Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Adventures in Penn's Woods


A real conversation with the front desk clerk in a Pennsylvania hotel:

Me: I am wondering how to get to Bridge Street from here. My directions say to turn NE on [name of street] and I'm wondering which way to turn out of the parking lot.

Clerk: Where are you coming from?

Me: I'm in the hotel.

Clerk: What hotel?

Me: This hotel. The Days Inn.

Clerk: You're a guest in the hotel?

Me: Yes. And I'm just wondering...

Clerk: You're going downtown?

Me: I guess so. I'm going to Bridge St.

Clerk: You just cross the street. You cross the street and take 83 W.

Me: Why am I taking 83 W?

Clerk: You're going to Harrisburg?

Me: No, I'm just going to Bridge St.

Clerk: Where are you going exactly?

Me: To a dance studio on Bridge St.

Clerk: A dance studio?

Me: I have mapquest directions and it says to go Northeast on [name of street]. I just want to know which way to turn out of the parking lot.

Clerk: You turn left.

Me: Thank you.

On January 22 we returned to the New Cumberland School of Dance in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. "Pennsylvania" means "Penn's Woods" named for two men named William Penn. The younger Penn was a Quaker who established a sanctuary to protect freedom of conscience in America. Penn's father was an Admiral also named William Penn, and he had some pull with King Charles II.The King gave a 48,000 square mile tract of land in the colonies to Senior as repayment for a sizable loan.

It must have been quite a loan, because the tract of land started in the east at the Delaware River and ran from the Maryland line up to Lake Erie. Penn just wanted to name the region Sylvania or "woods".

The younger Penn, being a humble Quaker, was not pleased with the idea. He even tried to bribe the official secretaries into changing the name on the papers. But the King was the King, and if he wanted the land to be called Pennsylvania, it would be called Pennsylvania.

"With its rocky gorges and woodland scenery" Pennsylvania reminded Oscar Wilde of Switzerland.

I have lived in Pennsylvania twice, and I love its mountainous geography, the icy waterfalls suspended in time on a craggy cliff created when a hill was blasted away to make room for a highway.


Everywhere there are signs reading "prepare for falling rock." I've never known exactly what I was meant to do to prepare. The winding roads, tunnels and coal mines of Pennsylvania have always held a special fascination for me.

Pennsylvania, incidentally, is the abandoned mine capital of the U.S. With an estimated 180,000 unmarked shafts and pits, it is the state where you're most likely to fall into a hole in the ground.

That said, New Cumberland is in a relatively flat part of the state near the capital, Harrisburg. It's biggest brush with fame may be when they shot scenes for the 1984 film "Reckless" (Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah) there.

The dance studio, located on Bridge Street not 83 West, is quiet and well lit with ballet-slipper-pink walls. We were pleased to be invited back for a second class. Memorable in this class was an enthusiastic new student who was a native Russian speaker. He used the opportunity to have her interpret for him on a few occasions. She presented him with a gift of a cookie after class and they chatted a bit about her aspirations before we got back in the car to head to Hagerstown, Maryland.