“Oh my God! Smell that air!”
And we both said that, my travel companion and me, as we got out of the car in Lowe’s parking lot, East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. It was not so much a smell than a difference, a raw freshness that only comes with foreign mountain air. And for those of us who are conditioned to breathing in and out the saltiness of the Atlantic Ocean it is quite an intoxicating change.
Maggie and I were on our way to the International Sports Training Camp, way up in the Pocono Mountains, to collect our daughters from a week long camp. By pure chance, and that is a good word to describe driving on or off Long Island, we crossed Manhattan and the George Washington Bridge without any delays, and drove through New Jersey and the Delaware Water Gap (more about that in a later column) with speed. We were early, and so faced with the task of killing time in an area that is not actually full of time-killing diversions. Hence Lowe’s, and a supermarket named Giant, where we bought snacks for the journey home.
It was clearly too early to wait in line at the camp gate (and the smiling and polite Australian staff member pointed this out. (“No worries, mate!”) Clearly we had a quite unique opportunity to drive and explore the neighborhood. And that was when the interesting part of our journey of collection began.
The Pocono Mountains, geologically part of the Allegheny Plateau, rise to over 2500 feet in eastern Pennsylvania. In the early 20th century they became popular as a recreation center. Quakers founded summer camps (without pubs. Damn!) in the 1920s, which would grow into resorts, and hikers, hunters and fisher-folk followed. Despite boasting the Delaware State Forest, six designated natural areas, one national park, seven state parks and seventeen state game lands, the Poconos have, once again, been economically down at heel. Even the official Bureau website admits this, but is optimistic.
A wind of change … that is putting the Poconos back on the map.
The authoritative-sounding Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau (Website: The Poconos in Pennsylvania have so much to offer to the adventurous soul) may paint a picture of great outdoor recreational opportunities, and I am sure that they are, and that I would enjoy the white water kayaking and fly-fishing, but the stark truth of the matter is that outside of the visitors’ playgrounds this area is desperately poor.
That became very apparent the moment we left the camp gate and meandered along a shadowy road for a few miles, in search of the gas station and general store where “you can get some refreshment, mate!” In among the dense forest were small houses, most in dire need of much more than a lick of the paintbrush. Some were solidly built; others had visible damage with windowpanes missing and hardwood board roughly nailed in their places. There was even an old railroad carriage, now on cinder blocks, where “All Aboard!” now meant “come home” to some individual or family. All breathed out neglect and poverty, and shared the same garden decorations: Rusting cars and coils of wire fence, broken bird houses (even the mountain chickadees shared human failure) and piles of wood. Not fire logs but old doors, window frames, pieces of furniture. And here and there a boat, not on a trailer or even blocks, but lying there at an odd angle, marooned as if a great biblical flood had seen fit to dump it there. It was the boats, sadly never to float again, that saddened me the most.
After two miles, and a right turn (“on the way back we must remember to turn left here at the Methodist Church sign”) we found the gas station. Craving a small amount of caffeine we both looked at the state of the coffee station, then at each other, and decided otherwise. It was as if the coffee had been first brewed at 6.00 that morning, and the pots and surfaces cleaned last Tuesday.
This grimy place was clearly a social center for many (but not the only attraction, as a sign up the road invited us to “DANCING GIRLS!!” Maggie did not stop.) In the busy parking lot was something I have never seen before on my travels. A vending machine selling minnows! Live bait! All the angler had to do was pay a few dollars and, clunk, a container of wriggling bait would drop into the tray. Then off to the lake, rod in hand! Brilliant and fascinating and I will return to these mountains for sport, fishing and paddling – but not the dancing girls.