Road trip Happenstance

In Pottsville PA, we find a town that has been poured into the narrow crevice between two hills. The road snakes at the bottom of this crevice among houses stacked three stories high and sitting hip to hip. The front porches look like balconies as they rise above concrete walls rimming the sidewalks. Store fronts feel foreboding in the gathering dark, their premature Christmas lights winking high above the streets. No one walks the sidewalks, although the line of traffic flows without stops or pauses.

At an imperceptible intersection, the GPS whispers to my boyfriend, “Turn here,” and we whip onto a two way street that’s narrow enough to be an alleyway. Cars sit parked along either side, and we vroom straight up between them on this perpendicular avenue. It is the sort of steep where you can’t see cars pull up to the intersections until you’re passing them with a high whine from your engine.

We turn again halfway up the hill and pass houses that can’t decide if it’s Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. Up here, closer to the clouds, they at least have a verge of yard. Everything looks slick and dark from the rain.

“It’s says it’s just up here on the left,” my boyfriend says.

“I wonder where… All I see are houses.”

And just like that we cross an intersection and the houses disappear, replaced by ancient brick piles on either side. Two receiving bays yawn on my right and a mural of a donkey hauling an old cart is painted on a tall factory door beside them. The cross street continues past the upper building at an even steeper angle than the one we just climbed. The whole place has that precarious feeling common to hillside architecture— one swift push and everything will tumble to the bottom. I try to envision lorry trucks swinging backwards on these narrow streets and angling their way into the darkened bays.

“Tour parking is down the hill— dirt lot to the right,” my boyfriend reads from a sign by the lower building. The windshield wipers squeak and stutter across the windshield. We turn back down the hill.

“You’d think they’d make enough money to pave their parking lot,” I say, swinging out of the passenger seat. It’s not meant as a snobbish observation, just as surprise that America’s oldest brewery (or at least, her oldest continually owned brewery) is so— well— ordinary Pennsylvanian.

We walk up the hill hand in hand. The rain has retreated, but the whole town has that newly washed scent— wet asphalt, gravel, roofing tar, and over it all the clear scent of mountain top air— trees, moist leaves, the rain itself.

The street with the two receiving bays and donkey mural is still deserted. A sandwich board advertises the tour times from beneath a beaded layer of rain. We are too late for the last tour, but not too late to taste a little chocolate stout, we hope.

A glass door to our left admits us to a confusing snare of ramps and stairs— all wide enough to accommodate a raving throng. We follow the signs for the tours and issue into a broad gift shop where two women lean against their hands at the registers. A half a dozen other people meander through the shelves poking at T-shirts, hats, coasters, and koozies. My boyfriend strikes out like a hound upon the scent. Where’s the bar?

Through a door to our right, just beyond the register stations, we hear a murmur of chatter. We enter to find two women laughing behind an old fashioned bar top and another man rounding the standing tables with a rag and a bottle of cleaner.

I suddenly feel guilty for arriving so late.

The bar room looks out over the narrow, rainy street from a wall of high windows. The other walls are white tile, the floor slabs of dark tile— everything feels clean and antiseptic like a well-scrubbed milk room or an old-fashioned hospital. Like all of America’s oldest places, old pictures line the walls. A high ceiling stretches above an industrial loft and a steep set of ladder-like stairs that are gated closed.

The ladies behind the bar, duplicated by the mirror behind them, ignore us. I feel even more guilty for arriving late.

My boyfriend steps up to them. “Are you still serving?”

The older lady— gray in her dark hair, glasses inching down her nose— looks up. “Of course, honey,” she says putting her phone down. “I can get you a pint of something. What would you like?”

“The chocolate stout.”

She retrieves a plastic cup. American’s oldest brewery, it says. As she pours, she looks at me over her glasses. “Did you want anything?”

“I’ll have the golden pilsner.”

I inch over to the cash register to pay. My boyfriend picks up his cup and takes a sip. “Ah!” he says. “That’s such a good chocolate flavor.”

“Isn’t it, though?” the lady smiles weakly. It’s a bit late in the day to be passionate about the product, I guess.

I smile back at her and retrieve my cup of golden beer. My boyfriend meanders among the freshly cleaned standing tables, which gleam in the low lights; he steps to the outer edges of the room and peers at the pictures with the same interest and intensity some people reserve for Reubens or a Monet.

I look at the empty standing tables and feel bad for dirtying them so I move to the wooden benches under the front windows. I look down on the narrow street, at the empty loading bays, at the donkey mural with his loaded cart. The rain streaks down in gray sheets bringing with it a deepening twilight.

I sip the beer. It is a summer beer, but I do not think of summer. I think of the houses we passed— those people packing way their ghouls and goblins, thawing their turkeys, tacking up their Christmas garlands. I imagine these narrow streets on their precarious hillside perches full of snow and void of cars. It must be a lovely excuse in the winter, “Sorry, I live on the mountain. I can’t come down to your party.”

Then I notice on the other side of the upper building sits a church. It’s granite face is light gray in the growing darkness; its sharp spire shoots far up above the factory building, and its colorful stained-glass windows twinkle with the mystery of Christmas year round.

I smile around the rim of my cup. “Look,” I say to my boyfriend as he works his way down the wall beside me. “There’s a church next to the brewery.”

In fact, their walls almost appear to touch.

He casts it a quick glance. “Uh-huh.”

I smirk a little at the ghost of my reflection. “I wonder if that ever ruffled any feathers…” I don’t get a reply, but I wasn’t expecting one. I sip my beer. It’s almost half gone.

The rain descends. A lone car passes. The last tour lets out and about four people join us, but they stay at the bar wearing out the patience of the ladies who now have about fifteen minutes until closing. My boyfriend stands next to me now at the last picture on the last wall.

“Huh,” he says in a clear signal he does expect a reply.

“What’s that?”

“They used to bottle milk. Chocolate milk. They were a dairy company before they did beer.”

“Oh really?” I look up at him and suddenly notice, right in the middle of the room behind him, a huge lit sign advertising ice cream under the brewery’s name. “Oh. Funny.”

“They don’t really match do they? I’m not sure there’s much in dairy that translates to brewing beer.”

“Except maybe they’re both packaged in bottles.”

My boyfriend chuckles. “That’s exactly what they said… They had the equipment.”

I smile to myself and finish my beer. I glance at the clock. Ten minutes until closing. I don’t want to leave the window yet and that narrow man-made valley full of history and the potential for future memories. It is one of those golden moments, which you half realize is golden even as it happens. All of the connections of happenstance that led us here run through my mind: lets take the back roads home— we’ll go close to the brewery, but we’ll be too late for the tours— ohp, we just turned away from it— well, I didn’t imagine we’d come close enough to see it from the road— and a half mile after turning away, we pull into a Family Dollar parking lot to turn around.

Funny how “things that don’t match up” match up somehow, and before you know it your cup is full of something golden and unexpected. Precious in it’s slow eclipsing of your everyday present. So ordinary— and yet not ordinary at all.

© 2022 Katie Baker

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s