The Rust Belt In Living Color

Trip Start Oct 08, 2000
Trip End Oct 15, 2000

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Flag of United States  , Pennsylvania
Monday, October 9, 2000

We woke up shortly after 8 a.m. After a quick shower, it was off to Denny's for breakfast and to plot the plan for the day. It turned out that most of the day would be taken up by looking for housing for Tom.  But, he promised me that we'd save a couple of hours in the afternoon to see other sights in the area. 

Now, I had actually never considered going to Pennsylvania before Tom moved there. Despite the area's rich history, the state really never held much attraction to me. Most of that apathy stemmed from my impression that, because of changing economic conditions, Pennsylvania was a run-down mess.  After my first look at Reading, I thought my impressions were confirmed.  Most of the buildings in downtown Reading were vacant, thereby giving the impression that the downtown area had been abandoned.  Reading's residential areas also suffered from blight.  These areas seemed to be filled with turn of the century brick tenements sporting peeling paint, trash in front of the doors, and graffiti covering the exterior walls.

Still, despite the decay, Tom managed to find a couple of places that piqued his interest for possible purchase.  One was a very nice three bedroom, three bathroom house on a quarter-acre lot.  He called Lucent's relocation specialist to arrange a tour of the place in a couple of days.

With the house hunting out of the way, we set off to look at other attractions.  By now, I was bemoaning being surrounded by all the urban blight.  I asked Tom if there was any beauty in the Reading area.  He said he knew just the place to change my perceptions.  After about a 10 minute drive, we pulled into a small state park (appropriately named Tulpenhocken Creek State Park) built along the banks of Tulpehocken Creek in the suburb of Wyomissing. This park was only a couple of miles from Wyomissing’s shopping centers, yet it felt like it was in the middle of the countryside. The leaves were slowly falling into the briskly moving creek. The ones that still were on the trees were the full spectrum of fall colors. A red covered bridge only added to the rural setting. With the appropriate chill in the air, the whole park created a feeling that one associates with the Mid-Atlantic/New England states during the fall.

Next, Tom drove me to the top of Mt. Penn to visit the pagoda on the mountain's slopes which overlooks the town.  I thought it was strange to have a six-story pagoda in Pennsylvania, but it didn’t seem so strange once I heard the story of its construction. The pagoda was built by a local businessman who had made a couple of trips to China and had fallen in love with the country’s architecture. He had hopes of making the pagoda into a luxury hotel. However, a key component for the proposed hotel’s financial stability was the alcohol sales in the hotel’s restaurant. Prohibition put an end to those plans. So, the businessman turned it over to the City as part of a park on Mt. Penn. That arrangement remains in place today. I thought at first that a pagoda would be very out of place on a Pennsylvania mountainside. But, it actually fits in very well with the natural scenery. The trees seem to grow right up to the sides of the building, giving it a very organic quality. What really makes the pagoda integral to the landscape of the area are the wonderful views that one gets from its upper floors. The vista of Reading and the rolling hillsides was simply spectacular. It was very clear from this observation point that Reading is built around in the classic neighborhood pattern of the East Coast (church in the center, houses extending for several blocks around the church). One also didn’t see the blight that plagued Reading. Instead, Reading looked like a thriving metropolitan center. I decided right there that any place that can cause that transformation is worth visiting. 

It was about 4:00 p.m. when we left the Pagoda.  With a little more afternoon left, I convinced Tom that we should visit the Ephrata Cloister in Ephrata (about 20 miles southwest of Reading). I wansted to go to Ephrata because every one of my trips has included a stop at a religious shrine in order to explore expressions of faith. I’ve typically done my exploring at Catholic shrines, primarily because that’s the setting with which I’m most familiar. But I’ve always been curious about the ways in which other religions help their followers express their faith. Thus, I was glad to find that the Ephrata Cloister was located very close to where I’d be staying.

Ephrata was once a religious community for a group of men and women that were practicing a fundamental version of Lutheranism. Among the tenants practiced by the group was celibacy, which explains why the sect died out in the early 1800s. Given the long time that the cloister hadn’t been active, I was afraid that the spiritual feelings which once existed there would be long gone. Fortunately, Ephrata manages to maintain much of the "other-world" feeling that its followers tried to create.

We got to the cloister at 4:30 p.m. The bad news was that we only had a half hour to explore the grounds. The good news was that the entrance fee was waived because of our late arrival. Of course, Tom and I are use to speed visiting, so our happiness at the free entry more than offset any disappointment we felt at the little time we had. It must’ve been our lucky day, because the whole experience managed to convey that sense of physical separation that the cloistered tried to achieve in their lives. First, the weather was overcast, with a strong chill in the air. This weather was different than that which we had experienced earlier in the day, when it was cool but sunny. Next, the grounds were almost deserted because of the late hour. There were only five other tourists in the clister, and three of them were part of a tour group being led by one of the site’s guides. Finally, the buildings themselves added to the “other-worldly” feeling. All of the buildings, which were made of wood, were lightly covered with a green algae that gave them a very natural appearance. They looked like they were part of the forest in which they were set.

We went inside the various buildings, like the Saron (Sister’s House), the Bake House, Conrad Beissel’s House, and the Physician’s House. I noted the strange features, like the doorframes being low so that followers would have to bow their heads in an act of humility before entering. But, the item that caught my attention was the lack of religious trappings in the buildings. Outside of some copies of the religious music the followers composed and a few copies of the Bible there were no other indications that this was a religious site. Obviously, many of the religious elements had to be removed once the cloister became a state park. However, the lack of religious paraphernalia didn’t diminish the spirituality of the place. Instead, I found that it enhanced it. I thought that removing any religious icons emphasized the point that the lives of the cloister’s inhabitants were their primary form of spiritual expression.

We wandered the grounds at a relatively leisurely pace (or as leisurely as you can be in a half hour). Each building seemed to reinforce the feeling that these people were dedicated to their way of life, and that their way of life was their spiritual expression. I think the building where we felt it strongest was (in all places) the Bake House. There wasn’t much in there; just an oven, a table, and some baking implements. However, the whole setting seemed rather peaceful. The mood was helped by the fact that the sun parted through the clouds at the moment when we were in the building, illuminating a bowl of (fake) fruit that was positioned on a window ledge. It was a very simple, yet very powerful moment.

There are places I’ve been (York Minster, Yosemite) where it’s pretty apparent that there is a strong naturally-occurring spiritual presence which would make them sites that people visit even if there weren’t the human additions to those places. There are also places I’ve been (Knock, Ste. Anne-de-Beaupre) where humans have tried to create that same spiritual presence through their own constructions, but have had limited success. I’ve even been to a place (St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal) where I felt that a spiritual presence existed before a structure was built, only to be enhanced by the structure that was made. However, I’ve never been to one where a human construct by itself engendered a natural spiritual feeling in a previously spiritually barren place. That is the case at Ephrata. A lot of credit has to be given to the State of Pennsylvania for maintain the Cloister in a manner which keeps alive the special feeling of Ephrata. But, I’m pretty sure that the sacrifice and simplicity which marked the stay of the cloister’s followers had consecrated this site in a way that future generations would appreciate.

With our visit to Ephrata complete, we headed back to Reading.  Since we'd had a very light lunch, we splurged and had dinner at the Outback Steakhouse near the hotel.  After a thoroughly enjoyable dinner, we went back to the hotel.  We didn't stay up to late, because the plan was to take spend the day visiting Gettysburg.

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