You know that feeling of discovering something for the first time, even though it's been around you for your entire life?
Well, that pretty much describes what the past few weeks or so have been for me since I moved back to Happy Valley in early August after living in Indiana (the state, not the town) for the last four years.
I grew up in the area, attending Bald Eagle Area High School. But I essentially grew up on the Penn State University Park campus, going to football games ever since I can remember and knowing the full layout of the campus since I was about 12.
But I had never hiked Mount Nittany. Before I moved to Indiana, I had planned to do this with the girl I was dating at the time, but that fell through — the hike, and the relationship — so the void was still there.
A few weeks ago, I scratch this item off my Happy Valley to-do list when my brother, Mark, and his wife, Heather, visit the weekend before Memorial Day.
My brother and sister-in-law are the energetic couple everyone has in their social circle: They seem to fit 36 hours' worth of activities into every day without ever becoming tired.
Me? I'm content to lay around and watch television on a Sunday afternoon. But them? They're happier scaling part of a 2,000-foot mountain.
I want to be a good host, so I meet them, along with our mom, Kim, en route and we park at the base before eyeing the different routes; there are four from which to choose. The shortest trail comes in at a 1.4-mile round-trip. That's the one I want to do. Everyone agrees but halfway through, or at some point, I become lost after about 15 seconds so I have no idea, Mark and Heather realize we missed a sign or went the wrong direction. Either way, we're now on another route; this one measuring about 2.1 miles round-trip.
At first, I wish we hadn't veered off course but I'm working up a good sweat and I'm outside spending time with my brother who I don't get to see all that often, so life still isn't all that bad.
Still, he and Heather are now so far ahead of me, I don't always seem them. I began to feel winded, and comfortably estimate that Mark and Heather are 30 to 40 yards ahead of me, if not more. I run regularly, logging as many as six, seven or eight miles at a time, but I keep falling behind. Before long, I begin to think maybe the next time I see my brother and sister-in-law will be when they're making their way back down.
My mom, who is about 20 yards behind me, tells me innocently that I don't have to wait for her, that I can quicken my pace. That's when I inform her, with hands on hips, that I'm not waiting for her. I just can't keep up with Mark and Heather.
Maybe I should have nodded in agreement, a non-verbal white lie that I was purposely losing ground, but I don't want to chance karma by lying to my mom. So instead, I swallow my pride, rest a few seconds and continue the upward journey over the rock-covered terrain that continually becomes more and more steep.
Every few minutes, we pass a group on its way down and my mom asks if we're close to the top, perhaps believing that we're on a never-ending trek. But each time, we're assured we're getting closer.
Finally, after about a half-hour, the four of us reach the top and walk about a hundred yards to the lookout point, which gives way to a view of Happy Valley that is so spectacularly gorgeous and beautiful that I immediately feel a little embarrassed and ashamed that I hadn't experienced this sight before.
College Avenue cuts through the bottom of the view, leading into downtown. We also see Beaver Stadium, with the Bryce Jordan Center to the left and Medlar Field at Lubrano Park in front. The baseball stadium lights, which on game night seem to reach the sky, now seem to barely stand above the ground.
The surrounding area, all so familiar, also is visible: Tailgating lots, campus buildings and the winding, criss-crossing interstate all sit next to one another.
Then something unexpected transpires, something I doubt I forget for the rest of my life. A group, which includes a young boy and girl, join us on the overlook, which is overrun with stones and tree branches and stumps creating unofficial paths.
"I see Penn State!" the young girl screams, extending her arm and pointing her finger toward the horizon. The euphoria is loud and excitement-filled, the kind of outburst that's rarely seen in everyday life that all too often seems mundane and predictable.
But that's the type of joy that Penn State continually provides, no matter what may happen to alter the perception of a university that for so long has and continues to be a worldwide leader in so many areas.
After earning my Master's degree from Indiana University and working in the southern part of the state for three years, I gained a new perspective after previously spending my entire life in Centre County. As I told someone within a week or two of moving back home, it wasn't that I didn't know how special of a place Happy Valley is before I left, but being removed from the area for four years allowed me to appreciate Penn State and State College on an entirely new level.
It's good to be back.
John Patishnock is a correspondent and Centre County native. His stories on how he's re-connecting to the area will be showcased in "Re-discovering Happy Valley," a column that will run every other week in the Centre County Gazette.