Wednesday, May 4, 2005
On dark winter days when I dream of spring, I often think of Spruce Creek, Pa. Of weeping willow trees, their branches trailing into water that rushes so rapidly over the limestone creek bed that it makes the sound of a waterfall.
The views in this place you've probably never heard of, just 3 1/2 hours from Washington, are about the finest I've ever seen. If, for example, you hike, bike or drive the dirt road through Rothrack State Forest, you will at several points turn a corner and see the valley laid below, with a patchwork of fields that stretch to the multiple ridges of the Allegheny Mountains. Two picturesque waterways, the Little Juniata River and Spruce Creek, converge at the village of Spruce Creek, which is about 20 winding miles from State College, home of Penn State University.
I first came here as a child. As an adult, I've had a recurring dream that I own a little summer cottage along the creek. Finally, last weekend, I returned to find that the area is as bucolic as ever, but with a few changes. First, the Amish have settled a number of the farms in the adjoining valley. Secondly, a half-dozen or so bed-and-breakfasts have opened, along with a lodge and cottages at a private fishing club. Additionally, sportsmen from outside the area have discovered the local trout. The outsiders have driven up land prices, so I won't likely be getting my dream shack unless I hit the lottery.
During his presidency, Jimmy Carter briefly brought attention to Spruce Creek when he came to fly-fish. The locals weren't all that impressed when the peaceful quiet of their valley was interrupted by the whir of helicopters and Secret Service agents. I remember a local farmhand, asked by a radio station for his reaction, responding, "It don't make no nevermind to me."
But Carter's visit -- and he keeps returning to fish a couple times a year -- did catch the attention of avid fly fishermen. Today, some experts say Spruce Creek and the Little Juniata offer the best fly-fishing on the Eastern Seaboard.
So I booked a half-day guided fly-fishing tour for last Sunday morning and reserved Saturday for kayaking, biking and poking around.
I awoke Saturday to a chilly, rainy morning, but discovered that poking around is enough to fill a day. My planned biking trip up the road winding through the state forest became a drive up for that view.
Women who don't fish but have married men who do often spend their time hitting the antiques stores in nearby towns. I decided instead to see what the Amish had for sale. People go to Lancaster, about two hours away, to gawk and buy fake souvenirs in shops owned by what the Amish call "the English."
In Sinking Valley -- the farming area about a mile from Spruce Creek -- the Amish are part of the fabric of life. No one snaps pictures, which the Amish quite naturally resent. Instead, the English come by to discuss milk prices or just be neighborly. I buy flowers and a wooden trellis at the Amish-owned and -operated Mountainside Greenhouse. About 100 yards down the road, the brother of the owner of Mountainside Greenhouse makes and sells chairs and swings. Handmade wooden chairs start at $60.
Up the road a couple of miles, I followed a hand-drawn sign to a dirt road that leads to another Amish farm, where the women in the family run an old-fashioned dry goods store called the Sinking Valley Variety Store. There are hand-braided rugs starting at $10, exquisite quilts ranging from $70 to $300, and produce. For the Amish, the store stocks just about anything they'd need from the outside world: bolts of cloth, kerosene lanterns, Skinner's Vaporizing Salve, books.
From behind the counter, Sara Ranno had dozens of questions for me: What was I doing in town; how often do I leave home; where do I go; what do I do when I get there? "It must be hard running around like that," she said. That made me pause for minute and think that, for a while at least, I'd like to try her calm, gentle existence.
This area, which my ancestors were among the first to settle, is so special to me that I feel a certain hesitation in advertising its existence, lest it be spoiled. Let's be clear on one thing: Leave your cameras in the glove compartment until you're ready to photograph scenery and animals. It's an unspoiled area -- one well worth a visit from those willing to come with a soft touch.