The Lost Kingdom
One July afternoon in 2004 my wife and I were enclosed by gloom on a lonely mountain road, high in the Pennsylvania Appalachians. Thick stands of hardwood and pine, dense with wildlife, silently watched our passage. Slowly our pickup truck pitched and wound through a fading day in the last eastern wilderness. My wife told ghost stories from her childhood. She was terrified on this road—the dread “Old Lady with the Basket” might suddenly appear beside our car, fast as a thought, patient as Time, the Old Lady her grandmother said the coal miners never outran, as the specter raced alongside their bobbing lanterns across ridge and valley, the shadow of Death itself. We laughed at the old story. In the speckled light of the passing trees and the slow coursing rhythm of the road we lost track of time.
At twilight the forest gave way to town, then gaslights, a quiet Main Street. It was just three blocks, a 1920s movie theater, a barbershop, an old diner, a grand hotel from the last century. Lawyers on the steps of the 1830s courthouse facing the town green. At the center of the green, a Wynken, Blynken, and Nod statue fountain burbled its 19th Century lullaby. I wiped my eyes in near-disbelief at this Brigadoon that materialized from nowhere. Four hours out of Philadelphia, it was impossible to find a more remote town in the eastern United States. We’d left Philadelphia for good; we did not know then we had stumbled into the lost kingdom, into a town you could never leave.
It was our first day in the lovely village of Wellsboro (pop. 3,297), the county seat of one of the sparsest counties in the commonwealth. Soon we bought a house in town. A year later we started Mountain Home magazine. It didn’t feel then like a remote place. My wife was born in the town, in Soldiers + Sailors Memorial Hospital, two blocks from Main Street; her brother had a law practice here. Mom lived a block away. Mountain Home grew into a regional magazine.
Life in town was a delight. A fine family steakhouse occupied the same old house, same family, for fifty years; next door under a sign with a gaslight was music, and a good bar. Folks made burgers from local cattle, beer from local grain. Late one winter evening by the big carved fireplace in the old hotel bar a couple dozen white-haired men swept in, ordered a couple dozen beers, and began singing “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and other standards in lusty and perfect harmony. The Men’s Chorus, the barkeep nodded, their after-practice drink, Thursday around ten o’clock since time immemorial. We sang along, walked into the chill night, looked at the stars. The night was still, quiet, surrounded by hills and farms and by half a million acres of wilderness. You could see the stars clearer here than anywhere east of the Mississippi.
In winter, town was a Victorian snow globe, beautiful, cold, sunless, sealed from the world. But in spring and fall the tourists came, came by the thousands, as they’ve been coming since FDR sat in the White House, to renew the town. The village had a habit, like the old Celtic Castle of the Fisher King, of appearing and disappearing at a moment’s notice.
Now October returns, and the men and women of autumn circle back, like blood to the extremities. The tourist season rolls along all summer, up and down, then three thousand visitors a day descend upon the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania during the first two weeks of October. They come to fish and hunt, to hike or bike the famous canyon just ten miles west of town. They paddle the great canyon-carving Pine Creek that runs gloriously fifty miles south, a thousand feet below twin eagle-spied mountains. They stroll the village at the heart of the lost kingdom. Like the picturesque leaves that paint the hills brightest in those days, it’s the sweet peak of the season—a peak the county’s hotels and inns, restaurants and attractions depend upon to keep going the rest of the year.
They come to gawk at natural marvels that remain at once spectacular and a secret, after all these years. They came drawn by the legend of popular attractions that nobody knows about. Some half a million tourists a year visit Tioga County, return to the great cities from Toronto to Philadelphia, New York to Cleveland, from whence they came, and still it remains hidden.
“I’ll be thinking we can’t possibly get another tourist,” says Lori Copp, “then someone walks in and says, “What isthis place! It’s amazing! How did I miss it before?” I stopped to talk to Lori in the former church out on Route 660, halfway between the twin attractions of town and the Grand Canyon, where she runs the Tioga County Visitor’s Bureau.
It’s Lori’s job to get the word out about Tioga County as travel paradise, and she does a fine job of it. She carefully allots much of her $300,000 annual budget to spread the good news on TV, print media, and increasingly, the Internet, seeding the reliable forty-to-sixty empty nester audience and a younger “extreme sports” crowd across the East Coast, with a focus from Philly to Pittsburgh, Buffalo to our nation’s capital.
Every season, it seems, our special place is a secret no longer. The phone has been ringing since August 8th, when The Washington Post travel section featured Anna Bahney’s “surprising, quirky and utterly authentic journey” along 400-mile Pennsylvania Route 6 from Scranton to Erie.
She and her husband and two-year-old son hiked the Grand Canyon from Leonard Harrison State Park. “The centerpiece of our trip was Wellsboro, a town that, without veering toward Pleasantville parody, is just as a town should be,” she wrote. “We settled into the stately Penn Wells Hotel on the town’s sharp Main Street, lined with flickering gas lamps.” They admired Dunham’s family-owned-since-1905 department store, and the vintage Arcadia movie theater, “which opened in 1921 to show silent movies and still features first-run films on four screens.” They “ate like lumberjacks at the classic Wellsboro Diner before hitting the road.” But their visit will not soon be forgotten.
Twelve years ago—in July 2001, another world—USA Today named the Pine Creek Gorge, a/k/a The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, one of ten great bike tours in the world, along with spots in New York’s Adirondack Mountains; Tuscany, Italy; County Clare, Ireland; Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia; the glacial ranges of Iceland; and the Ruta Panoramica in Puerto Rico. The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania is idyllic in fall, wrote Patricia Vance, author of Bicycle Touring: The New Complete Book on Touring by Bike. “You can ride a flat, 20-mile abandoned railroad bed at the bottom of the gorge with views of the cliffs and mixed hardwood forest.”
Though leaf-peeping is popular, most just want to see the Grand Canyon, that yawning landmark recently given a starring role in AARP The Magazine in the story headlined, “9 Big Holes That Aren’t the Grand Canyon.” The largest circulation magazine in the U.S. (reaching twenty-two million households) put the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania on the list with Morning Glory Pool in Yellowstone National Park, Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona, and Monticello Dam Drain Hole near Napa, California. “A striking 57-mile bike trail was an old railroad route,” AARP said. “Careful—the bald eagles might distract you.”
Visitors still arrive clutching that yellowed USA Today clipping, or the 2007 New York Times story, “A Quaint Town with ‘Quiet Things’ to Do,” that announced to the world that “Wellsboro, a town of about 3,300 residents 240 miles northwest of New York City, has become a popular place for second-home buyers who want to remember their first homes—as in, the homes they grew up in.” Folks come seeking that “clean, safe and slow paced” town that has “held tight to its charm,” and its nearby Grand Canyon that National Geographic Travelertouted as heart of “The Wild, Wild East.”
“North-central Pennsylvania is a bona fide, 21st-century Eden,” National Geographic wrote. “Or so says the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Human Footprint report, which put the rugged woodlands on par with Brazil’s Pantanal and China’s Gobi as one of the last untarnished tracts on Earth. Only 1.3 percent of the lower 48 is as pure.”
I remember reading about that astonishing “human footprint” report in the Sunday New York Times some years ago. I talked it up around town. This was big news! Wellsboro and its Grand Canyon had been touted as among the greenest places on Earth by the world’s most influential newspaper on its most influential day. Surely Wellsboro would be discovered now.
A few folks nodded soberly in return. Few had seen the story. The news barely arrived here, and it never left. A few years later some of the biggest companies in the world roared in, drilled for gas, brought roughnecks and riches, fear and loathing, changed things forever…and not. Like a tide they came and they left and an idyll remains. The hills proved stubborn foes of drillers, as they are obstinate opponents of developer’s bulldozers, major roads, and most everyone everywhere who stays away, keeping it “one of the last untarnished tracks on Earth.” In an age of imitation, our place is the real thing. In an era of hype, it keeps its own counsel.
So October returns and so do our visitors, like prodigal family. They come and they leave and they keep their secret—that not far from home, the second right past their imaginings, the lost kingdom exists. It can even be visited, if it chooses to make itself visible that day.