seem to travel in long parallel curves, sweeping like lines of marching soldiers taking a ”column right.”
In few places in the country do the road maps so accurately reflect the topography: Those highways follow the valleys between the Appalachian ridges that bend through the state. One ridge lies behind another, lined up like so many pleats in a curtain.
The high, wild Appalachians of the South give way to the rural hillsides of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.
The central Appalachians are even pronounced differently. In the South, the middle syllable rhymes with the ”a” of ”apple;” in the North, the ”a” becomes long and rhymes with ”hey,” a word you will hear with increasing frequency the closer you draw to Philadelphia.
So, as the ”Apple-LATCH-ins” give way to the ”Apple-LAY-chins,” the whole character of the land changes. Hardscrabble family farms give way to large dairies. Small gray weatherboard barns give way to large red barns with blue Harvestore silos. Tobacco gives way to coal mining and steel mills.
Finally, as you travel north and east near Philadelphia and New York, the land becomes suburban.
The roads do manage to cross the ridges occasionally, although something as big as the Pennsylvania Turnpike finds it easier to tunnel under Tuscarora and Blue mountains on its way to the flatter eastern portion of the state.
What is more surprising is that at least three major rivers cut through the mountains, too.
The Susquehanna and Delaware rivers in Pennsylvania slice through them in what are called water gaps. The most famous of these, the Delaware Water Gap, knifes through the Kittatinny Ridge and divides its Pennsylvania and New Jersey halves.
And in New York, the Hudson River cuts through the Ramapo and Catskill mountains as it drops south from Albany to Manhattan.
These rivers helped create the history of the area, providing routes for early settlers to cross the difficult mountains.
Most famous among the early settlers are the Pennsylvania Dutch peoples of Lancaster and York counties — although you will find them north well into the mountains. Among them are the Amish and Mennonite ”Plain People” of the popular imagination.
They were German immigrants who began coming to the religious-tolerant commonwealth in the 1600s. Others were Swiss, and French Huguenots.
The Pennsylvania Dutch, though, were not Dutch. They were mostly German, and the German word for themselves, ”Deutsch,” was mistranslated.
By 1790, they made up a third of the state’s population.
But there were many real Dutch immigrants up the Hudson River Valley. Their influence is found in such names as Yonkers, Peekskill, Staatsburg and the Catskills.
All through the region you can find the influence of ethnic groups unheard of in the more culturally uniform Southern mountains: There are Irish, Italian, Spanish and Jewish enclaves in the mountains. It is in the Catskills of New York that the famous ”Borscht Belt” of Jewish resorts gave rise to a whole generation of stand-up comics. Does the name Shecky Greene ring a bell?
What may be surprising, though, is how much nature there is surviving in the central Appalachians. So close to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York City, there are still forest and wild lands.
You can find much of this along the Appalachian Trail as it curls through the region.
The footpath, which begins in Georgia and ends in Maine, enters Pennsylvania near Gettysburg, climbing through the Michaux State Forest and along the ridge of South Mountain. Geologically speaking, this is the northernmost tip of the Blue Ridge. Snowy Mountain, Mount Alto and Pleasant Peak are all just about 2,000 feet high.
The trail crosses the Susquehanna just north of Harrisburg and climbs along Blue Mountain, the largest of the parallel ridges.
There it passes Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, where geology and prevailing winds create a perfect spot to view migrating birds, and especially a series of birds of prey, including Cooper’s, sharp-shinned, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks and bald eagles.
On the ridge, at about 1,500 feet, you can see the quilt of farms and forests that spread out in the valleys below. The gray Tuscarora sandstone is tumbled about the peak, covered by patches of green lichen.
Past the resort-area Poconos, the trail follows the Kittatinny Ridge to the Delaware Water Gap and on into New Jersey, following the wooded northwestern edge of that state past long, clear lakes and Boy Scout summer camps to High Point State Park, at 1,800 feet the highest elevation in the state.
The trail loops to the southeast for a short bit before heading north into New York near Greenwood Lake.
There, it follows the Ramapo Mountain into Harriman and Bear Mountain state parks, finally crossing the Hudson River on the Bear Mountain Bridge before heading north again, across the Taconic Mountains and into New England.
At the bridge, the Appalachian Trail is only 35 miles north of Manhattan and only about 100 feet above sea level.
The woods along the trail are increasingly littered with boulders — chunks of granite or sandstone torn from the bedrock by the continental glaciers of 18,000 years ago. It makes for a beautiful woodland vista, but it is hell for farming.
And unlike the woodlands in the South, cluttered with undergrowth, the woods of Pennsylvania and New York are easy to traipse through. There are rocks underfoot, but not a lot of shrubbery. You step through a cushion of rotting leaves, brown and soft to the sole of your shoe.
It is true that the central Appalachians are less distinctively mountains than their brothers to north and south. They often feel more like hills. Yet the farther you manage to find yourself from the population centers, the more you will uncover the familiar Appalachian culture.
In the plateaus south and east of Pittsburgh, for instance, you still can be eyed suspiciously by a farmer who wonders why you are taking a photograph of his farm. If you hear him talk, you still will hear the short syllables and clipped speech of the mountaineer. You will find homesteads with kitchen gardens and men on autumn weekends walking the gravel back roads with their sons, shotguns slung middle-broke over their shoulders and the two in matching red plaid coats, out for a bit of hunting, hoping perhaps to scare up a turkey.
NEXT: Home of the diner