Time to Meander – PA

Susque BridgeThe distance from our home in Maryland to the Outer Banks in North Carolina is roughly three hundred miles as the crow flies or the stagecoach rolls. Driving at about sixty miles per hour (MPH), it should take the average driver just under five hours to reach Kittyhawk on a good day if you make all the lights and don’t stop too long at the Cracker Barrel for lunch. We pride ourselves on being pretty good drivers but I have to admit that, some years back, we made that trip in an unbelievable record breaking time of four and a half days. Amazing! Yep, you read correctly – we took more than four days to get to the Outer Banks from Maryland, the state right next door to North Carolina. And we weren’t even driving a horse and buggy – it was a real car with a speedometer that goes all the way up past a hundred miles an hour. (Yes, I tried to say “miles per hour” but the southern in me just couldn’t keep it up.)  No, to answer your question, we did not have any car trouble or flat tires. We just set our usual road trip pace. While others may speed down the interstate like a bat outta hell, we tend to stick to back roads and just meander along at a snail’s pace….or, more precisely, at a pace more fitting to bird watching and just looking around. And by meander, I don’t just mean we drive slowly, we also drive up and down country roads, stop at every possible scenic overlook and visit any and all parks and gardens we might pass on our way.  It sometimes takes us hours (and maybe days as in the case with the Outer Banks) to get some place so when we go any place, we have to plan ahead because you see, “time is of the essence1 with us.

Let me correct that: our traveling takes scheduling, mostly. It takes planning when we’re going somewhere by plane or train or when we need touring assistance. When we head out in the car, what we need is time. Like Harry Chapin, we keep a “watch on time”2  when we have “work to do2 or a deadline or a train to catch but otherwise, we just go where the car and the GPS takes us. On the other hand, we are not quite in sync with J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous line, “Not all those who wander are lost….”3. Quite often we are, in fact, lost and, we are lost by design.

And so it was that we headed out on the road a few weeks ago. Our “plan” was hatched when my better half volunteered to help out in building a deck at the Global Aid Network (GAiN) warehouse near Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. See, he is the better half since he actually went to work and I had no real intention of helping build that deck. I was just going along for the ride. And, since we need approximately two hours to get from our home in Maryland to the warehouse in Pennsylvania, we gave ourselves one and a half days. It worked out splendidly.

conowingoWe started out heading for Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River at the upper end of the Chesapeake Bay. It is a birding hotspot that every birder in Maryland knows about and visits at least once a year….mostly in winter. The attraction is the Bald Eagles who fish and hunt on the river at the bottom of the dam….again, mainly in the winter. The absolute best place to get information on Conowingo Dam for birding is the blog of an excellent local birding photographer, Emily Carter. I had heard many good things about Conowingo and wanted to scope it out (pun intended, of course) in summer and then maybe go back later in the year. I had heard that there weren’t many Bald Eagles there in summer but there were a goodly amount of herons and gulls that would make the birding interesting so why not? Of course, we couldn’t just get in the car and drive straight there – that would defeat the whole point of giving ourselves all that extra time to meander.

We headed up in that general but, certainly not specific, direction – that is, more or less northeast. It was a beautiful day and we blasted through Baltimore and soon got our first sign to pause. It was one of those brown ones that announce that a state park or historical marker is nearby and couldn’t be more than just a short piece off the main road. The first park-o-the-day was Gunpowder Falls State Park. Nearby was another great find – Marshy Point Nature Center. Two for the price of one – how can you beat that?

marshy pointWe headed for the Nature Center first and, as is the way with these things sometimes, the road signs led us first one way and then the other until we found ourselves very close to where we had actually turned off the main highway. It felt sort of like a Dr. Seuss story or was it The Hobbit who went “There and Back Again4? (Yep, I’m back with Tolkien). The Nature Center was lovely but we pulled in behind a school bus filled with children (pre-teens maybe). Now, there is nothing I like more than knowing young’uns are getting out into nature and learning all that they can about birds and bugs and wildflowers but, on the other hand, there is nothing I like less than trying to bird in a park filled with noisy yakking kids running around with butterfly nets and clipboards. Well……nothing except people walking their dogs and letting them off the leash to run free. Don’t get me started on this one. So, we looked around a bit and left the nature center to the kids and moved on to the state park – which was lovely and big and relatively kid-less.

gunpowder fallsThere is a small cost for entry ($3) but well worth it to visit the park and enjoy all the amenities. It is big enough (maybe 18,000 acres) to handle several busloads of kids without noticeable impact. There is a beach for swimming, meadows for playing, a boat launch for cruising and fishing, rails-to-trails hiking, and a few good habitats (waterfront, streams, marshlands, woods, meadows, etc.) for birding. But there weren’t many birds to be seen this day. We did find an area that was relatively birdy on Graces Quarters Road over by the marina and boat launch – at least it sounded that way because we heard lots of birds singing but didn’t see too many willing to show themselves to us. (DNR Guide to Gunpowder Falls State Park)

Whatever – on to the next place – lunch! I discovered that the upper parts of Maryland and lower parts of Pennsylvania are filled with silver diners. Oh, the names are different but these restaurants are all the same – big silver metal sided buildings with lots of parking and lots of menu selections inside. Lunch is good.

fishingThen it was on to Conowingo. The Dam is off the main road a bit but easy to find and easy to access. Although birders go there often, I had wondered how easy it would be to get there and if you would have to walk a good distance to get to the best spot for seeing the eagles. While it is true that you cannot get too close to the Dam itself – way too dangerous, there is a small park open to the public called the Fishing Pier with paved parking and several options for viewing the river and the birds and fishing, of course. Emily’s blog had advised that one should park by the porta potties to see the eagles fishing near an island in the river and possibly landing in the trees to eat their catch. Emily’s advice was to move up closer to the Dam to see eagles fighting and scuffling away from the trees. Her advice was good. I think the biggest problem in the winter might be standing around in the cold weather not to mention competing with the number of birders and photographers who come and take up the choice viewing spots and parking spaces…and using porta potties. In the summer, you do not have these problems except for the porta potties part. We found a few photographers set up near the “island view” but there were plenty of vacant parking spaces and several available picnic tables. We also headed up near the dam (easy walking and a short distance so we could have walked) and parked near the ramp going down to the area that seemed to be preferred by the fishermen of which there were plenty. And they seemed to be catching quite a few fish.

juvvieThere were tons of gulls and cormorants near the dam. They were easily viewed with binoculars but a more powerful scope would have been better for making precise identifications or looking for the rare ones. There were quite a few Great Blue Herons – I stopped counting at twenty-five (25). And the island was completely swamped with Black and Turkey Vultures. But there were not so many bald eagles….as expected. We did see about five (5), maybe ten (10)…..most were juveniles who didn’t have full adult plumage. But they were all beauties and put on a pretty good show – a little fishing and a little fighting.  Alas, the distances were too much for my small camera. I think that on future visits, I will take Emily’s advice and rent a camera with a big ole long lens that can spot a flea on a skunk’s back from over half a mile.

eagles adultWe stayed at Conowingo for a couple hours and then headed into Pennsylvania and up towards Lancaster. You know, I have been to Lancaster many times in the past and I thought I knew it relatively well. But it turns out; I had only passed near Lancaster visiting the Amish markets out in the country and had never gone into the city at all. Our trustworthy GPS remedied that situation right away. Everywhere we tried to go, the GPS directed us right back through Lancaster….but not the same part of Lancaster every time. I did not know there could be so many one way streets within a two block radius of a city…. outside of Washington, DC, that is. But we managed to find them all, every single one of them, along with a couple streets that were closed for construction that our dear “Road Witch” did not seem to know about. It’s a pretty neat city though with lots of row houses that reminded me very much of Baltimore and Philadelphia.

silver mineBut we did manage to find a couple parks to explore – Longs Park which was more of a family oriented recreational park with a few domestic ducks but no birds otherwise – and a great little park called the Silver Mine Park near Conestoga outside of Lancaster. This last park was big, included several different habitats that would be great for birding, walking trails, and natural water sources – creeks and ponds. But best of all, the park had benches along the walking trail. I am big on benches in parks. They allow you to rest when you get tired and to sit and let the birds find you which they are apt to do once everyone settles down and stops making so much noise. We did meet one gentleman walking there who told us that, yes, there was an old silver mine on the property and they (the parks service?) used to give tours of the mine until it got too dangerous. Now you can hike near the mine but cannot go in to explore. What with the price of silver these days, I wonder that no one has decided to sneak in and find out if any silver remains down deep in the mine and ready to be appropriated.

chickies overlookWe managed to find several other great parks that would be good for birding but we did not see too many birds. Maybe the heat had forced the birds deep into the woods but we saw very few along the areas we explored. We did take a relatively long and difficult (rocky) hike up to Chickie’s Overlook near Colombia where we were treated to great views of the Susquehanna River and a couple of little birds I think were Pine Warblers. The markings seemed good for Pine Warblers and they were certainly feeding in a couple pine trees but they just wouldn’t cooperate by being still long enough for me to get a good picture that I could check against the guides later when I got home. They did match the info in my mobile apps so I’m going with the call. These two birds were about the best sighting of the trip….okay, except for the Bald Eagles…and the Herons…and the Cormorants. Yep, they are all the “best” for me……even the Vultures.

deck buildingBut, all in all, what with all the meandering and looking around, the “best” birding I did was at the GAiN site. While the men worked on building the deck, I listened to an audio book and did a little casual birding of the fields of corn and the farmer’s house nearby. I saw mostly yard birds – nothing rare or unusual – but the birds I saw were entertaining and beautiful as always.  And, that’s enough for me on any given day. The Blue Jays and Cardinals and Chickadees reminded me of the birds at home – waiting patiently for us to return from our meandering and head on back down the road to home and the important stuff – like keeping those feeders full of good black oil sunflower seeds, millet, and safflower.

mallard hybrid

The full quote from J.R.R. Tolkien:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.”3


  1. Anonymous phrase. [I looked it up but no clear person or source could be identified for this commonly used phrase.]
  2. “Let Time Go Lightly” (Lyrics); Greatest Stories Live (Album); Harry Chapin; 1976; Elektra. [Youtube Audio/Video Link – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Gvhkr3v8iU ]
  3. The Fellowship of the Ring; J.R.R. Tolkien; United Kingdom; George Allen & Unwin (publisher); UK; July 29, 1954.
  4. The Hobbit There and Back Again; J.R.R. Tolkien; United Kingdom; George Allen & Unwin (publisher); UK; September 21, 1937


Philly, Flowers and A Friend

phillyIt all started for Philadelphia way back in 1829. The Pennsylvania Horticulture Society (PHS) was founded in 1827 and the first show was held at the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street in 1829.  The Show was moved to the Civic Center in the 1960’s and stayed there until 1996 when it was moved to its current location at the Convention Center.  The Civic Center was where I first encountered it along with my “bestest” gardening buddy, Glo.  We had met in the vanpool in 1992 and had discovered right off the bat that we both loved growing things.  During those long slow morning commutes, we talked about flowers and growing things and maybe going to the world famous Philadelphia Flower Show.

If you garden on the east coast (or anywhere in America really), you will, no doubt, have heard of the Philadelphia Flower Show. Glo and I decided that we needed to go and so we did. And we continued going for, gosh, maybe 15 years.  The Horticultural Society has a long tradition of conducting the shows and we have our long tradition of going to see them.  It works out for both sides of that equation.

For Glo and me, tradition was simple.  We took the train from New Carrollton to Philadelphia. On the way, we caught up on things and enjoyed a brunch – well, sort of – we always had a Bloody Mary and some bagels with cream cheese. There is nothing quite like relaxing and enjoying a late breakfast and libations as the train rumbles through the Maryland and Pennsylvania countryside on its way to Philly.  Our adventure usually continued with a taxi ride to the Convention Center and an exhausting day at the show.  We are creatures of habit so we usually stroll through the exhibits for several hours….okay, strolling as much as the crowds will allow…..sometimes we crept and bumped our way through the exhibits.  Then we headed upstairs to the food court for a snack and to take a load off our feet.  Then, after another couple hours going through the vendor side of the show and buying those things we couldn’t possibly do without but still small enough to lug home on the train, we walked the 6 blocks or so down to the Irish Pub – 12th Street Location – on Walnut Street (gotta love Philly).  After a dinner and a nice Irish Coffee, we grabbed a cab and headed back to the train station where we caught our train and mostly nodded and dozed our way back to Maryland.

And so it went for many years – this tradition of ours – until arthritis put my walking and roaming days on hold.  Our last show together was in 2007 and we talked about it and missed it every year since then.   I just couldn’t trust my knees to hold up even after having total replacements in 2011…that is, until this year.   I had been thinking it was time to get back up on the horse and give the show another try. So we started making plans. We opted to drive this year and I recruited Jerry to go along as our driver. He wasn’t keen on going to the show but thought a weekend (in the middle of the week – we would never try to brave the crowds on the actual weekend) in Philadelphia might be fun.  So this year, we revived our tradition – Bloody Marys and all – and headed back to the show.  In case you’re wondering, our driver was not keen on the fact that he had to drive and was only allowed the bagels part of the breakfast but that is just the way it goes – drivers get nothing.  Our plan was to go to the show and send Jerry off to find our hotel for the night. ( I’ll take a moment to give a plug  – the Holiday Inn Express – Midtown on Walnut Street was very nice and very accommodating and maybe about 4 blocks from the Convention Center…..close enough to walk if your tired feet will allow it after viewing the 10 acres of exhibits at the show.) Just one more little note – the flower show includes 33 indoor acres with 10 acres of exhibits.  More than 250,000 visitors attend the show each year.  If you go in the future, plan to spend at least one day and expect to be very tired when you are done.

Display 1The show this year was called “ARTiculture” to celebrate the combination of “Art” in “Horticulture”.  You can find out more about the theme at the official PHS website – Philadelphia Flower Show.   You can also find highlights of the show with photos at that site. I would not normally refer you to another site for highlights and photos but I had my own Murphy’s Law moment no sooner than we arrived at the show and started checking out the exhibits. I had decided to leave the good camera in the car and just take my small Sony point & click camera into the show. My rationale was that the Sony was small, easy to carry, and we’d be taking photos of displays in crowded conditions and wouldn’t require too much zoom, etc.   SO I took maybe three photos and, of course, got the dead battery signal just before it went kaput entirely.  No problem, I will just do like everyone else and use my phone to take photos. The phone photos are not bad but they are also not great. Mea culpa – we get what we get and it is what it is.

orchidLet me start by saying this year’s show like every show that I remember was overwhelming. This is the grandmother of all American flower shows and it shows (pun intended) in every single exhibit. From the grand display at the entrance to the tiniest miniature exhibit at the back, this show is about flowers.  We have been to other shows in Washington, DC and Baltimore but those are more “home and garden” shows and tend to focus on the vendors and what they sell.  The Philadelphia show is a “faire extraordinaire” and the focus is on flowers and exhibits and competition.  (Yes, I am aware that you usually don’t see “faire” and “extraordinaire” together in this way in normal text. I googled it and checked Wikipedia and decided to use it anyway.  My intended meaning is a great big fair that was totally awesome…incorrect use of French phrase notwithstanding.) The exhibits are judged and ribbons are given for 1st, 2nd, 3rd place and honorable mention so it is like a country fair in that context. Most home and garden shows do not do this but at Philly, I think this competition brings out the creativity in the exhibits.  You never know what you will see or how flowers and plants will be used in a particular exhibit. It is not about some vendor’s product line – it is about the plants.  To win a blue ribbon is quite an accomplishment and reading the judge’s critiques adds to the pleasure of seeing the exhibits.

display 2Back to this year’s theme – it was right on point for Glo who was fascinated with all the different crafts and artwork on display. Art was the theme and all of the exhibits were about art. For me, it was a little disappointing. I like the flowers and plants and landscaping displays more than the art.  Don’t get me wrong, I dearly love art (and junk) in the garden but many of the exhibits this year were so focused on the art that they didn’t do much with landscaping. There were plenty of huge floral arrangements and plenty of exhibits covered with organic materials.  If you like the Rose Bowl Parade each year at Thanksgiving, you would have loved the Philly show this year.  Art pieces were created using organic materials – like the big Rose Bowl floats – and some of it was quite good and, to use my overworked word, extraordinary.  Glo loved it and came away with so many ideas for art projects to do back at home that I expect not to see her for months while she goes into a creative frenzy implementing all those ideas.

winter gardenI cannot begin to describe all of the beautiful exhibits but I will tell you about my favorite from the show. Okay, one of my favorites.  There was a section of landscaping exhibits that were inspired by paintings.  The exhibit included the painting so that you could see the inspiration piece and decide how well the exhibitor captured the art in the display.  It was also one of the more controversial ones, I suppose. It showed what I would call a winter garden.  Every gardener knows the value of having good “bones” in the garden and including those structural elements that add interest to the garden in winter.  But this exhibit took that a little further and appeared to feature the beauty in winter-dead plants in the garden. I loved it. I am notorious for not cutting down dead plants until spring. I like the look of golden grasses and seed heads and I also like that birds love those seed heads and hiding in the grasses during the winter.  The neighbors might not approve and see nothing more than dead things when every brown stem is not cleared from the yard in autumn but I like it.  One other thing to consider – it is not unusual to see a floral arrangement with bright blooms but imagine that someone took the time to “arrange” dead grasses and thistle and milkweed in about a 20X20 foot space to make it look like a lovely winter meadow.  To me, that was amazing.  Do you suppose they just went out to a field and took up the sod with the plants intact to create the space? You never know with these displays.

balls for gloGlo’s favorite: There was a display with giant balls covered and filled with organic materials – seeds and petals and nuts and leaves – and arranged into colorful displays.  Glo has giant vine-woven balls in her garden already so I fully expect to see giant hoops and circles and balls covered with dried flower petals in her flower beds the next time I visit her garden.

jewelOf course, the miniature exhibits caught her eye too. Her sister is also an artist who specializes in miniatures. If you think creating regular artwork is difficult, try doing it in miniature.  One of my favorite miniature pieces was in the “jewelry” section and was a piece depicting a bird, of course.  The photo I’ve included doesn’t do it justice – it was an incredible piece.

bonsaiAnd there were the bonsai. I am always captivated by these small trees and the age of some of the trees. This is a hobby that is a lifetime commitment. Some of the trees have been in “training” for decades.  I suppose the bonsai artist (hobbyist? technician?) is really the one in training for all those years because it seems as if they are always perfecting the tree notwithstanding that they always look so perfect to me.

painted treesWas there something I hated? Yep. I absolutely do not think it is art to strip trees or shrubs of their leaves and paint the branches fluorescent colors. I love color in a garden especially a winter garden and I love seeing the shape of trees without their leaves in the winter, but painting a tree seems to me to be just this side of blasphemy.

display 4I could go on forever….the show is just that big. We finally wound down and found that we were hungry and exhausted and pretty much broke.  But it is impossible not to buy something with maybe 200 vendors selling everything from A to Z – seeds, plants, pots, jewelry, outdoor furniture….you name it. We always hit the tropical bulb vendors to see what new and AMAZING things are being sold. I got a great firecracker lily there a few years ago that is still thriving and blooms right around the 4th of July each year. How cool is that? Don’t ask how many things I bought, dragged them home, and then, using my inept green thumb, promptly killed – well, let die.  This year I added Foxtail Lilies to my collection. At least I am hoping it lives long enough to become part of my garden. It is supposed to be hardy but I am questioning that so I’ll probably plant them (I got three rhizomes) in pots and see how it goes.

display 3Unlike past years, I did not buy a bouquet of roses this year. There used to be a vendor at the show – a local nursery – who built a bleacher type display and had hundreds of containers of fresh cut roses in all colors and shades staged on the tiers of the bleachers. The rose stand was unbelievably beautiful and popular. Crowds of people would surround the stand to buy the roses. It was an adventure getting up to the front of the stand to buy a bouquet. The sellers were on a platform above the show floor in front of the roses so you had to reach up to give them your money. Then you would point to the roses you wanted – a single color or a variety of colors – your pick. For $5, you got a dozen roses and a little baby’s breath thrown in for good measure.  When you got there, it was like you won the roses.  It was special and it was a tradition – every year, I brought home a dozen roses but I do not buy the roses anymore.  A few years ago, things got all civilized and they stopped selling roses that way. You can still buy roses, or course, but the rose stand is just the same as all the others and pretty much the same as you see at the local grocery store. No bleachers – no crowds – no 5 dollar bill clutched in your hand as you made your way inch by inch to the front of the crowd.  It is just not the same.

herbsAs noted, after about five hours, we were plumb worn out and ready to leave. No, we did not see everything – not by a long shot – but we saw most of it and that will give us lots to talk about for months to come. Thank goodness the hotel was not far away. We were so tired and it was cold – we had left our jackets in the car so we didn’t have to tote them around all day. So we took a cab to the hotel – a dollar per block was well worth it.  After a bit of rest – just a wee bit because we were hungry too, we headed out for dinner.  The Irish Pub seemed like a thousand miles away so we asked the hotel bellhop for advice on good places to eat. We took the closest one – right next door – The Walnut Street Supper Club.   I have to give kudos to the Supper Club. The food was great, the service good, and the atmosphere was even better.  I’d eat there again in a flash.

high heelsIt was a long and exhausting day.  The old knees made it but I was tired and sore and my joints ached. I was glad we decided to stay overnight rather than try to drive home that evening.  The best thing was not the show or the exhibits or the flowers – it was the time I have spent with my friend over the years and the memories we have made. Sometimes traditions seem to get in the way of progress and moving forward but traditions with friends and family are very much worth keeping.  I expect that we will keep going to the Philly show as long as we possibly can and I hope that the Horticultural Society never loses its drive to keep the show going forever.

Now, speaking of making progress and new adventures – I hear the Chelsea Flower Show is really cool and includes both outside and indoor exhibits and is absolutely the place to go for anyone who thinks they might have a green thumb worth a plug nickel.  Glo – are you reading this? Are you ready to start a new tradition?

See also The Tidewater Gardener’s blog on the Flower Show – he included some awesome photos. Guess he checked the camera battery before going to the show. 🙂