Sleeping outdoors is like riding a motorcycle -- a bracing rush of physical sensations. And when you do it in challenging conditions, like cold temperature, being outdoors makes you conscious of the visceral experience of being alive. And also of bugs. Did I mention bugs?
Modern living is designed for comfort. Effortless, invisible comfort. When you take the protections of comfort away, you're left with struggle. But, as I've learned from hard motorcycle rides, adversity offers its own satisfactions: achievement and deeply-carved memories.
I enjoyed my trip this weekend to French Creek State Park. French Creek is the largest block of contiguous forest between New York City. and Washington D.C. It covers 7,700 acres. Betcha didn't know that, did ya?
While away I did two fun things. I visited an exceptional museum of vintage automobiles and motorcycles (which I'll write about later) and I hiked to Hopewell Furnace. Hopewell Furnace is a National Historic Site right next to French Creek.
From 1770 to 1880, Hopewell Furnace was one of the country's first "iron plantations" where blast furnaces were used to smelt iron. This early industrial process extracts metal from iron ore by using a "blast" fire furnace (one that pumps air into the fire to increase its heat up to 3,000 degrees). Iron was an important raw material used back then to produce guns and machinery for the American Revolution and Civil War.
In 1930, the federal government bought Hopewell Furnace to preserve its 200-year old furnace and structures for historical display. Visiting now, you can see how early Americans lived and worked during the first century of our nation. Smelting iron was a labor-intensive process; many workers toiled hard at it. Half of them were needed to cut down numerous trees which were turned into charcoal used to fuel the furnace. Others maintained the furnace and casted molds for the molten iron.
Places like this were self-contained communities where thousands lived and died. The history of Hopewell Furnace is surprisingly interesting and I find myself fascinated by it. For example, while slaves were used in its beginning (1770-1820), slavery was phased out of Pennsylvania before the Civil War and Hopewell Furnace became a station of the Underground Railroad to help those escaping slavery in the South. You can learn more of this history here.
Today Hopewell Furnace -- and camping -- offer us perspective on the ease and comfort of modern life. To make a cup of coffee now, we push a button or talk to the person in the Starbucks drive-through. We forget the hidden labor required to put that Joe in our hand. That's why I like to camp and visit historical sites -- to be reminded of life stripped of modernity.
This is the huge waterwheel used to generate a "blast" of air that runs into the furnace. You can see the pipe that carries the air atop the wheel in between two bellows.
This is where the troll... um, I mean collier lived. A collier is the person who tends the fires that make charcoal out of burning wood.
This is how they made charcoal. They piled wood planks into a tower and then built a low-heat fire beneath them. Over time, the fire transformed the wood into charcoal which was later used to fuel the furnace.
Workers lived on the site so they bought their food from the company store. The cost was deducted from their wages.
Hopewell Furnace was a complete community with everything needed for survival, including animals for food. This guy gave me the evil eye.