Postvisit: Back Where I started

Chambersburg Travel Blog

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Day totals: 11 hrs, 18.7 kms

Remember Chambersburg?   This is the place where I see to always end up when I'm at a major transition in my life.  Summer of 1994... Winter of 1999... Fall of 2000. On that last one I actually ended up staying here for 7 long years.  The whole time, though, I just say it as a "base camp" to prepare for my next adventure.  I never really bonded with the town or tried to dig beneath the surface to discover its culture.  I found it easy to write of the town as a place where people just care about church, drinkin' and huntin'-- a steroeotypical "Red State" town.  I felt quite ill at ease in a town where nobody seems interested in visiting any other country, unless they're going as missionaries or military!  Definitely not a culture I felt at "home" in.

When I finally did decide to start exploring America with the lauching of my Global Parkbench Tour in 2007, I was no longer living in Chambersburg.  I swung by here as an afterthought, took a quick videoclip in front of the courthouse, and headed on my way, glad to scratch it off of my list forever. Here's the link to that page where reminisce a bit more on my 7 years in Chambersburg

But now, after 5 years of living in Morocco and traveling the world I think I'm ready to come back here and see this town with new eyes.  I've cemented myself into the role of an "observer" who isn't here to love or hate any particular culture, but rather just to neutrally watch, learn, and write down my observations.
  I've come to realize that every culture, with it's good, bad and ugly qualities, is a facet of this fascinating collage that we call "Planet Earth".

And with this in mind, I'm actually excited about going back to Chambersburg and really experiencing it with a whole new attitude.  I feel I owe it to this town--after all, this town has helped me get on my feet three times when I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  And it provided me with the resources to go out and live my dreams. 

So to start out my new semester, and new phase of life, I'm going to explore Chambersburg, Pennsylvania all over again....

AND I'm going to launch out on my first Superhike in the Western Hemisphere right from here.  And it just might end up being one of my biggest Superhikes ever.

The First Steps of my Appalachian Superhike

Where do I start? 

That's an easy answer.  Courthouse Square. 

Here, two historic highway intersect.  Lincoln Highway, America's first transcontinental highway stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and Route  11, one of the first highways to stretch from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, connecting hundreds of towns through the fertile valleys along the Appalachia.

Here is a fountain in the center.  The courthouse, Chambersburg's main landmark with a statue of Ben Frankin on the top is on the northwest. On the Northest corner is a historic building where important government officials once stayed, as well as yours truly.  Yep, my first home in Chambersburg as overlooking the Courthouse Square, in an apartment with a towering ceiling and windows, hinting at its grand past.


Chambersburg doesn't have a lot of historical buildings... but it has a good excuse: the town was burned down by the Confederates during the Civil War because the mayor refused to pay 100,000 dollars in gold as a ransom.  Chambersburg was the only northern town to have suffered such fate. And as in many towns in this part of the country, you'll find many things that suggest that that conflict if far from forgotten.  In fact, on the south side of the fountain, is the statue of a Civil War Union soldier... standing... waiting to see if those Southern rebels dare invade again.

The Founding of Chambersburg

Right on the square is the Heritage Building, a mini-museum of the history of Chambersburg.  It's open and it's free! So a good place to start my re-discovery of the city.
  Inside I watch a short presentation about the history of the town and a couple of things stick in my mind:

First of all, Chambersburg's raison d'etre is due to one simple thing: a waterfall. Falling water meant a waterwheel, which meant a mill, which meant the cornerstone of modern civilization.  Once again I'm reminded of my song "Beginning of Industry"

Two men look at a rushing stream, two men see two different things
One sees water to wash and to drink the other sees the beginning of industry...
...Smart, lazy people looking for ways to avoid work
Smart, lazy people will take over the world
Looking for clever ways to get out of manual labor it will be the beginning of industry...

I can't help but think of all the places in the world I've bee with plentiful sources of natural energy, that no one's ever thought to put to use.

Another thing that strikes me is how the town was set up.  See, in Europe, as in most of the world, towns were built around a family clan or lord and the servants and peasant who served this family. It was all about the interests of this ruling family. Gradually merchants and and craftsmen would be drawn in until, voila! you had a town.

But Benjamin Chambers didn't want to want hundreds of years for his family to grow and and create a hub of civilization... he wanted to create a town--fast!  So what did he do?  He put an ad in the paper!  He advertised in Philadelphia's paper that neatly divided up parcels of land were being sold at a reasonable price.

I'm sure Mr. Chambers was well aware that by doing this he was going to attract people from all sorts of different families, ethnicities, and religious denominations and these people were going have land, be independant--and many would eventually become quite wealthy.
  None of that was a problem.  He just wanted to start a civilization, and he wanted a mix of people to do that. 

This is what makes America so different from most of the world.  I remember hiking through mountain valleys in Morocco, and being told that, to this day, it would be unthinkable to sell a piece of land to someone outside of the tribe.  This land should stay with the family and the tribe... forever! 

There is something beautiful about being rooted and knowing that you belong in a certain place.  This is a feeling most Americans have lost completely.  However this attitude of tribalism, I think,  is also one of the main things that's keeping much of the world from developing. See,when people care only about the interests of their tribe and extended family and view anybody outside this circle with distrust, not only is growth stunted, but it sets that stage for conflicts.
.. conflicts that can drag on for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Yep, I definitely can see Chambersburg differently now after traveling around the world.  I never would have thought that a 10 minute video about the founding of Chambersburg would bring back flashbacks of the mountains of Morocco... the Alpine valleys of Italy... Armenia and Azerbaijan... West Africa...

A Very Interesting Encounter

After the video, the elderly volunteer says I can walk around on my own, or he can show me around.  I'm determined not to turn down opportunties to have interesting encounters with people in my travels here in the US and this just might be one of them.  All I hope is that he can give me a few interesting tidbits about this city.

But then he takes me completely by surprise.
  I tell him I've been living in Morocco...

"So what do you know about Mauritania?"

What!? Did I hear that right?  Few people in Chambersburg know about the existence of Morocco--much less Mauritania!

He goes on "My son is going there on a diplomatic mission.  He's going with his wife and four kids..."

Oh boy... I was hoping, now that I'm back in the US, to be able to encourage people to travel and discover the world more... But moving with your family from USA to Mauritania?  Jeesh... I can think of a lot of things to say, but "I'm sure he'll love it there" is not one of them!My guide goes on to tell me "I was in Iran during the World War--then I was sent to India."

"Iran?  I didn't know there were Allied troops there during World War II"

"Iran? No, I meant Oran.

I am very impressed now.  I ask if the Algerians were friendly towards the Allies.

"No... we were told not to go into the towns..."

We continue the tour. Above us is a replica of an early model airplane.  "In 1911, when the Chamber of Commerce was formed, they had the idea to hire a guy to fly a plane like this one over the city" I'm told "few people at that time had ever seem a plane."

Then we continue on to my guide's true passion: the Lincoln Highway

"The early 'highway' was little more than a mud track in many places. The first convoy of vehicles to travel it took 62 to days to reach the Pacific.  I took part in a reenactment of that, driving a 1918 antique." He went on to tell me how, like the interstate freeway system, the original driving force behind improving Lincoln Highway was not concern for the convenience of the citizens, but rather that concern about getting military equipment to the Pacific quickly         .

And with that, my tour is over.  This definitely counts as a "meaningful encounter".  Looks like semester is off to a good start.

My Grandfather's Tomb

I hike east on Lincoln highway.  No, I definitely not done with downtown Chambersburg--I just want to make sure I make it to the all you can eat buffet at Pizza Hut in good time.  Mission accomplished, I head out and realized that I'm right next to Lincoln Cemetery where my grandfather is buried.  I've never actually been back here since I helped carry his casket here 10 years ago.  This is definitely the appropriate moment for making this visit.

I often visit cemeteries during my travels, as they provide me with subtle insights into the culture. Whether it be the amazing creativity in sculpture and architecture in the Italian cemeteries or the full size body portaits in Azerbaijan, cemeteries tell a lot about a society.

As I scan the tombstones, looking for my grandfather's grave, I notice how far apart American tombs are spaced         .  Even in death we like to use up a ton of space! The tombstones here are pretty boring, but practical, with the names written in large letters to be spotted easily.

Finally I reach my grandfather and step-grandmother's grave where I spend a personal moment of reflexion.  As myself, my grandfather was a wanderer from his youth (in fact, his father took him on a road trip on the Lincoln Highway back in its earliest days!)  My grandfather had little connection with Chambersburg--this just happened to be where he ended up in the last years of his life.
  After spending much of his life facing dangers in the the jungles of Venezuela, he ended up here.  Makes me wonder where my final resting place will be...

Another gravestone also catches my attention.  Among the German, English and Slavic surnames, is a Muslim couple.  The wife died in 1994, the husband has no death date yet.  I wonder what's the story behind it, as Muslim immigration to this area is a pretty recent phenomenon--and most Muslims like to be buried in Muslim cemeteries--or have their bodies shipped back to their country (back to that whole question of "belonging" to a certain place!)

I wonder what the story here is...

Postnote: I look up Nurjamand Ali online and find out that, yes, he was a Muslim from Indonesia who worked at the Indonesian Embassy in DC, and later opened a restaurant on Main Street.

I continue my tour, heading back towards down town.  It looks like this is going to be a "flower Petal Tour" making multiple loops that take me back to the city center.  On my way I come across another cemetery squeezed between a house and the railroad tracks--a tiny Jewish cemetery with faded stones written in Hebrew and English.  A plaque states that here lies the only Jew from the Confederate army to be buried in the north. 

...Then yet another new discovery... A large sign in... French?  C'mon nobody speaks French in Chambersburg!  Spanish, yeah, but not French.  I look closer, it reads "Eglise Primitive du Salem"  Underneath it reads "Haitien". 

A Haitian church in Chambersburg!   Whaddya know... I'd like to visit it sometime just to get some insights into one of the Western Hemisphere's most unique and troubled countries.

Remembering when this was all just a dream

I continue on through downtown, where I snap some photos of a replica of the original waterwheel at the mini-waterfall that inspired Mr Chambers.  Upstream a little ways, behind the firehouse, is  a tiny park with a fountain and one picnic table.  The fountain is still running even though nobody seems to ever come here.  But this spot does have a special significance to me. 

Back in 2001 when I was still very confused about what direction I wanted my life to take, I came here several times just to sit and try to sort out my thoughts.  A couple of times I even brought my guitar to play some music, with the hope that this would be the first step in being a lifelong wandering minstrel.

I remember feeling so frustrated--wanting to just go out there and share my music with the world, but just not having the energy, courage, or strategy to go out there and do it.
  On one occasion, I got so frustrated with my life that I smashed my guitar (it was a cheap guitar!) and tossed it in a nearby dumpster just a hundreds yards from here         .

It would take me another long 6 years before I would finally lock in on a workable long term plan to live out my dream of playing my music all around the world.  A dream that I've been living ever since.

This spot definitely merits a nostalgic park bench concert.  The 2013 Me singing to the 2001 Me... telling him not to give up... be patient... it'll all come together eventually

I continue on up beautiful Philadelpia Avenue with some very nice, large houses, each different from the others--some even with a Victorian flair to them.
  Then on to the small Wilson College campus which has some impressive stone buildings worth taking pictures of (something I never did in the 7 years I lived here). 

Behind Wilson College is a quiet area by Conacocheague Creek, where you can almost forget that you're right next to a city... Then on past the retirement home where my grandfather spent his last years... The wander through a peaceful, middle class neighborhood, enjoying the changing colors of fall... then loop back to downtown once again. 

One thing that has struck me is how friendly people are.  Many folks give me a hearty "how's it going?" or something similar.  I also notice that almost all African Americans I come across greet me. 

I guess it's not that people are friendlier than they were before.  I notice this because, now that I've been to many places where people give me cold stares, or ignore me completely, I've grown to really appreciate places where there's a feeling of connectedness with people you pass on the street.  And Chambersburg is definitely one of those places. 

Also, going in and out from the inner to the outer layers of the city I can definitely feel that contrast between the more history rich, but run down downtown and the peaceful, middle class outer layers.

The European Food Store

There's actually supposed to be an Open Mike right here in town today, and I'm eager for this opportunity do an Open Mike while I'll officially in Adventure Mode--it'll be much easier to remember this way.  But first I have one last stop to make: there's a little shop that says "European Food Store" with a Norwegian flag in front.  Anything that gives Chambersburg a more international feel deserves a closer look, so I step inside.

There I meet a Norwegian fellow, Tom, who is happy to answer my questions me a tour of his shop, which focuses more on Northern European condiments, cheese and sausages. I ask if he gets a lot of customers

"There are a lot of Germans who come--but these are first generation immigrants who came after World War II... then there are Americans who have gone to Europe an liked the food there" 

Chambersburg is feeling more and more cosmopolitan by the minute. But I still have to ask, "Why did you choose to live here instead of Norway--which doesn't have the social, economic and enviromental problems that American has?"

"Don't remind me!" He exclaims and goes on to tell me a bit about his story, coming to America to get his pilot's license, and ending up sticking around.  As we pore over the map and he gives me useful  trips on how and where to travel in Norway, I can see he still has a lot of love for his native country.

Apart from being a store owner and a pilot Tom is also a coffeehouse musicina and he asks me to play a song.   Finally, 45 minutes after my arrival, we finally figure out that we already know each other! Back in 2007 we bothe played at the same Open Mikes in Chambersburg and Hagerstown...

Then another fellow pops in and joins the conversation.  He has some cool stories to tell about traveling the deserts of Saudi Arabia twenty years ago, with the US military providing security for truck convoys...

Three interesting encounters in one day in Chambersburg!  Learning about 3 countries on 3 continents!  This has definitely been a great start to my New Pennsylvania Adventure. 

I'm late for the Open Mike, but I don't mind.  Actually, it turns out the Open Mike was cancelled.  No big deal, it's been a full, satisfying day with a lot to digest.  So, 11 hours into my First Adventure Day of 2014A, I decide to call it a day.

nathanphil says:
Posted on: Oct 06, 2013
vulindlela says:
Wow, well done!
Posted on: Oct 05, 2013
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photo by: nathanphil