Navigation methods have changed, but traveling throughout the state over the decades, Florence Gallagher has found that Pennsylvania’s regional differences remain very much intact.
To many Philadelphians, Pennsylvania can seem like a hazy mystery once you travel west of Hershey or north of the Poconos. Not to Center City resident Florence Gallagher, who recently completed her quest to visit each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.
Gallagher, who turns 84 on Nov. 16, said she began traveling throughout the state “many decades ago.” The Northeast Philly native first visited the neighboring counties in the greater Philadelphia area as a child, before branching out during her high school years to visit Lancaster, Adams, and Centre counties.
Since then, she’s traveled Route 6 from the New Jersey border to the Ohio border, visited the Coudersport Ice Mine, seen bison and alpaca farms, and learned plenty of local history by chatting with residents in dozens of quaint Pennsylvania towns, where Gallagher found the locals to be a little nicer than those in her native city.
“As much as I love Philadelphia — it’s my city — people are kinder once you get out of the Philadelphia area and into the smaller towns,” Gallagher said. “From the time I left Montgomery County, I never had anyone beep the horn at me. I was flabbergasted.”
When she began her quest in earnest to visit all 67 counties years ago with her late husband, the couple used maps to find their way. These days, the voice of a GPS guides Gallagher. The navigation methods have changed, but Gallagher said she has found that Pennsylvania’s regional differences remain very much intact.
“It’s so different as you travel around the state,” Gallagher said. “Here in the city, you might have to park three blocks from your house. In other parts of the state, you can drive for 30 minutes and not see another car. You don’t have to leave the state and travel all the way to, say, New Mexico, to experience a difference in culture. You can find it in Pennsylvania.”
The beginnings of a Pennsylvania journey
Though Gallagher has traveled internationally to London, Paris, Mexico, and Bermuda, and criss-crossed the United States twice via Amtrak, the urge to take shorter, more economical trips led her to discover that there was plenty to see and do in the state where she’s lived her entire life.
“One year, I didn’t feel like going very far, so I thought, ‘I’ll go out to Pittsburgh,’” Gallagher said of her first big intrastate trip. “I traveled there by train and then I rented a car and spent two weeks visiting the counties above and below, like Washington and Mercer. Being a woman, I just had to go see Reyer’s (formerly in Sharon), which was touted as the largest shoe store in the world.
“By that point, I had already been to Erie and Bradford counties. And all the sudden I realized how much of the state I’d already covered. I was shocked. That’s how I decided to do all the counties.”
To finish what she started many years ago, in late September, Gallagher trekked northwest to Cameron, Elk, and Forest counties, the latter two being part of the Pennsylvania Wilds region. As a senior citizen traveling alone in a predominantly rural area with poor cell phone reception (pro tip: Gallagher always prints her directions, just in case), Gallagher said friends and family expressed concern for her safety, as did the locals she encountered.
“People were always surprised to see me traveling by myself; I assured them I was fine, and of sound mind,” Gallagher said, adding with a laugh, “But really, I don’t know if it is of sound mind to be traveling by yourself at my age.”
While many of the outdoor activities that attract visitors to Cameron, Elk, and Forest counties didn’t appeal to Gallagher, she still found plenty to like about the region, citing the majestic trees and charming towns. And though she was disappointed by not seeing any elk in Elk County (where only around 240 remain) Gallagher did experience a brush with Pennsylvania wildlife there.
“I had an encounter with an eagle,” Gallagher said. “I was driving along somewhere in God’s country, and as I’m rounding the corner, this thing swooped up next to me on the passenger’s side. The wingspan covered more than the passenger window. And it crossed right in front of me. That was the first time I’d ever seen an eagle in the wild.”
So much to see and do
Gallagher ranks the eagle among the coolest things she’s seen in Pennsylvania, alongside “Leo the Lion,” who once lived with his owner in Montgomery County in the 60s before being shipped off to Wellsboro; the Drake Well Museum in Venango County; and the Coudersport Ice Mine.
As for the best meals she’s enjoyed in her travels, Gallagher is partial to the restaurants in the Philly region, citing the historic King George II Inn in Bristol as one of her favorites. She also said the bison burger at the Bonnie & Clyde Pub and Grill in Lehighton was exceptional.
When asked to choose the most scenic route in the state, Gallagher said she favors the drive along the Delaware River in Bucks County headed north toward Easton.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love Route 6,” Gallagher said. “But, to me, River Road in Bucks County is one of the most beautiful drives ever.”
Gallagher stressed that even though she’s been to all 67 counties, she hasn’t come close to seeing everything there is to see in the state. But she wouldn’t change a thing about where her journeys have taken her.
“There’s so much more to see,” Gallagher said. “I still haven’t seen Fallingwater. I could never make the timing work. That’s the thing with all my trips. There’s always two or three things I try to see, but if I don’t, that’s OK. That’s because I usually see something else of interest I hadn’t planned on seeing.
“I wanted to go to the Wellsboro Diner this time but I drove right by it without even realizing and when I did it was too late. It’s been there since 1939 and from the reviews I’ve seen online, it’s still supposed to be a very good place to eat. It’s a cool looking building too, it has a round top. I know it sounds bizarre to make a diner a destination, but why not? I love diners!”