Mars and Snowtubing: Winter Break in Small-Town America

To say that going back home is always a bit of a transition is an understatement. My hometown, Mars, is a little place along the old Pennsylvania rail line in the southwestern part of the state. It boasted a population of about 1,600 in 2010 and has a metal flying saucer we move around the town’s green from time to time. Most people don’t get the chance to say this, but St Andrews felt big to me when I first came here. As in, people are always on the street, and the only restaurants in town are not, in fact, Suzie Q’s, the Chinese takeaway place, and a pizza place or two, and there is a roundabout in this town that had me in constant fear for my life during first year (a fear that did nothing to improve my ability to cross streets).

Of course, there are other towns nearby. Drive up the road and you get lots of restaurants, a cinema and a Wal-Mart – pretty much everything the American heart desires. However, if your interests happen to include traveling and various Christmas break adventures, it might not always seem like the best place to be.

I am here to tell you that this is not the case, and to provide you with a list of ways to make your journey through Southwestern PA:

  1. Have brothers. Preferably four of them, all younger but rapidly overtaking you in height, weight, and ability to steal food, and demonstrating a natural propensity to excellence in the realm of Snapchat.59213f7522dd6372c5f121993d8f68d7
  2. Sleep. Read. You’re an international student, goddammit, and your jetlag isn’t technically due to expire for another week at least. You’re only awake for food, or for BBC dramas with your mom.188fa6f1122c65944f1f9feabe50b139
  3. Visit the surrounding small towns. You’ll find everything from junk yards to hiking trails, from beautiful indie coffee shops and local art galleries to mountain biking courses. North of Mars, there’s a town called Saxonburg in the middle of farm country with a beautiful biking trail that follows a stream and the path of the old rail line, an art gallery that has some incredible stained glass, and lovely cafés. Also north you can find a beautiful state park with trails, covered bridges, and wide, swift-river. All of this is within half an hour’s drive, so it won’t cut too much into BBC dramas if you don’t want it to.7f3e37c7629e6bdfa559a22c6098023d
  4. Snowtubing. This is something that not many of your Brit friends will actually know is a real thing, so be prepared to explain it in great detail. Be scientific. Confirm any suspicions that it is in essence sliding down steep snow tracks in (or within the proximity of) a gigantic rubber doughnut. That, however, is merely how you tell about your snowtubing experience. In practice:
  1. Refer to Step 1 and make sure all of the brothers mentioned above are with you as you consider this venture.
  2. Second, realize that going to a really good tubing place is going to require a short drive (4 hours roundtrip) into the more Appalachian part of the state farther south.3adce13998b405642eeced221d948605
  3. Third, realize that if you a) have four brothers and b) are with them in the car for hours then c) there is a strong likelihood that you will listen to the “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack on repeat and that the nine-year-old will astound you with his repertoire of increasingly inappropriate dance moves, very few of which he owns to understanding.
  4. Fourth, realize that, if the situation described above is as such, when you reach the snowtubing place you must accept the reality that everything is now a race. You must race from the car to the stairs, and up the stairs into the snowtubing centre, and from the desk to put snow gear on, and from the lodge to the spot at which you must battle for the optimum snowtube, from the snowtube selection point to the conveyer belt to take you to the top of the hill, and, of course, down the hill, each along his or her own track.
  5. Look at the sky. It’s very pretty. Very blue.
  6. Look at how much snow there is on the trees’ branches; they’re bowed beneath the weight. You missed these trees and hunkered-down Appalachian hills while you were gone.
  7. Decide to start doing team races in which two or three tubes join up to race down the hill in a group. Beware death upon the crash landing pads when you figure out the form for optimum aerodynamics and speed.  Also beware the human-shaped hole just underneath the crash landing pads. If your brother is caught inside, push snow on him. Your mother doesn’t have to know.dfb0696762a9dd18bcc6c3154d014d82
  8. Argue with the other team about whether or not they have the right to use the perfect method you’ve discovered. Isn’t that stealing ideas? Cheating, even? Shouldn’t each team have to go through their due process of discovery?
  9. The bored, disinterested conveyor belt attendant will tell you your time’s up exactly on time. He has a bad beard.
  10. Go to the lodge and get the pre-fab food you so long missed. There are pretzels and hot apple cider and mugs of powder-pouch-based hot chocolate.287a77183725b18bdd42e76b301e21cd
  11. Fall asleep in the car while your mom drives the five of you kids home.

There are your steps and sub-steps for a reasonably entertaining holiday.

In all seriousness, though, I feel like sometimes it’s easy to miss out on what your hometown has to offer. It’s easy to forget what’s right around the corner, especially if the place you live in is quite small. But it’s not, not really. In any small, reasonably rural town in the U.S. (and many other places), you’re likely to find a few trails. You also might have some long, winding backcountry roads. Walk the dog on those. Sometimes I think that, as an international student, because I think about home every once in a while I remember it perfectly; I don’t. I haven’t seen the changes to the area; that’s what walking the dog is for. I forget about the shitty plastic yard decorations. I forget about the State Parks with covered bridges and beautiful rivers. I forget about how much fun you can have on a snowtubing hill with a few crazy brothers. Sometimes I forget that traveling doesn’t have to mean going anywhere in particular; it comes down to your openness to a unique, unfamiliar or forgotten experience. And, in that light, a small hometown you haven’t seen much in months can be just as surprising as a trip to a strange island.

Images sourced from Pinterest

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