Presque – or maybe even Completement

Sometimes, all it takes is a road trip. Forced into a moving vehicle with no wi-fi access, in close proximity to your family members, on a sunny day… well, it’s either going to end well or really, really badly.

Our trip involved driving northwest for six hours for B to run a marathon, and then driving home. Our destination was exotic (no, it’s not) Erie, Pennsylvania. You may not have any preconceptions of what that would be like, but for me it was all quite a surprise (largely because I’d been busy with the book sale and recovering from the book sale and hadn’t given our trip a thought until about Thursday). Erie is in the top left-hand corner of the big rectangle that is Pennsylvania, and it’s on the coast of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. (Here’s a helpful map.)

Map showing northern Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Thank you, Google Maps. We came from halfway between Baltimore and Washington, drove along the bottom of PA, and up past Pittsburgh all the way to Erie.

I’ve been to Chicago, but otherwise haven’t experienced any of the lakes, and I never think of lakes as having beaches, even if they’re really darn big lakes. Not proper beaches. The website, when I finally looked at one, seemed to call Erie a beach town, but I was unconvinced.

We lived in Pennsylvania for a couple of years before we were married, and I think of it as a state of rolling, tree-covered hills punctuated with big red barns and domed grain silos. Amish and Mennonite people. Scrapple. Placenames that make you giggle. (Intercourse, Blue Knob, and Blue Ball, to cite a few.)

On the way we stopped at Fallingwater, which is a very famous house designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s. It’s tucked away on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, which is somewhere we’re not usually passing, so this was a good opportunity. B and I visited it once before, in 2000, which was a long time ago. The thing about Fallingwater is it’s a perfect time capsule, this ahead-of-its-time architecture right on top of a waterfall, with all the original furniture and fittings still in place. We did the tour and the kids acquitted themselves really well, managing not to touch or break or leap upon anything that was not meant to be touched, broken or leapt upon.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater

Look familiar?

(It’s so famous it even has a Lego incarnation.)

Anyway. That’s proper Pennsylvania. When we got to Erie,
it suddenly didn’t feel like Pennsylvania any more at all. (Okay, it takes way too long to type Pennsylvania. I’m just going to say PA now.) Erie may be PA but it felt a lot more like TX to me. Or maybe SC. It’s a beach town. (I’d say it’s like Florida but I haven’t actually been to Florida.) We didn’t see the city proper, we only saw the slightly scrubby suburb near the peninsula where the marathon took place, but its wide streets and cheap motels and tattoo shops and warm wind felt like nothing so much as South Padre Island, that we lived near in Texas.

So that was the first surprise.

We arrived after dinner on Friday so there was no time to explore. On Saturday morning we headed out for breakfast and a drive around, and found ourselves on the peninsula that’s almost an island (that’s its name: Presque Isle) where the marathon would be the next day. It’s a little blob that sticks out into the lake – except everything’s much bigger than you think when you’re talking about a Great Lake, so it’s actually a 13-mile drive around the little blob.

Map showing Presque Isle and Erie, PA

Nearly an island

Going up the inland side, we stopped about halfway along and got out to take in the bay. It was overcast and very choppy, though still warm. The kids scrubbed around for stones to throw in the water, and there were a couple of fishermen. It was pleasant to be out in the wind, but not what you’d call glorious, though the sun was starting to come out.

Kids playing by grey, choppy water

Crappy phone photo

Then we got back in the car and drove down to the end, around the tip, and started up the other side. The kids were grumpy and didn’t want to get out of the car again, but I convinced them that we should stop and see if we could wave across at Canada. (Or maybe we just stopped the car and said “Deal with it.”)

We stopped at a deserted parking area and crossed the small dunes to see what we could see. The wind had died down. The sun was shining. The water was bright blue fading to almost tropical green at the edges. There wasn’t another person in sight, just a few gulls and some artistically scattered driftwood. I felt as if we’d walked through a portal to the Caribbean. (I’ve never been to the Caribbean, though, so my impressions may be off.)

B and the kids on a beach with calm blue water and clear blue sky.

This is a proper beach. It really is.

It was so unexpectedly lovely, this magical Other Side of the Island, that I just stood there with a big grin plastered to my face while everyone else started paddling and skimming more stones and writing in the sand with sticks. Everything was just generally delightful and it was worth the six hour drive each way and the crappy motel room with no wi-fi there and then.

We went back in the afternoon and found a different beach, with a lifeguard and swimming. So, totally without planning it, we managed to bring the children to the beach this summer after all. Juuust under the wire.

Kids playing in sand at beach

Classic game of bury-your-father

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