I live in a tourist destination. Like most of my friends, neighbors, fellow townspeople and many people who live in tourist communities, I usually choose to live on the outside looking in at the attractions that bring the tourists to town. We moan and grumble about the congestion, the lines at our favorite restaurants, and the befuddled out-of-state drivers on our local roads. Often, we take alternate routes around the perimeter of town to avoid them, stay home, or get far, far out of town ourselves when the tourists invade. Yet, we must begrudgingly acknowledge that without these mostly seasonal interlopers, our “Sweetest Place on Earth” wouldn’t be as sweet or have all the restaurants and attractions we both love and hate. It’s a Catch-22 of sorts.
The real enigma is that those of us on the inside don’t appreciate what we have until we have guests from out of town to help us see the golden mosaic beauty of our grand theater, feel the temperate perfection of the huge caverns at the edge of town, experience the rush of the coasters, smell the roses in the heirloom garden, and savor the Kisses that anyone can buy almost anywhere — but that somehow taste better at Chocolate World. I realize that I need to have an outer-body type of experience so that I can penetrate the inside that outsiders appreciate so much more than those of us who have access to it every day.
So, I lace up my running shoes for an early morning jog around downtown Hershey on this busy late September day. An announcer’s voice calls crisply from a loudspeaker at the high school soccer field where 49 plus soccer balls dot the artificial turf as girls sprint, kick, and jog in warm-up. Another field across the street is lined with parents of younger soccer players screaming their coaching advice during a travel league game. Cars begin to make their way across the highway to another local school, where two area high school varsity football teams will clash in a few hours.
Boarding students at the school founded for underprivileged youth by the chocolate magnet who built the town more than 100 years ago walk casually along the paths of their sprawling countryside campus. The jogging loop will lead to the local outlet mall, but first it winds across downtown, behind the recently closed chocolate factory framed by iconic Hershey smokestacks, chocolate-colored bushes shaped to spell out Hershey Cocoa, and the creek that flows behind them. Almost exactly a year ago, Hurricane Lee roared through the area, sending the creek well over its banks until it flooded the pristine Country Club golf course beside it and much of the downtown. The road that winds behind has been closed to traffic ever since, giving the migratory geese a sense of ownership to the road. When once traffic might have caused them to part for oncoming people, now they brazenly dominate the width of the road. If I run between them, will they attack? I find a hole with just one goose to the right and all the others to the left and dart quickly through, unscathed, as the gaggle to the left meanders slowly back towards the stream behind the yellow and stone facade of the now silent factory. The scent of chocolate wafting through downtown is now only a memory.
Soon, I cross the road that allows me to short-cut through the grassy knoll behind the Hershey Historical Society, where a preserved trolley stop building advertises a mode of transportation long forgotten, just across from one of the most popular tourist stops – a Tanger Outlet Mall, America’s version of shopping mecca. Two bicyclists I saw whiz by me a mile or so back and I look to be the only natives rewarding ourselves at the Starbucks. Those in the line of 10 or more waiting for their sweet caffeine-laden drinks carry shopping bags and have a glint of determination in their eyes.
With my calories burned, it’s now time to wander across the road where I watch manless roller coaster cars race one another down the hills of the wooden tracks in test runs minutes before the crowds will stream through the amusement park gates. I walk the perimeter, my venti non-fat iced latte sweating in my hand, straining to block the pop music from a ride inside the park, so that my ears might pick up some sound checks at the stadium next door. Today is FarmAid! Willie Nelson claims they chose Hershey as this year’s site because of the strong Family Farm commitment in Central Pennsylvania and because it was a central rendezvous location for this year’s performers including board members Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews.
There’s plenty of activity building around the nearly 100-year-old concrete stadium with grand arches, but no music – yet. A giant tent offers breakfast to the tattooed roadies emerging from campers, tractor trailers and vehicles parked throughout the large asphalt parking lot. Barricades and metal fencing cordon off another area in front of the stadium to create an organic food area for FarmAid goers. Early concertgoers wander the premises looking for fame and history. Just below the FarmAid eating area, crowds begin streaming into the gates for HersheyPark; instead of hearing Jack Johnson do his “check, check,” I hear strains of “The Candy Man” through the tinny-sounding speakers lining the entrance to the park, where small children stand next to signs of Twizzlers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Hershey Chocolate Bars, trying to determine their height and which rides it will allow them to ride.
I cut quickly through the masses and round the fence on the perimeter of the park. There I see more people scurrying north where hundreds of high school runners are lining up for the start of a huge cross country race on the former prized golf course. This race raises money for charity, but it offers teams from across the state a practice run on the state championship course, a hidden and unforgiving jaunt through the hills and vales. Couple the traffic from these running enthusiasts with traffic for HersheyPark, FarmAid and other sporting events in town, and it’s obvious why locals should be staying home, getting out of town or using their legs for transportation.
I pump up the hill past the park’s newest roller coaster – a bright yellow behemoth that rises more than 100 feet into the air. Screams surround me as I cross the road and pick my way across rocks and railroad tracks to avoid traffic. Finally, I’m on the last few blocks to home, my downtown oasis, hidden on a side street, away from the traffic and eyes of the tourists. This morning, I am an insider who is an outsider observing those inside, but later today, I will scan my ticket at the gate to FarmAid, breaking through to the inside. My ticket will help local farmers, which will give me a warm, fuzzy feeling as I get to enjoy some of my favorite singers. Hypocritical. Yeah, maybe, but that’s an inside outsider’s right, right?
In a few weeks farmers and hippies will be replaced by antique auto buffs at the world’s largest antique auto show. Then, it will be Brad Paisley, Hersheypark After Dark, state high school cross country and football championships, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, traveling Broadway shows, Jerry Seinfeld, Disney on Ice. The list goes on. It’s just a typical day inside the chocolate bubble.
A former newspaper reporter and editor, Debbie Lynch teaches English at Harrisburg Area Community College, and writes poetry when she just can’t bring herself to grade another student paper. A native of an area of Central Pennsylvania even more rural than Hershey, she lived in Virginia, Pittsburgh, Vermont, Cleveland, and Stockholm, Sweden before settling in Hershey.