Monday, June 8, 2009

Discovering Lancaster

Thanks to the pooch-screwing episode I alluded to in my May 29th post, members of the KintlaLake family now spend a few hours each evening in Lancaster, Ohio.

We haven't often visited this city of 35,000, even though it's not far away. Trips outside our rural-suburban village tend to take us northwest toward metro Columbus rather than southeast into much smaller Lancaster -- and that's a shame, really, because in many ways it's quite an intriguing place.

To put a fine point on it, Lancaster is inescapably red, white and blue -- as in redneck, white socks and Blue Ribbon Beer. Patriotic? Damned right, ultra-conservative and proud to claim Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman as its favorite son.

It's hard to mistake Lancaster for anything but what it is -- a faded industrial town, still holding on to the Anchor Hocking glass company. Like other county seats in this part of the country, it has its cluster of 19th-century government buildings, its stately houses lining shaded hilltop avenues and a Main Street that feels warmly familiar to Americans who grew up in the Midwest back when I did.

And that may be the source of Lancaster's appeal -- for better and for worse, this is a town that hasn't quite escaped the 1960s.

Neon signs older than I am beckon customers to donut shops, diners and shopping plazas. Along U.S. 22, dozens of old structures remain as roadside reminders of days when this was the main route from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh. Nearly all of these buildings -- once motor lodges, filling stations or general stores -- have found new purposes, but their heritage shines through the vinyl siding and landscaping.

To say that Lancaster reminds me of my birthplace in northeast Ohio would be an understatement. Both are gritty blue-collar towns, almost identical in size and surrounded by farmland. One has Zane's Trace and the Scioto River, the other the Lincoln Highway and the Tuscarawas. They share a stubborn resistance to the glitz and gloss of progress. Both feel like home.

On our near-daily trips to Lancaster, Mrs. KintlaLake and I usually have an hour or more to relax, grab a bite to eat and do a bit of exploring. Our dining options aren't limited to fast-foot chains -- independent family restaurants, hot-dog stands and greasy spoons abound. Tooling aimlessly around town, we've become fond of playing a nostalgic game of, "I wonder what that used to be?"

Last night, hell, we even found an honest-to-god drive-in theater.

The events that drew us into Lancaster aren't something we would've wished for, certainly. Still, imperfect circumstances have presented us with a chance to discover a fascinating old town, a place we'd overlooked until now -- and that's something we welcome.