A common misconception regarding the state of Pennsylvania is that it consists of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and a whole lotta nothin' in between. But those who are willing to look will find many points of interest within this allegedly barren area -- from iconic corporate headquarters to eccentric roadside attractions to amusement parks to (of course) Minor League Baseball. That's why we're all here, right?
Pennsylvania boasts eight affiliated Minor League teams, many of which are situated in the Southeastern portion of the state. That's where we'll focus for this inaugural edition of "Road Trips," starting in the State Capitol of Harrisburg before proceeding to Reading and, finally, the Lehigh Valley.
Day 1: Harrisburg Senators (Harrisburg, Pa.)
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Hershey's Chocolate World (AP)
This just in from the Department of Redundancy Department: One of the benefits of visiting a state capitol is being able to visit a state capitol building
. Pennsylvania's opened in 1906, a classically designed masterpiece that incorporates Greek, Roman and Victorian architectural styles. This is the closest one can get to Old World elegance in Pennsylvania, a fittingly beautiful testament to the timeless wisdom of state namesake William Penn's governmental philosophies.
Pennsylvania -- and our nation's -- history can be further explored at the National Civil War Museum. Boasting an unrivaled collection of artifacts from the era, the museum bills itself as catering to "the history nut, the Civil War buff, those who are proud to be Americans, and those who want to know more about America's greatest tragedy." The museum can be coupled with a trip to the Gettysburg Battlefield, located within an hour's drive of Harrisburg (although I'm not sure of the exact "address").
Or one could forgo the above diversions and simply spend the day at the amusement park - In this case, Hershey Park, a sprawling oasis of thrill rides located in the chocolate capital of the country.
Either way, leave the evening free for a Harrisburg Senators game at newly renovated Metro Bank Park. The facility, located on an honest-to-God island, is in close proximity to downtown Harrisburg's wide array of eating and drinking establishments. Make a night of it.
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Day 2: Reading Phillies (Reading, Pa.)
R-Phils tickets | 2010 R-Phils schedule
Amish Country in Lancaster, Pa. (AP)
It might not be the most direct route, but the drive between Harrisburg and Reading can easily include a stop in Lancaster, Pa. -- Amish Country
. This is a world of covered bridges, horse and buggies, and antiquated family-run farms, drastically out of step with American life in the 21st century. But despite their technologically-adverse tendencies, many Amish are able to make a healthy living off of the region's tourism industry. So open up the wallet and pay to see a barn-raising, and don't forget to stock up on hand-sewn quilts for your loved ones.
Or, just give in to temptation and visit another amusement park -- In this case the inimitable Dutch Wonderland. This kid-centric attraction is like a fairy tale come to life, albeit one in which creepy witches and ravenous wolves are replaced by bumper cars and log flumes.
The Pennsylvania Dutch region offers many off-the-beaten path diversions for those willing to take the time to look. Perhaps the most captivatingly eccentric is Roadside America in Shartlesville, a painstakingly detailed miniature rural landscape that spans the last 200 years of American history. Roadside America is the sort of idiosyncratic and wholly original attraction that makes road trips worth taking in the first place. If you need further persuasion, then consider this quote from the establishment's website: "[Roadside America is] the American countryside as it might be seen by a giant so huge that he could see from coast to coast." Let's just be glad that such a giant does not exist, for even if his intentions were benevolent his every step would nonetheless result in wholesale destruction on a previously unimaginable scale.
After enjoying a giant's-eye view of America, one might be inclined to seek out an attraction that offers a more humbling perspective. If so, Kutztown's Crystal Cave is only a short drive away. Guided tours are offered daily, leading visitors on a 125-foot descent into a world of stalagmites and stalactites. And after taking the tour, you, too, will know the difference between these two similarly named and similar-looking things. This subterranean adventure can be complemented with a stop at the Dutch-themed fast food restaurant, located within an on-site barn. Cave exploration coupled with a meal of kielbasa, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, cole slaw, and shoo-fly pie is a near unbeatable combination, as any famished spelunker can tell you.
But no matter the specific itinerary one chooses while making their way through Pennsylvania Dutch Country, make sure the day concludes at a Reading Phillies game. The R-Phils expertly combine the two sides of the Minor League Baseball experience into a coherent whole, as deep-rooted fandom goes hand-in-hand with offbeat promotions and surreal between-inning hi-jinx. If you aren't lucky enough to get a free meal courtesy of the ostrich-riding Crazy Hot Dog Vendor, then consider springing for a "Churger" at the concession stand. This is exactly what the name implies -- a boneless chicken breast slapped atop a hamburger patty. Consumption of this culinary concoction is often followed by spontaneous recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, because, really, where else but the USA would such a thing exist?
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Day 3: Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Allentown, Pa.)
IronPigs tickets | 2010 IronPigs schedule
Crayola Factory (AP)
Reading is Philadelphia's Double-A affiliate, and from there it's just a short drive to the home of the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs
. With travel time at a bare minimum, there should be plenty of opportunity to explore what the Lehigh Valley has to offer.
If you have kids in tow, the Crayola Factory in Easton should be on your itinerary. A visit to this land of colored wax has been on every child's to-do list ever since Mr. Rogers left his neighborhood in order to visit, and the factory has since expanded into what is billed as a "hands-on discovery center."
Another must-see factory tour is located in nearby Nazareth, home of The Martin Guitar Company. This venerable company, established in 1833, has produced over a million guitars. Tours begin in the visitors center, which also includes a guitar museum and gift shop so that you may "pick" out a present for your friends back home. And if spending time in a quaint town with a biblical name inspires a desire for more of the same, consider stopping in nearby Bethlehem. The town is home to the JustBorn Candy Company, makers of Peeps marshmallow confections as well as Mike and Ikes. Health regulations prohibit visitors from taking a factory tour, but at the very least you can personally inquire why the company discontinued its "Jolly Joe" line of grape-flavored candy.
And while it may seem a bit redundant to seek out hot dogs while in the midst of a baseball-centric excursion, no trip to the Lehigh Valley is complete without a stop at one of the six Yocco's Hot Dogs located in the area. The 87-year-old company advertises heavily throughout the region, making it a virtual guarantee that one will drive past a billboard featuring an anthropomorphic, crown-wearing frankfurter. This is because Yocco's is the (self-proclaimed) hot dog king, and at just $1.25 a dog, the place is an indisputable bargain. Top it with some of their famous chili sauce, and order a side of pierogies while you're at it.
Of course, all of the above suggestions can be disregarded so that one can spend the day at an amusement park. In this case, Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom, a 1-2 punch of amusements both wet and dry located in Allentown, Pa. The park has a well-deserved reputation as a roller coaster paradise, featuring a half-dozen to choose from (including The Hydra, Pennsylvania's only floorless coaster).
The last stop on this theoretical three-day adventure is Coca-Cola Park, home of the IronPigs. The team has drawn over 600,000 fans in each of its first two years of existence, resulting in a consistently vibrant stadium atmosphere. And if the game lags at any point, pass the time by attempting to tally the number of pig-related puns that the team employs throughout the evening. This is a surefire way to enhance the ball-pork experience.
And on that note of high-brow humor, we bring this edition of "Road Trips" to a close. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
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