An Afternoon in Wissahickon Park

By Peter McManus

This story is based on notes taken after a visit to Wissahickon Park on Oct. 8, 2002.

The days are getting shorter and cooler. The leaves are changing color, shriveling up, falling to the ground. There aren’t many nice days left this year, but today was beautiful. The sky was bright and clear, with a few puffy clouds for decoration. The temperature was just warm enough to be comfortable without needing to bundle up.

Knowing that today could be the last nice day of the year, I convinced Mom to have lunch at Valley Green Inn. At the risk of overselling it, I told her that the restaurant is part of a little Shangri La right smack in the middle of Philadelphia. It wasn’t a very big risk.

That Shangri La is Wissahickon Valley Park. It is in Philadelphia city proper, but it is really its own world. The high valley walls isolate all that is within from whatever is without. The valley is filled with tall, leafy trees, rocky outcrops, and hilly trails. Winding through the valley is the Wissahickon Creek -- a stream small enough to fill the air with the peaceful sound of water flowing over rocks, but large enough that its flow is always steady.

Next to the creek is a packed-gravel road called Forbidden Drive, so named because automobiles are banned, enforcing the quietude of the park. About six miles long, it is shady and cool, with nice views of the creek and its surrounds, making it a favorite destination for walkers, runners, bicyclers and horseback riders.

A couple miles into the park, perched half-way up the valley face, you will find a century-old sculpture of a Lenape Indian chief, keeping watch over the wilderness below. Nearby, a covered bridge crosses the stream. Buildings are sparse, and from another era.

Valley Green Inn is a little restaurant hidden away in the park. It was built as a tavern in 1850, and its décor transports you back to that time. The first time I ever saw it was after jogging along Forbidden Drive for a couple of miles. I was still unfamiliar with Wissahickon Park, and was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon this anachronism in the middle of nowhere. Valley Green Inn was the hub of the idyllic world that I somehow found myself in. Many of the park’s visitors, taking breaks from their strenuous treks, lingered there to soak in the day.

So this morning I took Mom to this favorite place of mine. We ate on the restaurant’s porch. There were wildflowers on each table, and pots of hibiscus flowers hanging around the edges. I got a beer, Mom got a wine. Mom’s wine was in a huge glass that was really the equivalent of two wines. She readily drank it and quickly felt a buzz.

We both ordered filet mignon – Mom’s rare, mine medium rare. In delivering the steaks to our table, the waitress stated to Mom with great confidence, “Here’s your rare filet."  And to me she said, "Here’s your medium rare.” I cut into mine and found that it was bloody and purple. Mom cut into hers and found that it was red. Grinning at the waitress' overconfidence, Mom and I switched entrees. To my surprise, Mom very much enjoyed her purple filet mignon. On the whole, however, I felt that the food was only so-so, confirming a review I had read on the Internet. Great location, fair cuisine.

During the meal we sat lazily, enjoying the tranquility of the place. Several times Mom enthusiastically mentioned that the spot was so peaceful – she could just sit here all afternoon. And so we sat, entertaining each other with idle comments about passers-by. The frenetic runner. The scandalous runner. The father pushing his tired sons to exercise harder. The woman pushing a very tiny baby in a carriage.

After some time, we decided to move along. We walked into the woods, sat down on a bench next to the creek and watched the ducks. Soon the woman with the tiny baby appeared next to us, two other children in tow. While we made small talk with the woman, her little boy went exploring in the bushes along the edge of the creek. We commented about the tiny, tiny baby. The woman started to say that the girl was a preemie, but caught herself, and simply stated that her daughter was just six months old. All of the sudden a frightened yell came from the bushes.  The little boy was stuck somewhere!  The startled mother quickly ran after him, into the brush, carrying the tiny baby in her arms.  Her other little girl followed behind.

Mom and I looked at each other dubiously. The woman would have to carry the infant along the steep, sandy bank and continue to hold her baby while rescuing her son from whatever trouble he had gotten himself into. It just didn’t seem safe.

As if on cue, the woman just then reappeared from the bushes, saying to Mom, “Can you hold my baby for a minute?” Mom, a big, happy grin on her face, did not hesitate, immediately taking the baby into her arms. “Don’t steal her”, the woman admonished as she again ran into the bushes. Moments later she returned with both of the older children safe and sound. She retrieved her baby from Mom, only to see the other daughter run away in yet a different direction. Off the woman went, pleading with her daughter to come back that instant.

The whole day had been great, but by now it was time to go home. We returned to the noisy external world, driving on the hectic Philadelphia roadways, and arrived back at Lima Estates just in time for Mom to go to dinner.


Unpublished work © 2003 Peter McManus