Surprises Lurk Beneath Humble Exteriors

Bedford Springs Hotel. Photo by Salena Zito. Used with permission by Zito and Creators Syndicate.

        BEDFORD, Pennsylvania -- On most days after work, Brandon Borischak can be found doing one of two things: tinkering with car engines or just cars in general, admitting he is that guy whose house you will breeze by on a country road and wonder why he "has a few of them" on his property.

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        He also spends a great deal of time caring for stray, abandoned or abused dogs at the local Humane Society shelter, where he serves on the board.

        If you ran into Borischak at that shelter or drove past his property as he toiled over rebuilding an engine, you would see a man in his 30s with a long but neatly trimmed beard, with his clothing, mostly fleece, flannel or T-shirts, depending on the weather, carrying either a smudge or two of grease or a lingering lick from a grateful pup.

        In short, Borischak looks exactly like someone an urban writer would assume is a guy who loves animals and likes to tinker with cars but with few ambitions or abilities to be much more.

        Dr. MeeCee Baker warns that books shouldn't be judged by their covers. Those assumptions of Borischak are very much off their mark.

        "As assumptions so often are, people unfamiliar with rural life don't understand we can be up to our boots in manure at the break of dawn and clean up real nice by midmorning to go on to our other job," said Baker, who knows exactly who Borischak is because of his day job as the lead massage therapist at the historic Omni Bedford Springs Resort at the Springs Eternal Spa.

        "Turns out my daughter Libby and I have had Brandon as our massage therapist several times over the years," said the renowned former executive officer in former Gov. Ed Rendell's Department of Agriculture, who now runs her own government affairs firm and is a frequent guest at the resort and spa.

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        Borischak said it was the least likely thing he thought he would be doing 14 years ago when, on a break from his pursuit of a degree in teaching, he started working at the resort, doing just about any job given to him. He served as a valet, bellman and then spa attendant, a position that eventually changed his life.

        "Before coming to the resort, I spent most of my time working on a farm, shoveling manure, or at home, rebuilding engines or transmissions on old beater cars, when a job opened up here. I thought, why not give this a try for the summer before school," he said, standing in the Buchanan Room of the resort, greeting guests who had come to enjoy the Spring into Wellness event at the historic hotel that weekend.

        He said he found that he loved working at the spa and watching the therapists do work that really gave people something to look forward to and made them happy. He dropped his ambition to be a teacher, attended Allegany College, a trade school in Cumberland, Maryland, earned his degree in massage therapy, and continued working here since first walking in the door in 2010.

        He is still tinkering with cars, but he is a tinker with purpose: He rebuilds them for burnout competitions -- car shows that are really fundraisers for the local fire companies.

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        "I usually do colored tires. They are a little more expensive, but the crowd and kids love it, and it helps attract a crowd for them, as well as entertains children and adults," he said of the popular fundraiser common in rural America that gets very competitive as the drivers spin their wheels as they accelerate and as plumes of bright colors fill the county fairgrounds.

        Borischak said he rebuilds all the engines and transmissions and repaints all the vehicles, modestly omitting how important the fundraising is for the local fire department.

        His days, though, are spent at the award-winning luxury spa that has a large, hot whirlpool filled with mineral salts to heal aches and pains, a refreshingly cool mineral plunge, a hot, fragrant eucalyptus steam room, deluge showers and chilled washcloths in which guests indulge before and after one of his massages.

        The Spring into Wellness event was designed to relax and rejuvenate guests. It included hikes, forging, painting, cooking, nutrition, yoga, an afternoon tea and a day at the spa.

        For some, that might sound new age, and it is, but Baker said it is also a throwback to how rural folks have always rejuvenated themselves, just not always at a spa.

        "Now think about this: The spa is offering how to forge, to take a hike, to rethink nutrition, and to take time for a tea in the middle of the day," said Baker, who lives on the same farm with her husband that she grew up on in Juniata County.

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        "I honestly cannot think of a better way to connect with the gifts rural life has lying right in front of us. It is part of why we live a rural life, the sound of the springs, foraging for food, taking time for a hot or cold tea, depending on the season, to regroup," Baker said.

        "I think what Bedford Springs does really well and [what] is often missed is the interplay between the rural people who work there and the people who stay there, and what often happens naturally is we find we all have a lot more in common than our 'betters' seem to think," she said.

        Baker said The New York Times and Washington Post are always trying to write these big think pieces about how think tanks or nonprofit groups try to bridge the divide between rural and urban folks by dropping millions in trust grants or rural-urban divide groups that often fall flat because they are so forced.

        "At the Springs, it comes naturally because no one is trying to recreate the wheel to get people to together. Turns out if you just let people do it themselves, we are fine," she explained.

        Baker, who stays at the historic resort where luminaries such as Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson all the way up to Ronald Reagan stayed before rot and decay from a flood closed it for nearly 20 years, said all the best moments spent here have been at the oversized fire ring, talking to people with all kinds of backgrounds.

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        When she was there for the last Spring into Wellness event, the people sitting at the fire ring well into the night were from all over the place.

        "There was the lawyer from Morgantown, another young couple from Philadelphia, and someone from town, and everyone had really different backgrounds, and yet it may have been one of the richest conversations I've ever had," she explained.

        "I've told this story to people a hundred times over, whether it is the golf pro there or the valet or the chef, what the Springs does well is bring people together that the elites think have nothing in common, and I don't quite know if it is done on purpose, but it certainly has purpose," she explained.

        The anthology of urban literature of the last two decades has been aimed at sorting us from each other and embracing assumptions rather than challenging them, but as Borischak took the lead for the Spring into Wellness event, you got the sense you were all there to be part of a truly American experience in a place that has been here since our country was founded.

        Come Nov. 7, there will be an autumn version of the event led by Borischak called Fall into Wellness. If you've never indulged in Bedford County at the peak of fall foliage, it is worth the visit just for the breathtaking visuals. And if you've never visited the grand old dame, you are missing one of the truly great American hotels. Its very mission and the fact it still stands embraces patriotism and all that is good about our country and the people in a way you have to experience to believe.

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        Twenty years ago, if you had driven off U.S. 30 to catch a sight of Bedford Springs, you would have been stunned to see it almost fading back into the land as time and damage had ravaged it. Were it not for a handful of people, both local without much means and those from hundreds of miles from here with plenty, this special place would have eventually become a memory.

        Like Borischak, surprises lurk behind humble or, in the resort's case, worn exteriors.

        And if you see him along your drive in, don't be too surprised if that guy in the flannels along the highway up to his elbows in engine fluid is the same guy who treats you like royalty at the spa a few hours later.

        Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between. To find out more about Salena and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

Bedford Springs Hotel. Photo by Salena Zito. Used with permission by Zito and Creators Syndicate.

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