Today’s leg of the trip began on a rather ominous note. The day was Monday, January 21. The temperature was around 50 degrees, the sky was blue, and I hadn’t forgotten anything. In other words, it was a bit too perfect. I half expected the check engine light to come on the minute I pulled out of the driveway, but that didn’t happen either. So with a bit of trepidation regarding this unusually good fortune, I began my first official drive into the Alleghenies region. If you’re at all an acrophobe (afraid of heights, that is), Route 22/322 North is not for you. Winding up out of the Susquehanna River Valley, it takes you above the Juniata River Valley…far above.
We’re clearly headed into the Allegheny region now; there’s no mistaking that as ears begin popping and stratified cliffsides carved from the mountains adorn the long road northwest. The mountains here are far higher than they are in Dauphin County, the trees looking for all the world like hair on the humps of some enormous camel. Unfortunately for our eyes (though perhaps fortunately for our knees) the Appalachian Trail bypasses this range to the east. The view from the car will have to do.
Walnut Cheese Nook is actually near the tiny (and apparently largely Amish or Mennonite) villages of Walnut and Nook. It’s hard to get information on them because there isn’t a Wikipedia entry on either. Pennsylvania is full of places that has blessedly been spared the attention of the information age. No, we’re not considering ourselves the information age here on this blog. Both villages lie nestled in a valley in between two high ridges located to the west of Mifflintown. In fact, a shop here carried the moniker “Twin Ridges,” so it might be what the locals call this area. Don’t quote me on that.
The building housing this coffee shop/house of cheese/general store/restaurant seemed to constitute the entirety of downtown Walnut. That’s actually quite handy; there’s one little plaza where everyone seems to congregate and it has all the amenities. There were far more people here than I thought there would be. I was not the only customer, and though the store and cafe also house a lovely little dining area, the fact remains that it’s in a valley with a small city on one end and nothing of note on the other. Was everyone here a local, or is the coffee just that good? Here’s another cultural conundrum: The barista, Katie, asked for the URL of this blog when I told her about it. Many people here are obviously farmers and apparently reject modernity to some degree, but these farmers are savvy about the rest of the world. They’re traditional and religious, but also knowledgeable and open. In fact, religion was on full display. They’re not a Christian coffeehouse per se, but the crosses and a few politically provocative posters suggested faith was a motivating factor.
The coffee she gave me was quite a surprise. I’m familiar with this brand. It was Square One out of Lancaster. The barista didn’t tell me what the house blend was exactly because I foolishly forgot to ask, owing to the fact that small talk takes actual processing power for me. The Myers-Briggs tells me I’m an INFJ, and we tend to space out when confronted with the mundane. That would certainly be my life experience. Anyhow, the taste was shockingly smooth. I’m calling it right now, this was a Guatemalan. I’ve only ever gotten this nice nutty aftertaste from Latin coffees, and Guatemalans have constituted a plurality of them, I’m sure of it. The official advert says it’s supposed to taste like “berry jam, pound cake, and black tea.” I’ll see you on the pound cake; the rest was debatable. It certainly was the kind of coffee you roll on your tongue a few times to get the full impact. Nicely done, Walnut folk.
After leaving Walnut, I headed back east through Mifflintown, but I couldn’t resist the urge to travel a bit further. I went all the way to the valley on the other side of the Juniata River. Geologically, it could probably be considered the same valley. The goal was a town called McAlisterville. I’ve never been here, but I’ve heard it mentioned in conversation as a good place to live. On the map, it was a dot at the crossing of several different roads, so I figured there had to be something here. It was so fascinating; there was a mix of rough-looking old townhouses from the coal-cracker days and brand new tract housing on the opposite end of town. There was also a giant church (which you can see below) and a small downtown area. I like when there’s a downtown, even a small one. Something about the need for a tiny bit of urban reality in the midst of rural reality. Yes, I firmly believe that a place needs both to feel really human.
And with that, I began the much less harrowing trip back down into the Susquehanna Valley. The southbound route actually hugs the Juniata, which is something of a comfort. After visiting the Walnut Cheese Nook, I get why people go far out of their way to visit. It’s a blend of cosmopolitan and local that’s worth taking a few extra minutes on the highway to partake of. Oh, that’s another thing: Don’t expect people to go anywhere close to the speed limit on the backroads to Walnut and Nook. They may as well be polite suggestions. Katie gave me a hint as to where I should go next: The Square Cafe in Lewistown. In fact, I’m going to several places at once in Lewisburg and plan to make it the core of this particular journey. A whirlwind tour, as they say. Until then, stay caffeinated…