RIDING THROUGH COAL COUNTRY

Pennsylvania gets stranger the further in you ride. On the roads that bracket Philadelphia, conventional sights blur together. The Schuylkill Expressway, first leg of a weekend journey to visit my state prisoner in the north, is a four-lane road with one job: get the numberless drivers from the western suburbs into the city and out again with as few delays as possible. The only provocative sights are the burn marks on the jersey barriers, reminding me of fiery accidents that rated a passing mention in the Inquirer. The Expressway has no scenic overlooks, no mansions crushed by vines and neglect, no empty factories or shut-down mines. The towns on Route 61 northbound en route to Shamokin have all of these, together with abandoned banks made of stone and so many brick churches. Houses of money and worship mean prosperity and population, but it’s obvious that the towns of coal country — Minersville, Ashland, and many others, lost them years ago. The keys to a successful city are people in the streets, glad to be where they are, buying things and waiting for the appetizers to arrive. I didn’t see a lot of people out as I rode through the coal towns, and could not tell if they were waiting behind the walls of the once imposing rowhouses, or had moved out entirely. On the way back, the only places with visible customers I saw in each town were taverns and brew pubs, upscale and newly renovated. Yuengling brewed in nearby Pottsville is a local staple, but these establishments were serving stronger stuff. I thought of a campaign to make heavy drinking the new tourist attraction of north central PA. Drink local for cheap, sample some adventurous cuisine, then sleep it off in an equally inexpensive bed and breakfast before heading back to mow your lawn in suburbia.

On the Philly exit corridor, at King of Prussia, the Expressway connects to Route 422, once a country highway, but now a clogged asphalt artery under perpetual construction that winds past the bedroom communities of Collegeville and Royersford. I stay in the left lane to avoid the constant bumps and potholes of the right, because riding makes speeding tickets less of a concern. My bike sits high, giving me the ability to see far down the road and spot a police cruiser with plenty of time to slow down. The roads are almost empty, and the narrowed lanes under construction are exactly where I remember them from last summer. As usual, the temperature drops shortly after passing the Berks County border, and it’s fitting that a county with a western border close to Lebanon would occupy a colder climate zone. I ride through a roadscape that I came to know well while commuting between Exeter Township and Philadelphia for three years, and it has barely changed over the 12 years that have passed since I stopped driving 110 miles each day. Route 422 passes through used car lots, a “gentleman’s club” now called Divas, and a restaurant that is perpetually under new management, no matter what the cuisine and ambience on offer, possibly since the closest neighbor is a trailer park that likely eats at home.

Exeter, about 50 miles northwest of where I started, is a sudden pool of suburban affluence, with a brick shopping mall that includes an upscale grocery, a new and improved Wine and Spirits store, and a multi-storied fitness center called Valhalla. When we lived here it was more like countryside. We had a giant center-hall colonial on a partly wooded lot, and fortunately it snowed heavily each of the four winters we stayed there. As a result, our girls have winter memories of snow forts and getting pulled on a toboggan down deserted icy streets, things that are not possible in Philadelphia, even in East Falls where the roads are less heavily travelled. I remember walking with Kate and Bina through an overgrown field when they were little, and Kate’s tears after a giant green locust landed on her shoulder and stayed too long. They were good years and the ones after moving back to Philadelphia were difficult, but it’s better to be from a city than a highway exit.

After eight more miles I reach Reading, always too far from Philadelphia (and now far too poor) to serve as a suburb. Once self-sufficient and booming, Reading made cannon for the Union Army in quantity. It also had breweries, a locomotive factory, and a mainly ethnic German population that kept the streets clean and the schools filled with students who left the first chance they got. Now it’s the Camden of Pennsylvania, one of the five poorest cities in the country, with an ungovernable Dominican mob that makes the large new stadium in the center of town effectively off-limits to the suburban majority. I know my way around Reading and Berks County, not just from the Exeter years, but because my wife’s family lived outside of Shillington for more than 30 years, moving away just this summer to Virginia, because the property, most of it formerly a dairy farm, had gotten too big for my father-in-law to maintain to his impeccable standards. So I know how to get to Centre Avenue, which turns into Route 61, the road that eventually leads to Shamokin, and the new client I need to visit in SCI Coal Township.

There is still functioning industry north of Reading, and I ride past a brick factory, then the huge Clover Farms dairy that supplied the chocolate milk that my youngest came to love during the Exeter years, for which we could not find a comparably rich and creamy substitute in Philadelphia. The next town is Hamburg, where German words still show up on the occasional sign, saying “Mach’s gut,” or advertising the upcoming “Awksht Fest,” the end of summer August festival that was apparently a thing here once. After crossing Route 78 near what must be the largest Cabela’s store on the east coast, my first stop is Hermy’s, a motorcycle shop specialized in BMW and other high price European machines that is marking the 100th anniversary of BMW motorcycles with a huge commemorative stein to be given away as a door prize. The place is filled with adventure riders roughly my age, wearing the same grey hair, high viz jackets and full face helmets, most of them white like mine. It’s a law-abiding crowd with impeccable manners, so different from bikers in Philadelphia, as they inspect massive machines with price tags far beyond my reach and with frequent maintenance intervals I would not have the patience for. I write my name and address on an entry ticket, then find a huge frosted donut and some reasonably strong coffee before leaving the festivities and heading north.

The jolt helps me maintain concentration as the temperature rises with the sun and my odometer shows more than 100 miles since leaving home. The landscape becomes steadily more mountainous, with pine trees and multiplying piles of slag, the rocky by-product of coal mines that they simply dumped in the forest, eventually creating small hills that retain an odd grayish cast even as trees finally start growing on them, close to a century after the fact. Each town has a monument or a park dedicated to the miners, with a crudely done sign depicting a heavy muscled individual with sharp features, shouldering a pick. When I stop to ask directions to SCI Camp Hill, the man who helps me out is big, with extremely narrow eyes and other Slavic features. He looks like the miner on the sign, and gives directions without hesitation to a stranger who approached him on a black motorcycle. I think of how brutally hard this work most have been, and in contrast to my gloves, helmet and eye protection, it’s likely that these miners had zero protective gear, or at most a metal helmet that would have been more for show than for shock absorption. Would it have been possible to do anything in their spare time other than drink, or did they adapt to the work over time so that not doing it would have left them restless. It occurs to me that I have never met a miner, and there is no way to know the answers, especially since there do not seem to be any left here. In Shamokin, there are two businesses: the prison where I am about to speak with my client, and a branch of Geisinger Medical Center. They are close together, exactly as the man who gave me directions told me: If I see the hospital, then I am there.

After two hours listening to the misfortunes of my client, who has been refused parole on six consecutive occasions and has now served six more years of incarceration than his judge specified, it’s back on the bike, and I return south on a country road, Route 901, which has been newly paved and is virtually empty of traffic. The forest is taking over, with an occasional slag heap covered with birch trees, and in about 30 minutes I have passed Schuylkill Haven. I pass an antique US Army tank on the right, I believe it’s the model that troops nicknamed the “Ronson” because of its alarming tendency to catch fire, and most of it is covered with a Trump for President banner, making America Great Again. After about ten more minutes passing huge RVs on mountain roads I return to Hermy’s in Port Clinton, to see if I filled out the winning entry for the beer stein. I didn’t, and the bratwursts have run out, but birch beer in a keg is still available, and I down two large solo cups before getting back on the road for the final sprint to Philadelphia by way of Reading. Route 61 southbound is a newly constructed concrete road, three lanes most of the way back to Hamburg, and I am sorry to leave coal country as the elevation steadily drops and I pass Cabela’s, this time on the right, the customers reminding me that I am back to suburbia as they pour into the entrance to purchase leisure products and guns.

Pennsylvania needs to find a way to make its decaying industrial towns relevant, into destinations that people will actually visit and spend money in. The only option I see is based on alcohol; local breweries or even distilleries joined to upscale Inns with artisan breakfasts. Casinos would help, perhaps legalized weed like Boulder or even prostitution like Vegas. What happens in Pottsville stays in Pottsville. I don’t think the government has a better plan.