Friday, September 5, 2008

The Lehigh Valley

Strumming Martin guitars and strolling Jim Thorpe

We’re north on PA 191, a short stretch of working-class two-lane alive with trucks and tractors, flatbeds and four-by-fours. They rumble past stainless diners and glazed doughnut shops. Uniform and janitorial supply houses share the road with farm stands and car lots. It’s a patchwork cocktail of rural and retail filling up the Lehigh Valley.

With us are Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. Eric Clapton’s in the backseat. And we’re all riding with the King. All manner of guitar slingers are in and out of the ragtop’s CD player as we highball into Nazareth and on to the hallowed ground where they make C.F. Martin guitars.

Here’s where Woody Guthrie’s guitar was born. As well as Paul Simon’s, and Ernest Tubb’s. No matter what kind of music, it sounds better when it comes out of a Martin flattop. Been that way for 175 years.

We meet up with a small group ready to tour the guitar works. They still make ‘em by hand here, and we gawk in awe as patient craftsmen bend and carve Brazilian rosewood just so.

One fellow holds up the most beautiful thing we’ve laid eyes on. Mother-of-pearl weaves to and fro in flowering, lacy filigree from the pick guard all the way up the neck. The edges of the instrument glitter with woven silver and gold. “It’s taken me 3 months,” he says with pride. A tourist asks, “Who’s it for?” “Can’t say,” the fellow smiles.

“How much?”

“$55,000,” comes the answer with a soft strum. The guitar sounds like golden warm honey.

We spend another hour in the Martin Museum, drooling over dreadnaughts and 12-strings. There’s Clapton’s gorgeous all-white D-28. And of course, Johnny Cash’s black one. In a room set aside for spontaneous jamming, fellow travelers break into old-timey standards. As the bumper sticker says, “It’s finger-picking good.”

Back in the wood shop, the lunch whistle sounds. We recall passing Potts’ Doggie Shop on the way through Nazareth, and head back for a couple of chilidogs with pickles and slaw. Locals love to kibitz about their dogs. Potts versus the venerable Yocco’s. Some say Yocco’s grills the better wiener, but Potts’ chili wins hands down. All we can say is they’re so good (and cheap) we grab two Potts with cheese and bacon to walk with. And peel our eyes for Yocco’s for a proper taste test.

Bethlehem is on deck, the old steel town re-imagined and alive with new energy. The historic Hotel Bethlehem is a grand dame, restored and resplendent and a very welcome home after a day on the road. Across the street, The Moravian Bookstore is one of the nation’s oldest and best indy bookshops. Voracious readers laze the day among the stacks and re-fuel at a coffee shop just beyond Nonfiction. Up the block, thank heavens, we find the Bethlehem Brew Works, with beer-battered onion rings and a righteous Belgian lambic on tap. Ah, just in time for late afternoon.

A night on the town features a picture show at the huge-screen Boyd Theater. What’s better than a fistful of Goobers and a good old shoot-em-up. Next morning grab a copy of The Morning Call and revel in huevos rancheros at Billy’s Downtown Diner. Then, top down, we hug the Lehigh River to Jim Thorpe and a different world altogether.

Back in the day, Jim Thorpe was East and West Mauch Chunk, two towns separated by the river, united by prosperity. Once thriving with natural resources, Mauch Chunk fell on hard times as the coal and timber plunder dwindled. So the Mauch Chunks bought the rights to build a memorial tomb for Jim Thorpe, the legendary Native American Olympian. And two Mauch Chunks came together and adopted his moniker. Today Jim Thorpe, “the world’s greatest athlete,” spends eternity in an enchanting town that bears his name. Charming streets, unique boutiques, oddball museums and a grand little opera house surround his unlikely resting place.

Check out the stunning Dimmick Library, opened in 1890. A sunny atrium sheds light on a collection of rare books and historical archives. Stroll across the street to the Mauch Chunk Museum and we’re back in time with a 30-ft model of the old Switchback Gravity Railroad. The old cars once carried the first tourists through these mountain passes. (Tomorrow we see for ourselves with a ride on The Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway; the station’s at the foot of Jim Thorpe’s main street.)

Now up Broadway to the Old Jail, cool and creepy. Imagine raising a family in the warden’s quarters, just a doorway away from the cellblock. And the dungeon. And the gallows. Peer into cell #17, seared with a spooky handprint made by an innocent man hanged with the Molly Maguires. Get goosebumps. Get outta jail.

Back in bright afternoon we shrug off the prison heebie-jeebies with a sunny stroll down Race Street, narrow and cozy and old-school Europe. Mountains jut on either side to show us why Mauch Chunk was called “The Switzerland of America.”

This little street is a wonder. Tidy homes snuggle the mountainside. There’s a cute café and a restaurant called The Black Bread. The Big Creek Winery pours free sips of good reds, whites and rosés. And a little bit of heaven called The Country Cottage is home to the Blue Ribbon Pickle. Lori, “The Pickle Lady,” says howdy and tempts us with crunch from her kitchen. Wow! Garlicky burpless kirbies, pickled zucchini, dilly pole beans, and home-jarred jams and marmalade give us the grins. But look out, here comes a militant jalapeño salsa that kicks tourist butt first and takes names later. We buy a jar of everything (and two of the salsa).

Lugging jars of pickles and a bottle of sangiovese, we mosey to our room in the Broadway Guest House, tucked quiet off the main drag. Perfect for a catnap before we wake up with our mouths watering.

On the advice of a wise townie, we have reservations with Mary Macaluso and her Italian grandmother’s recipes at the ristorante that bears the family name. Macaluso’s is a favorite local haunt, nearly hidden next to a motel called The Lantern. We tuck away wild mushroom ravioli, grilled loin of veal and a rack of lamb to beat the band. Wash it down with the tasty house red and try to save room for the homemade gelati.

Tomorrow we promise to work it all off with a bike ride through the mountain trails. Maybe a white water hoot-and-holler through the Lehigh Gorge. And a nosy browse through The Emporium of Curious Goods, one of the weirder wonders in Jim Thorpe. Until then, we’re mighty happy, hunkered down with Mary Macaluso, double espressos and after-dinner cordials. Too soon it’s time to leave, so we’ll look for you along the bends and back roads.

For an illustrated map of our cruise through the Lehigh Valley strum on over to In the meantime, look up these great joints along the way:

C.F. Martin Guitars and Martin Guitar Museum
For 175 years, the most beloved guitars in the world. Watch as they’re still made the same old way. 510 Sycamore St., Nazareth, PA. Find out about tours and hours at

Potts’ Doggie Shop
Good enough to eat two. Cheap enough to eat four. Load ‘em up at 307 S. Broad Street in Nazareth. 610.759.6600. Also at 114 W. Fairview in Bethlehem. Taste the Lehigh Valley rivalry over at Yocco’s in Allentown. Info at

Hotel Bethlehem
Big city luxuries at small town rates. Simply superb, in gilded age splendor. 437 Main Street in Bethlehem. 61-.625.5000. Check in at

The Jim Thorpe Memorial
On Jim’s tomb, King Gustaf of Sweden, host of the 1912 Olympics, is quoted: “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” Cross the bridge from the main downtown of Jim Thorpe over to what was East Mauch Chunk. Take North Street (Rt. 903) about a mile and a half. You can find a good map at

Mauch Chunk Museum & Cultural Center
A great place to the get the whole story of Mauch Chunk and Jim Thorpe. Watch the video, explore the history. 41 West Broadway in Jim Thorpe. 570.325.9190;

The Old Jail
Dig the dungeon, saunter along the cellblock, see the lingering hand print of a condemned innocent man. (It’s shudderiffic.) 128 W. Broadway in Jim Thorpe. 570.325.5259.

The Broadway Guest House
This is the annex of the beautiful Inn at Jim Thorpe, just down the street. We like the Inn, but we love the Guest House hideaway. It’s at 44-46 W. Broadway. 800.329.2599.

The Country Cottage
Home of The Blue Ribbon Pickle and some heart-pounding jalapeño salsa. Plus a shop full of crafty knick-knacks and quaint geegaws. Say hello to Lori, the pickle lady, at 37 Race Street in Jim Thorpe. 800.304.8522.

Macaluso’s Restaurant
Ask Mary what’s special tonight. If she recommends it, don’t miss it. One of the better ristorantes in the Commonwealth. Reservations are suggested, although we love eating at the bar and conversing with the locals. 570.669.9433. Just a couple miles outside of Jim Thorpe on Route 209 in Nesquehoning, PA. Start your mouth watering at

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