Being a tourist in your own community
Back in September of 2019 (which truly feels like a decade ago at this point), I wrote a blog post for fun on my own, personal blog called “Being a tourist in your own community.” It highlighted the importance of being aware of the businesses, experiences and more within our own small towns. Little did I know that, come March 2020, the concept of staying close to home and enjoying the things in the vicinity would become the norm.
COVID-19 has taught us the importance of not only being aware of the businesses, experiences and assets around us, but also the importance of supporting them to ensure their longevity in our communities.
I live in Bellefonte — in the I-80 Frontier landscape of the PA Wilds. Over the course of the past many months, I’ve gotten to experience this town in new ways, and in some cases, with the eyes of a tourist.
Exploring the Outdoors
Getting out and going for a hike in a nearby park isn’t an uncommon experience for my husband and me. We tend to hike, camp and enjoy the outdoors in the Wilds whenever possible. But COVID-19 made us feel like outdoor experiences were even more sacred to us. Despite parks and state forests being used more than ever in the spring, these places still felt like safe spaces to spread out and socially distance. Instead of hiking our usual favorite trails, we tried new ones at regional parks like Bald Eagle State Park and Black Moshannon State Park. We even found a new favorite trail at Black Mo — the Star Mill Trail, a leisurely, 2+ mile hike perfect for relaxing after a long work day at home.
Spending less time commuting gave us more of an opportunity to kayak, too. We started putting our boats on the car during a lunch break, and then the minute the work day ended, we’d be off for a paddle.
Here are some of my favorite spots to get outdoors in the Wilds:
Black Moshannon State Park — Covering 3,394 acres of forest and wetlands, Black Moshannon State Park is a conservation and outdoor enthusiast’s paradise with unique, natural environments.
Bald Eagle State Park — The 5,900-acre Bald Eagle State Park features wildlife and bird watching, camping, fishing, swimming and more.
Sinnemahoning State Park — The 1,910-acre park, located in Elk Country, straddles Cameron and Potter counties and features the First Fork Sinnemahoning Creek and a 145-acre reservoir created by the Creek and George B. Stevenson Dam.
Cook Forest State Park — Famous for its stands of old growth forest known as the “The Ancients,” Cook Forest State Park’s Forest Cathedral of towering white pines and hemlocks is a National Natural Landmark.
One of the first unique experiences I had in the beginning of shutdown amid COVID-19’s initial spread was the opportunity to partner with Local Historia, a local walking tour business, for a social media live tour. Walking tours are a great opportunity to learn more about the community you live in, and about the spaces you walk or drive by every single day.
During that 45-minute tour, I learned more about my downtown than I even knew possible. I was able to picture life as it once had been in downtown Bellefonte, and it made me feel even more connected to my community in a time where connection didn’t feel possible.
I wrote more about Local Historia Walking Tours in this PA WIlds Q&A with the owner, Matt Maris.
Especially in a town like Bellefonte, where unique architecture is easy to come by, I find it’s important to look up and enjoy the details that are on buildings, in nature and more. I found this to be even more true this year, where daily walks to get out of the house in my neighborhood became an important part of my routine.
It’s easy when you live somewhere to ignore the details of the places and spaces around you. But being a tourist in your own community is about finding the beauty in the everyday environment.
Looking up allowed me to see for the first time an anchor design within the roof shingles of Bellefonte’s well-known Brockerhoff Hotel building. I questioned the former owner of the building, who was able to tell me the significance of the design to the building’s namesake, Henry Brockerhoff, who erected it in 1866.
Outdoor dining and drinking
Once restrictions started easing up later in the year, towns across the PA Wilds made efforts to create outdoor spaces for locals to shop, dine, and drink. Bellefonte was no exception. An organization I’m involved with, Downtown Bellefonte Inc., started creating outdoor seating areas for Friday in the ‘Fonte, a monthly event downtown — where locals could grab takeout from their favorite downtown restaurant and enjoy it safely in spread out areas.
One of the seating areas, outside of the Centre County Courthouse, allowed me to experience Bellefonte in a way I never had before. On a Friday night in July, I watched the sunset from atop Bellefonte’s hill setting over our beautiful downtown. From a distance, I met community members I hadn’t met before, tried new food from a local food truck and was able to support local businesses.
When businesses were able to safely open again, I knew it was more important than ever to shop local. This year, I’ve made a solid effort to buy all products from businesses within my community and the surrounding area, and from other communities in the Wilds.
One of my favorite online events was the PA Wilds Makers Market, where I was able to snag some cool stickers and a new shirt for kayaking from PA Made, based in Elk County. A second PA Wilds Makers Market is planned for October 24 and 25.
Go for a walk in your own town: You may find shops that you didn’t realize were there, or maybe they’re featuring a new line of products that you didn’t know you’d fall in love with.
As residents of our communities, we often overlook the beauty of them — because we see it every single day. By taking the time to be a tourist in our own towns, we can begin again to appreciate the buildings and spaces that create them, the businesses that fill them, and remember why we decided to call a place home.
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