Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Cooper Two and the Ghost Town Blues

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”
- John Muir

Peale, Pennsylvania

Corn::rows. Corn::rows. Corn::rows. Corn::rows. Picturesque view. Trees; rocks. Trees; rocks. Trees; rocks. Fields. Woods. Rolling hills. Picturesque view. 

There are a lot of great dirt roads to creep along on in my hometown vicinity. By that I don’t mean being a creeper in the creepy sense but rather a creeper in the Jeepy sense. Priscilla is my Jeep’s name, she’s a Patriot and she named herself. She’s been good to me so far, I try my best to be good to her. She’s white like a queen’s horse and basic like a bitch. She’s a 5-speed, she’s durable and she loves taking it slow. Dirt roads are the best, change my mind. There are quite a few to choose from around here. I usually do a Turkey Street scoot every day after getting the mail, a loop around Drain Lick perhaps. A short journey out to Sylvan Grove at times, there are some great trees out there. That’s all on Drifting side. There are several local haunts of interest for the slow traveler. When the boys fall asleep after I drop Celie off at school I just drive around back roads and let them sleep awhile lest I wake them up taking them inside. Sometimes I cut across Pearce Hollow. It’s cathartic and metaphoric, taking it slow. I get to gather my thoughts between the onslaught of noises and responsibilities that has become my life. I get “alone” time. Plus, I get one on one time. Me and Bob Dylan. Me and Tom Petty. Me and [Insert Artist Here]. Me and Podcasters. Me and the closest I can come to a near silence, filled only with the creaks of Priscilla’s bones and a slow, looped roll of rubber over dirt. Our din mimicking the antiquated sounds of a wobbly suspension on a carriage over dusty road, my white mare pulling me through the trees. There’s something wonderful about Jeep rides; not being covered in kids, listening to their cries or screams, a brief sliver of time without demands when they are restrained and harnessed and I am at the reins. I’m basically Aunt Bethany from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: “I love riding in cars!” I like it when I’m driving, anyway. Or when someone I trust is behind the wheel, then it’s a good time. I’ve been on a few hell rides in my life, though. Luckily, I’ve been on some terrific treks as well.  

All of October I drove around taking in the foliage. Daily, I would witness these trees changing before my eyes. It seems to happen so slowly until one day you realize you are looking at the skeletal limbs and trunk of an empty tree you had just watched go through a brilliant display of transition. Full of leaves and color, a moving portrait and then bam—a few wind storms and some rain, a little drop in temperature, and they are gone. Lost forever, fallen to rot at the tree’s base, becoming nutrients for the next season’s show. It’s a cool thing to witness and I am glad to live where we get a good view of the seasonal changes but it can make you sad. It's kind of tragically heartbreaking. Imagine if you didn't know whether or not spring would come. Do you think the trees know their leaves will return? It's hard to keep in mind that the sun will swing back when it starts to move away and leaves us in darkness. The transition of fall into winter can be a hard symbol for that. The cold sets in and you can feel it in your bones.

I used to let my friend Leslie drive me around while I wrote. She’d take the wheel of my Dodge Caliber and we’d go on an adventure through the trees, into the woods, or sometimes elsewhere. She epically drove me all the way to Memphis, Tennessee for my 35th birthday. She also drove me down into Kato, once, and until then I had never been. Kato is a ghost town in her neck of the woods, accessed through Snow Shoe. It also happens to be where my paternal Pap hails from. It’s literally “a town that no longer exists”; it’s just roads through trees and some big rocks and a bridge, I believe. On August 29, 2013 Leslie and I drove to multiple locations as my daughter napped in the back seat, similar to what I do alone now with the boys napping in the back of the Jeep. I, with my trusted red-at-the-time Life Liver's Log spiral notebook in hand (to represent the Muladhara chakra, no less) wrote a song of sorts that day, still a fetus, each verse, a stop on our travels. As simple of a thing as that was, those were some of the best times I’ve had. All I ever really needed was a witness. Leslie came around a lot right at a time when I needed it the most. The years we spent together as friends will always be some of my fondest and even though they were some of my hardest, they were also some of my most "veil-lifting" times. I was writing a lot of odes and sonnets at the time. Manically writing; wound up as my base state, I could unwind and decompress on our car rides. The trees would help ground me. We were just two air signs looking for some earth. We could bullshit somewhat as well while I wrote because I am apt to and adept at dividing focus and Leslie was someone that I felt comfortable with and trusted because she was as equally forthcoming with me as I was with her. For some reason we spoke to each other, mirrored each other...understood each other? Leslie accepted me as me, whoever that was. She also put up with a shit ton of pressured speeches from me. I am grateful for her ability to witness me and for her tolerance of my soliloquies  and lectures which would take place in between the writing. She knew that I often spoke the truth so she took it even when it hurt. She was truly Rock Star about not just simply kicking my ass, though, because she could have, but she loved me and I loved her. Abrasion often rides shotgun with Truth. It polishes by rubbing and it’s often the wrong way. I was just trying to help her out, but the truth is I wasn’t always right. Sometimes I was just mad. She also once told me that I was self-centered. She wasn’t wrong; I was in the midst of an extended episode at the time. I tend to get grandiose. I also am highly distractible and can frustrate people if they need or want my undivided attention. I’ve used her comment for self-reflection ever since, because it hurt, as quipped truths often do. I have since apologized for my abrasive bluntness, or being a bitch, or what have you, and I am grateful that I did have that opportunity. She, in turn, has handed me a few hard, grinding truths as well. Leslie was a real gem, a Dusty Diamond, to be exact. She was a muse. She was a friend. We shared a true kinship. People like that are extremely rare and precious, like jewels in the junkyard of life. This I know to be true, especially when you have trust issues. Diamonds in the rough are a little dusty but shiny and priceless when given a polish. I considered her to be in my innermost circle of trust, which, at the time, only really included my husband. I told her things that I have told no other human or animal. I think it was a divine symbiosis, a mutual decompression. She, likewise, shared a lot of her secrets with me. Our companionship was just what each of us needed at the time. It was also one of the best gifts that she ever gave me and I am grateful for that. She made a real difference in my life. 

Heading back from the dust to the dirt, it’s a privilege to have so many dirt roads to take it slow and decompress on. Grassflat and Drifting are almost like sister villages, nestled on the mountaintop. I spent a bit of time there as a kid. My brother and I would ride with my father through Cooper Two to get there; it’s a dirt road that connects them named after the old Cooper Two coal mine. I’ve traveled this road many times in my youth but not as often as of late. These past months I’ve expanded the stretch of my local drives. I found Cooper Two surreally different because I always, for some reason, expect my childhood  ride home. That Cooper Two is long gone. So is that Grassflat and that Drifting for that matter. Last month during my foliage rides I moseyed out to Peale, which is connected to Grassflat but it also, in a haunting way, no longer exists. Oddly enough, Peale is the ghost town from my neck of the woods, like the mountaintop Kato. I hadn’t been down to Peale since April of this year, when I was still pregnant with Otis. People go to Peale for many reasons, mostly recreational now. The Red Mo race launches from there, of course. Four wheelers have access to Gorton through the tunnel and out to the Viaduct bridge through Peale. I used to ride out on 4 wheelers with my brother when we were kids looking for old bottles on the hillsides, pulling them out from underneath the layers of dead leaves and sediment like we were digging back in time. We found some pretty neat ones. People have camped, drove, rode, walked, and boated in Peale. Some people just come for the spirits, or in an attempt to lift or find theirs. Peale is almost a local Mecca, a local haunt for self-seeking and escape: holy ground. 

Peale, Pennsylvania was an old mining town founded in the late 1800s when the Beech Creek Railroad line was the main way into places. It once held near 2,500 people that relied on the coal mines or railroad for their bread and butter. It was owned by the coal company. After the town diminished with the active train line and mines, people slowly dispersed, some moving up into Grassflat. Several houses as well as a church are in Grassflat now that were from Peale. There were only two camps left in Peale when I was young and now there is only one, as well as a garage structure. One camp was burnt down years ago and it still makes me sickeningly sad. Only one real structure remains and the foundations of some things but you can walk out to look for the lone grave of Martha Renfrew, the only marked grave left in the Oakwood Cemetery. She was aged 14 years, 11 months by the inscription on her tombstone. This was all so fascinating as a kid. At some point, somebody put up a sign to mark the Oakwood Cemetery. I can remember this and it doesn’t seem that long ago but now the words on the sign have since been destroyed and nothing remains  aside from the side posts and a few small boards that a dark piece of fabric is tied to. The changes that this land has gone through during my lifetime alone are phenomenal. To think back farther to when it was a bustling hillside community of over 2,000 is about enough to blow your mind. 

Although not from the bustling Peale days, one structure has remained for at least my entire lifetime, and that’s the bridge, however it is really starting to show its age. Anyone local who’s anyone local has some memory of this bridge and probably that big crack in the side that seems so much bigger than I remember it being  every time I see it. But it’s a reminder that bridges will eventually crumble. Rebar protrudes from the cracking concrete, a strong skeleton that will only keep the bridge together so long. Time wears on everything; everything eventually turns to dust. I’d spent the past two months watching the leaves fall and transition, thinking of how many changes I have endured during my short lifetime alone and how many more await me. 
And so there I sat on the Peale bridge at the reins of Priscilla pondering the past with one too many ghosts riding shotgun. We try to reach back with our minds, like I dug with my brother into the dirt, excavating for any unbroken remnant to hold in our hands. Our shined up, dirt-plucked vessel can be a wonderful memento and it will even hold water but it’s place is in the past and therefore it’s a relic. 

Peale looks entirely different today than it did as a kid. The drive across Cooper Two is the same way. Entire hillsides are cleared. Peale Camp has burnt down. So many trees are gone. The landscape is drastically different and it hollows it out, making it seem less of a shelter but more of a marvel, because it opens up the hillsides to the expanse of trees and better shows the distance from here to there. You can get a glimpse of the forest through the trees now. It all seems so far away. Going to a ghost town is akin to visiting a graveyard.  Lost in time, a fog from long ago settles over your  mind. These hills used to be filled with homes, people, families...life. My gram’s sister lived in one of the last houses out here. Some were moved board by board to be reassembled in Grassflat. The church was moved. Peale was a once bustling country town set up with all the trappings of a city and is now a quiet place of refuge and recreation. The Red Moshannon has brought its race crowds, though, time has been unwinding here for decades, the mines still bleed into her beds and mark the creek with their rusted blood. Enjoy her splendor but don’t drink the water. 

The lines from the Day Song seem even more pertinent today, as well as my embryonic Dusty Diamond lines, in a ghostly way: "All alone with those inner demons...where's it hurtin' tonight girl?" In an attempt to understand the present we try to reach back into the past with our minds but the past will never come back to you. We remain haunted like these towns are by the specter of the past. But maybe it can be a friendly ghost? 

Verse 1:
I went to an old house sitting out in a field.
My body was shaking, my spirit was thrilled. 
Empty without the life that we bring.
Silent without the songs that we sing. 

Oh, but it’s still standing. 
And I think it always will. 

Verse 2:
I went to a town that no longer exists.
I give into whatever my spirit insists. 
Once upon a time, maybe we were trees.
Twin oaks, side by side, all in a dream.

Oh, but we’re still standing.
And I feel we always will. 

Verse 3: 
I went to a church that holds no services.
My spirit is pious, despite its perverseness. 
Echoes throughout with the sound of silence.
No evil, no anger, no hate, and no violence. 

Oh, and it’s still standing. 
And I believe it always will. 

Verse 4:
I went to the hilltop and gazed at the mountains. 
The clouds were rollin’ and my spirit was shoutin’. 
Open expanse of trees and sky; 
Will your memory never die? 

Oh, no, it’s still standing,
And I know it always will. 

On my way home I came to the crossroads,
I took a wrong turn into one of my episodes.
I got stuck in the mud, shed a little blood.
I’ve been having these visions for years,
Wiping tears through the forest of fears,
And I’m headin’ home the hard way. 

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