The way to get to The H. K. Inn had no sign, but my grandfather knew how to find it. Born and raised in Sullivan County, he and my grandmother returned to this densely forested, untouched region of northern Pennsylvania for their retirement. If you didn’t just “summer over” there, people really knew you. They knew who you were related to, what you did for work and pleasure, what you had to trade in your vegetable garden, the name of your dog and the name of the dogs you had before this dog. Of the handful of public businesses like stores and restaurants within thirty miles of my grandparents’ cabin, The H. K. Inn was a local treasure.
To get there, my grandfather would take a sudden, sharp turn from one of the few paved roads in the area and follow a bumpy, two lane, dirt road. Every spring, native plants growing between the two tire lanes brushed against the car’s underbelly. That swishing sound was gone by July, the once plump stems and supple stalks fed by early season rains and cool breezes wilted flat by midsummer sun. Along the way, black shapes of hunting trailers tucked deep into trees and a clattery plank bridge arching a tributary of The Loyalsock Creek.
Open car windows on dry evenings meant we could hear the water galloping underneath the bridge. My grandfather, a career school principal who could never resist a teaching moment, would remind me that swift-moving, northern creeks were all heading south to The Mississippi Delta to eventually mix with salt water. I was skeptical. How could this water make it that far? But I didn’t challenge him. I didn’t feel like a long-winded geography lesson. I just wanted to get to our destination.
Finally, when we got close enough to actually see the Inn, an arrow-shaped sign tacked to tree bark pointing toward a potholed parking lot littered with cigarette butts and beer can pull tabs shining like silver fingernails in the leaving light of another day. The sign’s hand printed letters slanted downhill like a ski slope: Turn Left for The H. K. Inn. Here, my grandfather made us laugh, “Looks like it must be this way, folks.”
The H. K. Inn was nothing, and it was everything. It wasn’t even an inn, unless you counted the fact that the owners let deer hunters crash there for cheap in the off season. A long, white-sided, one story building with a deep, plank porch like a rocking-chair porch a house might have, but the building didn’t look like it had ever been a house. It looked like it had always been a bar with its rusted screen door, the always-wide-open front door and the crooked stacks of kicked metal kegs.
Every window displayed a different, lighted beer sign – assurance that I would eventually get out of the mountains and that civilization would still exist when I did. Vibrant, neon colors. A Kelly green Rolling Rock bottle. A turquoise ribbon framing red letters: “Pabst.” The golden lettering of the Budweiser sign winking “On Draft” to forest animals prowling the night.
Inside, more beer signs on the walls washed the pale tile floors and beige topped tables in the gem colors of stained glass church windows. We had stepped inside a kaleidoscope. The back wall was all bar and mostly men standing in hip waters, roaring laughter like grizzly bears, swilling foamy glasses of whatever was still left on tap. The air inside smelled of fresh caught fish, sweat and cigarette smoke. As a middle-schooler, I’d breathe in the acrid cigarette smoke and hold my breath, waiting for it to do something magical to me like make me grow up faster.
My grandfather, father, two brothers and I always sat at the largest table – a round table with a sticky, plastic tablecloth decorated with pictures of various grandfather clocks all striking either high noon or midnight. The wife of the owner who waited the tables was the spitting image of Phyliss Diller. She wore sweatshirts with sequined cats, chewed cinnamon gun, smiled and nodded a lot. That was about all she could do. Though my tenure at the H. K. Inn spanned the 1970’s, the jukebox near our table blared hit songs quick sanded in the 1960s: I Heard it Through the Grapevine, Build Me Up Buttercup, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Runaround Sue.
We savored frozen pizza with the cheese burned shiny brown on top while men and women played pool on the far side of the room, hooted and hollered through games of darts, kissed, arms draped around shoulders. Here and there, an ivory cleavage bathed in the neon rainbow, a palm hesitating on a bejeaned butt.
My father let me steal sips of his Miller High Life. The taste, bitter at first, turned irresistible. Inevitably, people would arrive who knew my grandfather. They would wave and mouth a greeting. We’d all wave back. No one cared if I was a little kid sitting inside a real bar. I fell in sync with the heart of The H. K. Inn and drummed dreamily along.