A scavenger hunt of hidden gems throughout central New Jersey. A trip to an aircraft carrier museum, going in, around, and under historic fighter jets. A journey to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Diving deep beneath the earth into caverns hundreds of feet below the surface. A day spent visiting filming locations of one of my favorite TV shows of all time,
The Sopranos. These are the birthday road trips that my wife has organized over the past several years. With my birthday approaching, what did she have in store for this year? How could she possibly top any of those amazing journeys of the last few birthdays? The answer: she created an epic, thousand-mile adventure through three states.
Departing on a Tuesday morning, our six-day road trip included celebrating my Mom’s birthday, visiting family members I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic, stopping by a house shaped like a shoe, visiting a timely museum, learning all about the art of glasswork, making a pit stop at a historic race track, exploring a massive classic car museum, and diving into a lake in the Adirondacks. Along the way, we ate great food, had some memorable driving experiences, and saw yet more of this amazing country.
The Birthday Road Trip, Part I
Rather than writing one massive post, I am going to break the trip into two blog posts. This is the route we took from Tuesday through Wednesday – starting in New Jersey, we headed into Pennsylvania before driving north to Corning, NY. The Birthday Visit
We began our road trip with a visit to my Mom’s place in southern New Jersey to celebrate her birthday. We ordered takeout from Villa Barone, an Italian restaurant we love in Collingswood. We started the feast with a calamari appetizer. My wife dined on the San Angelo – portobello mushrooms with chicken in a marsala glaze on gluten-free pasta. My mom, the birthday girl, enjoyed the Linguini Positano – scallops and shrimp over linguini with marinara sauce. Not to brag, but I had the best meal: Ravioli Rosa – lobster ravioli topped with shrimp in a rose cream sauce (pictured). How was dinner? Yum! Yum! Yum!
What birthday celebration is complete without cake? My wife created this delight: a gluten-free (and paleo-friendly) strawberry shortcake. It looked amazing. It tasted even better!
I ran a few errands for mom, and took her new 2021 Honda HR-V. Along the way, it crossed a huge milestone: 200 miles! As one friend remarked, my mom is “keeping it showroom fresh!”
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the mileage spectrum, my car put 178,000 miles in the books while visiting Mom. After spending the night at Mom’s place, we set off the following morning for the next stop on our road trip. The National Watch and Clock Museum
Ah, nothing like rush hour traffic in Philadelphia. Our drive west to Lancaster would take the better part of two hours. Although there were sunny skies when we first departed, clouds toward the west would be an ominous sign of what was to come… more on that later.
After having lunch with two dear family members that I had not seen in a few years, our first destination was the Haines Shoe House in Hellam, Pennsylvania. Built in the 1940s for a shoe salesman, the building has five rooms: a living room (toe), a kitchen (heel), an ice cream shop (instep) and two bedrooms (ankle). The house originally served as a weekend rental for couples looking to get away from it all (via Wikipedia). Obligatory tourist photo taken, we set off for our next destination.
Our next stop was only a few miles down the road: the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, PA. Founded in 1977, it is one of only six museums dedicated to horology – the study of measuring time (via Wikipedia).
Boasting the largest collection of timepieces in North America, the National Watch and Clock Museum has over 13,000 clocks, watches, and chronometers on display.
My wife and I recently binge-watched The Repair Shop, a British reality series which is available on Netflix. In each episode, people bring their broken, dusty, and damaged heirlooms to a workshop staffed with skilled artisans who restore the items. One of our favorite workers is the horologist who fixes battered and neglected watches and clocks brought to him in various states of decay. The level of precision, skill, and focus needed to keep a clock in working order is impressive.
There are some seriously old timepieces on display. This German chamber clock, dating to around 1625, records not just the time, but the day of the week, a monthly calendar, and the phases of the moon. For a machine that celebrates its four hundredth birthday in a few years, I was impressed with the level of mechanical sophistication it took to design such an object.
It truly is an international collection! This Japanese lantern clock, from 1875, records not just the time, but the signs of the Zodiac (square opening on top left) and the Celestial Stems (square opening on the top right). The Celestial Stems are an ancient form of date-keeping that originated in China.
There were numerous pocket watches on display. Popular from the 16th century until being replaced by the wrist watch in the early 1900s, there is still something elegant, classy, and (pardon the expression) timeless about these pieces. Years ago, I was gifted my great-grandfather’s pocket watch. It is currently non-functional, but this exhibit reminded me that it’s time to get it restored to its former glory.
These two clocks were specifically developed for railroad use. Did you know that we have the railway industry to thank for standardized time? Well into the 19th century, time in the United States was kept locally by observing the position of the sun (known as “apparent solar time”). However, this is an imprecise practice – solar time means that locations only a few miles apart can have different times. It could also mean disaster on the tracks – can you imagine the chaos of trains running on the same track, each with their own sense of time? With the drive to connect the nation through the railway industry, trains needed a more exact schedule, and so standardized time was born. For the same reason, the railway industry also gave us standardized time zones.
I enjoyed the collection of toy clocks. Each item in this cabinet is now worth over $100, far above the original purchase price. Growing up, one of my friends had the E.T. clock. I wonder if it’s still in his attic somewhere?
An entire exhibit was devoted to the timepieces of James Bond. With watches that also functioned as Geiger counters and printers, featured hidden saws and lasers, and could also act as a grappling hook and a bomb, only 007’s cars were more feature packed accessories. This display featured two of the Omega watches that Pierce Brosnan wore in my favorite Bond film: Goldeneye.
The centerpiece of the museum is the Engle Clock. Built in 1883, this 11-foot tall and 8-foot wide behemoth tells the time, the date, the day of the week, and the tidal phase. But that’s not all! It also features 48 moving figures that include Jesus, the Apostles, Mary, Father Time, Satan, American soldiers on the way to the Battle of Monmouth (hooray NJ!), and Molly Pitcher, each of which emerge from the clock at specific times on the hour. It still runs and keeps time perfectly.
With our time at the museum running out, we headed back to the car. The Accord was running as smoothly as a Swiss watch… you could say it takes a licking but keeps on ticking. As for my wife and I, we were all wound up with excitement to get on the road. If you haven’t had enough clock humor, what did the second hand say to the minute and hour hands? “See you in a minute, guys.” Where did the watch finish the race? Wherever it wound up. And what is a clever clock called? Clockwise. Okay, okay, I’ll stop telling clock jokes. You’re probably thinking to yourself, “It’s about time.”
I probably should have spent more time checking the weather, and less making clock jokes. We knew rain was in the forecast, but we didn’t realize that we would be driving through Tropical Storm Fred. For nearly four hours, we fought strong winds, driving rains, and sudden downpours. Roadside electronic signs started warning of flash floods, then began announcing severe thunderstorms, before finally escalating into tornado warnings. Yikes.
Fortunately, the Accord was flawless on the drive, utterly unflappable in the awful conditions. When we arrived at our hotel, we turned on the news and saw that the rain caused flooding in numerous locations, necessitating first responders to save people from submerged vehicles. It was one of the hairiest drives I’ve ever taken, and I was grateful to arrive at our destination unscathed. The Corning Museum of Glass
The main event for my birthday road trip: a visit to the Corning Museum of Glass, where we would see priceless works of glass art, learn cool facts about the history of glass working, and try our hand in the hot shop, blowing our own Christmas ornaments. Corning has been intimately connected with technological advancements for decades. Today, they are widely known for “Gorilla Glass,” which is used on screens of mobile devices such as the iPhone. Corning also created Pyrex, the heat-resistant glass that is found in science labs and kitchens around the world.
My wife and I have long been fascinated with glass working. However, a recent reality TV series on Netflix, Blown Away, has truly kindled our fascination. The show is a competition between ten glass blowers as they seek to impress the judges with their creations. Winners of the show earn a spot as an artist in residence at the Corning Museum of Glass, and so the museum has a prominent display of works from the show. This is Va-cume from Cat Burns, the runner-up from the show’s second season. Va-cume, made entirely from glass, is a fanciful take on her dog’s perception of the vacuum cleaner (and it was one of my favorite pieces from the show).
Our tour of the museum would have to wait – our first stop was an appointment in Hot Shop A. In glass blowing parlance, the studio is called the “hot shop.” (Author’s note – the name is apt: I was sweating profusely within a few minutes of standing in the studio).
My wife had signed us up for a glassblowing experience in the hot shop. We would be making Christmas ornaments! After selecting the colors and design I wanted, I was paired up with Liam, a glass artist who would serve as my guide. The hot glass was affixed to the end of the blowpipe. The blowpipe allows air to be blown into the glass so the artist can shape the design.
The glass needs to be kept hot as it is shaped. The oven heats glass to over 2,500 degrees Farenheit. As a complete beginner, I watched from a safe distance as Liam skillfully worked with my ornament in the oven.
As my ornament took shape, Liam added the hook using more molten glass. Glass artists typically blow air directly into the blowpipe (if you haven’t seen it, imagine a trombone player blowing into their instrument). However, I pressed a pedal that used a pump to blow air into the glass. At first, I thought this was because I was a newbie. Later, however, Liam told me that because of COVID-19, all glassworkers at the museum, from beginners to skilled artists in residence, are using the pumps out of safety concerns.
I finished and had just enough time to grab my camera and snap a few photos of my wife’s ornament. Our two ornaments were placed in the annealer, a special type of kiln that slowly cools the glass over several hours. Without annealing, glass may crack or shatter as it cools. As the temperature of the glass decreases, my wife’s ornament will change color into more clearly defined white and blue. Corning will ship our ornaments to us in a few days – I will definitely post the finished products!
After our “hot shop” experience, we attended a demonstration to watch some of the museum’s professional artists at work.
It was fascinating to witness such a skillful display of glassmaking. Oftentimes, glass is shaped by hand. Is the pad this woman is using a specially designed piece of equipment as she works with glass that is thousands of degrees hot? Nope. It’s about ten sheets of newspaper, folded over on itself.
Although the oven is used to heat the glass, a blowtorch can be used to add more precise shape to a piece.
There was an actual gasp from the audience as the molten glass suddenly transformed into a bowl. This woman has over twenty years of experience with glassblowing. To say my wife and I were impressed with her abilities would be the understatement of the year.
After leaving the presentation, it was on to explore the museum, and check out thousands of years of glass-working history.
One of my favorite pieces was Continuous Mile, a mile-long cotton rope embedded with 4.5 million glass beads. Created in South Africa, it took a team of 50 artists over a year to create.
Although inspired by a 15th-century sketch from German painter Albrecht Durer, this 2012 sculpture of a lynx looked more like something from a fantasy-horror world.
After exploring modern glass art, it was a bit jarring to walk into the gallery of antiquities. Glassmaking is an ancient art. These glass pieces, from Pharaonic Egypt, are over three thousand years old.
While colored glass dates back thousands of years, stained glass as an art form began in earnest in the Middle Ages. However, our fascination with this form of glasswork has continued to the modern age – these panels are from French artists the 1950s.
No modern exhibit on stained glass is complete without a lamp from Louis Comfort Tiffany’s studio. Although Tiffany was a prodigious artist, much of the work bearing his name was produced by employees in his studio, many of whom were women. This lamp was designed by Clara Wolcott Driscoll. Tiffany, recognizing Clara’s many talents, hired her to not only design glass art, but also to manage an entire department within his studio. You can read more about her fascinating story here.
Another piece from Tiffany Studios: The Righteous Shall Receive a Crown of Glory. This window, designed by Frederick Wilson, was installed in the United Methodist Church of Waterville, New York, in 1901-1902. Looking at the display of items from Tiffany’s studio, I couldn’t help but think back to our visit a few weeks ago to St. Hubert’s Chapel in Kinnelon, New Jersey.
For all of the works on display from around the world, my wife and I remarked that we did not see any items from New Jersey, a state with a rich glassmaking heritage. Finally, we spotted a display case with a handful of items, including this jar from a glass factory in Woodbury, New Jersey, made around 1885.
Corning has long been a leader in scientific and industrial applications of glass. An entire exhibit detailed automotive safety glass. The earliest automotive windshields were merely solid pieces of glass which would often shatter in accidents, harming the vehicle’s occupants. In 1909, a French costume designer patented a process for fusing a plastic layer between two pieces of glass, creating a unit that would resist shattering on impact. Since 1937, every automotive windshield in the US has featured safety glass.
This photo is of the reflecting disk for the 72-year old Palomar Observatory telescope. The 200-inch disk on display in the museum is actually a failure – it is the original attempt which was damaged during construction. Corning engineers used the failure to learn how to improve on the final product, which has dutifully served since 1949 in the Hale telescope (via Corning Museum of Glass).
Before we left, I ducked back into the modern gallery to grab a shot of one of my favorite pieces: “The Walker.” Once I sat down to write this post, I researched the statue, and found that it was created by Vanessa German at WheatonArts in Millville, New Jersey. The statue is made from glass and bits of refuse that she found on WheatonArt’s back lot. It’s fitting that my favorite piece came from close to home. After exploring every nook and cranny of the museum, it was time to move on to our next stop. The Rockwell Museum and Downtown Corning
The Chemung River separates the Corning Museum of Glass from downtown Corning. While several bridges span the river for vehicle traffic, pedestrians have their own walkway across the water. With beautiful views of the surrounding hillside, benches, potted plants, and a maze, it’s a fun way to cross the river.
The bridge also offers a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside. Check out how high the river had risen from the previous day’s rains!
Our next stop was the Rockwell Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian system. Established in 1976 in what was Corning’s original city hall, the museum seeks to display artwork collected by Bob and Hertha Rockwell, Corning-based entrepreneurs (via the Rockwell Museum).
The centerpiece of the third floor is “Mount Whitney,” an 8′ x 12′ oil on canvas. The painting is by German-American Albert Bierstadt, who is the best known artist to chronicle the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century.
The museum also devotes a significant portion of its galleries to the lives and culture of the Native American peoples who lived in this area of New York before the founding of the thirteen colonies.
Perhaps the most memorable artwork that I saw was Blanket Stories by Marie Walt. The tower is assembled with blankets collected from families living in western New York. The tags tell the importance of each blanket to the family that donated it.
After leaving the museum, we explored more of the city. West Market Street is the center of the downtown area, known as the Gaffer District, housing numerous restaurants, shops, and businesses.
Although we mostly window shopped, we did open our wallets at Dippity Do Dahs for some homemade ice cream.
The shop has won numerous awards, and after after trying both a milkshake and their renowned salted caramel ice cream, I can see why!
Late in the afternoon, the sun finally emerged from behind the clouds and I grabbed the Accord for its mandatory “post card” photo. After a full day, it was time to get ready for the next adventure. Wrapping Up
The beginning of the road trip adventure was fantastic. The National Watch and Clock Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm. Admission is $12 for adults, $9 for children ages 6-16, $10 for seniors, $8 for veterans, and free for active duty military members. The Corning Museum of Glass is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Admission costs $20 for adults, $17 for college students, $17 for senior citizens, and is free for children 17 and under, as well as active duty service personnel and their families. Finally, the Rockwell Museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Admission is $11.50 for adults, $10.50 for people age 62 and older, $10.50 for military members, and free for children 17 and younger. After two full days exploring Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Corning, New York, we still had several stops left on the birthday road trip itinerary!
Thanks for coming along on the first installment of this birthday road trip down the open road ahead!
To be continued!