July 21, 2010

Independence Day!

Philadelphia, July 4, 2010 - This was it. The impetus for my trip to Pennsylvania. To spend Independence Day in the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed. The place where America was born.

Anxious to start the day, I emerged from the comfort of the Sheraton at 9:00AM to find that the heatwave had arrived. The sun blazed on high as temperatures flirted with 100 degrees. My first destination was to be the Academy of Natural Sciences and I walked across town with excitement in my step, though I was definitely feeling the pressure of the elements. I grabbed a breakfast-on-the-go and arrived at the museum a half hour too early. I decided to wait in Logan Circle. I sprawled out in the grass beneath a tree and listened to the soothing sounds of the fountain. I watched from the comfort of the shade as a big line formed in front of the museum. Then the doors opened...

Founded in 1812, the Academy of Natural Science is America's oldest natural science research institution. It consists of four floors of interactive exhibits and adventures of discovery. I stood beneath the bones of T-Rex in Dinosaur Hall, strolled among live butterflies in the muggy greenhouse, encountered mysterious and strange leviathans like the colossal squid in the Creatures of the Abyss exhibit, browsed the intricate dioramas that showcased many animals in their native habitats, even got to meet an ancient Egyptian.

With my thirst for natural history quenched, I turned my attention to the Philadelphia attraction that most held my interest: Eastern State Penitentiary! Standing in ruins, this prison from the outside appears like a castle, its wall foreboding, its turrets sinister. The seven crumbling cellblocks spread out like spokes of a concrete umbrella. It was a place designed to inspire penitence and regret in the hearts of criminals.

I stepped through the gates into an eerie world. As I gazed into the many cells, I could only imagine what life must have been like as a prisoner here. The atmosphere was dungeon-like in every respect. Displays of old photographs added to the uneasy feeling that the surroundings conveyed. It is said that Eastern State Penitentiary is haunted and, while I didn't experience any paranormal activity, it is the definitely the right setting for ghostly legends.

Eastern State was also home to some notorious characters, such as Al Capone. His cell still stands as it was at the time of his incarceration and, with the exception of the peeling asbestos, it was nicer than my room at the Sheraton! LOL!

With a wry grin affixed to my face as I considered the irony of my enjoyment of a ruined penitentiary on Independence Day, I decided to make my next location more joyful. I hopped in my car and crossed Benjamin Franklin Bridge to visit Adventure Aquarium.

I ambled slowly around the complex, mesmerized by the beautiful vivid tanks that surrounded me. There were pools for touching stingrays, sharks, starfish, anemones, and even jellyfish. The sharks' skin was very coarse. Anemones are slimy. Jellyfish, quite surprisingly, don't feel like anything at all.

One of my favorite features of the place was the glass tunnel in the shark tank. Surrounded on all sides by water, it gave an up-close-and-personal encounter with these denizens of the deep from their perspective. Amazing! The aquarium was beautiful and a great place to spend an afternoon. :)

As dinner time rolled around, I decided to conduct a taste test and answer for myself a controversial question: whose Philly cheesesteak is the best--Pat's or Geno's? I headed down to the street in south Philadelphia where the two most famous cheesesteak shops in the world stand on opposite corners. The question of which is better is one that has Philadelphia divided, but I can tell you that both places have a line around the block at all times of day. It amazes me that two shops in one location can thrive so well selling one thing. I guess it's a testament to quality.

While there, I learned the proper way to order a cheesesteak. There is a choice of three kinds of cheese (American, Provolone, or Cheese Whiz) and the sandwich can come either with onions or without. For what I wanted, the proper order terminology is "Wiz Wit" meaning that I want a Philly cheesesteak sandwich with Cheese Whiz and onions. I ordered a Wiz Wit from each place and moseyed back to my car to sample both in private. I must say that I preferred Pat's over Geno's, but that did not stop me from eating both sandwiches until I was overstuffed. If you're ever in the area, I suggest you try both for yourself. You won't be disappointed. Mmmm mmm! :)

Twilight soon fell and it was time to get ready for the main event! I changed my clothes and began to walk to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The length of Benjamin Franklin Parkway was roped off and from the Art Museum to City Hall was one huge block party. There were vendors selling food and drinks, impromptu performances everywhere.

Somewhere close to the Art Museum, a main stage was set up and the Goo Goo Dolls were performing a free concert though I was no where near the action. The street was packed with people. Giant screens were set up so people could enjoy the concert from miles away. It was such a lively, celebratory atmosphere. What a blast!

As the Goo Goo Dolls were finishing up their show, I decided to make a dash for the rooftop of the Sheraton to get a bird's eye view of the fireworks. It proved to be the right move as there were about 40 other people up there who had the same idea and the vibe was friendly and fun. Everyone waited with anticipation as silence fell over the city for a brief moment. Then Philadelphia lit up the night! What a great way to spend the 4th of July!!!! :D

"By his light
I walked through darkness."

~Job 29:3