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A waterfall, scrumpy and french fries – New Brighton, Pennsylvania

On September 25, 2007

It must have been dry this summer in western PA – Buttermilk Falls is but a trickle of its generally thundering self.  No matter the diminished capacity of the Falls this year, it is a wonderful place for a quick walk on an almost 80 degree September Saturday afternoon.  Local literature claims this area was used as a retreat by Fred McFeely – father of the incomparable Mr. Rogers – “can you say waterfall?” – from the early thirties until the mid fifties. The McFeelys were quite wealthy and the home included stables and multiple garages as well as the home itself, kind of unexpected when you think of the humble, unassuming man Mr. McFeely’s son grew up to be.  We weren’t looking for the homeplace when we were there and I don’t recall any evidence of it but, hey, we damn near missed the Falls entirely so don’t take my word on that.

If you follow the link to the Indiana Parks page for directions to the Falls and a picture of its glory days, you will see that the day we saw it the only thing it had in common with the Parks’ picture was its height: at 45 feet, Buttermilk Falls tumbles further than any other falls in Pennsylvania.  The site was once home to a large rock quarry and on the short walk from the three car gravel parking lot to the waterfall the quarry walls are almost close enough to touch and you can still see see the scars of the charges that shook the rock free; underneath the Falls itself are the more recent scars of lazy people who know enough to enjoy the cool recess but apparently not enough to take their beer bottles with them.

While taking the above picture, I realized with a start that we were not alone.  A shirtless, long haired man in jeans had come up noiselessly behind me; his stealthy appearance put me more on edge than walking down a dark LA street late at night.  In that moment I understood why my companion had quickly started back toward me from behind the water.  Someplace below the slight twinge of unease in my stomach, I knew I should be ashamed of my low grade fright.  The man, although in severe need of dental work and doubtless enjoying more than a natural high, was friendly, quite knowledgeable about the local woods and obviously wanted someone with whom to talk.  In a matter of minutes we knew that as a teenager he and a girlfriend had bought a white panel truck (the words to “Chevy Van” wafted briefly to mind) for $150 and driven cross country to a hippie house in Pasadena; amazing how a story that would have sounded so adventuresome when I was sixteen sounded so sad when I was fifty-three.  After a few minutes we said our goodbyes and moved as politely – and as quickly – as possible back toward the car; and yes, I admit it, we both later talked about fearing a sudden hammer to our heads.

After the beauty of Buttermilk Falls and the slight rush of our unexpected encounter, there was only one thing to do: find a beer.  We were now in the New Brighton area and you would have thought, with so many hard working men and women in the area, there would have been a number of bars but there were surprisingly few – maybe having something to do with the fact that New Brighton is also home to a Christian college – although I’ve done some serious partying with Christian college students; so you can imagine how happy we were to spy

you guessed it — The Blue Marble (907 3rd Avenue) –

and its friendly owner, Michael, who at three in afternoon was overseeing some work inside the bar and was good enough to let us in for a cool one.  Of course, none of my pictures of the bar’s interior came out so you will just have to believe me that it was covered with things Michael had collected some twenty years prior when he had been in the Navy.  On each of the bar’s walls there were Oriental carpets he had bought for $13 while on shore leave as well as numerous other treasures, big and small.  The body of the bar was quite narrow and so, as you can see from the picture, it is currently undergoing renovations which will give it more than twice the room as well as increased food possibilities.

Across from the bar was a hip height game of shuffle board.  Instead of cues, hands are used to propel the weights across a surface which is covered with a light dusting of sand.  You have no idea the natural talent I had for shuffle board after consuming a 22 ounce $9 bottle of scrumpy.  Yes, that’s right, here in the middle of New Brighton I found the closest thing I have had to true scrumpy since my visit to England last fall.  I have become quite the scrumpy-phile since then and let me tell you if you come across a bottle of Orchard Gate Gold anywhere, it is cheap at half the price – smooth but with a strong taste of apples; I wonder if they can ship it?

In a curious Alice Through the Looking Glass kind of way, our experience in The Blue Marble reverberated with our recent experience near Buttermilk Falls.  Michael, too, was a thin, long haired man in jeans; had he been without a shirt and his expensive glasses, he might have been mistaken for our dentally clhallenged acquaintance of an hour before.  As the juke box pumped out vintage Stones and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Michael told us how he originally bankrolled the bar – he’s a scenic painter who lives much of the year in – Burbank, California (it’s not unlikely that he has visited The Blue Room (scroll down, they’re in a alphabetical order – a popular hang out for movie craftsmen, wish I had thought to ask).  Now there’s a moment for you – walk into a dark bar in New Brighton, Pennsylvania on a Saturday afternoon more than 2,000 miles from home and find out that the bar’s owner works ten miles from where you live.  His skills have taken him more places than the left coast.  In a few weeks, he’s headed to Dubai to work on Atlantis II.  The next song on the juke box should have been “It’s a Small World” – (jeez now I’ll go to bed humming that – “it’s a small world after all”).  No matter where he goes though, Michael said New Brighton is the only place he wants to call home.

A tall scrumpy can make you a little philosophical – or more likely a little tipsy – so as I sat there on my barstool I wondered – briefly – about the roads that take us to the places we find ourselves.  How did Mr. Rogers travel from a boyhood of wealth and summer homes to making truly bad puppets come alive for pre-schoolers? (I mean, truly bad puppets – you know he said the point of their design was to encourage little ones to be more imaginative.)  How did one male child of the sixties end up wandering shirtless in the mountains with his inner music and another end up a wealthy man travelling to Dubai, owning a bar and singing along with Mick on his personal juke box?  And how the hell did W become President of the United States not once but twice? (That may have been a different rumination.)

When you’ve seen a waterfall, found a bottle of exceptional scrumpy and beaten all comers in shuffle board, what else is there left to do but find truly salty french fries?  Fortunately, we found that we were just down the street from the Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe and not just any Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe but as its friendly, efficient employees will tell you without prompting –

the original
Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe.

Now I’m not much of one for eating the worst parts of a pig squeezed into a tube and if I want to collect insect parts I’ll play a game of Cootie but I recommend without hesitation that if you make it to western PA you visit a Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe; their fries are everything french fries should be: hot, salty, abundant and cheap.  Follow your fries with a vanilla milk shake and you have a culinary experience that beats out many a fine restaurant.  More than the fries and shake though, Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe has customer service – make that Customer Service.  The previous evening we had a rather annoying conversation at our hotel with our check in hostess (a gross misuse of that word) who seemed to find it odd that a guest might ask for both a non-smoking room and ice cream in the restaurant on the same trip.  The bright young lady behind the counter at BHDS quickly expunged that inhospitable memory.  She reminded me once again that all over this country and England, too (I’ll let you know about the rest of the world later) there are people working at unexciting jobs for a probably lowly wage who smile and work hard because that is what they were hired on to do.  God bless her.

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