It was one of those typical March days—cold enough to let you know that winter isn’t quite ready to let go, yet with a hint of spring in the air. One of those days when you have no idea what to wear because there is a good chance you could end up either freezing or sweating…or both, all in the matter of less than an hour. I threw a pile of extra fleece on the passenger seat of my old-ish Subaru wagon, just in case. Cup of coffee in hand, I made the half-hour haul down I-99 to Tyrone, PA, where I pulled into the Burger King parking lot to await the arrival of my companions for the day. They arrived one by one, and we all greeted each other with big smiles and enthusiastic whoops of excitement. Our motley group undoubtedly looked out of place in the rural Pennsylvania town, wearing an assortment of colorful fabrics and strange fibers—from spandex leggings and striped socks (my choice for the day) to snow camo and mukluks (sported by my good friend Ruby Becker)—and laughing hysterically at jokes that most people probably wouldn’t even find remotely funny.
At promptly 9am, my father, the infamous Stan Kotala, rallied the group and we all piled into two cars. The hour-long ride was characterized by laughter, friendly banter, and a rather long discussion about local beer. After winding through the mountains past dilapidated houses, wind turbines, and Curwensville Lake, we arrived at our destination—Bilger’s Rocks.
After a short introduction, our host, a woman from the Bilgers Rocks Association, finally led us down to the attraction that we had come here for—a “rock city” covering some 20 acres. It was even more impressive than I had imagined. There were a seemingly endless number of passages, caves, and crawl spaces winding between the giant sandstone towers. As the rest of the group stared at carvings of an earth, a lady’s face, and other assorted pictures that were chiseled into one of the stone walls, I impatiently began clamoring over the icy boulders, like a kid in a 300-million-year-old natural playground.
Our group oooh-ed and ahhh-ed at the occasional sunshine glinting off the ice and moss on the sandstone walls as we squeezed through seemingly-endless tiny passageways. A few of us at a time squirmed our way to a “room” known as the Devil’s Kitchen, while others found their way to the top of the formation and greeted us from above. Trees grew out of some of the cracks in the rock, reaching to the sky amid the cold stone.
Kristin Joivell, Dave Payne, and I took a detour from the well-traveled passageways to explore some of the smaller, more obscure ones. Everywhere I turned, there was another crack to explore, more sights to be seen, more curiosities about what lay on the other side. But, we had a group to get back to. A group who was standing around looking at a rock face that just begged to be climbed, with many small, yet perfect, handholds. My reputation as an adventurous spirit preceded me, and as I approached the group, I heard them already talking about how I should climb it. But, before I could make it more than a few feet off the ground, I failed to find any holds that weren’t covered in a thin layer of ice. Climbing was to be left for another time.
But, other explorations were to be had. When our trip leader offered to lead us through a little cave under one of the rock towers, the ever-enthusiastic Kristin and myself, along with a large dog belonging to our leader, were the only volunteers. Kristin broke out her headlamp—something I had not even thought to bring. Dave Hunter handed me his little flashlight, saving me from being completely blind in the pitch-black hole, and we began squeezing our small frames through the cold rocky crack. Once we were immersed in darkness, surrounded on all sides by the rock, it was time to crawl. But there was a bit of a problem. Right about now was when the dog began to panic. There wasn’t enough room to go past her, yet the dog refused to either move forward or back. For nearly 15 minutes, Kristin and I tried to coax our furry friend to come out of the cave. Unsuccessful at first, we finally managed to convince her to run towards the light, out of the cave the way we came in. We were finally free to move forward. As the crawl space narrowed, I took off my backpack and tossed it in front of me as I moved along on the rocky ground. My flashlight, weak as it was, illuminated “ice stalacmites” that had formed on the floor of the rocky crevice from water continuously dripping through tiny cracks in the rock. Eventually, I saw a glint of light, and heard the voices of the rest of the group above me. They cheered as we slowly crawled up out of the hole and into the light, asking questions about “the cave,” as if it were some great forbidden mystery. This would have been a great time to make up some story about the elusive creature that we had glimpsed, or some other equally odd story, but instead, all I said was, “It was dark. And we had to crawl.”
Just when I thought we had explored the extent of the rocks, we learned that there were, indeed, even more. The adventure continued down an icy slope that many of us chose to slide down on the seat of our pants. Dave Hunter got his video camera out to capture any exciting moments that may have ensued. Dave Payne and I found a great ledge to hang off of, providing much amusement and photo opportunities for all the onlookers, and much fun for us. A few of us detoured to a little stream, where we engaged in a very strange conversation about pond scum and decomposing bodies before strolling back up the hill to the parking lot.
After loitering (and pontificating) in the parking lot with hot chocolate for a while, our group followed tradition and trooped off to the nearest good pub—Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, PA. The online menu boasted a long list of craft beer, so the beer snob contingent (myself included) was undoubtedly excited to try some new brews. The lobby of the restaurant was lined with photos of customers who had completed one of the “Burger Challenges”—which consists of eating an absurdly large hamburger (either two, fifteen, or twenty-five pounds of meat!) in a particular time limit.
A lot of laughs, a delicious bison burger (NOT the 15-pounder!), and a surprisingly-pleasant chocolate peanut butter stout later, we were once again piled in the Ram Charger, cruising along the country roads back to Tyrone. But the day was not over yet, not without a detour to stop at “Bloody Knox,” a historic Civil War-era cabin along Rt. 453 near Kellytown, PA. By late afternoon, the ground had warmed and the spring-like air once again gave us all the energy of children, frolicking in the fields of the cabin before plopping down on the dry grass to bask in the sun that was peeking out from behind a thin layer of clouds.
Thanks to daylight savings time, I got to drive home with the angled rays of the setting sun instead of in darkness, yet another reminder that spring is on its way, and with it, many more adventures in the great outdoors.