I looked at the schedule on my phone. The bus that would have taken me to Woodford Mansion, a historic home in the city’s vast Fairmount Park, had come and gone. The next one wasn’t far behind, but it would drop me off just 15 minutes before the house closed at 4 p.m. Provided I could find the stop.
I called the mansion to see whether I could slip in for the last tour if I succeeded. The woman who answered said that I’d really need about 45 minutes for a proper visit.
If this was a sign of things to come, how was I going to tour Philadelphia entirely by public transportation?
I’m a big fan of short road trips. No exorbitant airfares, no relying on someone else’s schedule. Just get in the car and go. These days, though, nobody wants to pay $4 a gallon for gas. So I’d challenged myself to visit a major tourist city and get around only by public means.
This should have been a snap. After all, I’m a mass-transit junkie. My belief in getting around the way the locals do has put me on trolleys in San Francisco, buses in Chicago, commuter rail in Connecticut and subways in New York.
So I had high hopes for my ability to navigate on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, Philadelphia’s public transit system. Before leaving Washington, I gave the system map, a hodge-podge of subways, regional rail, trolleys and buses, just a cursory once-over. I had a list of places to see, and SEPTA seemed so comprehensive, I figured that no matter where I wanted to go, I’d have no problem getting there.
Things started off fine. I snagged a round-trip ticket on Megabus for $30, half as much as I’d recently paid to fill up my 1997 Mercury Sable, and we left Washington only about 10 minutes late.
The problem began at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Since we were on time, I decided to catch a local bus out to Valley Forge, about 25 miles from downtown. But first I needed lunch. It just happened to be free-cone day at Ben & Jerry’s, so I queued up at the train station kiosk.
I wasn’t too concerned when I saw that I’d missed the 1:42 p.m. bus to Valley Forge. There was another one in half an hour, and the visitor center at the park didn’t close until 5. I figured that even after an hour-long bus ride, I’d still have almost two hours there, plus time to wander the grounds, which stayed open until dark.
But then, sitting at the bus stop, I started to scour the schedule. Oops. The last bus from Valley Forge left at 4:50 p.m., meaning that I’d have less than two hours to see everything. And the thought of hauling around my heavy backpack while touring was beginning to weigh me down as much as that ice cream cone I’d just consumed.