29 Jan 2018

Christmas in Pennsyltucky

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Teresa Mull, like me, is a native of Pennsylvania Coal Country.

This winter, I went back to the woods. The backwoods.

My homeland is Central Pennsylvania, and I returned there to celebrate Christmas with the family and to help out with the coal furnace during the bleakest time of year (more on that later). Hunter S. Thompson spent a stint of his youth in my native neck of the woods, “in an abandoned coal town” as he put it, and deemed it “barren…[where nobody else] was between the ages of fifteen and fifty.” He wrote to a friend of the region’s “mountains of coal dust, dirty old people, ancient wrecks of houses” and said the experience was like “having a nightmare.”

James Carville famously labeled the stretch of land between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as “…Alabama without the blacks. They didn’t film The Deer Hunter there for nothing,” while also noting “The state has the second-highest concentration of NRA members, behind Texas.” Others refer to it, both affectionately and derogatorily, as “Pennsyltucky.”

Thompson’s rural Pennsylvania gig was early on in his career, before, I think, his literary licensing and drug use were firing in full force, and I can attest that his descriptions are, even now, spot-on. As far as Carville’s assessment goes, despite being a Democrat, he’s not too far off either. Hunter safety class was a required part of my Catholic school’s curriculum in the second grade. SECOND GRADE. And the first two days of deer season were always school holidays.

Central PA is indeed a forgotten part of the country, with tired, old mountains, dreary weather, a generally pessimistic populace, an overgrown, unkempt natural beauty, and archaic everything. But it’s not completely charmless. It is home, after all.

Returning to Pennsyltucky during the winter months means enduring the Eternal Grey—days you’re not sure are really days exactly; more like sepia extensions of early dusk. One great cloud amasses its forces in early November and lingers over the sun until at least Easter, at which point it habitually snows.

The snow does make the Appalachian dilapidation very pretty, covering rusty, run-down, soggy, boggy, moldy things with a pure, clean blanket of white stuff. It doesn’t last though. Like a Catholic fresh from the confessional, a day or two’s time is enough to gather a layer of grime. Growing up, “don’t eat the snow” was a rule not because animals made it yellow (though they did), but because chimneys pouring out rich, black smoke left a layer of soot on top (and still do).

Hunting is a popular pastime here and camouflage is acceptable year-round and in all circumstances. Camo is seen at the gym (I know one regular who sports camo knee sleeves), at proms and weddings, on cars and in them. Camo, like guns, goes with everything. A billboard greets me on my way into town advertising camo coffee cups (if that isn’t dedication, I don’t know what is). It’s a wonder more people don’t accidentally collide with each other!

Going to the gun store is another popular regional pastime, even when hunting season is still months away. Here you can meet the “bitter” people Barack Obama referenced in 2008 who “cling to guns or religion.” The last time I was at my neighborhood guns and ammo shop, I overheard a gruff customer justify his purchase of another firearm to his wife by saying, “Trump’s not gonna be in office forever,” and then, apropos of nothing, “LIBERAL A**HOLES!”

RTWT

She’s right that the small cities and towns that used to be flourishing are all hollowed out today, their Main Streets abandoned, and the post-WWII brain drain to the cities is still continuing, but Central Pennsylvania is actually a nice place to retire.

The people are friendly. Taxes are low. The scenery is only slightly inferior to Vermont’s. We have the best trout steams in the East. The pheasants have gone extinct, but we have good grouse shooting, and plenty of deer and turkey. If you win the ticket lottery, you can even shoot an elk. And everywhere you look there are Trump signs.

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