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Don Cunningham: The Groundhog Day Quality of Pandemic Life

By Colin McEvoy on January 7, 2021

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on January 7, 2021. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

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 pm, 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.

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 waters 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.

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 two miles along the Bushkill Creek from the magnificently renovated Simone Silk Mill on 13th St. 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 St. The fog over the adjoining pond was as spectacular of 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 of 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 Moravian Colonial Industrial Quarters 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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