Jul 10, 2017

The start of our new journey

On a Sunday in May, I woke up my girlfriend Cassidy about 6:30 a.m. and told her to get ready. About a week earlier, we had planned a trip for this day, but she had no idea where we were going. I did. I intended it to be a surprise.

We got dressed, grabbed two bagels to eat during the drive and left the apartment about 7 a.m. The trip would take about two-and-a-half hours, and I had to work that evening, so it was necessary for us to leave early.

The journey took us up Interstate 99, Route 350, Interstate 80 and Route 36 for about 130 miles. About every 5 miles, Cassidy attempted to guess where I was taking her. I refused to give her any hints because I wanted the destination to remain secret. That didn't stop her from trying, though. Cassidy tends to have a terrible sense of direction, but she could tell we were headed west, so she threw around a few possibilities.

Clarion? (the location of our first date)

Pittsburgh? (our favorite city in Pennsylvania)

Lake Erie? (we love the lake and its beaches)
I wished, but not there, either.

The only hint I provided was that it was a location neither of us had visited before. With how vast western Pennsylvania is, that left numerous options for Cassidy to ponder. At times, she browsed Google Maps on her phone and scanned the western portion of the state hoping to debunk the mystery. I got frustrated and told her to stop because I didn't want her to spoil the surprise. She consented and decided to enjoy the ride there in the meantime.

Coming up Route 36 -- which would take us to our final destination -- I realized how gorgeous this part of Pennsylvania is. Looking at maps, the area appears desolate. Only a few small towns dot the landscape, including two villages that decided to name themselves "Alaska" and "Nebraska." I'm not sure if I'll ever get the chance to explore these states in my lifetime, but at least I can say I "passed through both of them" on a road trip.

Your alternative options boil down to that town with the groundhog or the other one where oil was first discovered. Don't get too excited.
Route 36 passes through some of the most natural portions left in Pennsylvania, including Cook Forest State Park and the Allegheny National Forest. Parts of this roadway in this section of the state cut through dense forests with huge, towering trees. Locals have taken advantage of the rural beauty by establishing several campgrounds, deer farms, horseback riding trails, miniature amusement parks, resorts and cabins. Cassidy and I were impressed by all the recreation options in such a large swath of remote Pennsylvania. If we weren't pressed for time, we might have stopped at one or two of these places and made a short vacation out of it.

After 130 miles, our journey brought us to our destination: Tionesta, a tiny borough of about 460 residents in Forest County. Cassidy had no idea this place existed until we drove into town. I've lived in Pennsylvania all my life and only found out about Tionesta last year.

Like most small Pa. towns, Tionesta has a charming main street with mom-and-pop shops that sell all sorts of trinkets, a few local eateries and a lodge or two. But we weren't here to see any of that. My reason for driving more than two hours on a work day was a small island just outside of town.

We pulled into a parking lot on the island and exited the car. Cassidy seemed a bit confused why we stopped here. I then pointed out a lighthouse. If you look at the map above, you'll notice Tionesta isn't near an ocean; it borders the Allegheny River, and the lighthouse sits on an island in the river. How many lighthouses have you heard of that are located on a river? In addition, how many lighthouses do you know of that are on a river in Pennsylvania? It's an oddity I wanted to witness for a while, but I had another reason to drive two-and-a-half hours just to see it.

I needed to buy some time first. To my fortune, Lighthouse Island -- where the lighthouse is located (duh) -- features a trail about a mile long that follows the perimeter of the land. I suggested to Cassidy that we should walk the path for a bit and check out the surrounding landscape. She agreed.

Lighthouse Island is "technically" in the middle of the Allegheny River, though the island's east bank is separated by a trickle of water about the size of a small creek. In times of extreme drought, I can imagine this strip of water evaporating and converting the island into a peninsula. Regardless, most of the island is surrounded by the Allegheny, in addition to numerous hills that rise above the river's banks. Cassidy and I have seen hills and rivers plenty of times in central Pennsylvania, but something about this area seemed enchanting. As we walked the path, we stopped a few times to take in the beauty of the scenery.

We started to near the end of the trail on the island's west bank. While strolling around, I noticed two women walking the trail on the opposite side of the island. I wanted to get a decent picture of Cassidy and I in front of the lighthouse, so I needed to stall her while I waited for the women to meet up with us. I started by trying to explain to Cassidy why I'm intrigued by lighthouses. but I was distracted because I kept checking to see how far away the women were.

I was a bit nervous, so my message came out in unorganized pieces, but this is what I had in mind: Lighthouses are built to withstand some of the harshest elements. They are battered by hurricanes, blizzards, and in some cases, lightning (I found out later that this lighthouse was struck by lightning on Aug. 26, 2003). No matter the weather, however, lighthouses are resilient and shine through the darkness. I told Cassidy how a lighthouse serves as an excellent symbol for a relationship. We help guide each other when life seems dark and overwhelming. Cassidy and I have dated for more than four years, so we've encountered our share of misgivings -- job loss, depression, sickness, etc. But when one of us seems to be lost in a sea of misfortune, the other shines a light through the darkness and provides assurance that hope and safety is not far off.

I wish my speech had gone this smooth, but I'm a better writer than an orator, so just pretend I said something along these lines. It seemed as though I had been talking forever waiting for these women to reach us. I was running out of material to work with, and I could tell Cassidy was getting a bit antsy to leave.

At last, the walkers approached us, and I asked if they could take our picture. Both of them seemed opposed to the idea at first, and that annoyed me, because I didn't have a backup plan. I guaranteed them I wasn't expecting a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo -- just a snapshot of the two of us and the lighthouse in the background. One of the women then agreed to do it, and I thanked her about a dozen times. I framed the shot to make sure it would come out fine. I handed over the camera, explained how to set the focus and take the picture.

I walked back over to Cassidy and prepared for the photo. Then I accomplished what I had planned to do for almost a year: I got down on my right knee, pulled out a ring box and asked Cassidy Sherman to marry me -- in front of the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse.

Thank God she said "yes," otherwise this blog post would have been awkward.
When I considered ways to propose to Cassidy, I had the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse at the top of my list. Maybe it seems cheesy to some people: "You just found a place that shared her last name and proposed there." Somewhat true, yes, but Cassidy and I both share a passion for the beach, ocean and coastal attractions, including lighthouses. I googled "Sherman Lighthouse" for this post and found that this is one of the only lighthouses with "Sherman" in its name in the United States, other than Point Sherman Lighthouse in Alaska. That would have been a bit of a haul for a proposal. Two-and-a-half hours seemed like an eternity.

What's special about the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse is the reason it was constructed. The conceptual design of the lighthouse was by J. Jack Sherman, a nearby resident who has a passion for maritime towers -- so much so that he decided to build his own. Sherman appreciated lighthouses so much that, when his lighthouse was commemorated on Sept. 17, 2006, it featured a display of about 280 replica lighthouses, according to a plaque at the site.

He also wanted his family's legacy to be remembered. This quote is written on a nearby plaque: "The lighthouse was built as a beneficial landmark for the Tionesta community and to serve as a place to preserve the heritage of the Sherman family."

Although it's named after the Sherman family, the lighthouse is also meant to signify the importance of family in all of our lives. Another plaque mounted on a rock near the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse says the following:
"Every family has a story. Each is no more or less significant than another. It is our most sincere wish that your visit here will encourage you to seek out your own family's story and to reflect upon the legacy each of us leaves behind. May your family's blessings be many. -- The Sherman Family."
The Sherman Memorial Lighthouse served as the perfect site for our engagement. On that day, Cassidy and I committed to starting our own family, in addition to uniting the Sherman and Yermal families (God help Cassidy's parents). Cassidy and I have now begun to write our own "family story" that will carry on for generations to come. It will be a story with conflict and tribulations at times, but I'm confident it will have many happy, funny and enduring memories, as well. I look forward to every chapter of it.

I can't guarantee it will be on the New York Times Best Sellers list, though.