As much as we plan out these roadtrips, we keep our eyes peeled for unique experiences along the way. Day 3 of our Northeast Adventure would definitely bring us some fun surprises. On our way out of the suburban PA town my brother calls home, we saw a billboard for a place called Thunderdog Fireworks. You should really click that link - the logo is of a chiseled dachshund wearing a cape and holding a lit firecracker. Andy became a bit obsessed with getting a t-shirt with this logo on it. So Thunderdog Fireworks needed to be added into our itinerary for sure. But before we got to Thunderdog, we saw another billboard for a place called Roadside America, which promised to be "the world's greatest indoor miniature village". What did that even mean? We had to find out.
The entrance fee to Roadside America seemed steep. $8 a person? To see a miniature village? Could it really be worth $16 for the two of us to walk around a little plot of fake grass with a train going around it? Welp - let's find out! Opening the door to this 6,000 square foot warehouse sort of took my breath away. It wasn't just the size of it...it was knowing that one man spent his entire life building this incredibly detailed little world.
There were schools and churches and houses...
...and even trapeze artists.
We spent at least an hour finding all kinds of amazing things. It was interactive too! Buttons were everywhere along the perimeter of the village that made oil drills start pumping or trains start chugging around in a loop.
Thunderdog Fireworks was not too far up the road, and we were in for another unique experience here. Admittedly, it wasn't an ideal time of year to visit a fireworks store. The 4th of July was less than a week away and a lot of people were buying shopping carts full of pyrotechnics. Andy just wanted a t-shirt, but we decided to buy some sparklers too. No t-shirts were for sale, but the owner had one on that was pretty cool so we stood in line for ages to see if it was possible for us to buy one of the employee shirts. The owner was a real character too - a New Yorker who jovially incorporated profanity about every 3rd or 4th word that he spoke. It was kind of endearing. He had some Staten Island customers to check out ahead of us. It took a crazy long time because they were all reminiscing about the motherland.
When we got our turn to ask about the t-shirt, he said he didn't have any, but some were being made. He took Andy's email address and said he'd get in touch when they came in. He told us to just take the $6 sparklers for free - I guess he felt bad we waited in line so long. Andy still hasn't heard from him (nearly 2 years later). Hunger rumbled in our bellies as we approached Hershey, Pennsylvania. Chocolate was obviously part of our future, but we needed a good base first. Enter Troeg's Independent Brewing. I've long been a fan of Troeg's beer. Their HopBack Amber Ale is one of the best around. But we didn't expect to be so blown away by the food! Pulled chicken on a cornbread waffle? Hell yes. But the most impressive thing they served was Brown Butter and Rosemary Salt Popcorn. So good, guys! I've never seen Andy so blissed out. How can you pass through Hershey, PA without going to Hershey's Chocolate World? I guess there were some educational parts to this place, but we mainly went to stock up on Reese's Peanut Butter Cups in their massive gift shop. Another hour south of Hershey and we made it to our stopping point for the day: Gettysburg. A rainstorm had rolled in, making the fields all moody and windswept.
We stopped in the visitor's center and grabbed a self-guided tour map. As you may recall from 8th grade Social Studies, Gettysburg was where the bloodiest battle of the Civil War took place. I guess the Confederates totally thought they had it in the bag, but the Union came back to "win". (I'm not sure any event where 50,000 people died in 3 days should be called a win.) At any rate, it was a sobering place chock full of monuments - no, seriously, there are 1,328 monuments in Gettysburg. Here's one of the bigger ones: The Pennsylvania State Memorial which honors the nearly 35,000 Pennsylvanians that fought in this battle.
I personally found a lot of meaning in the more quiet and ordinary places in the fields of Gettysburg. Just sitting among the trees and grass knowing the history of this little spot on earth was quite profound. There are up to 200 Witness Trees still on the grounds of Gettysburg. These trees are the only living witnesses to what went down there during the battles. Each Witness Tree is tagged and cared for. Many of them have bullets lodged deep within their trunks. Pretty cool stuff if you ask me.
We grabbed a couple slices of pizza in town and watched folks dressed up in Civil War-era garb lead groups of tourists down the sidewalks. We even spotted Zoltar!
As the sun set, we parked on the side of the road and enjoyed the show.
The next morning, we woke up early to grab some breakfast. On the way to the spot chosen for breakfast, we passed by a bunch of billboards for a place called Mister Ed's Elephant Museum and Candy Emporium. Ummmm, how can you NOT visit a place with that title? We pulled in and were happy to see they were already open. Between Hershey Park and this place, we had a LOT of candy at hand for the rest of the roadtrip. I picked up a Goo Goo Cluster and Andy got some fudge...what a nutritious pre-breakfast snack! Pro Travel Tip: Pay attention to billboards! Usually, the coolest/weirdest little spots do the most advertising. Another 15 minutes up the road to Chambersburg, PA we spotted a glowing yellow sign in the distance: WAFFLE HOUSE! Neither Andy or me had ever been to a Waffle House before but I'd recently seen Sean Brock (one of my fave chefs) take Anthony Bourdain (RIP) to a Waffle House in South Carolina on an episode of Parts Unkown. Sean preached the merits of Waffle House and I knew I must experience it for myself. Watch it here. So in we walked. And this little waffle chain has had our hearts ever since. Seriously! We have subsequently plotted out other roadtrips based on Waffle House locations.
Pittsburgh was our next destination. After driving over, around, and through the Appalachian Mountains, we arrived at our hotel. We hit up Point State Park, with its iconic water fountain and views of where the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers meet.
Along the the Allegheny River, we were in search of some bridges for Andy to photograph.
Pittsburgh is a bridge city. It literally has more bridges than anywhere in the world (take that Venice! - they have 3 fewer bridges). There are a whopping 446 bridges within Pittsburgh's city limits, 29 of which span over three different rivers. Crazypants.
We walked to Market Square Place, which has a bit of a European feel because it's a completely open, car-free plaza surrounded by restaurant patios. It was a lively spot and the home of another food spot we wanted to hit up. Primanti Brothers is a Pittsburgh institution. I remember hearing about their sandwiches, piled high with cole slaw and french fries, nearly a decade before. We ordered a classic sandwich. It was utterly massive. Definitely big enough to share.
After stuffing ourselves for the second time that day, we waddled over to the PPG Building. The Pittsburgh Plate Glass building is one of the buildings featured in the more recent Batman movie. So totally Gotham.
I personally found the vibe of Pittburghers to be similar to Bostonians - a little rough around the edges with a soft center. As we paid the check at Primanti Brothers, we chatted up the standoffish waiter to get some ice cream intel. He told us there was a spot up near Grandview Avenue that was pretty good so, when we were done gazing up at the PPG Building, we headed that way. It turns out that Grandview Avenue is exactly what it says it is - best view of Pittsburgh we could have asked for. The location of the ice cream spot eluded us, but we got something even better with this skyline sunset.
We stayed up on Grandview for an hour or more, just taking in the views. If you know me, you know I wasn't going to let the whole we-couldn't-find-the-ice-cream-place thing go. So we drove around a bit and eventually found it but it was closed for the night. So I did a quick Google search for the best ice cream in Pittsburgh and a universally-hailed spot called Antney's came up again and again. Oh, and it happened to be pretty close to our hotel - and OPEN! So off we went to have a sweet treat before bed.
Compared to Waffle House the day before, our Hampton Inn continental breakfast on the morning of Day 5 was so sad. Oh well, not everyday can be a Waffle House day I guess. Our first stop of the day was nearly 3 hours drive so we checked out of the hotel and got a move on. There's something you should know about Andy: The Shawshank Redemption is his favorite movie of all time. While planning for this trip, Andy was wearing a Shawshank Prison t-shirt that his friend's mom had picked up for him in Maine. We got to talking about how the movie wasn't really filmed much in Maine. On a whim, we looked up where it was filmed and were super excited to see that the movie was predominantly filmed in a prison about an hour south of Cleveland, OH (which is where we'd be spending the night on Day 5). Re-Route! This had to happen.
The Ohio State Reformatory is a massive structure in Mansfield, Ohio. It's no longer a prison and open for self-guided tours. You can hang out in the parole board room...
...or see the famous wall safe...
...or hang out in Brooks' apartment...
...or even sit in one of the cells.
There are standees of the Shawshank actors every so often as you tour the place.
We still had a big day ahead of us. So we headed up to Cleveland. Andy has been to Cleveland a number of times and it's the home of his favorite restaurant, Crop. What a stunning restaurant! (And what a banner day for Andy, getting to visit the location of his favorite movie AND eat at his favorite restaurant all in one day!) Dinner was excellent, by the way. And what better way to end a day like this than with a Ray Lamontagne concert on the Cuyahoga River?! Seriously, we plan the bejesus out of these trips to squeeze every last drop of fun out of them.
Okay, buckle your seat belts for part three of this Northeast adventure. We'll: ...buy every available French Onion Roll from a Toronto bakery ... take a ride on the Hornblower ...and get real paranoid about our potato chip haul being seized at the border.