September 3, 2018
Camp Hill, Pennsylvania
My parents intended today to be a swan song for my father’s 2004 Jeep Wrangler, whose ripped canvas roof, screeching brakes, and rattling engine had become a seasonal money pit. It’s an endearing waste of money, though. Our fondest memories were of day trips in that car with the roof and windows zipped off, blaring Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits as we headed for the local high points: Gettysburg, Hershey, or the Chautauqua Campmeeting at Mt. Gretna. Nothing was going on there this Labor Day, so we decided to drive up into the Blue Ridge Mountains and see what we might find.
My mom had become obsessed with the idea of shinrin-yoku or Japanese forest bathing, so our first stop was to take a nature walk. But bugs love my dad and me, and we couldn’t deal with the constant mosquitoes. We soon piled back in the car and went towards our next destination, the Millersburg Ferry, and our ultimate prize: Burgers at The Glass Lounge. The Glass Lounge has a sort of mythic status in our family. From all outward appearances it’s a ratty biker bar, but inside it has the best burgers in the county, at least according to my father. I might have been concerned at the idea of visiting a biker bar but if they accepted my dad—a slightly more masculine version of Frasier—I knew we would be okay.
The streets of Millersburg seemed ordinary, until I noticed a small wooden ferry straight out of a Mark Twain novel sitting at the dock. A big sign advertised the next crossing on the Millersburg Ferry, which would arrive in 20 minutes. Local lore says it’s the last wooden double stern-wheel paddle boat operating in the United States. The ferry had been carrying people, goods, and buggies across the Susquehanna River since the 19th century. Now it would be carrying a Jeep, an Odyssey, a Camry, and eleven passengers. Or at least, I hoped it would.
Once the ferry pushed off the dock, we hopped out of the car and went to the seating area, wheree were surrounded by elderly people, some simultaneously complaining and reminiscing about the olden days of a 25-cent fare (now $3). I walked around the deck, taking pictures of the mirror-like water. The glare from the sun made it difficult, the sheer amount of light washed out photos to a degree that even Apple’s vaunted technology couldn’t overcome. Then I realized something like this shouldn’t be documented, but felt.
Closing my eyes, I experienced a slowness that’s been missing from my life for a while. When I opened them I found myself again on the bright red ferry, topped with a giant American flag. It was almost too perfect; it felt suspicious. A motor roughly the size of two window air-conditioning units pushed the whole boat along; the freckled kid tending to it didn’t look old enough to drive, let alone steer a boat.
The soft chug of the small motor was occasionally accompanied by a metallic twang coming from the thick cables that appeared to be holding the boat together. It felt disconcerting, especially since the wooden boards on the car deck dipped three inches closer to the water whenever I stepped on them. What were the odds of us capsizing? It had been the rainiest summer on record, but the previous week’s heat had dried everything out like an old prune. Worst case scenario, I knew we could definitely swim, if not stand, in the river. Suddenly, the boat lurched forward.
“If we’re all going in we better be careful about the alligators,” a woman warned her two companions, a man in a Sturgis Rally shirt and another with a deep sunburn. She was wearing tactical sunglasses, the kind people use on a shooting range,
She went on to explain that she’d recently visited a nearby wild animal park with her son and swore she saw an alligator’s snout bobbing up in the man-made lake meant for canoeing. Apparently, alligators were breeding unchecked in these parts when she’d visited as a child in the ‘70s. Although the alligators had supposedly been removed in the ‘90s, she suspected one or two had slipped through.
“We still went canoeing, but I’m sure as shit not going in that water again,” she declared.
The wild animal park used to be one of the high points of my summer at day camp, zookeepers would let us feed the emus, and pet the cool scales of the gigantic pythons. Even then I knew emus, and probably most of the wildlife there, shouldn’t be living in the middle of south-central Pennsylvania, but I loved it.
“They can’t live here, it’s too damn cold,” the sunburned man said.
An elderly Mennonite woman in a printed dress and her husband recorded the landing on their iPads. We got back into our car, waiting to disembark. With each car rolling off the deck, the ferry exhaled, rising upward in the water. It would live to see another day.
We emerged on Route 11/15 in Perry County. The wrong side of the river for the biker bar. Oops. Using Google Maps to orient ourselves we crossed the river again, this time by bridge. When we arrived a minute later, we discovered the restaurant was closed for the weekend.
Thankfully, there were enough grilling leftovers to cobble together a solid dinner at home. My mom abandoned her environmentally-conscious ceramic plates and silverware for the sake of convenience. Condiments and toppings were neatly divided among a series of paper plates. I ate a juicy salmon burger with sweet potato fries and mayonnaise; my parents, less concerned with the issues surrounding red meat, ate cheeseburgers.
After dinner, we plopped on the couch. Nothing interesting was on, it was the tail-end of the late summer programming wasteland before football really starts. As my dad flipped through the channels, my mother and I were jockeying for the best position on the couch. It’s about 12 feet long, but there’s less room than you would think. The cushions suck you in, meaning possession is nine tenths of the law and the body which takes up the most spaces gets the comfiest spot. Eventually, my mom and I negotiated a relatively equal space, fitting into the seats like Tetris blocks.
My phone buzzed with a text from my friend Sarah with her final predictions about who would be this year’s lead on The Bachelor. I wasn’t thrilled with either possibility: Colton, a 25-year-old virgin and former professional football player with commitment issues, or Jason, a sweet guy from Buffalo who looked like a combination of an extra from the Jersey Shore and Jason Schwartzman. My phone died before I could reply, and I was too lazy to plug it in. RBG began playing on CNN and I wondered what Ruth Bader Ginsburg thought of The Bachelor. Probably not much.