Instawalk: Bethlehem Steel

for work i’ve been having to drive between north suburban philadelphia and north jersey several times a week. i used to go mostly through new jersey (I-95), paying up to $10 in tolls each way, until my coworkers told me there was a much cheaper way (only $1 in tolls, coming back) that wasn’t much longer if you go north to just about allentown, and then east (via I-78).

one thing i noticed was how gorgeous the lehigh (pronounced like “knee-high”) valley is. the area east of allentown that I-78 winds through is an expanse of verdant rolling hills, reminding me of parts of the neckar valley in germany. i even stopped at a rest stop to take a photosynth which doesn’t do the area justice.

every time i passed by bethlehem, i spotted signs that said “Historic Bethlehem ” and wondered what was there. i racked my brain trying to remember what sort of events might have happened in the area, perhaps something from the revolutionary war, but it didn’t ring a bell. it wasn’t until today, when i finally pulled off the highway and looked the city up on wikipedia that i facepalmed — duh, bethlehem steel! maybe there’s more to the historic part of town than that, but that was enough for me! [EDIT: turns out there really is a historic part of town, as this lehigh valley tourism video shows]

some of you may know that i love taking pictures of abandoned things (buildings included), so i was like a kid in a candy store. the best part is that the area around the abandoned mill is being revitalized — as a sands casino on one side and an art and culture center on the other (great map via artsquest with an overhead view).

well, no, the even bester part is that you can get right up next to the rusting buildings. there’s just a chain link fence around them! *squee*

In this photo you can see part of the shell over the small outdoor concert stage, right under the old blast furnaces!


I Shot a Gun

(three, actually!)

growing up, i never thought i’d ever see a gun in real life (only murderers have guns!), let alone handle and fire one. but in Pennsylvania, do as the Pennsylvanians do, i say. (though i do have friends who shoot back home, which i forgot about.) and so, two of them took me to go to a shooting range down by the Delaware border. i had a chance to go shoot guns in early high school when i was a boy scout (a failed experiment if there ever was one), but didn’t like the idea of firearms so never went on that trip.

walking into the shooting range you are first hit with a row of stuffed animals (not the kind you give to a kid to sleep with) and a big showroom of bullets, guns, knives, and all the accessories you’ll need in order to wield a weapon. daunting, to say the least, for someone who has primarily only seen guns on TV and in movies. i mean, really. GUNS GUNS GUNS GUNS! ALL GUNS ALL THE TIME! (i would have taken pictures, but there was a big “No Cellphones Allowed” sign.)

since i’m always down for an adventure, this didn’t stop me, but just made me more aware of what a popular sport(? pasttime? hobby?) this is. for sure, i was scared to fire a gun, and the training lesson by the range officer (safety + how to load + how to fire + how to work the target track thingy) that went by too quickly to fully comprehend didn’t help, either. all i knew was that the gun should always be pointed downrange and when i was done, the slider would be in the back position. i’d chosen a Glock 9mm since really, this was the only gun i’d ever heard of.

after loading the bullets the wrong way and wondering why the magazine wouldn’t go into the gun, i managed to get it all going. bullets in the gun, target mounted on the holder and whizzed back to about 6 yards, gun in my hands (whether or not i held it correctly is definitely debatable). weapon up, sights aligned, and slowwwlllyyy squeeeeeeeze.

i was so scared. what if i loaded the gun incorrectly? what if it exploded in my hands? what if i somehow flinch as it fires, sending a bullet into the ceiling? my friends were all in different lanes and who knows if the range officer was watching me like a hawk. the worst part (that i still haven’t gotten over) is that you really have to pull a lot further back than expected before the gun fires.


it fired, and it went into the target! muahahaha. well, it didn’t go where i wanted because i didn’t know how to aim (later figured it out), but still. no accidents! i had to keep telling myself that if there were tweens there shooting guns, i clearly could do it. i loaded five rounds into the clip each time and before i knew it, i was done with 25.

i switched to the other target i bought which a friend shot with me (i was the one with better aim ;)). before i knew it, 50 rounds, gone.

when all was said and done, we went through 100 rounds (split partially with friend) over a couple more targets and i also shot a Glock .40 and a revolver that some other friends had in another lane. before i got there i thought i’d only want to shoot maybe 10 rounds at most — i mean, who needs more than that? but dang you go through 10 in no time at all. loads of “serious fun”, as a friend calls it. i’m definitely doing this again!

the best part, though? seeing an old granny (who i thought was pretty betty white-ish) shoot single-handed from a holster — not just her right hand, but her left as well (or vice versa, if she was left-handed)! i didn’t catch this, but apparently she’d shoot one clip (using a single hand), drop it out and shove another in lickety-split with the other, and continue shooting. such a BAMF. such. a. BAMF. didn’t even use printed targets at times, just the cardboard backing.

i later came to learn (from a friend who figured out based on her holster?) that she was a member of the US Practical Shooting Association and probably competed. hot damn. that’s my kind of grandma!

edit: i love it! just two days later, my girl Terry Gross had a whole Fresh Air episode on the Glock! and it’s so true, it’s America’s gun of choice, and mine (since really, like i said, it’s the only gun i knew by name). too bad she didn’t come to the gun range on sunday to do some field research, though i’d prefer to meet her under different circumstances.

A Drive Through Pennsylvania Dutch Country

i first heard about the Amish as a little kid, when mom would bring back Amish souvenirs from her business trips out to Reading, PA (iirc). it wasn’t until i watched Devil’s Playground (p.s. WATCH THAT NOW if you haven’t) earlier this week that it struck me that i could actually visit Amish country since i was out here near Philly anyways for work. i always assumed they were out in the boonies at least three or four hours west, but it turns out Lancaster County is less than an hour away!

i was a little trepidatious because of the weather — partially because this was going to be the first time i’ve driven after/during a decent-sized snowstorm (last fall’s Snowtober didn’t count since i left before it got bad, and every place that i’ve lived where it’s snowed, i’ve never had to drive) and i was worried the Amish likewise wouldn’t be out and about — but those fears turned out to be groundless.

i woke up early (unintentionally) and headed out — my first time brushing snow off a car! note to self: in the future, brush snow off hood as well, making sure the wiper fluid nozzles are not blocked.

Look at me! Using a brush to remove snow!

being a native of Los Angeles, it didn’t take long for me to be overwhelmed by the beauty of backroads America (it happens every time). slowly making my way through winding country roads, seeing those farmhouses and silos, red barns, wide expanses of virgin snow…it was so Norman Rockwell i was verklempt for the first hour or so.

Small roadside cemetery

Silo in the distance

once i got to Lancaster County, it didn’t take me long to see my first Amish buggy! i was hesitant to pass it since i read you shouldn’t go too fast lest you scare the horse, and i didn’t know what too-fast was. yet again, another unnecessary fear! i must have seen and passed a dozen, each time going around 30 mph or so.

Watch out for buggies! These signs were all over the place.

i’ve always romanticized small-town America (that’s a subject for a whole ‘nother blog post…), and these small towns didn’t disappoint.

from the research i did, it seems like the standard Amish tourist meal is at a buffet. i originally wanted to go to Dienner’s Country Restaurant (it got good reviews) but it was closed for winter vacation (i clearly didn’t do enough research). yelp reviews said the next best place was Family Cupboard, so that’s where i went. it turns out Amish food, like their lifestyle, is simple and down-home — totally American comfort food (except substitute buttered noodles for mac and cheese). also, they’re a pretty good deal: $12.95 (=$2 more on Saturdays, but you get more dessert choices?) for an AYCE lunch buffet.

I detest regular peanut butter, but this goopy Amish-style peanut butter was amazing!

The ham and bean soup really hit the spot on this cold and snowy day

Shoo-fly pie

a brief sidebar about religion: the locals are serious about their beliefs. luckily for me, no overt proselytizing (cannot stand that), but this restaurant sold “inspirational books”, played the Christian Pop & Rock SiriusXM station (not too loudly, but songs were easily shazamable) and the placemat had suggested prayers on it. also, there were religious signs and billboards all over. this is one of the most churchy places i’ve ever been to, but as much of an atheist as i am, i never felt bothered by it.

i ended the day by driving through what i’d like to call (big hat tip to @erickamericka) the Rumspringa Humdinga. there is a series of unfortunately-named towns that you can piece together into a story with even just a fraction of your mind in the gutter. i’m listing them in the order i visited, but the route i took was not optimal (lots of backtracking, plus doesn’t make sense if you want to turn it into a story). i will leave the reordering and storytelling as an exercise for the reader.

Intercourse, PA

Bird-In-Hand, PA (where, i might add, i had my first whoopie pie)

Blue Ball, PA

Paradise, PA

i will definitely have to come back to Lancaster County when it’s lush and verdant out — i’ve been told i need to try some homemade root beer, too! for now, though, i’m just glad i was able to get a glimpse into Amish culture. as a twenty-first-century-digital-boy, i really respect them for holding fast to their way of life, even when surrounded by and interacting with “the English”. seeing the men in their traditional hats sporting traditional beards, women driving buggies through supermarket parking lots, a guy filling up gas cans at the corner station* — i’m continually asking myself how their culture isn’t being eroded. from what i’ve read, the number of people who turn their backs on Amish culture after Rumspringa is a lot smaller than i would expect, which is a cool thing. i wish them continued happiness and best of luck sticking to their roots despite the constant encroaching of the modern world.

* no photos since out of respect for their beliefs, you’re not supposed to take pictures of Amish people.

i will leave you with two random side-of-the-road pictures.

feel free to visit the entire album (with a couple more pictures).