A rainbow greeted us in the distance towards the north here in Somerset, PA, which is about 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. We’re here to spend the day in nearby Ligonier, which is home to Idlewild & Soak Zone theme park, just a few miles northwest of here.
We began the morning enjoying the free breakfast buffet here at the EconoLodge lobby, where we were gifted with the almighty waffle maker. My niece loved the waffles, which I enjoyed as well as the free coffee. I also wanted some water, and fortunately there was a hot and cold water dispenser around the corner near the vending and ice machines. We checked out a little past the 11 a.m. deadline, but they were really chill about it.
We made a quick tour through the town’s main drag, Center Street, which, for a change didn’t look like the generic ‘burb we encountered last night in Paxtonia. There were actually unfamiliar businesses and more rural-looking architecture to the local housing stock. We passed by the unmistakable Somerset County Courthouse, a 1906 Italian Renaissance Revival structure, which was common in the turn of the 20th century. We made a quick U-turn through a side street near a local hospital (UPMC Somerset Hospital) and rolled by the courthouse again for a quick pic/video and more meandering way out of town. It had a clash of old-timey 20th century businesses and hipsterish 21st century cafes. But the town was unmistakably rural.
We drove straight through a rural road, past farms and numerous churches and took a cloverleaf entrance onto PA Route 219, where the landscaping was a well-manicured lawn of grass inside the cloverleaf. I wondered whose job was it to trim it while on a riding mower. PA 219 is also known as Flight 93 Memorial Highway, as the location where the ill-fated flight crashed into a field near Shanksville, PA on September 11, 2011 rather than its intended target, the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Today, there is a National Memorial site, but it was some 10 miles east of where we were exiting on Route 30.
Then we headed west on PA Route 30, where we were greeted with lots of green rolling hills (albeit beginning its transition to Fall orange) and small towns, like Jenner, Jennerstown and Laughlintown. Most striking was how we’d crest over a hill and see the road as a straight line headed down into a small valley, but continue as a straight line up the next hill. We saw at least two of those (pictured above), though the sharpness of the elevation was far more pronounced when seen in person.
Ligonier, population of about 1,500, was founded as a colonial-era British fort (which included a young Lieutenant Colonel named George Washington among its forces) to ward off the French from the area. Ironically, the fort and town was named after a British army officer of French Huguenot heritage). Later on it became a railroad town, until the Pennsylvania Railroad line went out of operation in the 1950s. As we cut north on Market Street from Route 30, we passed through a traffic circle surrounded by the requisite town square, almost like Hill Valley from Back To The Future. It was just a block from there where we stopped by a local restaurant called Carol and Dave’s Roadhouse to order sandwiches to-go for our Idlewild picnic later on. I parked the car at a small metered parking lot and before we left, I quickly snapped some photos of the town square.
Wild About Idlewild
Just a few miles west from Ligonier (during the trip I kept assuming the name of the town was “Lingonier“) is a theme park called Idlewild & Soak Zone. Being Fall already, we were there for the former and not the latter, which was closed anyway for the season. The theme park has its roots as a campground founded by Thomas Mellon (Yeah that Mellon) in 1878, and became an amusement park in the 1930s. Idlewild has earned the Golden Ticket Award recognition from the theme park industry publication Amusement Today as “Best Children’s Park” every year from 2010 to 2018.
We were there to visit the park’s Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood attraction, as my niece is a huge fan of the PBS show, an animated spin-off of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and she was most excited at the prospect of going on the “Daniel Tiger” rides. Its location here is most appropriate, as Fred Rogers is a Pittsburgh area institution, and his hometown of Latrobe, PA is situated between here and Pittsburgh.
Right away, the park looked small, laid-back and unpretentious, and decidedly less commercialized than the parks I’m used to in California – which was actually refreshing. The $32.99 admission (paid at the entrance to the gravel parking lot) was certainly a bargain compared to Disneyland. Upon entering the park it reminded me of a cross between Knott’s Berry Farm and Santa’s Village, and being not very crowded or noisy, more of the latter.
We walked through the amusement park rides and midway games area and across a bridge spanning Loyalhanna Creek. This unspoiled connection to nature was a nice touch. My niece rode a mini bumper car ride before getting in line to the very popular Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood ride, which, though somewhat long, wasn’t more than a 20-minute wait. The ride was a 15-minute ride on an actual electric trolley (3rd rail-powered) that resembled the iconic red trolley from Daniel Tiger’s and Mister Rogers’ shows. We rode through a tunnel and stopped by various places in the show where we were greeted by 2-D electromechanical characters from the show, which interacted with the tour guide via recordings. It wasn’t a very technically sophisticated ride, but the cheery, sing-along tone of the attraction certainly succeeded in delighting the toddler-aged Daniel Tiger audience, and that’s what really mattered here. My niece was certainly satisfied at “meeting” Daniel himself (although our off-season visit meant that a Daniel Tiger costumed character roaming the park for photo ops was not available, unfortunately). We also rode on a small live-steam railroad ride around the southeast corner of the park, winding around the natural forest area and one a bridge over the creek, before disembarking near the parking lot. We got off so we could have our picnic and my niece can run around in the children’s play area.
As she ran around on the rope netting, slides and ball pool areas, we had our picnic of Carol and Dave’s sandwiches. I ordered the meat loaf sandwich, only to discover it was just the open-faced option, which was nothing more than a slice of bread, slice of meat loaf, some gravy and french fries.
We planned to ride on the ferris wheel, but my niece opted out of it mid-line. I did take her to the midway games area, where she chose to play one game which consisted of throwing balls into empty toilet bowls. She threw the balls herself and got one in, and won a pink sugar skull stuffed doll toy (She’s quite good at these, having won a stuffed toy at the Santa Monica Pier during her visit his past Summer). We also had some ice cream and she got up on an empty performance stage to do her one-woman show (with help from her sidekick, mommy), and played on some playground slides later on. I wanted some ride action, so late in the day I rode on a gyro-spin ride all by myself (as, I was the only person on the entire ride). As people left, there was a bell at the exit for people to ring if they were satisfied with their visit. My niece enthusiastically rang it. My brother-in-law reminded me it was exactly 6:00 p.m., so I tolled the bell six times. My only regret that day was not stopping in the souvenir shop, which was already closed by the time I realized I wanted to go.
The Home Stretch
This was the last leg of the journey to Pittsburgh. Having driven nearly 400 miles from New York City, it was time to gas up. I stopped by a Gulf station along Route 30 and spent a couple moments enjoying the unfamiliar rural setting with the setting sun and looming storm clouds in the distance.
Further along, an overpass read, “WELCOME TO LATROBE – “IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD” clued us in on the town’s most famous citizen: Fred Rogers, who was born here in 1928. Parts of the town served as archetypes for Rogers’ famous television neighborhood. The Neighborhood Trolley was partly inspired by the West Penn Railways interurban trolleys in Latrobe that ran until 1952. But as the sun set lower and the storm clouds loomed ominously closer, we didn’t have time to explore. We did pass what looked like a large cathedral to the north of us, which my brother-in-law searched online to discover it was the campus of Saint Vincent College, a private Catholic Benedictine university, also known for being the training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers and home of the Fred Rogers Center, which maintains Mister Rogers’ archives.
Closer to our destination, Route 30 snaked through Greensburg, PA, which, honestly, resembled suburban San Diego (sans palm trees) in its 21st century big box shopping center generic-ness. Then after Adamsburg, we hut the PA Turnpike again (why hello again, uncertain e-toll booth), where we trudged closer to Pittsburgh in sometimes extremely heavy rain, while constant lightning lit up the sky to the north of us.
Along the rain-soaked journey it was the ride on the tunpike bridge spanning the Allegheny River that signaled our arrival. Leaving the Turnpike on the Allegheny Valley exit (Hello yet again, questionable e-toll booth), we arrived at our home for the next three nights, the Days Inn Pittsburgh-Harmarville. The entire Harmar area was somewhat of a rest-stop town, full of hotels, motels, fast food restaurants and gas stations. The ground was wet but the rainstorm had passed, although the lightning show was still going on in the distance. There was actually a small line at the lobby to check in, and our first room on the 2nd floor had a faulty toilet that wouldn’t stop filling its tank, so we got switched to Room 236, just a few doors down. The cacophony of chirping crickets dominated the area, which was full of hillside trees yet to be uncovered by the veil of night, and the warm humid air also contained the semi-sweet aroma of local plantlife. We were also on the north bank of the Allegheny River, and some 15 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh, which has yet to be seen by anyone else in my traveling party. We had arrived, yet were still unsettled and unoriented. It’s that sense of unfamiliarity that provides the main thrill when traveling.
It was only a little after 7 p.m. when we arrived, the night was young but we weren’t leaving the hotel. My brother-in-law noticed there’s a Target in the neighborhood, and he offered to take a stroll there for water, snacks and supplies. Upon his return, he bought salads for us to eat for dinner and bought a couple cans of beer from a local market which had a “Beer Cave.”
Later on in the evening, around 10 p.m., I wanted to do my own exploring, so I set out into the night to get my first minimal taste of Pittsburgh. I recognized that this place…had no sidewalk. I was unsure whether to walk through the various parking lots, or on the street, which had a white line a few feet from the curb (or was that a bike lane?). I ended up doing both, perhaps in search of an eventual sidewalk. The intersections were confusing, as they had ADA ramps on the corners…which led to grass or gravel.
The Giant Eagle Has Landed
I stopped at what appeared to be a mini-market operation called Giant Eagle Express, which had its own gas station outside. But upon entering, I encountered a full-scale medium-sized supermarket with bakery, cafe and full-service deli. And it, too, had this “beer cave” my brother-in-law talked about. It was also open 24 hours. I was here to also try to buy a local transit pass, the ConnectCard, which was supposedly available at Giant Eagle locations, but could not see any mention of it here. I also briefly contemplated taking a bus ride into Pittsburgh, but being the weekend, the last bus into town had already gone, and there was no means to return later. I walked west towards a creek, which had a bridge, but no means to cross it, so I ended up walking on the paved street median. However, on the way back, I discovered there was a sidewalk portion of the bridge after all – that was hidden by a tall concrete barrier. Oops.
Pittsburgh Knows Their Sheetz
My brother-in-law also mentioned a place called “Sheetz” – the one with the Beer Cave. What I discovered was something even more incredible. Sheetz is a regional western Pennsylvania convenience store chain which also offers a full-scale sandwich/hot food deli (which is somewhat of an understatement). It’s sort of the western PA counterpart of Wawa, which is a familiar sight to folks in Philadelphia and the eastern end of the Keystone State. The “deli” features a computer terminal for ordering, though actual humans make your sandwiches. Then you pay at the counter. But what enthralled me, besides the broad selection of snack chips from brands other than Frito-Lay, was a F’real automated shake machine that makes milkshakes for you from pre-frozen containers. I MUST TRY THIS.
And also, what my brother-in-law said was true. There was a walk-in Beer Cave. I didn’t buy any brews just yet, but I did walk in. I’d imagine it would be a fun place to be trapped in during a hot day.
As I walked back to the hotel, through the parking lots, in the damp night air, the sound of a diesel horn and the rumbling of freight cars greeted me to satisfy my railfan sensibilities. It was the Norfolk Southern railroad line paralleling Freeport Road, viewable from my hotel balcony. They were nearly all unit trains carrying gondola cars full of coal from the regional coal mines. How very Appalachia.