Saying farewell to a mountain

This article was originally published in the Times-Herald Record.

On Jan. 22, 1959, a hole opened up in the bottom of the Susquehanna River, killing 12 minors below and swallowing what was left at the economy of Northeast Pennsylvania’s coal region.

Predictably, the cause of the catastrophe was greed. Riddled with tunnels, the earth beneath the valley was exhausted; its ability to nourish the people who lived upon it was gone. The owners of the Knox Mine directed their workers to blast and dig and scrape at the sparkling anthracite until they got too close to the bottom of the riverbed.

Water rushed into the hole for days. The company tried vainly to plug the hole by dumping railroad cars into it, but water quickly coursed through the tunnels that spread like veins under the Wyoming Valley. The mines died and the region foundered, another industrial armpit made obsolete by the modern age.

Years before the Knox disaster, the men of my family worked in those mines. The work was brutal and their lives were short. By the time my father returned from World War II, it was already clear there was no future in the mines. Too much cheap oil. He moved his family a few miles away from the workings to a hillside neighborhood.

Other young men lifted out of the mines by the G.I. Bill moved their families to the hillside. Our house was at the top, bordering the forest. We would follow deer trails up the mountain, and from the huge cliffs we could see north to the New York border and south down the dying valley.

The kids on the hillside had it good. We had neighbors and stores and could go downtown. But we could also retreat to the forest and in the summers we did, playing war among the crumbling stone walls of long-gone farms, building forts, making death-defying climbs along the 50-foot cliffs out of sight of meddlesome parents. When we got older, we hauled sleeping bags, food and, invariably, a six-pack pilfered from someone’s parents, to the cliffs, building bonfires and settling to sleep watching the lights blink out one at a time in the hills beyond.

When we got older still, almost all of us went away. Away to college or the service. And, after that, away to brighter places, places with jobs, places that offered a future. Weeds were growing up between the railroad ties in the valley, and the old breakers through which coal once clattered were rotting and falling down. My neighborhood grew quiet, the sound of children all gone.

The last summer I lived at home, I often camped alone on the highest cliffs. I no longer quite belonged in my parents’ home, no longer quite belonged in the little neighborhood. At night, on the cliffs, it didn’t matter if I wasn’t getting along with my father or my high school girlfriend and I had broken up. I have no words to express it, but as I looked out beyond the valley I felt like I belonged to the world.

By and by, like the others, I left. In the intervening 20 years, the valley and the hillside changed. Soon, the state will erect a small historical marker to commemorate the day the river fell into the Knox Mine. The little towns along the Susquehanna are protected now by huge dikes and criss-crossed by expressways. In the greed-is-good ‘80s, big industrial parks arose atop abandoned mine workings. The old urban core was left to the old, the poor, the minorities.

All ships have not risen. Instead, a group of wealthy outsiders has simply grafted itself into the valley. My parents and their neighbors wonder aloud where all the people with their RVs and big houses and bulging mortgages came from. On the mountain above my parents’ home, cloud-dwellers among this new breed built faux-rustic monuments to themselves and obliterated the forest we all knew.

As I walked along the forest trail on a visit home this week, yellow NO TRESPASSING signs glared at me from the woods. Fences around the grand houses warned that security devices were in place. I was no longer welcome.

Now I live in the Hudson Valley, not so far from the Rondout Canal that once connected this region to the Wyoming Valley, and when I look at the gaudy houses clinging to the Catskills above Woodstock or the Shawangunks above the Wallkill, I wonder if the people who grew up in those places before mountains became trophies feel as I do.

Yes, yes, you can’t go home again, things must surely change. And we had rich people way back when, too. The families who owned the mines carved out estates in town, and later the rich ones who discovered the pleasures of the fringe built houses where they would have the best views of the majestic cliffs above our hillside. But, oddly, they were still our neighbors.

The people who have brought the HMOs and industrial parks and cell phone towers to my hometown are different. They did not come to live among us. Nor were they content to live near a beautiful forest with its soaring cliffs. They chose instead to live in conspicuous isolation on the most beautiful places, to destroy them, to replace them with vanity.

Always, as I have driven the last few miles home, my eyes have been reflexively drawn to the apex of those cliffs, but I can no longer see them. My memories are buried under a rich man’s castle. It was not enough to live near the cliffs; he had to resculpt them and put his house directly atop them. 

The best thing about looking down, I suppose, is knowing that someone else has to look up.

My parents are in their 70s now. Some neighbors have died, others moved away. Young families are moving into the modest old homes. The noise of children is beginning to fill up the neighborhood again. 

But the forest and the vistas are closed to them. Houses and signs and fences everywhere. Every uplifting view private property. Where, I wonder, will the children growing up below those cliffs go to find some perspective, to look out beyond that valley and feel that they belong to the world?

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