A Drive in the Country

It may not be as famous as other thoroughfares, but central Pennsylvania's Route 104offers plenty of rural charm and interesting surprises.

June 19, 2005|By Diane Stoneback | Diane Stoneback,Allentown Morning Call

An action-oriented family doesn't need to go all the way to Africa to spot lions and tigers, or to Alaska to find wilderness landscapes, or to Colorado for trail riding. All these things are available to the adventuresome who explore Pennsylvania's Route 104.

This fun but largely forgotten area of central Pennsylvania's Susquehanna Valley also offers a retreat for work-weary, always-connected overachievers. Here, being out of cell-phone range is a given, and computer hookups are about as common as skyscrapers.

In the pecking order of interesting byways, Route 104 is too short -- just 22.9 miles -- to ever achieve the notoriety of U.S. 1 on its run from Maine to Florida or the fame of scenic U.S. 6 en route from coast to coast.

Instead, this humble country road connecting Mifflinburg, Union County, at its northern end to U.S. 11 and U.S. 15 near Liverpool, Perry County, at its southern end is a gateway to some grandly eclectic getaways.

The route and surrounding countryside are "centrally isolated," crow the innkeepers at the Inn at New Berlin, one of the area's prime lodging establishments. It's four hours or less from Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

It's centrally insulated, too, from the destination inflation that pushes prices up at the seashore and other tourist hot spots. Escaping here provides a welcome break without breaking the bank.

Route 104 leads to Cruiser's Cafe, a funky 1950s-style restaurant housed in a 1940s vintage Texaco gas station, and also to the Mifflinburg Buggy Museum, which tells the fascinating story of the town that put America on wheels before Detroit began building horseless carriages. In the newly restored factory building, the industry comes back to life as a blacksmith's anvil once again rings on the hearth and sawdust litters the floor from when buggy parts were fashioned from wood.

Route wanderers can test their mettle with wilderness survival training or stage a sophisticated picnic, including locally produced wines and deliciously old-fashioned fresh-fruit pies, on the picnic table that's nestled inside the Aline Covered Bridge.

The road passes Jack's Mountain, where visitors can tour the forest home of T&D Cats of the World Wild Animal Refuge and learn more about the ways they can help a big-hearted family and volunteers who care for abused, mistreated or unwanted exotic animals, including lions, tigers, bobcats, cougars and other felines plus bears, parrots, monkeys and wolf-dogs.

Route 104 travels near the grandeur and silent beauty of an old-growth forest in the Snyder-Middleswarth Tall Timbers Nature Area. Hike here to discover how the land looked before settlers began felling the trees for buildings, ships and fuel. The road also crosses scenic Penn's Creek, one of the East Coast's premiere trout streams.

The road is also a launching point for travelers seeking back-country adventures, from camping, horseback riding and kayaking to survival training at Appalachia Spring Ranch, as well as concentrated fly-fishing experiences, courtesy of Rough & Rustic School of Practical Fly Fishing. Both are along even smaller back roads branching off Route 104.

Admittedly, some scenery along the road is worthy of inclusion only in the redneckyard.com contest. However, it's kept in balance by prettier views on the way north, including a Mennonite family's horse and buggy traveling along the road's patchwork of bordering fields and forests, workers fanning out to trim the grapevines at Shade Mountain Winery and the sun setting over a restored gristmill along Penn's Creek.

Local attractions

Meiserville Inn, a thriving restaurant that's four miles from the road's southern end, dishes up the first of the roadside hospitality that's characteristic here. The staff will offer directions and advice about other popular attractions along the road as well as take lunch or dinner orders and point out the inn's own historic curiosity -- the Prohibition peephole still visible in one of the doors.

Drivers need to stay alert to dodge game and road kill (wildlife in these parts is not used to tourist traffic).

Passengers should keep watch for hand-lettered signs that pop up like dandelions along the road. They announce the area's biggest and best social gatherings, like church potpie suppers and firefighters' carnivals, and smaller pleasures, like little roadside stands selling homegrown produce, jellies and crafts.

If being able to shop is vital to a getaway, Route 104 affords the opportunities for heavy-duty buying without entering a standard shopping mall.

At Colonial Furniture's outlet in Freeburg, Route 104's explorers can buy enough handmade Pennsylvania furniture, built from Pennsylvania cherry wood, to fill the house. Explore the fancy retail showroom to see just how beautiful it will look in your home, but don't miss shopping the outlet where minor flaws cut showroom prices by half or even more.

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