There's no T-shirt store pitching the town slogan ("Where Mountains Meet Rivers"). There's no "George Washington Slept Here" plaque (though he passed through on at least four occasions). There's no motel. There's no traffic, and there's no hurry. But tiny Confluence (pop. 700), in the shadow of western Pennsylvania's Sugarloaf Mountain, has plenty of all the things that ease you through a weekend: silence, trees, rivers and breakfast. And we liked all of those.
Two miles from Ohiopyle State Park and a few more north of the Maryland border, this isolated village in the Turkeyfoot Valley gave our family a base for two memorable day excursions, one on bikes and one in kayaks, along the Youghiogheny River. The Yough ("yock") is the biggest of the three streams that flow through town, creating the claw-like footprint that reminded 18th-century settlers of their favorite bird.
Confluence used to belong solely to hunters and fishermen, with an occasional rafter on the river. But in the five years since the opening of the 89-mile bike trail that now terminates just south of town, two-wheeled visitors in search of food and shelter have prompted a ripple of new commerce on these streets lined with red-brick and clapboard buildings. Several small cafes and three guest houses--about a dozen beds total--cater spring through fall to bikers who rally at the trail, especially on weekends.
A hardware store with rental bikes out front, Chub's video and live-bait store, Diamond Produce, the Odd Fellows Lodge and six churches--that's about it. If you want to see a movie, you've got to drive to the old National Road, old U.S. 40, a half-hour uphill past Suder's Soft Freeze and Suder's Exterminating. ("I'll have a double rat-infested, please!" ordered son James as we passed). If you want to bike or paddle, though, you've come to the right spot.
But before exercise, breakfast. That brought us, twice, to the sunny little Sisters Cafe ("no charge for sisterly advice") on the town square. "Breakfast served all day" is one of the most promising items on any menu, so Sisters was our kind of place. Evidently, it's everybody's--though everybody is not too many in such a small burg. We joined ball-capped regulars taking their leisure at the big table in the back, older ladies perched on stools at the counter, and state troopers in the next booth (our kids sat up straighter).
We scanned the headlines about the Somerset County Fair (local beauty crowned queen) and double-ordered: breakfast for now, sandwiches to take with us for lunch on the river. And we laughed at the virtual flea market perched on shelves overhead.
Concertinas, gramophone speakers, Hagan's Dairy milk jugs, copper pots, an old Pittsburg Press wall thermometer, a huge mounted trout: Clearly, the attics in this town are dangerously overcrowded. Mary Aukerman, our hostess at the Parker House, told us she found her old claw-foot soak tub "just by putting the word out around town." A week or two later, someone uncovered just the thing.
Ballasted by eggs, fluffy homemade toast, pancakes and perfectly crisp home fries, we drove 10 miles over Sugarloaf Mountain, en route to Ohiopyle. We stopped midway, at Sugarloaf Knob, the second-highest peak in Pennsylvania at 2,650 feet, for a panoramic preview of the day's activities. Far below our overlook, at the bottom of a forested gorge, wound the Youghiogheny, which we'd paddle in inflatable kayaks that day.
We picked up our Superducks at Wilderness Voyageurs, one of a handful of outfitters near the state park headquarters. We were in luck, Eddie Tucker told us as he drove us upstream: The Corps of Engineers had just released enough water from the Youghiogheny Dam to float us five inches higher than the river had been in midsummer.
The summer's drought beat up this county and this river, prompting water use restrictions and discouraging rafters and kayakers. We wouldn't have wanted an inch less water than we had--but the air-filled sides of the kayaks made them light, and their rigid bottoms protected ours from the river rocks a foot and a half below. So we avoided the biggest dry rocks and just floated, watching the hawks above the mountain. The fresh water was clear and very cold, great for an afternoon splash at the rock slides in Ohiopyle.
The next day's plan included a ride on the trail. But first, of course, the big breakfast at Sisters: more of all the fare we'd devoured the previous morning, including the headlines. They included a sad and unexpected turn on yesterday's joyous events ("Fair Queen Has Painful First Day," blared Page 1: a donkey bite).
The same waitress poured our coffee. "I saw you coming out of the Parker House yesterday," she beamed. "Isn't it wonderful what Mary's done with the place?"
The renovation of the 100-year-old Parker House, completed in June, sounded like the Confluence version of a barn-raising. As we unpacked our first evening, Mary had explained her family's page in the town's history. Her grandparents moved here 40 years ago. Doc Price, who owned the town hospital of that name, was her father, who treated many of the families who later came back to restore her grandparents' home. "We had three generations of Wilsons doing the woodworking," she told us. The wall-length stone fireplace in the living room is new, but it has the timeless heft of the mountain a block away, across the river.
Mary doesn't cook for her guests. Instead, she sent us across her side yard to the pink Victorian River's Edge Cafe, with a sunset view of the Youghiogheny. James and his brother Bill loved being able to order dinner at our porch table, then bolt off to chase the ducks along the riverbank until it arrived.
As the foggy morning turned hot and humid, we swung out of town past Riversport kayaking school and across a new bridge to the bike trail, passing a fisherman with a postcard-perfect batch of trout. "They're biting like crazy!" he called as he strode along. On a weekday morning, he was the only human we saw for the next five miles.
Our outing, a flat-and-shady 22 miles to Ohiopyle and back, was an easy four-hour trip, with time to idle over a picnic at the falls in Ohiopyle before turning around. The four of us had mini-races. We stopped to admire the river. We guessed the length of the long trains rumbling along the opposite bank, filling the calm gorge with their baritone whistles. And I had a few revealing conversations with our sons, about personalities and dreams, that a long, eyes-ahead ride through the woods can prompt.
I'd pedal a lot farther for all of those things.
WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: Confluence is about four hours northwest of the Beltway in Fayette County, Pa. Follow I-270 to I-70 to I-68 west and turn north for U.S. 40 at Keyser's Ridge, Md. Turn right off U.S. 40 at Route 523 or 281.
BEING THERE: Wilderness Voyageurs in Ohiopyle (1-800-272-4141) rents Superducks for unguided tours at $32 per day; open daily through September, weekends through Oct. 31. The town's PumpkinFest is Oct. 8-10 at the town square Community Center: foliage-themed crafts, contests, entertainment. Traffic on the Yough Bike Trail can get thick on sunny weekends; Fridays and Mondays are more deserted.
WHERE TO STAY: The Parker House (213 Yough St., 814-395-9616) is open until December; rooms are $58 to $72; weekend packages and weekly rentals upon request. Within a block of the Parker House are the Point Guest Rooms (814-395-3082, rooms are $55 to $75 depending on number of people in the party). The River's Edge Cafe (814-395-5059) also offers a few rooms for rent through Oct. 31; most weekend nights are already booked.
WHERE TO EAT: The River's Edge Cafe serves Friday-Sunday only, through Oct. 31. Sisters' Cafe on Hughart Street (814-395-5252) is open daily at 6 a.m. (no dinner on Mondays). The Stone House Restaurant and Country Inn in Farmington (724-329-8876, www.stonehouseinn.com) is open daily through Nov. 1; rooms also available.
DETAILS: Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, 724-238-5661, www.laurelhighlands.org.