PENNSYLVANIA—There are three men sitting on a bench outside my hotel. They are wearing crimson jackets with giant University of Alabama logos on the backs.
I am in a remote community in Pennsylvania, not far from the New York line. A rural hamlet with sprawling fields, rolling hillsides, and breathtaking single-wide trailers with Chevy Camaros on blocks in the driveways.
In these parts, you do not see many Alabama Crimson Tide sympathizers.
I approach the men. They notice the University of Alabama ball cap I am wearing. When we see each other we are all smiles. We are complete strangers but it doesn’t feel like it.
“Roll Tide,” they say.
“Roll Tide,” I say.
“Roll Tide,” my wife says.
“Roll Tide,” their wives say.
“Roll Tide,” says their teenage son.
I know it seems odd that complete strangers would shake hands and chant a football related battle cry for a greeting. But you’re missing the point. What we’re really saying is “I love you.”
“Our dad lives up here,” says one man. “We always come up to see him because this is the best time of year to see Pennsylvania. The fall colors are awesome.”
The fall colors in this place are no joke. Where I live in the Florida Panhandle, we have two colors. Green and greenish-green. Unless there is a forest fire.
But Pennsylvania has a wide scope of color. The rolling golden farmland is cut with the distant flame-red leaves of an autumn-colored Appalachia. There are old barns, grain silos, and withered cornfields. To say it’s beautiful would be selling it short. This is pure America.
Earlier today we got stuck behind an Amish buggy on the highway. That was a real treat. A young man and young woman were in the carriage together. She was bird-skinny. He had the faintest hint of an Abraham-Lincoln beard. I waved at them. They scowled at me.
Next, I saw a road sign warning us about bears. Another hand-painted sign advertised a haunted hayride for Halloween. It read: “PREPARE TO BE SCARRED!” Two Rs.
I stopped at an antique store. The place was filled with ancient rural equipment and gramophones. The old woman behind the counter was talkative.
“Cold enough fer ya?” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
“You don’t hafta call me ma’am.”
“Yes, I do.”
This confused her. “Why?”
Because my mother said so.
She showed me a few antiques that dated back to the founding of Pennsylvania. Some were from her family. There were a few Amish items, and several things related to the Quaker tradition.
“My family was all Friends,” she told me.
“Good for you,” I said. “Most of my family can’t stand each other.”
“No,” she said with a laugh. “That’s not what I meant. When someone is called a ‘Friend’ that means they’re sorta Quaker, it’s what we’re called.”
She showed me a photograph of a Quaker Indian boarding school. It is old, black-and-white.
“See?” she said, “The Pennsylvania Colony was founded by Quakers. We were strong people. Folks really hated us back then, you know, folks can be dumb.”
I don’t know much about Quakers except that I am a big fan of their oatmeal. I asked what the Quakers were all about.
She said that she wasn’t going to tell me because if she described a set of formal beliefs, that would by default make it a rigid religion. Which she says it is not.
She added, ”We’re not about religious things, our whole life is really just about three little words.”
“Which little words?” I asked.
But that was all she said on the matter.
Instead she showed me a few more antiques, and she talked to me about her family history. I bought an old pocket knife from the 1940s, and a rusty horseshoe because I can use the good luck.
After that, my wife and I ate pierogies at a roadside restaurant. Pierogies are Polish dumplings filled with either savory or sweet fillings. They are served in a puddle of butter large enough to give you atrial fibrillation. And I could eat them every day until I blew up to the size of an Amish pole barn.
I have never been this far north before. In fact, until these last few years I’d never been anywhere of note. But at this stage of life, I am staring middle-age in the face, it feels like I am seeing America for the first time.
I have enjoyed seeing little pieces of this country. In fact, the humble American road trip has proven to be one of the greatest adventures of my entire existence.
I’ve seen a sunrise over the plains of Texas, and I was fortunate enough to eat etouffee on a Louisiana bayou. I saw the Washington Nationals play a ballgame with the U.S. Capitol building in the background.
I sang “Love Me Tender” with an Elvis impersonator in Biloxi. I bought a cowboy hat in Shreveport. I went to a potluck in Missouri and discovered that the church ladies had voluntarily put sugar in their green beans, but nobody knew why.
I camped in the woods outside Little Rock, Arkansas, and got bronchitis that lasted two months. I laid my head on Grand Canyon dirt and counted the stars. And I have shaken hands with a little old Quaker woman in Pennsylvania.
Sometimes, I feel so overcome by it all that I wonder if that old woman isn’t right. I wonder if life itself doesn’t come down to three little words. Three little words that mean the same thing in every dialect, region, and college football conference.
I would tell you which three words. But you don’t need me to.