This article is part of the USSO special series Resilience/Renewal: Shifting Landscapes in American Studies
I came to Clearfield by a rare route, though in truth no route is common. My fiancée Christy and I were living in California, five miles from the Mexican border, when she was accepted into a Physician Assistant Studies programme at a small university on short notice.
So in May 2018, my eyes on the road and hers on the pages of an anatomy textbook, we drove northeast for five days straight, through the central desert of California, the fragile pine forests of northern Arizona, the Martian strangeness of southeastern Utah, through the flimsy freeway towns of Rifle and Silt under the hard peaks of the Colorado Rockies and through deluging storms in Nebraska and Iowa, through Illinois and Indiana and Ohio, into the ridge-and-valley maple and pine forests of central Pennsylvania, a landscape neither of us had ever seen.
I should say that a Master of Science degree in Physician Assistant Studies is an arduous undertaking. You sit for a year in a classroom, attending lectures and practical classes Monday to Friday, eight to five, with weekly or even bi-weekly comprehensive pass/fail exams on whole branches of medicine. You are expected to spend three or four hours of your own time studying every evening, and weekends too are for work. Even if you keep up for a while, there always remains a significant chance of failure. At least one dedicated, driven person in your cohort–often several more–will drop out.
If you survive the didactic portion, you will receive an official-looking white medical coat and pass into a second year “on rotations.” Each rotation is a six-week placement in some medical speciality, somewhere in the country. Students often travel hundreds of miles from home to live in typically squalid accommodation for the duration of a rotation.
For Christy, second year meant temporary life in communities all over Pennsylvania. Our permanent home was in Clearfield, where I continued to work for the YMCA and teach at a community college. Some weekends, Christy would come home to stay with me, and other weekends I went to stay with her, wherever she was stationed.
Christy’s penultimate rotation was in emergency medicine at the regional hospital in Coudersport, eighty miles north of Clearfield. Christy and I spent our weekends in the wilderness. My diary of that time is just one more English imposition on the landscape and its history.
Saturday, 22nd February, 2020
Now that C is on rotations, Sandy at work often asks me where C is staying. This week I told him Coudersport, and he said I just had to go stargazing. It’s the best place in the whole US for it, he told me. People come from all over! If it’s clear, you gotta go, he said.
Heeding those words, we drove out last night to Cherry Springs State Park. Beyond the arcs of the headlight beams, the only brightness was that reflected off the deep snow either side of the road. (I learned later that local ordinances strictly limit development in the area to control the light pollution.) I kept my eyes fixed on the broken line between lanes while we were moving. I didn’t want to spoil any surprises by accidentally peeping any low-lying constellation.
C was already driving slowly, cautiously, before we turned onto the trail towards the ice-bound car park. Once we learned from other drivers’ behaviour that even headlights were frowned upon this far out, she dimmed ours & slowed to a self-conscious creep. She slid the car into a space between trucks by intuition & the light of the moon. Engine off, we put on thick hats, fur-lined gloves & our warmest coats. We stepped out of the car in unison, & looked up.
I stumbled out in silence along a path, chin still raised, oblivious to park rangers’ greetings. I kept walking out, out into a bare field of pine-skirted blankness that extended beyond the scope of my eyes’ adjustment, where finally I stood still & bent my spine back to behold the Milky Way clear in the southern sky. I thought it must have been an experience like my pale countrymen and women had on their first Grand Tours in the Alps: impossible to process in its grandeur & scope, leaving the individual joyously shrunken. It was the closest I have come to being Emerson’s eyeball, though I also felt the straitening limits of my workaday senses, as if the possession of two human eyes was rather a meagre qualification for the immense task of examining the heavens. But I must take what I can get. I’ve never seen so much, and I likely won’t ever see more.
Sandy was right about everything. Not only is it a magnificent place to contemplate your own shrinking ego, but there were other people with us in the perishing cold who seemed to have come from even further away. A group of four Asian students had set up what looked like a very powerful camera on a tripod to capture what their mortal senses could not. Whenever they quietly spoke among themselves, or C noted some development in her battle to stave off frostnip, I would obdurately stare even harder at the stars.
This afternoon we drove west on lonely Highway 6 to another must-see spot: the wreck of Kinzua Bridge.
This was once a monumental feat of engineering. When first built in 1882, Kinzua Bridge was the longest & tallest railway viaduct in the world, spanning an enormous wooded gorge on iron spindles to provide a shortcut for engines travelling to & from local lumber mills, collieries & oil fields. In 1900, the bridge was entirely recast and reassembled, this time out of steel, to accommodate heavier trains.
In the decades that followed, the need for the bridge slowly declined until it was decommissioned for commercial use in the 1950s. Pleasure trains for day-trippers ran over it for 25 years after that, & the bridge & several hundred acres of woodland around it became a state park in 1963. In light of an unfavourable report by state safety inspectors in 2002, all trains were ordered to stop running across the bridge. Just a year later, in 2003, an F-1 tornado tore through the gorge, obliterating the bridge’s 11 central towers and bringing the railway line down with them.
How much work & skill & effort it must have taken to design & build this structure, not once but twice, I can hardly imagine. It was blown down in 2 minutes by the wind.
We walked along what’s left, the remnant stump of the viaduct that state park workers reinforced & then rebranded as a ‘skywalk.’ From the handrails at the end, we looked down over the kind of barren winter forest one can’t escape in Pennsylvania. But this little piece of it is unique. The twisted red steel of the snapped-off towers has been left where it fell, the debris of our hubris. Birds nest in it, deer sniff around it—it’s as natural now as any undergrowth.
Sunday, February 23rd. Midday.
We just walked in the door after a trip to the Shop ’n’ Save in downtown Coudersport. We stopped on the way home to check out another bridge, this one spanning only a few yards over a stream. Covered bridges are a Pennsylvania trademark—narrow gauge, built from wooden planks, painted red from floor to gable like a barn. They were designed for the horse & wagon, but will usually carry a modern sedan. The example we saw is at the entrance to someone’s property. Its appearance of splintered weather-weariness contrasts sharply with what looks to be a state-of-the-art alarm system, wired up inside the roof, set to keep out trespassers like us.
We have a few minutes for lunch, & then will head to the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum out past Sweden Valley, on the road to Galeton. I was surprised to find that the museum is open on Sundays, but I should know by now that Mammon keeps no sabbath day.
Sunday, February 23rd. Evening.
It took me 2 hours, but I felt no guilt while reading every word & observing every model along one wall of the permanent exhibition on the history of land use in northern Pennsylvania. I had only covered AD1000-1895 when I came across C conked out on a bench underneath an information board describing the once-vast extent of ‘Pennsylvania’s Desert.’ She coughed herself awake, looked up at the clock on the wall, & informed me of how long we had been in that room already—surely it was time to go. She dragged herself upright & realised, to her horror, that I was only halfway around.
I didn’t subject her to too much more. I could observe for myself the remarkable results of “sustainable & responsible forestry practices” on the drive home if I only looked out of the window. The story of destruction in the 19th century, which I had already read in full, was much
During the colonial period, though the English were scared of the “Gyant like” native men & the creatures they took for unicorns deep in the forest interior, they quickly recognised the value of the trees they found there in abundance. White pine, they discovered, was the greatest material on Earth for ship spars: tall, thick, straight and sturdy. As their exploitation of the woods was severely limited by a lack of infrastructure for transporting or treating the lumber, they stuck close to established colonial centres like Philadelphia, only clearing what was necessary to create small farms.
But around 1840, in a boom of obscene efficiency, the wholesale annihilation of the landscape by industrial logging concerns began.
Since it was a highly profitable endeavour & therefore an obvious boon to the commonwealth, state lawmakers officially endorsed & legislatively encouraged the growth of logging & milling. The forest, as an environment & a resource, appeared unending. Depletion was unthinkable. After all, in 1800, it covered 90% of the state!
Revolution after revolution sped the cutting & processing of lumber. Once the limit of one resource had been reached—as when all the pines near navigable rivers had been floated downstream to processing plants & shipbuilders nearer the coast—some new technology would be developed with astonishing quickness to ensure a continued supply. Arterial railroads & site-specific branch lines were laid down all across the mountainous northern counties, allowing access to, & efficient plunder of, the last virgin forests in the state. Over the course of 60 years, capitalising on improved saw designs & the dangerous practice of corralling stamped logs into miles-long “booms” along the Susquehanna, the processing capacity of mills in cities like Austin ballooned by up to 30,000%.
The men who did the hard labour in the woods, known as woodhicks, came as economic migrants from every corner of Europe. Theirs was a tireless professional peregrination across millions of pristine acres. They worked 12 or 14 hours to earn only $1/day by felling, stripping, chopping & transporting every bole of the ancient white pine stands, then they swept back through the same land, like the second erasing shake of an Etch-A-Sketch, to cut down the hemlock that was valued for the tannic acid in its bark & for the second-rate, knotty lumber it could provide to lower-end furniture manufacturers. They turned back one more time to clear what was left of the old-growth hardwoods for their minor uses & by-products. They then moved on, using their experience to make a similar hand-to-mouth living in other clear-cut operations in West Virginia, around the Great Lakes, even as far away as Louisiana.
By 1900, when almost two-thirds of the trees in the state had been plucked, the entire indigenous population of Pennsylvania was dead or in exile. And the elk, the Englishmen’s unicorn, had become legendary in a new way, hunted to local extinction & remembered only in stories.
When the woodhicks moved on, they left in their wake a mutilated no man’s land, finally & mercifully worthless. An early black-and-white photograph in the exhibition we visited shows a typical sharp Allegheny ridge in pitiful ruin—scarred, slit open, barren. Not that the rape of the land was the woodhicks’ fault. It was the respectable, renowned families, like the Goodyears, who made the profits & displayed their wealth in booming riverside cities like Williamsport.
The territory that William Penn had named a ‘sylvania,’ a forest land, had finally become the terra nullius, the land without life, the blank canvas, that colonists had so long dreamt of. And strangely, it looked like their doom.
Passing today through the town of Roulette, one sees the direct legacy of the slash-&-burn creed. The settlement was established as a home for workers in a tannery nearby. It thrived on the strength of two generations’ worth of stable work & local prosperity. By the turn of the 20th century, however, the town was obsolete: tannery closed, money gone. Roulette exists today as little more than a trailer park.
We do not usually use terms such as “obsolete” to describe settlements past their prime. It seems derogatory to those who still live in them, & we imagine that, even if it declines, a village today will still be a village tomorrow, 10 years from now, 100 years in the future. But for Roulette, even its physical persistence into the 21st century was no given—many such pop-up towns were abandoned altogether when the lumber industry crashed, & all trace of them has since been erased completely by resurgent flora.
Once destruction was no longer profitable, the regrowth of Pennsylvania’s forests was spectacular, even miraculous. While I didn’t read the museum display about this period closely, it is clear to anyone passing through that the second-growth forest has developed in inverse proportion to the local economy. One of the few steady industries in the northern part of the state today is tourism, which relies on the un-development of the area as a key selling point. Elk have been reintroduced to this second incarnation of their natural habitat, & the herd in Elk County is now the largest in the eastern US. They are protected from hunters by law, & a brand-new visitor centre in Benezette attracts customers from around the state. The sky over Cherry Springs State Park is such a draw on cloudless nights only because nearby Coudersport & Galeton & Austin & Cross Fork were uniformly dependent for their wealth on a single resource which was burned through so quickly that the process we city-folk see as inevitable—population growth, concrete sprawl, increasing pollution of all kinds—had no time to set in. Kinzua Bridge State Park can market & celebrate its own dereliction, all the while retaining the evidence of past glories as a badge of authenticity, only because there is no longer any practical use for the once-essential railway. There is more money to be made by attracting hikers with the beauty of an engineering failure than there would be in rebuilding the bridge to allow cars to take the shortcut across the valley. Because where would you need to go so fast? Time is no longer of the essence.
I’m sure the industrialists escaped with their millions when they saw the bust coming, leaving behind the local people & a desert for them to languish in. Out here in God’s Country, where maples & hemlocks now crowd the hillsides, there isn’t much else to go around. The cultural infrastructure in Coudersport is limited, as far as I can tell, to an oversize courthouse, a campy museum dedicated to the Prohibition agent Eliot Ness, & some whitewashed pine board churches whose congregations are dwindling not because of a loss of faith but because of a loss of people. Each little town like this will have a few independent shops in incongruously grand Main St. buildings, but one imagines that the minimal customer base is sufficient to support them only because rents are so cheap.
One saving grace, if such it is, is that these towns will never be gentrified. Starbucks will never move in. As I see it, instead of wealthy professionals keen to exploit the low cost of living to create some faux-bohemia, those who come here to stay in the future will likely be the quiet ones, drawn to the isolation that only a century of decline can provide. These will also be the barbed-wire-&-booby-trap types who call their property a ‘compound,’ the off-gridders, the conspiracy theorists, the experienced wielders of big guns.
We went down to a diner for breakfast earlier today, a fine blue morning, & I found that I almost fit in with the crowd.
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