Tag Archives: john burroughs

 Part 3: A chance to pull overroadside america exterior


The central Appalachians — through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York — is the natal home of the cheesy roadside attraction. Many are now gone, but many also remain, often looking cheesier and more shopworn than ever. The Catskill Game Farm is no longer there, but Santa’s Workshop is still going strong.

They are also home to many early resorts and vacation hotels, pitched on mountain ranges not far outside the cities of Philadelphia or New York, where urban dwellers could spend a week or two breathing healthy mountain air — the Poconos or the Catskills.

And hikers can follow trails through the many state parks, or the long Appalachian Trail, which courses through the three states, weaving a path that avoids urbia and suburbia and finds the long, bent ridge lines of the breadloaf mountains.

Roadside America

Roadside America

This section of the Appalachians is the most highly populated, but there are still bits of woods and rock. But that population also meant it was economically feasible to build those legendary roadside attractions — Crystal Caves and Frontier Towns — that once punctuated the now-forlorn backroads and highways.

The quintessential tourist mecca is Roadside America in Shartlesville. It is a model-train layout the size of a department store. Opened in 1941, the exhibit is run by the descendants of its creator. Stay for the simulation of night, when all of the buildings light up and Kate Smith sings God Bless America while a spotlight shines on the Statue of Liberty. roadside america 4

Not much can live up to that. But there is the Sturgis Pretzel House in Lititz, which is the nation’s oldest operating pretzel factory, where you can learn the craft.

Also in Lititz are the Wilbur Chocolate factory and the Heritage Map Museum. wilbur chocolate facade

In nearby Ephrata is the Ephrata Cloister, which has a dozen well-preserved 250-year-old wooden buildings, including dormitories for the communal society of religiously celibate German Pietists.

In York, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, you can visit the Weightlifting and Softball Hall of Fame and the Harley-Davidson assembly plant and museum.

In Columbia, there is the Watch and Clock Museum, and Meadeville is the ”birthplace of the zipper.”

And near Harrisburg, Three Mile Island and its remaining nuclear power plant is on the Susquehanna River. Gettysburg, Pa copy

More serious sites include Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg and the Johnstown Flood National Memorial near Johnstown, where the National Park Service is showing its version of an Imax-style film with stunning special effects re-creating the devastating 1889 flood that killed more than 2,000 people.

Only a slice of the Appalachians cuts through New Jersey. The most important stop is the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area along the Delaware River. There are some exhibits, 200 miles of roads through the mountain country and uncounted hiking paths. high point state park

High Point State Park is the highest point in the state. Both it and the Water Gap include portions of the Appalachian Trail, the 2,000-mile footpath that runs along the Appalachian crest from Georgia to Maine.

The rest of New Jersey’s mountains are kind of pathetic: The Watchung Mountains in the center of the state peak out at 879 feet above sea level.

Kaaterskill Falls

Kaaterskill Falls

But New York, home to the Catskills and the Adirondacks, is one of the champions of roadside kitsch. There are dinosaurs, giant lumberjacks, recreated 19th century villages and Niagara Falls — the granddaddy of all vacation (and honeymoon) hucksterism.

Santa’s Workshop in North Pole, N.Y., is called the oldest theme park in the U.S. It opened in 1949 and used to have a petting zoo. There are dozens of Santalands and Christmas villages around the country, but this one, in northern New York, was the first, and it still gives an idea of the old-fashioned roadside attraction that has been eaten up by the Disney Worlds and Five Flags of the world.

Washington Irving wrote about the Dutch settlers of the Hudson Valley in such stories as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. His estate in Tarrytown is called Sunnyside and is a delightful look at life in the early part of the last century.



A little farther north and on the other side of the river are Harriman and Bear Mountain state parks. Seven Lakes Drive takes you through the crisp lake country of Harriman, and Perkins Drive takes you to the summit of Bear Mountain, where, on a clear day, you can see as far as Manhattan.

Just north of Bear Mountain Bridge is the National Military Academy at West Point, with its parade grounds, faux medieval architecture and stunning view of the Hudson River and Storm King Mountain.

And naturalist John Burroughs’ birthplace and final home are commemorated in the John Burroughs Memorial Field, near Roxbury. On the way, don’t miss Kaaterskill Falls, one of the most famous and oft-painted waterfalls in the country.

John Burroughs' Woodchuck Lodge, Roxbury, NY

John Burroughs’ Woodchuck Lodge, Roxbury, NY

And in Cooperstown, there is not only the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Fenimore House, the home of James Fenimore Cooper, best known as the man who invented John Wayne — aka Leatherstocking, Hawkeye, the Pathfinder and Natty Bumppo — and the Farmer’s Museum and Village Crossroads, home to the Cardiff Giant, greatest archaeological hoax of all time. cardiff giant recumbent

NEXT: New England Appalachians

John Burroughs at Slabsides

John Burroughs at Slabsides

I doubt if you’ve ever heard of John Burroughs.

He died as an old, old whitebeard in 1921. Not many people now alive recognize his name.

But between the Civil War and his death, Burroughs was the most popular and respected writer in America on natural subjects.

His 23 volumes of essays sold millions of copies for his publisher, Houghton Mifflin. They sold in such profusion, in such a variety of formats, that they can still be found fairly easily in used-book stores. Many also remain in print.

I mention Burroughs because we share a connection, although I didn’t know it until a few years ago. Actually, what we share is a place: West Park, N.Y.

It is a tiny community on the western shore of the Hudson River, midway between Poughkeepsie and Kingston. It was there that Burroughs spent his adult life in a slate farmhouse he built called Riverby, on the Hudson, and a rustic cabin called Slabsides a mile back in the woods.




And it is in West Park that my grandparents had an even more rustic vacation bungalow with no name at all a hundred yards up a stony driveway in the woods.

Our bungalow was built in 1916. My grandfather worked in the Hoboken shipyards and had constructed it himself from wood salvaged from a burned ship.

The bungalow was primitive by any standards. There was no plumbing, no insulation and no room.

When they spent summers there before World War II, grandmother and six children slept, ate and lived in three tiny rooms and a screened-in porch. At the end of the school year, the seven rode the train from Fort Lee, N.J., to West Park and walked, carrying all their baggage, the two miles to the bungalow. Grandfather took the train up on weekends.

They bought their milk fresh from the cow at Vandewater’s farm over the hill and got their mail at the post office by the train station. When I was a boy, the postmaster was Mrs. Ackert. She was a very round woman and I remember the rhyme: ”Sweet Mrs. Ackert / is as wide as a Packard.”

The main road in West Park was named for her son, Floyd, who was killed in World War II.

After the war, with the six children grown, they would all continue to spend time in West Park, now with their own children.

My parents, aunts and uncles were less ecstatic about cramming up to 20 people in less than 200 square feet, less enthusiastic about using the ”two-seater” down the path in the back yard, less than happy about having to walk up the road to the pump for water.

And then there were the mosquitoes, as large as hailstones and just as stinging.

But even the adults loved the chance to do some fishing or go swimming in Charlie’s Lake on Black Creek, with its cascading waterfall down the slabs of rock by Valli Road.


Swimming hole

Swimming hole

Growing up as I did in suburban New Jersey, West Park was my introduction to nature: The lake was not a concrete-bottom swimming pool, and the little fish nips that you would get while swimming were reminders that nature is wild and unruly.

The loam underfoot was springy, the rocks covered with lichens and the underbrush thick as bird nests. The wood thrush sang in the trees and perch jumped in the lake.

These same birds and fish, the same spongy soil were written about nearly a century earlier by Burroughs.

”Life has a different flavor here,” he wrote in Wild Life About My Cabin. ”It is reduced to simpler terms; its complex equations all disappear.”

Instead, around his Slabsides grew the saxifrage, wood aster and witch hazel. He heard the whistle of the pewee and dry scratch of the cicada.

Slabsides was named for the slabs it was shingled with.

”A slab is the first cut from the log,” he wrote, ”and the bark goes with it. It is like the first cut from the loaf, which we call the crust, and which the children reject, but which we older ones often prefer. I wanted to take a fresh cut of life — something that had the bark on.”

Burroughs’ prose is leisurely; it breathes. It was certainly more popular with its Victorian reader than it would be now for a generation of short attention spans. But give him his space and his writing is still worth reading. It is detailed and humane; it gives a flavor and a sense of the place.


Burroughs fishing

Burroughs fishing

He was also surprisingly modern. In fact, I don’t know how he managed to be so popular in pious Victorian America. He had little use for the pat moral or anthropomorphic Disneyfication of nature. He was no Aesop.

Indeed the biggest controversy of his career was over an article he wrote excoriating the cute but popular ”nature fakers” who made up mawkish animal stories.

And unlike Henry Thoreau, for whom all nature was a metaphor, Burroughs wrote, ”The universe is no more a temple than it is a brothel or a library.”

John Burroughs

John Burroughs

He had a scientist’s sensibility, brooked no sentimentality and was as close as you could be to an atheist in 19th-century America. Several of his essays take organized religion to task. This doesn’t seem like the route to popularity in the time of Ella Wheeler Wilcox and James Whitcomb Riley.

He did not see any need for a providence that took interest in his life. Rather, he took great comfort in the impersonality of the beauty around him. ”I love nature, even if it does not love me,” he said.

Slabsides and the land around it is now a nature sanctuary and open to the public. His farmhouse, Riverby, is slowly falling into disrepair, and Burroughs’ vineyard is grown-over.

Our own bungalow is now long gone from the family. But I still visit West Park every time I drive to the East. Now I make the trip to visit Slabsides and slap the mosquitoes there.