I’ve spent pretty much my entire adult life traversing the gap between the Keystone State’s two big population centers at least 5 or 6 times per year. And it strikes me that it has always felt like those areas were on the cusp of autumn. For a long time, I supposed this was just a reflection of the Rust Belt on the whole. Only recently have I come to realize how unique this peculiar timeless fugue state is to Pennsylvania or how it impacts my writing.
The several-hour-long drive from the outskirts of the megalopolis to southwestern PA is at the same time a difficult one and an easy one. Whether you’re traveling along the Pennsylvania Turnpike (the nation’s oldest) or along Route 80 on the northern tier, the quality of the road surface can vary quite a bit even in good weather months as construction crews struggle to keep up with the effects of heavy truck traffic and the sometimes harsh winters. Along the turnpike at least, strategically spaced service plazas ensure periodic access to common amenities. But one can definitely spend much of the drive across Somerset, Bedford, Franklin, and other central Pennsylvania counties seeing only hints of civilization in the faint glow of distant villages. When I was a younger man eager to put those many miles behind me, the long alternating stretches of farmland and dense forest were an irritation — an obstacle to be overcome. Now I find that irritation increasingly replaced with fascination.
Pennsylvania’s “empty middle,” as it’s often called, has vexed travelers for centuries. Undeniably beautiful, the landscape is arguably both haunted and haunting. Throughout the early national period, people would navigate its mountain notches and shady glens fretfully — hoping to avoid the attention of highwaymen like the legendary outlaw Davy Lewis and his gang. Multi-lane hardtop roads have since replaced those old cart paths and deep mile-long tunnels carved through the mountainsides have somewhat straightened the winding route among the peaks — allowing visitors easy access to the many leisure activities advertised by towering billboards erupting out of the brush every few miles across its length.
I know some people prefer the single-note fall foliage in parts further north and further south where the landscape turns either all yellow or all red. For those who like variety, on the other hand, PA is a feast for the eyes — rolling hills and river valleys swathed in a fiery multicolored tapestry of gold and orange and crimson in the weeks from mid-September to mid-October. But the feel of fall starts a lot earlier than that. Perhaps it’s because the Alleghenies — though small in stature when compared to other ranges — are more than tall enough to bathe so much of the landscape in long shadows in the early evening 8 to 10 months out of the year. Or maybe it’s because the valleys between those peaks can generate a morning fog any time that the daily high is lower than 90 degrees. Whatever the reason, it’s really never not autumn in the Pennsylvania of my memory.
When I think of the commonwealth’s various micro-climates and population clusters, those real places compare well with imagined locales like Derry, Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot from Stephen King’s fictional Maine. Some are obvious choices — quiet battlefields in places like Gettysburg and Valley Forge, the quaint-yet-sometimes-unsettling pockets of plain “Dutch” farm folk living in 19th and early 20th century conditions in places like Lancaster and York counties, the mist shrouded shores of a fickle Lake Erie, and sparsely populated coal patches where miners once whispered superstitions about kobolds and tommyknockers. However, it’s more pervasive than that. There’s pretty much nowhere you can go in Pennsylvania where it’s more than a 30-minute drive to the edge of civilization — be it dense foreboding woods, desolate farmland, or decaying infrastructure. It is a land always on the verge of twilight. And I’ve come to realize that it carries with it a powerful muse.
I don’t know her name, mind you. She never introduces herself properly, and I shudder to think of what I’d say to her if we ever met face to face. But you know that she’s there nonetheless — that she’s always on the move a few minutes ahead of you. You perceive her presence by the signs of her passage, like a smoldering cigarette in an ash tray in an otherwise empty room. When I was a kid growing up in North Central PA, I lived a few blocks from a street lined with Victorian mansions in various stages of upkeep. And on some level, I’ve always known that — had I been brave enough to walk past the rusted iron gates and up the cracked concrete steps leading to any one of those edifices — I’d have found her waiting there.
I’ve felt her as early as July, standing with us at the edge of the crowd watching municipal fireworks displays. I suppose that I’ve caught glimpses of her out of the corner of my eye at family picnics in the heat of August — a flash of movement at the tree line in any one of the state’s many parks. While other neighboring states have their cryptids — creatures like the Mothman, the Snallygaster, the Jersey Devil — I believe they don’t venture past our borders in part because they’re a little bit afraid of her. She’s both more and less than just a mindworm, you see.
Ironically, thrill-seekers careen down the highways and byways of the commonwealth on their way to Fright Nights at Kennywood Park, zip-lining at Seven Springs Resort, or white water rafting on the Monogahela River without ever fully perceiving her. And yet there are plenty of hushed places across central Pennsylvania where you can stand earthbound and flat-footed but still get an indescribable electric feeling like that last moment before the release of a long-held breath. She’s there in those moments. And she’s conducting a workshop.
It’s a well known fact that environment can be a powerful source of inspiration. It certainly was for Shelley, Stoker, Poe, Irving, and many other authors of countless classics of mystery and imagination. And so I sit by my window, spires of glass and steel to my back as I peer into — and deeply consider impending seasonal changes to — the yawning center of the commonwealth I call home. As I watch the wind push increasingly larger, darker, and fluffier clouds across the horizon, it propels my mind and my fingers with an intensity shared by the manic and the inspired.
In a few weeks, communities across the Northeast will begin to gear up for Halloween. Pumpkins will be carved, cornstalks harvested and hung, and cider savored. But whereas a fleeting spirit of dread may creep up and down the Eastern seaboard during this season, I feel it really lives in the Empty Middle — like the circuses of a bygone era wintering in the Everglades, or perhaps more specifically like the “Autumn People” of the carnival in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.
If you’re wondering if this is an invitation or a warning, truthfully it’s a little bit of both. Do come to Pennsylvania this fall — for its fall foliage festivals and its vineyards. Come for the innumerable ghost tours — noting that the psyche of this place has been imprinted by pretty much every major event and movement from the American Revolution through the Industrial Revolution. Come for the battlefield hikes and the amusement parks and the history centers. But when you do, please remember to pack your laptop or your journal — as there’s a voice out there in the stillness, her whispers hard to distinguish from the sound of crunching leaves. And she has a story for everyone. Are you brave enough to listen?
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