It’s very easy to become cynical about cows.
To be be fair, after almost six hours spent traveling from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan to the hills of central Pennsylvania, it’s difficult for anything to retain its novelty — even if the closest you’ve ever come to a real bovine is the quarter-pounder at the Times Square McDonald’s.
That was the point of this little excursion though, the third wave of Big Apple-based preteen city slickers to descend upon towns like State College, Mifflintown and Belleville courtesy of the Fresh Air Fund, a volunteer program that matches hosts with children looking to infuse their summer with a smidgen of rural charm.
Mary Henry, a fund representative with Fresh Air, was pulling double-duty as one of the adult chaperones on the bus — you know, in case confining 14 kids to an enclosed space for six hours somehow became problematic — and gauged the various reactions of her charges as towering urban landscapes gave way to rolling farmlands.
Fresh Air veterans were easily distinguished from newbies by the occasional cow sighting, which elicited gasps of excitement from a few, while their more country-savvy counterparts probably would have preferred something garnished between two buns with lettuce and tomato.
For these kids, the annual trip to central Pennsylvania is like visiting distant relatives, familiar faces with a connection that lasts beyond the summer.
“It’s a relationship they just seem to build on each year,” Henry said.
Amber Ramirez is in the middle of her fourth annual summer visit with the Renno family in Belleville. At 11 years old, Amber is the same age as the couple’s eldest daughter, Chloe, and the two of them spent the majority of Monday evening’s Fresh Air Fund pool party splashing around the water and whispering in each others’ ear.
The party was hosted by the Burnham Lions Club, which has supported the Fresh Air Fund since the early ’70s, first with money for phone calls and stamps and most recently with hot dogs and an extensive selection of beverages.
Gwen Renno, Chloe’s mother, sat at a picnic table facing the pool with some of the other hosts. She became involved with the Fresh Air program to share her family with others, and four years later, Amber’s impending arrival has become a highly anticipated summer staple.
“Our kids are very, very excited to see her,” Renno said.
The days with their resident city mouse are spent husking corn, building campfires and catching fireflies — activities that are generally hard to come by in a Manhattan apartment building.
Another rarity? Silence.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily quiet in our house, but she does,” Renno said.
Honking horns, chirping crickets — it’s all relative — but Amber enjoys her respite from the hustle and bustle of New York City and is planning on making the most of her 10-day residence at the world’s cheapest bed and breakfast.
That includes basking in the local hospitality.
“Here everyone is nice and friendly,” Amber said.