Saturday, July 31, 2010

The road to The Meadows: 16,000 years of rock shelters, cherry pies, trolley cars, trail rides and a beloved father of harness racing

Our roadtrip begins 16,000 years ago, after a lovely winding ride along a very rural Route 50 toward the West Virginia border. We’re en route to the last homestead of local hero Delvin Miller, known around here as the father of American harness racing. His story’s worth telling, but it’s what his brother Albert found on the family farm that drives us forward into the past.

Some years back Albert was walking his dog along the Cross Creek when Ol’ Blue chases a groundhog down its hole and digs up ancient Indian arrowheads, tools and other artifacts of social activity in the process. One dig leads to the next and – eureka –the oldest continually habitated spot by human folk on the North American continent.

The archeologists tell us people have been coming to this spot called the Meadowcroft Rockshelter for nigh on 16,000 years. (“It was like a Paleo motel,” says one of our guides.) That’s 1,600 centuries of fishing trips, hunting parties, family picnics, campfires and every manner of post-ice-age barbecues. All now protected by a dramatic wooden enclosure more Frank Lloyd Wright than pre-Clovis paleontology.

Even for us lay folk, who think the patched denim jacket we just found balled up in the back of the ragtop trunk is old, this place is a certified jaw dropper. They’ve been digging around here with tiny little razor blades since the ‘70s – which seems long enough – and they’ve gotten through about a third of the sandstone that’s given up countless prehistoric treasures.

A couple stones throw away, on this same piece of property, is the Meadowcroft Museum of Rural Life. We stroll through a frontier town, check out the squash growing in a 400-year old Indian village garden and land inside two galleries that tell the stories of the Miller brothers who put this spot on the map.

Albert was a gifted photographer, and his chronicles of old-time rural living fill a beautiful gallery. Next door, a story of one of the great sportsmen of any archeological era comes to life. Albert’s brother Delvin Miller drove his first racehorse when he was a teen, and kept at it till he died at the age of 83. The room is chock-a-block with sulkies, loving cups, regal proclamations and amazing memories. It’s a one-man hall of fame from the most romantic era of sports.

After gawking through a few generations of geological and harness racing ephemera we put images of flint arrowheads and riding silks in our rear view. We have a desire to hop a streetcar at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum down near The Meadows Racetrack, our feature destination. (Did we mention that it was Delvin Miller himself who founded that beautiful racing oval back in ’63?)

Alas, like the best laid plans, ours is interrupted, this time by hungry happenstance along the two-lane. We do a double take at an art deco filling station now reborn as a bakery with the tastiest pies this side of the Wellsboro Diner. Their aroma fills the air, so of course we bang a uey to have a looksee.

The Pie Place has rolled ‘em out for more than 15 years now, and we cannot tell a lie: the crimson cherry pie with the lattice-work lard crust is so tempting we don’t make it out of the parking lot. We devour the whole enchilada right off the ragtop’s trunk.

Wipe the last speck of cherry filling from the corner of our smile and we finally make it to the Trolley Museum. Yup, there she is, the very same streetcar named Desire made famous onstage by good ole Stanley Kowalski. To this day it inspires cries of “Stella!” from many who happen upon this big old trolley barn.

Desire is part of a collection of more than 40 antique trolley cars, most of ‘em painstakingly restored and gleaming with nostalgia. Motorman Walt Copland welcomes us aboard for a trundle through the nearby woods and meadows. He tells stories of the bygones and answers every question with a wink and a smile.

By now the light is late-afternoon lush, and we hop off the trolley just in time for the first post at The Meadows, where our potential fortune (and a couple cold trackside brews) awaits our arrival.

This place is beautiful and bustling. Gentlemen sport Irish caps and chew pencils while they study racing forms. Kids ride on dads’ shoulders up and down the rail, pointing at one splendid horse after another. It’s colorful; a carnival atmosphere festive with families who keep Delvin Miller’s equine vision alive and trotting.

Aha! A pacer from Pennsylvania’s great Hanover Shoe Farms is listed in the first race. So we plop down two bucks on Big Time Hanover to win and then claim a spot with the railbirds down where they finish.

The bugle calls the horses to the post and the reverie raises back-neck goosebumps. The thrill never gets old, especially when Big Time Hanover comes thumping from the outside to take the lead at the ¾ mark with just enough oomph to hold on past the wire. We hop and holler and wave our winning ticket. The Hanover horse pays $4.20; the next cold beer is on the house.

We stay through the 8th, the big feature race, where we put our faith on another pacer from our favorite place. This time he’s a big fella by the name of Dagnabit Hanover. He’s won two in a row, but this evening, dag nabit, he can’t make it three. All in all, though, we did alright.

Turns out watching all those horses run around in ovals pushes our hungry and thirsty buttons. So we find happiness in the tavern room at Palazzo 1837 Ristorante, a new-school Italian in a beautiful old-school brick building just down the road apiece.

Matt Sager holds court at the bar here and mixes a varied menu of mean vintage cocktails. (His wife Susan manages their downtown Pittsburgh outpost; we make a mental note to stop and say hello.) We quaff one of Matt’s speakeasy Lime Phosphates (caution: they go down too easy) and savor a mélange of sautéed sea scallops and oxymoronic jumbo shrimp. Roadtrip dinners seem best eaten at the bar, where conversation with locals usually digs up tomorrow’s unexpected treasures. No exception this time, as Matt boasts of a wood-burning pizza oven just up Route 19 in Mt. Lebanon.

Lucky for us Il Pizziaolo is just a few clicks from bucolic Rolling Hills Ranch, where a gentle saddle horse named Forbes takes us for a morning ride through the woods. We clip=clop beneath the forest canopy and dream of driving a Hanover champion to the winner’s circle at The Meadows. After a very pleasant hour or so, we prepare to chow down on Neapolitan pizza topped with baby arugula and oh-so-thin prosciutto.

The itinerary is tight. We’ve still got a barn full of Alpacas to discover, a tour of a dairy farm to take (and their ice cream to scream about) and a night to spend at yet another working farm where we’ll help pitch hay, milk a cow and sleep like 16,000-year old rocks. But that’s a whole other story yet to tell.

In the meantime, we’ll look for you around the bends and back roads.