Vultures of Culture

‘Mature’ sorority sisters travel around the Pennsylvania region to devour culture and the great outdoors. From Philly's Museum of Art and the rockin' Martin Guitar factory in Nazareth to bike trips in God’s Country up north, we tour and taste, sightsee and sample, learn, lunch and laugh. Just a bunch of old birds? Not us!

By the time we got to Woodstock…..

woodstock 027we were ready to tour the grounds of the 1969 concert venue and snoop around the museum. That’s opening act Richie Havens in the photograph at the museum entry, by the way, and three groovy girls ready to tune in–but not tune out or drop out–of the trip down memory lane that’s waiting for us inside.  The museum was more of a time tunnel for me. Photos, videos, posters and displays from the Sixties were richly displayed and thoughtfully arranged so visitors could ease into the decade of counter culture, revolution, social change and individual expression.  The hair was there. The bell bottoms. The beads, The peace signs.  And of course, great documentary footage of the Woodstock performers and music performed during the famous three-day concert at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York.  Our visit coincided with the 44th anniversary of the actual concert date. Pretty groovy, huh? Havens died last spring, and three days after our stop there, his ashes were spread across the concert site.  His performance of “Freedom” opened the “3 Days of Peace and Music” and is considered one of the highlights of the festival.

Here’s a closer look at some of the displays inside as well as the official monument about a quarter-mile down the road:

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woodstock 048 This place was far out, man. Groovy (I love to talk “hippie” once an awhile). Anyone who came of age during the Sixties needs to make a pilgrimage here. We were in Bethel Woods for an evening concert, but the trip to the museum alone would have been worth it. Most museums expose you to objects and art from centuries passed. This one transported us to our youth, which is a trip I’m always willing to make.


A Meal in Mayfield

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woodstock 022 There is no messing around in Mayfield. When company comes, the food flows. This luscious banquet was waiting for us Thursday night and featured pierogies, kielbasa, chicken, pulled pork, sauteed squash, rolls, two kinds of salads, salmon and a wee bit of cake for dessert. A good time was had by all. And thanks to super chef Serge for his culinary efforts!!

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Workin’ In a Coal Mine Going Down, Down, Down

woodstock 019We’re beaming because our mine car had just returned from the dark and damp 300 feet below ground at the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour in McDade Park in Scranton. If you’re in the area, it’s a place not to be missed. The tour is  second only to the food and the hospitality the vultures experienced in Northeast Pennsylvania last week with our host Wendy (in green). It was the first leg of a major vulture-culture jamboree that included a trip to the Woodstock Museum in Bethel Woods, NY, and an exhilarating concert featuring YoYo Ma the next day.

But let’s stay with the coal mining daughters for a moment. Each of us earned a certificate for our 60 minutes of mine time, and though it was one of the more unique tours the vultures have taken, I believe we were happy to resurface and see the light after our close encounter with anthracite coal.

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Once we bought our tickets and slipped on our jackets and sweatshirts, we crammed into the mining cars and headed down into Old Slope 190.The light and warmth vanished as we went deeper and deeper into the mountainside, and I believe each of us contemplated the men who spent their lives down below earning a living. The videos available in the lobby area nearby prepared us in advance for the Pennsylvania mining heritage and its perils. The 1959 Knox Mine disaster in nearby Pittston was the subject of one of the theater’s presentations and told the tale of 12 miners who died while inside the River Slope Mine. Miners working beneath the Susquehanna River bed were trapped when freezing water broke through the mine roof and flooded the area with 10 billion gallons of water.  The grainy black and white newsreels from the rescue effort and subsequent prosecutions were a stark reminder to the risks miners assume each day.  Even as a tourist, it’s nearly impossible to not feel the doom and gloom as you travel lower and lower into the earth and feel drips of water splatting against your head.

This was serious stuff below ground, but our guide, an actual miner who was a walking encyclopedia of mining practices and history, kept up a steady patter of information about miners’ jobs, conditions and the rich coal deposits of Pennsylvania’s Anthracite region, which occupy more than 400 square miles.

Not until you’re deep underground do you really think about the beauty and necessity of light. He recreated the amount of light available to miners in early days by dimming his head lamp and then he went one better–he killed all the lights. It seemed like an eternity for some of us (me!!!) but I’ll never forget the pitch black or the total helplessness I felt without a shred of brightness.  A wee bit terrifying, yet many of the workers–children included–encountered the same scenarios when their headlamps failed.  It was a hard-knock life for certain.  The tour also exposed us to the varied working spaces below ground. While some blasted and dug and loaded coal while standing tall in large underground caverns, others labored on their hands and knees for their entire shift.  Being in that spot, just for a moment, triggered our imaginations. Could we have done it? What must it have been like? Did you ever conquer the fear?

woodstock 016We’re happy because it’s about time to shove off for the surface.  We’ll never forget this dark, dank cavern of coal or the people–our ancestors– who mined the fuel for a nation on the rise. As much as I’ve admired  artwork on display at museums we visited during the past few years, this tour left me awestruck in a different way. There was no beauty here, just a backdrop of extreme danger and challenge. Day after day. Low wages. Long hours. I left wondering just how they did it.

The Bestest Junkiest Museum in the World

I haven’t visited EVERY junky museum in the world, but the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pa has got to be a contender. Now don’t be turned off by ‘junky.’ I use it here in the best sense of oddball collections and castoffs from another generation. It’s quality stuff, and it’s uniquely and daringly displayed.

Named after its founder, archeologist Henry Mercer, the Mercer Museum is part attic, part dungeon, part salvage yard, part Tim Burton movie set. It’s kooky, messy, dusty, dark, grim yet fabulously interesting.

Crammed–and I mean crammed, as in stuff hanging from the rafters–with about 50,000 artifacts and leftovers from America’s early days of industrial and agricultural life, the museum has a fanciful and gritty Willy Wonka-like quality that’s hard to describe.



  No, no oompah-loompahs in sight. Just us, blending in with all the other fascinating antiquities:


  We’ve all got our own special junk at home, so it’s not like we need to make pilgrammages to see more remnants of a previous life. We trekked to the Mercer to see “Lipstick and Linedrives: the Untold Story of Women’s Baseball,” an eye-opening collection of vintage photos and handbills and equipment plucked from the days of women slugging and sliding in dresses and bloomers. There were women on baseball diamonds long before the teams assembled during WWII.  Actually, it all started back in the 1890s at Vassar, not with the Rockford Peaches from “A League of Their Own.”  Anyone who loves the game and the Tom Hanks/Geena Davis/Madonna/ Rosie O movie would find this compilation of artifacts hugely entertaining. If you go, just don’t miss the carnival of junk across the way. It’s a bit freaky—


Remember that Seinfeld episode when they couldn’t find their car?

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I think the picture speaks for itself. We’re rushing, slightly panicked. Thing is, though, we were in the wrong garage. Everyone makes mistakes and for some of us, it was a first-time visit to the city, and we really didn’t know the streets and the buildings after two hours. All parking lots look the same. Big, brick boxes just crouching there silently, waiting to trick you. The good news is that we re-grouped and piled in:

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  It was one of the day’s highlights. Six women in a car, driving to another destination, and without the guidance of a brilliant star in the sky. But we do have wise technology in the car, which brought us here:

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 The Christkindlmarkt at the Steel Stacks,  home of the once-booming Bethlehem Steel Company. It was an odd juxtaposition of old and new, light and dark. We marveled at its size, its complexity, its rust. In fact, this campus–or whatever it is you call the resting place of a great American industry–was far more interesting than the shopping inside. Perhaps it hit me harder than the rest because my grandfather worked here as an electrician during the robust 40s and 50s. I remember the exodus of men from all over the region who travelled here each day for work.  I was feeling slightly Scrooged inside, but then just like Ebenezer, I looked around. Not at the industrial decay, but my friends. We had a wonderful day in the Christmas City and vow to return, this time remembering where we left our car. And like all vulture adventures we left with the best present of all. A memory and a story to re-tell for years to come.

‘Tis the Season to be Shoppy

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We weren’t exactly the Magi–although we like to believe we’re wise and at least one of us drove from the east–but the Vultures traveled to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (aka the Christmas City) on Saturday to adore the sidewalks and stores all dressed up for the holiday season. Main Street, the heart of historic Bethlehem–was deserted in those minutes before shops opened their doors, but Christmas carols floated through the bone-chilling air to offer some feeling of warmth and promise for a cheery day ahead.  While the locals were still finishing their mid-morning coffee, we arrived early to get first crack at the Moravian Bookstore, a sprawling gift/book/Christmas store  on South Main that was dripping with its trademark Moravian stars and Christmas finery. Not until I returned home to research the store did I discover that it’s the oldest bookstore in the world( We had no idea we were setting foot inside such a historical site! And now that I’m aware of this juicy fact, I’m congratulating ourselves for starting there. Once inside, we needed to give ourselves a pinch. Room after room of unique and beautiful ornaments, gifts and decorations tempted us. It was Christmas in overdrive. And with apologies to Dr. Suess, the store looked like a Who-ville living room:

“The presents! The ribbons! The wrappings!

The tags! And the tinsel! The trimmings! The trappings!”   No Grinches in sight by the way.

We walked out with candy canes, holiday aprons, ornaments and a big bag with two Moravian stars. It was serious shopping. Which meant it was now time to goof off and get silly at a consignment store up the street.  We can focus on serious pursuits for only so long. Which meant it was time to try on fur coats.

Pat “Natasha” B. loved this $800 fur, which regrettably was out of her price range.

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     Luckily her beer budget (and ours) was put to good use at our lunch spot, the Bethlehem Brewworks, after the fashion show. Just as we were getting nestled into our seats across from the tall stainless vats–and a stunning Christmas tree-we got a huge surprise! Our AWOL vulture Wendy made the trip  from Scranton to join the crowd, and we were such a merry party–as Jane Austen would probably say.

   Wendy’s pop-in visit heightened our already sky-high spirits, and she offered us, although we didn’t know it at the time, a vulture classic adventure after lunch. See the next post for exclusive, action photos.

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

    If you’ve been a Barnes Foundation watcher during the past several years you know all about the bitter dispute over the relocation of this art collection from its leafy suburban mansion in Merion, Pa to Philly’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway museum neighborhood. Rodin is next door; the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a few blocks northwest.

The vultures visited the original Barnes back in 2010 and dropped in to see the new place yesterday. We remain in awe of the expansive collection of Renoir, Cezeanne, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Seurat, Monet and Manet. Who needs Paris when you’ve got the Barnes, right?  Barnes had quite the eye for impressionist and post-impressionist art and built a collection that left us speechless and our mouths slack-jawed–not typical for us. It was—and is—stunning, especially when you see it displayed like your grandmother’s parlor. Crowded groupings—oops, the Barnes called them ensembles–mixed with decorative hinges or doorknockers or weather vanes or tools situated above a Windsor chair or side table or rustic Pennsylvania German wooden chest. Oh, and don’t forget to dress up that table with a little Native American pottery or vase created by Renoir’s son Jean. It’s a masterpiece of mish-mash. Yet it’s charming and odd. Soaring yet intimate and unlike any other museum exhibit we’ve ever seen. In this way the new Barnes is just like the old Barnes.

But not so fast. This perfectly ordered, precisely duplicated version of the old place sits inside an oversized box of contemporary light and air which left me slightly chilled and not stirred.  Yes, it’s beautiful and serene and lushly landscaped. But it’s also coolly heartless. At least for this vulture. I believe all of us missed the cozy. We liked the feel of the old place and missed the garden and tall trees of the Barnes’ arboretum. Something was missing. The art was just as we left it, glorious and fine. But the concrete and glass and hard edges pressed down upon my soul.

Whoa–that was serious. But I had to get it off my chest. The day, despite my eeyore-ish review, was a masterpiece all its own because we were together. Consuming high art leaves somewhat less time for talking and general silliness, but we did have lunch together in the Barnes dining room and several us arrived early enough for some tea and catching up. Last time we tail-gated out the trunk of my car in a  Giant grocery store parking lot along City Line Avenue before we arrived for our appointed tour in Merion. This time we dined in the Barnes cafe with a view of the Whole Foods  on Callowhill St. So much classier.

Sedona Trivia

According to our Enchantment Ranch red rocks hike leader, two objects from this photo have a strong Walt Disney connection. Can you find them?

Kim, our Sedona trailblazer, claimed that the prickly pear cactus in the foreground inspired Walt’s iconic Mickey Mouse cartoon character. I can certainly see the resemblance but have been unable to verify it with online fact-checking. So I’m not sure about that one even though it’s tempting to believe that something so sharp and potentially menacing could have ignited Disney to create one of the sweetest images of American childhood.

The other Disney connection I have found to be true. If you’ve ever ridden on Thunder Mountain Railroad while visiting a Disney park,  Sedona’s own Thunder Mountain must have planted the seed in Walt’s mind for that popular coaster ride.  The two are strikingly similiar.

Being Brave or She Made Me Do It

Good friends sometimes have to push. As in push you down a hiking trail at the Grand Canyon.

Now I don’t mean shoving, more emotional urging. Encouragement. Wendy believed we had to make an appearance on a Canyon hiking trail. Just because we were there and the canyon is a place to see on foot rather than atop a scenic overlook. We had gazed upon the Canyon at sunset and as the backdrop during a history walk and a geology walk. We learned all about Mary Jane Elizabeth Colter, architect and designer who created several buildings along and inside the Canyon; we got the scoop on all the sandstone, mudstone and limestone layered inside the Canyon walls and the uplift that forged the majestic crags, crevices and rugged rocks that stretch for miles. Now it was time to take a look-see inside.

Yea, she had a point, but was this really a place for me, a walker? Cliffs, skimpy rock borders, hairpin turns? I felt a bit out of place. Seriously outfitted hikers were  treading everywhere. They had sturdy walking sticks and water tubes snaking out of their backpacks and  handkerchiefs knotted around their necks.  They exchanged friendly hellos with bright smiles beaming from sun-browned skin. Their legs were taut and muscled. Cheekbones were chiseled as sharply as rock formations along the trail walls.

Again I wondered. Is this really the right place for a woman wearing a Talbot’s scarf and a Penn State hat? I had a Columbia vest and wore some Merrill hikers, but really, I was way outside my comfort zone. At least that’s what I was thinking as I picked my way over small rocks, packed dirt and mule poo.

But I kept going. The scenery was worth the internal battle I was waging and really, going down was pretty easy. On our first encounter with the trail we went down perhaps a quarter mile. Wendy was absolutely hooked and lobbied for a return trip the next day. I conceded because, well, it was pretty awesome, even though you could feel your lungs screaming on the return climb.

Next day we went down even further. Wendy was hoping to make it down a mile or so before we had to hike out and check out of El Tovar, but both of us turned back before it got too late. You’ve got to respect the effort to climb out of that beautful hole. It’s tough, although Wendy reports the trail levels off further down. She went much farther into the canyon than I did and got back just a few seconds after I arrived at the trailhead. I took lots of breaks for photos and oxygen but was proud of both our efforts.

Again, this was unplanned. Perhaps the west does that to you. The grandness of it coaxes a bit of grandness out of you too. I didn’t hike all that far–maybe a half-mile down–but it was a place I never imagined myself to be. I’m feelin’ good about that.

Two More States

We continue our very serious quest to kayak in each of the 50 states. With this trip to Lake Powell we actually snagged two–Utah AND Arizona–in a single paddling trip.  Don’t you love when that happens?

The guides at Hidden Canyon Kayak met us at Stateline Launch in Wahweap Marina last Saturday morning and provided a memorable tour through Labyrinth Canyon off Padre Bay. The green-blue waters were calm; the kayaking was relaxing, and the scenery breathtaking.  We glided by smooth Navajo sandstone that had an other-worldly feel. Instead of reaching these slot canyons by catamaran, it felt as if a space ship carried us there. Was this Mars or Arizona?

Wendy and I now have eight states notched in our kayaking “belts,” but this ranks as  my personal favorite. Glassy water lapped against slot canyon walls. A gentle Indian summer sun warmed our backs. The sky overhead couldn’t have been bluer.

The butte in the background? That’s Boundary Butte, which marks the exact place where Utah and Arizona meet.  We sailed right by it, moving effortlessly from one state to the next.  Lake Powell is part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a spot I had never heard of before planning the trip. My expectations were vague and low, I suppose, because I knew so very little about this part of the world. We went to Lake Powell to scratch a state off our list, but we got so much more in the bargain. I had a day on the water I’ll never forget. This was picture postcard beautiful. Unusual and foreign and so unlike our East Coast kayak outings.

This 50-state project is no longer something I tell folks about with a wink and a smile. Sure it sounds good, but are we too old to see it through? Will our knees and backs hold up?  It just doesn’t matter because the journey, the effort, is the destination. Every state brings with it a new achievement, a new memory, a new glimpse of this grand country.  And every moment on the water brings  peace and beauty to our souls and time with treasured friends. It doesn’t get much better than that.