Midnight was closing in when we spotted Laurel Echo Farm Vacation Bed and Breakfast snug in the bend of Cross Road. The white, two-story farmhouse was set back a distance, and I could just make out three buildings behind, framing a large yard. The porch had a warm glow from the yellow front light. Our host, Carol Pyle, saw our headlights and ambled out into the yard to greet us. We'd gotten lost on the twisting ribbons of road hugging steep hills in the pitch-black countryside. And now, though we had called, I was feeling a little nervous because we were breaking one of the first "rules" of staying on a farm: Don't keep your hosts up late. She motioned for us to park in the side yard near the house.
As we unloaded our two preschoolers from the back seat, she walked up to the car. The sky was bright with stars and the waxing moon; the southwestern Pennsylvania air crisp and fall-like, full of the smell of cut grass, animals and hay. Carol kindly reassured us not to worry about the time.
I felt her warm, sturdy handshake, and my anxieties over our late departure, the 3]-hour drive, the nearly too-late bathroom breaks, the fights and whines floated into the night.
In the barn, a calf lowed long and loud. "What's that?" asked 2-year-old Julia, raising her head from my shoulder as her sleepy eyes popped open. Carol smiled and said: "That's the baby calf. He thinks it's time for breakfast."
Four-year-old Austin looked up and around from his dad's arms at the endless canopy of stars while we crossed the yard to the porch. The kids watched, delighted, as a cluster of kittens scattered into the bushes.
Carol led us up an ivy-wallpapered stairwell to our rooms on the second floor of this century-old farmhouse. Wishing us good night, she said breakfast would be started once she heard us. I knew that would be long after the day began on the farm.
This is a home that has raised farmers for generations, since Paul Pyle's grandmother married at 16 and moved here, to the house her father gave her as a wedding present. With their four children grown, Carol and Paul now have grandchildren coming to play and ride, and they offer plenty for little ones to do, from calves to feed and kittens to find to toys, books and a shiny swing set in the back yard next to a sweeping old elm that shades Luke, the beagle. Perhaps herein lies the secret of Laurel Echo Farm: The visiting family is welcomed like friends, which is not always the case at the swank crop of B&Bs; that have grown up in recent decades.
Fancy here means doilies with delicate pansies painstakingly crocheted around the edges; lovely quilts, pieced and stitched by Paul and Carol's grandmothers, decorating beds and racks; a hand-crafted lace headboard over the bed in our room. Knickknacks are ribbons won at 4-H fairs, soccer and riding trophies; the marriage certificate of Paul's grandmother decorated with script and roses, from the turn of the century; and the oversized family Bible, held at the binding with heavy tape and filled with newspaper clippings. The stories tell of a family deeply rooted in faith and the land.
Breakfast was served in the eat-in kitchen, and the Pyles, knowing how shy children can be in a new place, quietly ducked out into the living room. Hearty blueberry pancakes, sausage links, hash browns and cereal filled us just fine. My husband, Rob, and I lingered at the table to talk about our plans for the day while the kids checked out a small wagon full of blocks and a whinnying push pony.
We wanted to be back in the late afternoon to help with the chores - seeing animals in person instead of in picture books was the main reason we decided to bring our city kids for a weekend on the farm.
We are not alone. Farm vacations are becoming popular family vacations. Marcy Tudor, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Vacation Association, says the network has grown slowly over its 35-year history from a handful of properties to its current 22. Bookings at her Weatherbury Farm in Avella, Pa., have increased steadily, too - more than doubling in the past four years. Last month, Tudor doubled the number of available guest rooms at Weatherbury Farm to four. People are coming, she says, to exchange the stress of everyday life for a simpler pace.
"I like to say, when I was a child, Grandma lived on the farm," says Tudor, who is 51. "These days, grandmas live in oceanfront condos. This is the only way many people can experience the joys of farm life."
Down to work
After a sightseeing expedition in the nearby countryside, we returned to Laurel Echo Farm to find Misty the palomino saddled and giving one of the Pyles' grandnieces a ride. Paul put two of his grandkids up next, even the 13-month-old, who bounced along on the back of the saddle while his mom walked alongside, balancing him.
Austin and Julia were content to watch from the swing set, though Paul coaxed Austin away from the glider long enough to pet Misty.
Introducing city kids to the farm is something new for Paul and Carol, but they take it on with easy charm. Four years ago, they decided it was time to sell their 50-cattle dairy herd. Now they raise dairy calves. The guests began coming a little more than a year ago to see a way of life that moves at a kinder pace. And while they bring income, they are bringing something more: The world is passing through the tiny crossroads of New Centerville, Pa., and stopping on the doorstep of Carol Pyle's home. She likes this, she said. Always thought it would be interesting. Friends said she would be too tied down, but compared with dairy farming, it's not too bad. You have just one feeding, and then you have the rest of the day to yourself.
We followed Paul around in the old machine shed, which now houses their calves, while Carol put Misty in the pasture. Austin was an eager helper, feeding one of the calves milk from a bottle, shaking out grain into their feed buckets. "Those calves are really eating!" he exclaimed. Julia hung back, little arms akimbo, taking it all in before she sidled up to the baby of the group and petted him between the ears. He nodded and she jumped back, hands covering her mouth, giggling.
We wandered through the old milking barn to take hay to the Hereford bull and the heifers. Next stop, the horse barn to throw some hay in the stalls - and for the kids to play with a tractor and dump truck in a big, soft pile of sawdust. We joined the Pyles for a walk across one of the pastures, high on a ridge with a breathtaking view. Trees and fields spread out around us as far as we could see, as the sun cast long shadows. Julia took off back toward the house, and we followed after her.
It was time to feed ourselves.
Although Carol offered us use of the kitchen in an empty downstairs apartment, we had not brought groceries for dinner. So we took a quick trip up the hill to the Country Cottage Restaurant, which offers a large menu including meat loaf, Salisbury steak, shrimp in a basket, subs and hot sandwiches. The most expensive thing on the menu is a large pizza with the works (pepperoni, sausage, green pepper, mushroom and onions) for $9.95. The case of home-baked pies caught our eye at the door. We saved room and went traditional with apple pie, which was nicely tart with cinnamon and a light pastry crust. The kids had gingerbread cookies. A meal for four was under $20.
After we got back and dressed the kids for bed, we joined the Pyles in the living room and poked through their children's videos, which included "Misty," "National Velvet" and several Disney selections. Carol surprised us with a bowl of popcorn and fruit punch - and nonspill cups for the kids. Later, we headed out into the yard to show the kids the Big Dipper and the North Star, simple things we miss in a city neighborhood where power lines and light poles compete with the night sky.
Bright eyes watched us from the bushes next to the porch. A kitten scampered under the porch swing. We went upstairs and hustled the kids off to bed. As Austin settled in with a floppy horse with worn fur, I noticed how relaxed we all were.
Rob's watch beeped at 5:45 a.m., and he brought Austin in, plopping him on our bed. "Austin, do you want to help Mr. Pyle feed the calves?" His eyes were closed, but his head was nodding. It took just a moment before he was up, dressed and urging Rob to hurry. I started to get dressed.
"Are you coming, too?" Rob asked. I paused. I didn't really put it together till much later that this was "boy's time," as Austin calls it. I smiled and wished them happy trails and settled in by the window. Julia, usually the early riser, slept soundly on a toddler bed.
Fog was rolling through the valley. Two more of their horses, Fancy and Candy, grazed in the pasture behind the horse barn. Candy paused when she heard Paul call out to them. Breakfast was served to a chorus of appreciative whinnies, lows and yelps.
I leafed through the guest book, signed by people from places as far-flung as Finland and Philadelphia. Friends who met halfway at the farm and brought their kids. Families who stayed for a week. A Yugoslav exchange student who stayed most of the year.
Some guests left favorite Bible verses in the margins. Others left comments: "You are welcome to visit when you are in Amsterdam;" "Our boys loved their first exposure to farm life."One rang especially true: "Just like my grandparents' house."
Soon, Austin rushed in. "Mom, did you know one time Daddy and his cousin were at the farm getting apples and a bull chased them up the tree. ..." he began excitedly. I feigned surprise at a story I have heard before, but relished the retelling by my little boy in his first weekend on the farm.
AN IDEAL DAY
5:45 a.m. Get up and head out to help with the morning feeding. (Remind yourself, this is, after all, why you come to a farm.)
7 a.m. Breakfast with the Pyles. While Paul says he and Carol prefer oatmeal, they put out the trimmings for company. Souffle, bacon, bagels, cereal, fruit are delicious - especially since we have already been at work before we are usually awake.
8 a.m. Read the newspaper outside on the back deck while the kids play on the swing set. Play tag in the back yard.
10 a.m. Head west to Fallingwater, one of Frank Lloyd Wright's premier residential projects. Children under 9 stay at an onsite day care facility while parents tour the home.
Noon Eat lunch at the Smokehouse restaurant, preferably on the back deck at one of the umbrella-shaded tables. Slow-cooked pork ribs and chicken are tender, sweet and moist. The kids can snack on fries and a side order of corn. Lunch for less than $20 for four of us. As we leave, the hazy blue smoke and hickory smell trail us down the road.
1:30 p.m. Dessert at ice cream stand at Ohiopyle State Park. Named "Ohiopehhle," or white frothy water, by the Delaware, Iroquois and Shawnee tribes that hunted there, the area is home to a breathtaking waterfall on the Youghiogheny River. An overlook is a great place to enjoy the view of the falls while eating.
2 p.m. Change into bathing suits and take a dip in a roped-off swimming area safely above the falls.
4 p.m. Head back to the farm for evening chores. Kids nap peacefully while we talk.
5 p.m. Feed the calves and other animals with Paul and Carol.
6 p.m. The kids stay at the farm with Paul and Carol for dinner (they do baby sit, and we are talking IDEAL day) while we go to dinner in nearby Somerset at one of several small cafes downtown.
8 p.m. We all settle in for a video and popcorn.
8:30 p.m. Wander out into the yard and watch the expansive sky darken and the stars come out. Have some quiet time to share stories with the kids about the stars and moon.
9:30 p.m. Take the kids upstairs for a story and bed.
10 p.m. Curl up in bed and listen to the cicadas and calves as we drift off to sleep.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: New Centerville, Pa., is about 175 miles northwest of Baltimore and can be reached most quickly by taking Interstate 70 west to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, then taking Exit 10 at Somerset. The Rockwood/New Centerville area is about seven miles south on state Route 281. The turnpike toll was about $2.50.
* For a more scenic route, take I-70 to Interstate 68 west to Grantsville. Pick up U.S. 219 north and follow it to Garrett, Pa. Take state Route 653 through Rockwood to New Centerville. This route winds through forest and farm country and passes within miles of Mount Davis, the highest point in Pennsylvania.
Accommodations: Rates at Laurel Echo Farm Vacation Bed and Breakfast are $40 for single rooms and $45 to $50 for double rooms. Children under 12 stay free. They have a crib, playpen and toddler bed available. The breakfast menu ranges from continental to a hearty farm breakfast and can be served in your room. Other amenities include laundry service and use of a kitchen. No smoking indoors or alcoholic beverages.
* If you are a horse owner, you may bring and board horses for $5 a night each if you bring your own feed. Miles of scenic riding trails fan out from Laurel Echo Farm. For information, call 888-655-5335 or 814-926-2760, or visit the farm's Web site at www .bbonline.com/pa/echofarm.
Nearby: The area offers a range of activities, from historic sites to skiing, rafting and shopping.
* Several outfitters in Ohiopyle offer white-water rafting trips, including: Laurel Highlands River Tours, daily March-October, 724-329-8531; and Mountain Streams and Trails Outfitters, daily, April-October, 800-723-8669.
* Visit Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, two of Frank Lloyd Wright's residential design masterpieces. Admission ranges from $8 to $12 per person, depending on day of the week. Call ahead for reservations for tours for adults and children. Little ones under 9 stay at a care facility that offers indoor and outdoor play.
* Bear Run Nature Reserve is a 4,000-acre reserve with more than 20 miles of trails that include a variety of plant and animal habitats and a dramatic view of the Youghiogheny River gorge, as well as of Bear Run and Laurel Run. Hiking, cross-country skiing and camping. 724-329-8501.
* Somerset Historical Center, about four miles north of the Pennsylvania Turnpike on state Route 601, charts the area's settlement and development. A re-created farmstead, smokehouse, barn and maple sugar camp are among the displays. Demonstrations, mountain craft days and educational programs teach visitors about life in the Allegheny Mountains. Open May through October. Admission ranges from $1.50 to $3.50, depending on age. 814-445-6077.
Information: The Pennsylvania Farm Vacation Association is a resource for finding other farms in the state that take in guests. You can find the group, which has 21 members, and see listings for properties on the Internet at www.pafarmstay.com or by calling the association president, Marcy Tudor of Weatherbury Farm, at 724-587-3763.
* To order a 228-page visitors' guide to Pennsylvania with maps and a calendar of events, call 800-VISIT-PA. Information about the Laurel Highlands is available on the Internet at www.laurelhighlands.org. Call the Laurel Highlands visitors bureau at 724-238-5661.
Pub Date: 9/06/98