The Weekend Swarm

The prospect of being in the “empty nest” has had a certain appeal to Deb: no more fighting to use our car, fewer grocery trips, a generally neater house, etc. The notion of our first weekend without kids, though, held no appeal.

When she figured out one of her many crafts groups was gathering for their annual Swarm, it sounded like a great opportunity not to face an empty home. She decided we should celebrate our first weekend as empty nesters by going away, just the two of us – and two dozen other people.

The Swarm is a gaggle of quilters from around the country, usually descending on an unsuspecting locale, tied to an event such as a quilt show. Deb participated in one Swarm years ago, when it was in Connecticut and she could minimize being away from the family. This time, we were heading to Lancaster, PA where a huge quilt show was going to be. There were to be some 20+ women and 8 spouses. Deb assured me we’d have time together, that I’d enjoy doing “guy” things and that I’d have time for myself.

We left New York City on Thursday afternoon, skirting rush hour and zipping south with remarkable progress. There were delays for construction and congestion here and there once we made into Pennsylvania, but we got to the Lodge in under three hours. In fact, the gaggle had planned dinner for 6:30 and as we strolled in moments before 7, the appetizers were just being brought out and conveniently, two seats were available for us.

The people have come from all over: Massachusetts, Texas, Ohio, Louisiana, Virginia, etc. We were definitely at the young end of the scale but Deb was thrilled to see people she hadn’t seen in a while and meet others who had been just names on various e-mail groups.

The Lodge we were in was remarkably, something like 5 miles from where we stayed last summer, in Intercourse, and therefore all the landmarks were familiar. We were in one of the cottages that the married couples used. Single women were housed in a giant building that offered a large common room and kitchen set up, which became home base.

After the plain but filling (and cheap) dinner, the women gathered in the great room. I helped carry in a six-foot table we brought, got it set up so they had a work surface for their work and then followed the lead of the other men, and went back to my room. I spent the remainder of the night watching the Phillies-Marlins game and reading.

Friday morning was relaxed. Once we were up, we headed out in search for breakfast, clearly having turned right when we should have turned left. Finding nothing, we returned to the great room for coffee and Danish, not healthy but filling. By 9, several of the women had loaded up cars and headed out. Deb took the minivan with the last of the attendees and went to join them.

That left me with five of the other guys. Our plan was to head over to the Strasberg Railroad, which we did but no one managed to figure out the hours in advance. As a result, we wound up there 40 minutes before it opened. So, we strolled across the street to the Pennsylvania Rail Museum, paid our admission and wandered in. The place is huge, considering it was holding numerous train cars on six tracks along with walkways, displays, etc. And it’s expanding as construction worked all along the front of the building.

The museum displays do a nice job giving you the history of the train engines, their connection to Pennsylvania and individual notes about the specific rail cars. They certainly knew how to build things to last back in the day. Many of the engines were built throughout the nineteenth century but weren’t retired until well past the mi-twentieth century. Also, many of these cars had been refurbished and restored for the 1939 World’s Fair so keeping them neat and working didn’t seem to be a problem.

We visited for a while but headed back in time for the noon tour. Our guide did a good job mixing in history as well as detailing what each part of the work shop does. I felt as if I was dropping into yet another world with its own set of inhabitants and customs. It appears that this facility does a lot of custom repair and fabrication work for private individuals and other rail museums around the country. The tools were huge and heavy, the nuts and bolts the size of screwdrivers. He was honest about what was restored and what was augmented with modern steel as opposed to wood.

The 45 minute tour was running long but we had to abandon it to make the 1 p.m. train ride. It’s a 9 mile round trip back and forth on this one spur line, but it means riding in nineteenth-styled cars with a real steam engine and being taken through Amish farm land. Very tranquil and pleasant. We had just enough time to stop and buy box lunches and overpriced water bottles so dined with pleasure.

After the ride we decided to head back to the Museum and finish our visit. There was certainly plenty to see in addition to a few video loops on aspects of the trains’ impact on society plus a simulator to see what it was like to be a train engineer.

By 3 or so, we were done and tired so headed back to the room. I read and wrote and Deb returned, sated from her quilt show visiting but ready for fabric shopping Saturday.

Two of the women were running late returning from the show and by the time they returned we would have not been able to eat at the selected buffet restaurant before it closed so we wound up at Plain & Fancy, a family-style buffet that Deb and I had enjoyed last summer. Fortunately, every one this summer enjoyed it, too.

That night the women had the pleasure of accepting door prizes that one had collected from manufacturers and retailers. Some of the women were not there that night, so I was collecting things on behalf of Gigi, which led to a weekend-long new nickname. Afterwards came the show and tell while Howard and I held up the larger pieces for the oohing and aahing. Some very impressive craftsmanship was on display.

Saturday, we were up and moving early. Deb and I decided to try the diner a quarter-mile up the road a-piece. The fresh food was pretty tasty. Once everyone was awake enough, we reviewed the plans, confirmed the sun meant the barbecue for dinner was on and then lined up to fill cars to begin swarming through the vicinity.

Our first, and furthest stop, was way out of the way to a large, clean, and well-stocked fabric shop. I found another piece for Deb’s baseball stash, which will some day become a quilt for me. Meantime, she found plenty of stuff from her shopping list, enabling her to complete projects.

At the second stop, smaller, more cramped and feeling kind of old, there was a wide variety of bulk foods for sale. Finally, something I could shop for. While I doubt I needed 3-pound bags of pineapple gelatin, I did find some spices, dried fruits, treats, nuts and the like at very reasonable prices.

Our group leaders, Karen and Bill, then directed us to a fabulous 50’s style diner in the area. I wandered in first and the hostess asked if I was 2 and said, no, 13. Her eyes bulged. As she was setting up, I corrected it to 15 but by then she was cheerfully into the swing of things. The food was quite good and everyone had a good time.

Some women had stayed behind to sew, others headed first back to the quilt show and others quietly returned home, having exhausted their disposable income. As a result, our numbers rose and fell throughout the day at each stop which gave it a lively feel.

Our final stop was back in Intercourse, which I knew well from last summer. As Deb and the women wandered their shops, John and I checked out the Intercourse Pretzel Factory and a cannery. I have now made sure our larder at home is stocked with goodies for just us adults.

After dropping our passengers off, Deb and I quickly checked out a local farmer’s market but since it was minutes before closing, they were pretty well picked over. We got some peaches and headed back to the lodge. By then, three grills were up and running with burgers, chicken and sausage already cooking. We gathered tables, chairs and other necessities and fairly quickly, we all convened for a pleasant evening of food and conversation.

As it got dark, we policed the area and settled back into the lodge’s great room, where a few final door prizes were handed out and more conversation ensured.

Sunday morning it was time to pack and get ready to roll. We were up ahead of the alarm and decided to help eat the massive amounts of food still left (everyone seemed to buy, bake or bring wonderful stuff) for breakfast. As the room reached critical mass, Karen tried to get everyone focused on next year’s event. Sounds like it’ll be a sewing-intensive retreat in Texas so this one will be just for the women. Given the heavy concentration of members in the New England area, there is a possibility I’ll be brought along for a mini-swarm when a member makes it here from Australia.

We packed the car, said our goodbyes and were on the road earlier than expected. Our drive was pleasant and uneventful until we reached Stamford. A quick trip to J. Jill for Deb to take advantage of a sale and then home. We reached the house around 3, unpacked, petted the dogs, sorted newspapers and mail, checked phone message and three days’ worth of e-mail and so on. By 5:30 we were tired and worn from a busy but happy weekend, so it was one final trip out for some food and then settled in for the evening with some television, some food and some peace and quiet.