After some exploring on dirt roads and winding around farmland, we found the perfect candidate. It was tall, steep, smooth, and had a long open field at the bottom for slowing down. It also had more snow than the surrounding terrain, so we parked the truck, popped the top on the Four-Wheel camper, and cranked up the heater to a balmy 70 degrees. Before long, the four of us were darn near baking inside and we unloaded to hit the hill.
I took a deep breath, letting the cool mountain air fill my lungs. The crisp smell of snow and pine was invigorating, and I inhaled again, letting the sensation wash over me. It was a perfect morning. A fresh layer of powder was coating the ground from the previous night’s storms, and it muffled the forest’s usual sounds, reducing them to a soothing whisper of wind and creaking trunks. It was the kind of serenity where even the crunch of your boots on the trail felt like an inexcusable disturbance, but soon the distant rumble of a motor began to echo through the trees. I knelt down and peered through the lens, dialing in the right aperture and shutter speed for the drive-by Tom Henwood was about to make. His Tacoma flew around the bend, ice crystals swirling in its wake. I snapped the shutter once, twice, and again, capturing each moment in time as the truck drove by, dusting me in a mist of snow.
It was hard to believe that less than an hour ago we had been sipping coffee by the warmth of a fireplace and now we were deep in the woods of Pennsylvania taking photos of the Main Line Overland Tacoma. Our plan for the day was to meet up with Michael Hermann of Purple Lizard Maps and follow some of his favorite trails to see what adventures the east coast had to offer. Before long, Michael’s black Toyota Tundra rolled into view, and we set off into the snow, plowing fresh tracks as we went.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself over the years of travel, it’s that I need to get out of the truck and explore on foot now and then. As much as I love it though, I’d say Michael’s dog Karma loves it more. As we approached a point of interest on the map, Michael would let him out of the vehicle, allowing him to sprint alongside as we drove, soaking up every second of the excitement. It only took one look at his face to realize that he was a VERY happy dog.
At our first stop, we pulled out the Bald Eagle State Forest map and looked over the route. It led through valleys, along the edges of creeks, climbed high into the Pennsylvania hillsides, and would pass several lizard emblems; features I was told could be anything, but were always interesting. We went on a brief hike to stretch our legs and set out again.
Although the road was firm, the melting snow had covered some sections in a slushy mix of icy water, and we found ourselves splashing through it as the trail narrowed to a single vehicle width. Other sections were softer and required more caution to avoid causing ruts. Divergence from the center of the road to the shoulder was the biggest danger as it could suck a vehicle in before you knew what happened. This plow truck found out the hard way.
While riding around with Michael, I quickly realized that he was somewhat of a local celebrity. Not long into the drive we met a Jeep JK at an intersection, and upon seeing the Purple Lizard truck, they immediately got out to say hello and tell him they were using the maps. It was so ridiculous that I would have thought he had planned the whole thing if he wasn’t so down to earth.
After passing Michael’s fan club, the trail narrowed once more, and we found ourselves slowly winding through low bushes down a two-track. It was tight, and the Norweld tray on the Tacoma barely squeezed through in many places. The Tundra didn’t squeeze through at all. It dragged sharp branches down both sides in many locations, producing constant scraping noises pleading to release it from its misery.
The landscape must have heard it, because it eventually relented, opening up to a babbling, soft sunlight through the trees. The water was a tea-stained brown thanks to all the melting snow and decaying leaves, but it was scenic nonetheless. We made a stop to take photos and stretch, while Michaels dog returned to frolicking in the snow.
It’s strange to think of Pennsylvania as a place with mountains, but there are certainly some peaks in the state that qualify. After breaking free of the creek bed, Michael led us up to one of his favorite lookouts, Penns View. It peers over the bend of a river and the surrounding valley, and it’s easy to imagine that it looks much the same as it did hundreds of years ago when settlers migrated to the area. Michael was quick to point out key features from his seemingly infinite pool of local knowledge, and we were keen to listen, losing ourselves in the history of the area.
As the day wore on, our stomachs rumbled and we became aware that we had skipped lunch. Unsurprisingly, Michael knew of a place nearby. We piled into the two Toyotas, headed down the mountain, and drove to the Elk Creek Cafe and Aleworks. Nestled in the sleepy town of Millheim, Pennsylvania, this brewery serves up a mean meal with delicious brews. We grabbed a seat by the window and watched the world roll by, which strangely enough included horse-drawn carriages. I sometimes forget that this region is filled with Amish villages and that such things are a common sight.
After finishing our meals and exchanging stories about our many misadventures, we said farewell to Michael and headed back to where we had begun the day, the Henwood family farm. The drive down their small dirt road at sunset was spectacular, and as the clouds faded from bright orange to cooler hues of purple and blue, we began our plans for the next day.
Tom had brought his daughters along for the trip, and after a day of hanging out with their grandfather at the cabin while we were on the trail the day before, they were ready for some dad time. Their chosen activity: sledding. Temperatures were in the teens, so we bundled up, piled into Tom’s Tundra, and sought out a suitable hill.
As I watched the three of them sledding, I couldn’t help but smile. Their laughs and screams echoed across the fields, and you could tell that at that moment none of them had a care in the world. School, work, politics, they were all forgotten, only the thrill of their adventures and the joy of friends and family remained. Isn’t that what life is all about?
We spent the rest of the day exploring the surrounding area until the sun dipped low in the sky. We had to be back at the Main Line Overland shop in a few hours, but we weren’t ready for the weekend to end. We decided to delay it just a bit longer and watch the sunset over the Pennsylvania hillsides. It was worth every second.
To learn more about Main Line Overland, check out their website here.
To learn more about Purple Lizard Maps, check out their website here.