A decade ago (…wow) while in college, every October meant a bunch of friends would pile into two or three cars and drive a few hours away to stay at the Cook Homestead, a parent’s home in the very small town of Shamokin, PA. Armed with sleeping bags and Cedar Crest College sweatshirts, we’d all pitch in to make large dinners and spend the afternoons at Knoebels, a kitschy family-owned amusement park with free parking and free admission. Yes, even still.
Knoebels is a place with layers upon layers of nostalgia for me. It was the destination of every end-of-year class trip in elementary school, a place to spend a hot summer day riding the teacups and eating pizza. There is a backlog of memories with the common thread of visiting the park over the years: the first time I could reach the rings on the carousel, dousing fresh cut fries with white vinegar, the log flume worth the stomach-dropping hill to enjoy the easy-going ride through the cave in the middle.
When I go back now, I’m surprised how much smaller the park seems than I remember it from my youth. When I was eight, it seemed to take an hour to walk from the wooden coaster to the ferris wheel, but now it takes two minutes. Time changes things, perspective changes things.
Two weekends my college friends had a reunion – still packing our pillows and blankets, only now campfires are places to discuss weddings and careers and politics. The park is celebrating Halloween with haunted rides and a costume parade. I stay away from the rubber masks but we pile on hay bales for group photos. We spotted wizards and Disney characters.
A family of S’mores with their marshmallow baby.
We stayed up until 6pm, folding chairs and blankets around the fire, making *mountain pies (or Tonka pies). I brought some vegan cheese and ate more than I’d like to admit. The melted cheese burned my fingers, embers burned small holes through my pajamas. My hair smelled like a campfire for days and I loved it.
*Mountain Pie/”Tonka Pie”: A mountain pie is a stuffed toasted sandwich made over a campfire. “Tonka pie” refers to Tonka, a brand of mountain pie toaster-irons. You butter some bread (nondairy, please!) as you would make a grilled cheese, add a bunch of stuff like pizza sauce and vegan cheese, or apple pie filling, then stick the iron in the fire for a few minutes, turning once.
Almost always, at least one corner will turn out completely charred but something about it tastes so, so good. A good way to get some iron in your diet, no less.
Despite only sleeping for five hours, most of us crawled off our blow-up mattresses and shared beds around 11am to stumble outside and drink coffee.
For breakfast, I chopped up a bunch of veggies mixed with some soy sauce, salt, pepper, and olive oil. I rolled them into a giant tin foil ball and tossed it in the fire for a half an hour. If you’ve never had campfire-charred broccoli, you have not lived. At least not in Pennsylvania.
. . .
My favorite moment was in the park at night was when, once everyone met up from finding snacks or riding on haunted things, we piled into the small train, the lot of us taking up 1/3rd of the seats. We wrapped scarves around our faces and howled into the trees going deeper into the woods, past campsites and black light skeleton scenes.
(Us with our Five Year Plans and marriage proposals, government jobs or serious consideration of having children. Maybe being a grown up isn’t much different than being a kid except you have to think about more serious-sounding things.)
In the tunnel we cheered and our voices echoes off stone walls, and for a moment it felt like we were literally filled with sound and happiness, we could feel it bounce off our bodies. Just before we pulled back in and came to a stop, a Beach Boys sing-a-long had broken out and we looked into the faces of the people in line waiting to take our places and knew that no one could take that night from us.