Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Pennsylvania through the windshield

Soon after we graduated, two of my college friends had an epiphany. They quit decent jobs at a regional bank, piled guitars and other belongings into a beat-up Ford Ranger, and decided to make some kind of living as musicians. One time, I ran into them at an Irish pub in Washington, D.C. After we'd chatted late into the night, I wistfully asked why they didn't book many gigs in Pennsylvania, compared to Delmarva and New York State. 

"PA is one of those places we just drive through," they said. 

I think of them whenever I am on the Pennsylvania Turnpike as I was on Sunday. Even after living in the Keystone State for 10 years, I don't feel completely at home here. And no place alienates me more than that particular stretch of highway which cuts through the Blue, Kittatinny, Tuscarora, and Allegheny Mountains between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

As the miles roll by, I try to focus on the hilly and jagged contours of the land, as well as the undulating valleys below. This time of year, with the trees bare and snow dusting the ground, geographic features are easier to discern. I cannot accurately describe the different layers of rock that slope upwards from either side of the road. But I am filled with wonder at the natural powers that created and eroded them, as well as the indefatigable human effort it took to blast roads through. Near mile 194, between the Kittatinny and Tuscarora tunnels, is a small, well-kept group of buildings with green roofs and white clapboard siding. The people who established this farm more than a century ago, in the shadows of mountains, no doubt felt isolated at times. Yet they remained, as do their successors. Very independent and self-sufficient people they must be, to make a life here. About a hundred miles later, as I speed under the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail overpass, I muse what it could be like to trudge across Pennsylvania -- to be able to say that I, too, braved all kinds of weather, terrain, and circumstances, and made do with whatever I carried on my back.

Westbound on the Pennsylvania Turnpike
Between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, there seem to be few "brown signs" pointing to museums and other community attractions. If billboards are any indicator, one might conclude that local pastimes consist of watching the Penguins or Steelers (mile 161) while chugging Labatt Blue (mile 62). But the place isn't entirely off-putting to the those of us with different interests. Near mile marker 209, the warm smile of Fred Rogers beckons "won't you be my neighbor," as the sign's sponsor, the Foundation for a Better Life, asks drive-bys to "pass on" the value of friendship. About 60 miles from the Pennsylvania/Ohio border, there is an ad for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. "4,000 Clubs, 4,000,000 Futures," it says.

Yet I am all too frequently confronted by advertisements of a world that I do not understand, and of which I want little part. Far more common than the inclusiveness suggested by Mr. Rogers or the Boys and Girls Clubs are signs of the region's conservative religious and economic perspectives. For instance, 20 minutes after getting on the turnpike, a sign prompts me to question "Who Rules Life? Jesus Christ or Self?" Near mile marker 189 I am told that the Holy Bible is "Inspired. Absolute. Final." About 100 miles west, another billboard warns that "Jesus said, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Although I consider myself a Christian, the either/or answers, the "finality" of the Bible's authority, and the closing of Heaven's gates to all but a few -- these are all insulting to my intellect and chilling to my heart. 

At mile marker 127, the Chesapeake Bay Commission informs me that I am leaving the Chesapeake Watershed and thanks me for "protecting our waterways." Hurtling by, I nod in agreement with the implication that my activities in the mountains have direct impacts downstream. Yet the Commission's solitary billboard is drowned out by dozens of others that promote the region's extractive industries. I am not sure what to make of a sign which reads "Your Tax Dollars Subsidize Wind Energy," but given the area's Teapublican politics, I imagine most residents do not applaud federal or state investment in green energy. For a group called Vision4PA, anyone's environmental concerns can be resolved with simple math: its signage at mile marker 131 reads "PA Coal + PA Gas = PA Jobs," which "Power the Economy." About fifteen miles west, another billboard contrasts a glowing city skyline "with coal," versus darkness "without coal." It smugly challenges drivers to "get the facts." Some journalists have called this area of Pennsylvania an environmental "battleground" since coal, gas, and wind energy are in production simultaneously.  But viewing the one-sided ads, I question whether there is truly a contest in the public mind, and if so, how long it will last. 

Encountering so many billboards that conflict with my personal values, it is easy to slip into negative readings of other types of signage. I find myself ruminating perhaps too intensely over signs posted by the Allied Milk Producers Cooperative ("Milk -- It Keeps Your Body in Tune," mile 172), Cove Creek Outfitters ("Guns Optics Apparel," miles 178, 172, and 165), and other organizations. Although I consume dairy in nearly all its forms and I enjoy hiking immensely, my mind fills flashbacks of PETA videos on factory farming and images of camouflaged gun-nuts blasting away at deer, squirrels, turkeys, and other woodland animals.

I take a long swig from the bottled water in my cup holder, crick my neck, and roll down the window to breathe some fresh air. I remind myself yet again not to allow windshield views to harden into prejudices. Pennsylvania has been very good to me, especially in terms of offering me a generous salary and a relatively low cost of living. Through my sabbatical project, I have met numerous colleagues that I have come to admire -- even some that I would call friends. As I tap my brakes at exit 18, the New Castle off-ramp, I tell myself that this is a new place and these new people deserve my open mind. 

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