The Morning Call (Sunday)

Rediscover­ing the Lehigh Valley for the holidays

- Don Cunningham

The “Groundhog Day” quality of pandemic life that makes one day familiar to another returned to the Lehigh Valley with the cold weather.

It came just in time to create a new set of holiday challenges.

Gone, and quickly forgotten, was the exhausting schedule of holiday parties, work dinners and family gatherings. That was replaced with a new set of challenges, such as telling grandpa there’s no family gathering this year because we don’t want to be responsibl­e for killing him, and what to do with a week off between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Humans adapt our complaints quickly. We are quite nimble this way.

Last year’s “The holidays are exhausting” became this year’s “What are we supposed to do?”

With restaurant­s closed and both inside and outside gatherings restricted and unwise with another surge of the coronaviru­s pandemic, exchanges with my friends went like this:

“What are you doing for New Year’s Eve?”

“What do you mean? The same thing I do every day, try to hold off on the start of drinking until 7 or 8 p.m., watch TV and then fall asleep.”

My wife has no such struggles.

She drinks very little but is what they call a binge-watcher of television shows.

Free time is TV time. Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Showtime, Amazon Prime and Apple TV. We have them all.

Who knew there were five seasons of “Ally McBeal” and seemingly 6,000 episodes of “NCIS” from numerous cities with different casts? There’s no way in real life there can be this much crime to solve in the United States Navy.

My challenge is I can’t sit still for more than about an hour.

Fortunatel­y, I live in the Lehigh Valley, have the ability to walk and love history, cities and nature.

One of the least recognized aspects of the Lehigh Valley’s quality of life is the system of walking trails that weaves through the region and showcases its authentic mix of cities and towns, natural environmen­ts, rivers, streams and canals and three centuries of history.

It’s all free and pandemic safe. Many of the trails were built to replace former railroads, so they pass through industrial areas, natural environmen­ts, alongside bodies of water and connect boroughs and cities. Most of them are part of the larger Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, which preserves and interprets the 165-mile transporta­tion corridor that fueled America’s industrial revolution with the Lehigh Valley as its centerpiec­e.

Both Lehigh and Northampto­n counties and the 62 distinct municipali­ties of the Lehigh Valley have shown great vision in working with state and federal leaders to develop these trails.

The attractive­ness of the Lehigh Valley today, which is vital to our economic renaissanc­e and continued success, is built on the foundation of

past economic success and the recognitio­n that quality of life keeps people and companies living and coming here.

While struggling through the temporary closure of the region’s wonderful restaurant­s, performing arts venues and tourism destinatio­ns, these trails remain open and important.

This holiday season I strapped on gloves, a knit hat and jackets and revisited my favorites and discovered some new ones.

I walked for the first time the Karl Stirner Arts Trail in Easton that runs for about 2 miles along Bushkill Creek from the magnificen­tly renovated Simon Silk Mill on 13th Street to the Delaware River. The trail is extraordin­ary, lined throughout with public art tastefully placed in a natural setting.

Long on my bucket list, I finally got to Hellertown to walk the Saucon Rail Trail, a 7.5-mile converted railroad track in Lower and Upper Saucon townships and Hellertown Borough.

My 24-year-old son Brendan, forced out of Brooklyn and back into his old man’s house in Bethlehem by the pandemic, joined me on many of the walks. In Hellertown, we were fortunate enough to walk into a low-lying fog as we approached the 18th Century Heller-Wagner Grist Mill on Walnut Street. The fog over the adjoining pond was as spectacula­r a sight as

I’ve seen.

Once again, I hit my old favorite, the Ironton Rail Trail in Whitehall and Coplay, and marveled as always at the Coplay Cement Kilns, which helped launch the nation’s portland cement industry here in the 18th century. The kilns are as striking an industrial relic as Bethlehem’s preserved blast furnaces, whose best viewing point is from walking the Lehigh Canal towpath through the Christmas City.

I returned to the great short loop walking trails of Trexler Park in Allentown and Northampto­n County’s Louise Moore Park in Palmer Township, both wonderfull­y maintained. For a natural experience that required boots in the snow, I got back on my favorite, Bethlehem’s Monocacy Way, which runs along the Monocacy Creek and connects Illick’s Mill (built in 1856) to the Historic Bethlehem Colonial Industrial Quarter of the 1700s, where America’s first municipal water system was developed.

My aching, 55-year-old knees no longer allow me to run these trails.

This year for Christmas I bought myself a new knee brace and some modern ice packs.

As long as my legs carry me, despite pandemics and quarantine, I’ll always have something to do and explore in the Lehigh Valley.

That said, I am hoping to get the grandparen­ts in from Florida and the family gathered for a Christmas celebratio­n, at least by July.

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