Continuing my reminiscences about growing up white and occasionally encountering “the other,” I’m going to try to move on from discussing individual black people I knew. I want to turn my thoughts toward “blackness” in general or black people in general, as I learned about it/them growing up. Of course my family enjoyed white privilege; of course we didn’t know that, or the name for it. In short, we didn’t worry much about the lives of black people because they rarely intersected with ours. My father was nominally a liberal on race. The word “nigger” was never used in our house; we called them “colored” people or a “colored guy.” Like other white people of my and my father’s generation, we didn’t see “colored” as itself a racialized term. There was also a distinction I picked up from somewhere outside the confines of family: that a “good” black person was a “Negro”; a “nigger” was a bad black person. As if goodness or badness was inherent. All this sort of satisfied me and deflected any guilt I might have assumed.
During the 1965 urban riots, I recall, my dad and I were visiting his sister, my aunt, and her husband, my uncle. My dad and Aunt Dorothy were close; Dorothy lived into, I’m guessing, her 50s as a single woman. She married late in life, and all I knew about it was “Aunt Dorothy is getting married.” I don’t know how she met the man, what kind of courtship they had, nothing. Just, all of a sudden, I had an Uncle Johnny. Looking back, I see that my dad did not approve of him or of his sister marrying him, but he kept it pretty much to himself. But when were visiting them that summer and video of the riots came on the TV news, Uncle Johnny muttered something about “they [rioters, black rioters] should be lined up and shot!” Uncle Johnny was a hunter, something else that was alien in my growing up. My dad surprised me by talking back to Uncle Johnny, scoffing at his notion. I admired my dad for taking this stand, but now I wonder if it didn’t come more from his dislike of Johnny and less from his compassion for poor urban black people.
Generally, my family admired black athletes, particularly Roberto Clemente. Or we didn’t get racial attitudes get in the way of our admiration for them. As a high-schooler, I thought everyone in Pittsburgh admired Roberto Clemente, even if the white folks, anyway, wanted to call him “Bobby” and pronounce his last name with an “e” sound at the end, not an “a.” I went to my share of Pirates games at Forbes Field, and my friends and I liked to sit in the right field grandstand. Those seats were relatively cheap and we could watch Clemente play outfield, which no one in his time could do like him. One day, the opposing batter launches a high drive into right center field. The Pirates’ center fielder was a (white) guy called Bill Virdon. He and Clemente are running toward the ball. One of them caught it; I forget who. But I do remember a (white) fan nearby hollering, “Kill that nigger, Virdon!” Wow. I puzzled over that for a long time: why would some random white man have such hatred for Roberto Clemente, the Pirates’ best player? Was it because he thought the white centerfielder should catch the fly ball? That the black, Latino right fielder had no business ranging out of his territory to make the catch? I couldn’t let myself think there were racist whites at a Pirates’ game.
Lest I come across as an anti-racist kid, let me say that, without uttering it, me and my friends thought that black athletes like Roberto Clemente or Willy Stargell were great ballplayers, but still alien as men. I think now that we exercised our white privilege to like what they did but not want them to get too close to us. I think we patronized them. As I moved on to college, I became, somehow, a fan of “black” popular music. When I was home for the summer, I had the local “black” station on the radio all the time. I liked “soul” and I wanted to partake a little bit of it, without, of course, being black myself. I thought I was on the right side of the then-unnamed culture wars. One DJ on the station went by the air name of “Sir Walter.” He had a deep voice and spoke slowly and with an affected intellectual tone. In those days, radio “personalities” often read commercial announcements themselves. One of the sponsors for The Sir Walter Show was Ex-Lax, and Sir Walter talked about it like he believed. He’d say, in his deep voice, “Constipation: the worst misery of which I know,” and he say that one way a person could take Ex-Lax was in the form of “choc-o-lated pills.” He made it a three syllable word, which gave me a chance to laugh at his pretentious intonation, to see through his verbal pose. When I first went to graduate school, I met a woman from Kentucky and wooed her. I presented Pittsburgh as a really funky place, and I’d tell her about The Sir Walter Show and try to do his on-air voice, to make her laugh and think I was attractive. I never once thought that this was a racist attitude. Racist? Who, me? No, man, I’m a liberal! I support Civil Rights! Blah blah blah!
For the fiftieth anniversary of our graduation, my high school class launched a website. It helped reconnect people, like me, who’d lost touch with virtually everybody from that time and place. The site is still active, with classmates posting occasional comments, stories, poems, pictures. Recently someone, not me, started a discussion about race — or race in our high school and the neighborhoods that fed it. That discussion got me thinking again about my white youth, my white privileged youth. I’ve said before that the kids I was in class with, ate in the cafeteria with, etc. were virtually all “pro-civil rights.” In 2018, that sounds so quaint! But Allderdice High School was in one of the most affluent — and white — neighborhoods in the city. And I’m going to guess that many of my classmates’ parents were college-educated. My father was not. That was one of several ways I felt a little marginalized in school. Still, as a white boy and an athlete and in a couple of Advanced Placement classes, I was accepted and mainstream. So far, the discussants on that site have been a small percentage of our class — and all white. Someone (me?) asked if there had been any black people in our class. To myself, I thought not — or at least I couldn’t remember any. Anyway, the recent posts on the TAHS Class of 1964 website sent me to our yearbook to see. The Class of 1964 numbered 475, of whom three were black – -all girls, two of whom I take to be sisters, perhaps twins. I remembered none of them. Speaking just for myself and not my 471 white classmates, the invisibility of these three girls is a sign of our privilege. There were some black boys on the football team, one or two, but no one from our class. It wasn’t til I got to college that I had more interaction with black peers. But I do want to mention a couple of high-school-age black friends, or friends of friends. There were several of these, not Allderdice students. Through our church, my horizons expanded a little. Around my freshman year, the church I’d grown up in merged with another Presbyterian church not in Squirrel Hill. It was in East Liberty, what was at the time a declining commercial district with a transitional population. The high school in that part of the city, Peabody High School, was racially mixed, reflecting the neighborhoods it drew from. So there were a few black kids in Eastminster Presbyterian Church, one of home, Addison Booker, was a friend of some white kids I’d gotten close to through a youth group. I remember he was a dancer, none of whom I’d ever known either, and talked about joining the Freedom Riders in the summer of 1963. I don’t remember if he went or not. I also made sort-of friends with some black athletes. I played Colt League baseball for the Shadyside Boys Club team, Shadyside being adjacent to both East Liberty and Squirrel Hill. There were black kids on the team, but I can remember only one name: Tony Henderson/ I believe he had a brother who was also on the team. The games were here and there in the eastern part of the city and neighboring boroughs, and we had to make our own way to the games. This also was the summer of 1963, and although I was 16 I did not have a driver’s license. So sometimes my dad would drive me to wherever the SBC team was playing, sometimes I’d go by streetcar, and at least once, anyway, I rode with Tony Henderson and two other black teammates, one of whom I recall as Tony’s brother. More than 50 years later, I still have a vivid memory of riding to a game with these guys. laughing and joking. Chuck Berry’s “Mabelene” came on the radio, and the three black kids sang along. In my memory, we were riding in a V8 Ford ourselves. I didn’t known the song, but I felt like I was being accepted into another world. I think this is the first time I felt any kind of a bond with black people my age. But I lost track of these guys went I entered my senior year of high school. I still couldn’t drive, so my relative lack of mobility limited my friendships, and I sort of came alive as a student my senior year — finally getting some decent grades and becoming more involved with extracurriculars other than football. So my vision turned away from my SBC baseball teammates. I never saw any of them again.
Months ago, I started musing on race and racism through the eyes of one 70-something white man. This is a continuation of that with more memories of my experiences.
My mother died when I was five. Soon thereafter, my father hired a live-in housekeeper, the first of several who were part of my family up through my high-school years. All were white. The first, a wonderful woman named Katie Durso, developed rheumatoid arthritis while working for the Wingards. She would die in just a couple of years, but while she was in our home and increasingly unable to do work with her hands, my dad hired a “cleaning lady” to help her. This black woman’s name was Bernice. I never knew her last name. I suppose she lived in the Hill District, one of the black neighborhoods in the city. It was a daily sight to see black women in their 40’s and 50’s getting off the bus in virtually all-white Squirrel Hill in the morning and reboarding the bus in the evening. We (white kids in Squirrel Hill) all knew without being told who these women were and why they were in our neighborhood. No big deal. But Bernice was the first person of color who really had anything to do with my life. She was large, I remember that, and kindly. But one time I overheard my dad complaining to Katie about her, calling her (Bernice) an “esmeralda.” I had no idea what that meant, and maybe my dad didn’t either, but I knew he was disparaging her — or her intelligence or her work habits. For some reason, I later decided he was calling her a “mule,” with connotations of “not very smart, stubborn, but hard-working at a limited task.” At some point, Bernice left my father’s employ — maybe after Katie died — and we never had another cleaning lady. Lots of my friends did, though; it was common practice.
When I got to high school, I would hear some of the boys talking about going to the Hill to get laid. Apparently, their were brothels there. I think it cost a dollar to have sex with a black prostitute. I was shocked and confused by the talk. But I also picked up more than a whiff of contempt on the part of these white schoolmates for these women. I never partook, but not because I saw the racism in the economy of Hill District prostitution. Or, for that matter, in the economy of housekeeping in Squirrel Hill.
At the same time, as I said in another post, many of my high school friends came from liberal homes — more liberal than ours. The zeitgeist of Allderdice High School when I was there was “pro-civil rights,” and many of the kids were pretty hip on the issue. Of course, it was easy to identify racism as an exclusively Southern phenomenon. At any rate, I came out of high school with liberal ideas on race. Naive, but liberal.
I played football in college, and there were a few black players on the team. I was never really friends with any of them, and, looking back, I wonder how they felt being at a mostly white college. As I recall, my teammates accepted them — especially if they were good. There was one black player, a guard, who was outstanding — probably the best blocking guard in the conference. He was also uncouth, in white terms: loud, grabby, kind of goofy. White guys used to joke about not lockering next to this guy because he had body odor, which was taken as a natural phenomenon of blackness. I don’t know; none of the other black players smelled bad to me, any more than my white teammates did. But I never said anything. Spring of my senior year, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Riots erupted in black neighborhoods in several American cities. Black people were pissed off — understandably so. But a couple of the black guys, including one star running back, de-activated from the fraternity that they and I were members of, in protest of the murder of Dr. King. The attitudes among most of my white frat brothers ranged from mystification to anger: Why would they de-activate? None of us did or said anything to them? Isn’t that a little extreme? Screw them if they don’t want to be part of our club! Looking back, to my surprise, I spoke up in defense of their action; I said that if I were black I’d do the same thing. I don’t think I got through to any of the white guys.
I’m not trying to heroize myself here; just recalling some incidents in one young white American’s life where racism — usually invisible — asserted itself.
This year will be the 50th anniversary of my college graduation. Of course, there are events planned at the college, and one of my (few) friends from those days is on the organizing committee for a class reunion at homecoming, fall of 2018. I told her I wouldn’t be going, as I told a former fraternity brother who called me about the event. There are several reasons I’m not going, but one of those is my reluctance to be again, even for just a weekend or even just in the minds of my classmates, the guy I was then: not openly racist, maybe even liberal, but far from woke. Maybe I’m doing my classmates wrong by thinking this way, but I don’t believe any of them is, to this day.
Or maybe I should go, and try to talk to some of them about systemic racism?
I am a white male, raised in a middle-class household (although not a “normal” one) in a middle-class, white neighborhood in Pittsburgh (although the city I grew up in might not really matter). For a long time, I have thought about racial issues, as if they affected only people of color, not whites. Now, thanks to my participation in a SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) and the reading and discussion I have had lately about race, I am working toward a more nuanced but realistic understanding of race — at least from a white perspective. This is an ongoing project, so I am going to write about it in a series of posts that will be personal and exploratory — as opposed to general and declaratory — as much to clarify my own thinking as to influence anyone else’s.
In the home I grew up in, we were “liberal” on race. I mean people of color were not openly derided, mocked or insulted. Without any discussion of “civil rights,” I am sure that my father and all my brothers supported full public rights for all; when the civil rights struggle became more visible to white Yankees like us, we learned that racists were the people who attacked the sit-ins and burned the Freedom Riders’ busses. They were white people who used the term “nigger,” not the more polite “negro” or even “colored person” as we did in our home. Many of my high school friends and classmates were active liberals on the issue — some even participated in demonstrations and rallies. I felt no different from those kids, just more quietistic. When I got to college, I really saw how liberal my background had been compared to most of the other white men I mixed with. Not that they were all “nigger this” and “nigger that,” but they were more open with other racial remarks. Assertions like black people have natural rhythm that white people lack or that black men are naturally better basketball players than white men were widely believed and shared, without any intention of degrading black people. I remember one frat brother, who at least claimed his father worked for the FBI in its Cleveland office, saying that his father told him the FBI was shadowing MLK, Jr. because he was a suspected Communist. I took what he said seriously. Did not see what he said — or the FBI’s alleged profiling of Dr. King — as racist. There was another incident where a high school or college basketball player — coincidentally, also from Cleveland — was pictured in the newspaper for some achievement. His last name was Wingard, same as our family name. It generated much ribbing about us having black relations. Why that was funny, I can no longer understand.
I went to school for almost thirty years, grade school through Ph.D. I don’t recall ever having a black classmate, although there were a few black students at my urban high school, at my undergraduate college, and at the three universities I attended for graduate work. I did have black students, though, once I started teaching. I spent a year as an English teacher at an overwhelmingly black high school in rural Virginia, and when I was a graduate teaching assistant at LSU, I had a few black students in my classes. But once I finished my Ph.D. and became a full-time college professor, first in Nebraska then in Pennsylvania, I had very few black students. In Nebraska, none; in Pennsylvania, maybe a dozen in 33 years. After retirement, I landed a one-year gig as an adjunct instructor at Penn State’s Abington campus. One of the interesting and educational aspects of that job, for me, was that Abington’s enrollment was about 40 percent students of color, and having black students in my classes was both normal and refreshing. Of about 14 students I had in two classes there, seven were people of color and five of those seven were black. And these students were strong ones, too: the black students and the white. For me, at the end of my career, it was liberating to be able to talk to black students as something like intellectual equals and to be able to put race and language on the table as a subject of study. In the process, I was learning more about the lived experiences of these students than I had with whatever black students I’d had since teaching high school, going on 45 years now.
Two incidents that caused me to reflect on how I might be racist in spite of my good intentions and liberal attitudes. One was in class in fall semester, 2015. There were two black women in that class, and for a few weeks I couldn’t get their names straight. That is, I would call Janeen “Danielle” sometimes and vice versa. Complicating matters was that I had met a black instructor whose first name was “Janelle,” and my difficulty in identifying them and working with them individually bothered me. And it wasn’t that “all black people look alike” to me; I’d long since gotten past that. I did come to differentiate Danielle from Janeen, but one time before coming to that point, I called Danielle “Janeen” and she corrected me. I said, “If I do that again, slap me.” Danielle laughed, but I was annoyed at myself for this confusion.
The other incident was not in the classroom but on the bike trail, but it occurred in summer 2015 so at a similar stage in my awareness/ignorance. Taking a break during a ride, I saw a black man and two children, on bike, across the canal from where the bike trail was and I was standing. They started riding, slowly, down a dirt lane that paralleled the canal and the trail. I called out to them, saying something like, “Excuse me, but if you want the bike trail you have to come across the bridge over here.” The man called back, “Thank you, but we live down this lane.” He was polite; I was polite. But I was horrified at my prejudicial assumption that because the people were black they could not be local to this mostly wealthy, rural Pennsylvania county. And of course, I tried to mansplain what I thought they needed to do. There seemed to me nothing to apologize for, and I had no sense that the man was offended. At least he didn’t act offended. But it was probably not the first time that a kindly white man addressed him as if he were in the wrong place somehow. No, I didn’t holler, “Hey! What are you doing over there?” But my assumption that they “weren’t from” around those parts was about as bad.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not writing this to expose my own racism or race prejudice or to publicly flog myself for my errors. I want to put it out there, though, that even a liberal, nay, progressive, white man like me isn’t as clean as he might like to think he is.
An article in the New York Times Magazine of 18 January, “Call it What It Is,” discusses the new science of “naming” brands and products. Oddly, the article never mentions rhetoric, not once, but that’s what is really going on beneath the fancy shenanigans of trying out parts-of-word sounds on people and running computer algorithms. The linguist from Stanford, Will Leben, supposedly discovered that people (his test subjects) connected sounds to meanings. For instance, “fip” is “lighter and faster” than “fop” and so “’the physical characteristics of sound are what determine associations” with meaning. A further study showed that sounds associate with emotional states, so that “fricatives convey ‘faster’ and ‘smaller’ – as do vowels that are voiced near the front of the mouth, like the a in ‘bat’ or the i in ‘hid.’ Plosives, or stops, convey ‘slower’ and ‘bigger’ – as do vowels that are voiced at the back of the throat, like the o in ‘token’ or the double o’s in ‘food.’ So-called voiceless stops like k, p¸and t are more alive and daring than voiced stops like b, d, and g, while the voiceless convey less luxury than the voiced.” The unspoken point is that morphemes aren’t really the smallest units of meaning in words; sounds are.
The linguistic tenant of the arbitrary relation of the signifier to the signified is challenged in the article. The challenge may be valid insofar as the signifier is a sound unit¸ not a graphic one, but there’s a difference between the graphic signifier and the aural one. Poets have long known that sounds carry meaning. Onomatopoeia illustrates the point of the relation of sound to emotion; in words like “ding,” “boom” or “plop,” the arbitrary nature of the sign is challenged because the sound is the meaning or is so close to it that the two are virtually inseparable. Just think of Poe’s “The Bells,” a verse treatise on the connection between physical sounds and emotions. In that poem, the association is not so much between words and the sounds of the actual bells, but between the words and the sounds in Poe’s descriptions of the bells. But in the case of a mere graphic representation of meaning, the relation between signifier and signified is still arbitrary. But whether the relation between sound and emotion is a matter of sound or of meaning, it is still rhetoric! The final name for the virtual reality project discussed throughout the article ¬– ”Jaunt” ¬– would “work” rhetorically either way – or both ways: aurally and semantically.
My wife telling me “You’re too old to go off by yourself like that” was what clinched it for me. I had been discussing with her a plan to go on a four-day camping trip to remote north-central Pennsylvania, alone, and to bike the Pine Creek Trail, which runs about 63 miles from Wellsboro Junction, Tioga County, in the north to Jersey Shore, Lycoming County, in the south. I wanted to do this for several reasons: I had become a cycling junkie and was looking for someplace new to ride; I love tent camping; I wanted to prove something to myself — that I could manage such a solitary trip and come back in one piece, after having undergone a radical prostatectomy about six month earlier. Having this “adventure” experience was part of my LIVESTRONG mentality.
The Pine Creek Trail had caught my eye as I searched Pennsylvania rails-to-trails on the Web. I could get there in one day’s drive from my home in Bethlehem, Pa.; it was reportedly a well maintained and “easy” trail, rising a mere 2 degrees of elevation over its entire length; and it traversed some of the most beautiful scenery in the state.
My wife, Karla, and I had been negotiating back and forth about my going off somewhere alone. She was thinking about what could go wrong; I was thinking about what could go right. She finally relented, and off I went, camping gear, food, and firewood packed into my car and bicycle attached to the roof.
Trail riding is my “hobby,” my primary way of staying fit, and an important way in which I have fun. It started, really, in the first decade of this century. A college friend with whom I had reconnected after many years suggested that when the two of us turned 60 we should cycle across the country. I didn’t know if that would happen, but I did know that I would have to get into some kind of cycling shape in advance of any such trip. The cross-country excursion never did happen, but my “training” for it on my mountain bike consisted of me riding an average of 80 miles a week from March to November on trails close to home. By the summer of 2009, I was 62, recovering from cancer surgery, and a cycling junkie.
But I am also a rhetorician — I write, I teach writing, and I study and teach rhetoric. With that hat on, I had learned the notion that travel is a rhetorical act. This thanks to John Ramage’s book Rhetoric: A User’s Guide. Ramage distinguishes among commuting, touring, and traveling. The first, in the rhetorical theory developed by Kenneth Burke, whom Ramage follows, is motion without action: moving almost automatically, without conscious thought as to purpose or the scene through which one moves. Touring includes purpose, so it is action, not just motion, but the purpose is to see and experience the known. Or the “preformed,” as Walker Percy calls it in his excellent essay “The Loss of the Creature.” Even if you tour a place you have not been to before, the motive is to see what you expect to see: the Grand Canyon, for instance, or the Sistine Chapel ceiling. People go touring, in this sense, to have a prefabricated experience; their expectations are formed by guidebooks, travel brochures, and popular images. (Ironically, though, as Percy says, the tourist doesn’t see the “real” Grand Canyon; he sees a version of it mediated through other agencies: the Park Service, corporate travel agencies, planes and buses.)
Travel is also motion with purpose, but a more open-ended purpose: to have, or to be willing to have, an experience unlike, in some crucial way, any other; to encounter the strange in the sense of that which is out of one’s comfort zone. Travel is also a matter of identity formation. The tourist brings his identity with him and returns with it unchanged. The traveler finds or creates his identity in the process of traveling.
Now here, I have to digress. By “identity” I don’t mean to suggest that the traveler finds or discovers a pre-existing self that is the totality of his being. Rather, the traveler creates an identity as she travels — a partial identity, that is, who she is under these circumstances, not others. This process may be a matter of “bringing out” something within the traveler that he didn’t realize was there, or it may be a matter of “becoming’ someone whom he was not before he traveled. In contrast with touring, travel can be, is, a risky business. Travel seen rhetorically involves what Ramage, following Burke, calls the “Act-Suffer-Learn” pattern. To go somewhere with the intention of encountering something “new” is to act. The action of traveling entails suffering, because, unlike touring, travel is open to contingency. That is, something unplanned and possibly inconvenient is likely to happen. And to recognize that suffering, to act upon it, is to learn, where the learning may be about the scene of one’s travels or the traveler herself.
Digressing a little further, I will add that to “suffer” is not necessarily to have pain. It is closer to “undergo” or “experience.” But the Buddhist notion of samsara is also relevant here: the suffering that is the ongoing condition of being human, not an enlightened being. Or if you prefer, it is existential reality.
So in late June 2009, I take myself up to north-central Pa. to travel the Pine Creek Trail. Much of roughly the northern third of the trail runs through “the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” aka the Pine Creek Gorge, with mountainsides rising some 1,000 feet above the creek. Camped at Leonard Harrison State Park on the east rim of the Gorge, I can hear Pine Creek rushing far below and see the mist rising from the water. But I cannot see the creek itself. For a view of the Gorge with both the creek and the trail that runs beside it, it is necessary to visit the state park on the west rim of the Gorge, Colton Point State Park. Although campsites are available at both parks, I choose Leonard Harrison because it has hot showers and flush toilets, whereas Colton Point does not. In this respect, I am a tourist, not a traveler, because I don’t want any surprises where these kinds of amenities are concerned. On the other hand, I am a traveler because I am responsible for my own shelter and food; I will sleep in the tent I pitch and eat the food I prepare. And if anything “goes wrong” I will have to deal.
My plan is to ride the length of the Pine Creek Trail in three sections, shuttling over each. One day, I will start at or near the northern trailhead and ride approximately 21 miles south and back; the next day, I will drive to the first day’s turnaround point and ride about 21 miles south from there and back; the third day, I will cover the southernmost third of the trail, again by driving to the previous day’s turnaround point and riding from there. This is kind of clumsy, and it has me in my car for some time instead of on my bike, but it means I don’t have to pack my tent and everything with me each day. I will bring a lunch each day, though, and my video camera.
Videoing scenes along the trail may, I realize, move me from an authentic encounter with the trail and the creek to a mediated one. But I think that because I won’t be videoing all the time I’m riding and because I will keep on moving through whatever scene I am recording, I won’t be a mere voyeur or consumer of the scene but a living part of it. And what is most important is what I do, what I undergo each day, rather than what I will show the folks back home when I return.
Act-Suffer-Learn: I act by forgetting to bring my video camera on my first day of riding. There is just so much to be attended to — finding the access point to the trail, packing my lunch and other necessities — and I am not accustomed to videoing my surroundings. So it’s not until I encounter a big, menacing timber rattlesnake coiled up on the train that I realize I can record this experience in memory but not digitally. Not being able to video the rattler is one bit of suffering. Not having a cold beer with my lunch because I had forgotten to pack it is another. So is returning from the day’s ride exhausted because I’m not used to 40+-mile rides. Finally, I suffer because I can’t video the most beautiful wild animal I have ever come across — a porcupine. As I’m nearing the place where my car is parked, I see this roundish, biggish animal trotting along the trail ahead of me. It’s too small for a bear, too big for a groundhog. What is it? As I catch up with it I see the quills and realize it is a porcupine. But one whose quills are silver with bands of gold running across the middle of its back and its tail. I learn that in spite of the trail running through the Pine Creek Gorge and in spite of the railroad that preceded the trail and the human habitation along the way this is wild animal country — their country, not mine.
So these shots — of the trail of the bottom of the Pine Creek Gorge — were made on the third day of my ride, when I returned to the northern section of the trail to cover its northernmost 6 or 7 miles. And that’s another thing: I realize that there is this northernmost stretch of trail only when I see a map at the southern trailhead. I had broken camp the morning of my third day of riding, had everything in my car, and was intending to spend the night in a motel near the southern trailhead before driving home the next day. But once I saw that map I realized that if I were really going to ride the entire trail I would have to backtrack to the point at which I’d begun my first-day ride and go north from there. Act-Suffer-Learn.
But by the end of my first day of riding, I have suffered from the exertion of the ride and from the fact that, cameraless, I have missed recording my encounters with an awesome snake and a beautiful porcupine. Perhaps I have learned, though, not to forget the camera the next day.
Wrong! The second day dawns rainy, and I am uncertain as to what I will do. I finally decide I will ride anyway. I have a rain suit I can put on, and I’ve come here not to sit in my tent for a day but to ride the trail. But worrying about the weather and getting my rain gear together affects my thinking and I again forget to bring the camera. The suffering this day is the rain — which ends after about 20 minutes of riding only to begin again later as I am returning to my car — and the fact that I have no camera when I come upon a black bear beside the trail. It is the first wild bear I’ve ever seen in Pennsylvania, even though I have lived in the state for almost 30 years at this point. Riding along, I sense I am being looked at from aside the trail. I turn to see, and there is this young adult bear standing up under a tree looking at me. I say “a bear!” aloud and stop my bike to watch it. I watch it; it watches me. After a few minutes, it turns to move away and I decide I should do the same before the bear changes its mind. I am thrilled, but I have no visual evidence of this encounter, the lack of which may lead you to think I am making all this up. Anyway, I learn (again) that I should be more mindful before starting out each day and that I should not let worries about the weather hang me up.
But I learn something else too, something I didn’t already know. I reach my turnaround point — the village of Waterville, roughly 20 miles from the southern terminus of the trail — in beautiful sunshine. Even though this section of the trail runs through areas less wild than the northern third, it affords many wonderful view of the creek, which it crosses several times. Because the trail once carried a railroad, the creek crossings are old railroad bridges that are really cool to ride over. I can even video the bridges and the creek as I’m crossing. But as I near my starting/ending point for the day, the village of Cedar Run, a thunderstorm breaks. There is no shelter, really, so I slip into my raingear and ride on. I realize, though, that I have a couple of more miles to go and that riding in a downpour is not only not fun but dangerous. So, passing through a narrow cut closely bounded by trees, I stop, get off my bike, prop it up against the side of the cut, and drape myself over it with the hood of my rain jacket up. And I wait for the rain to abate. I think to myself, “How long can this last? Half an hour at most?” Checking out my own state of mind, I see that I am neither frustrated nor angry nor disappointed. The rain will end; I just have to be patient. My day, my trip is not ruined; it’s just slowed down a little. This is novel: I usually have a very low tolerance for frustration, and I’m often cursing my luck or my mishaps. Here, what can I do except be patient? Arriving back at my campsite later that afternoon, the rain has ended and I am elated over becoming — if just for those few moments — someone other than the person I usually am.
The next morning, my suffering includes a pair of badly singed cycling gloves. I’d put the sopping wet gloves I’d been wearing in the rain on the fire ring at my campsite to dry by the fire. They did more than dry; they melted. But I was going in to Wellsboro that morning for breakfast after breaking camp, and there was a bike shop open there and I was able to buy a replacement pair. Act-Suffer-Learn.
My last day on the trail takes me to the southern trailhead at Jersey Shore. Unlike the northern trailhead at Wellsboro Junction, this one has a paved parking lot and restrooms. It also has a caboose from the old New York Central Railroad that once ran on tracks along the Pine Creek. “Road to the Future” is painted in white on the red caboose. Is that what the N.Y. Central was? If so, did the railroad run itself out of existence? Now, with this caboose in this parking lot, we’re talking bout the road to the past, or the road of the past. But that’s OK: Any rails-to-trails is a palimpsest anyway, the multi-use trail having been built where the railroad once went. And the railroad sometimes went on top of towpaths or footpaths. And later I will find the trail going on top of a state highway and a portion of a state highway going on top of the trail.
I will go back to the Pine Creek Trail two years and a couple of months later, in August 2011. I will still be a traveler, but I will also partake somewhat of touring, which makes the second trip less satisfying in some ways, although worth it nonetheless.
Like a tourist, I will plan this second trip more carefully. I will decide that it was a mistake to set up camp at Leonard Harrison in ’09, close to the northern end of the trail, because of my experience having to drive back up there to cover the northernmost 6 or 7 miles, after I’d already broken camp. I think Litle Pine State Park, near Waterville along the trail’s southern third, is a better place to camp, that I should have gone there the first time. Not that there was anything wrong with Leonard Harrison or my campsite; it’s just that the campsites as a whole there were few, and camping was almost an afterthought, the main function of the park being the overlook into the Grand Canyon of Pa. And so I scrutinize the Pa. state parks website with the idea that I will reserve a campsite at Little Pine. It turns out, though, that while there are plenty of campsites at Little Pine, and the park is handy to the trail, it’s mostly for motorized campers, and that ain’t me. I do not want to be surrounded by camper vehicles and trailers and all that goes with them. So I look a little further and find Ravensburg State Park: tent camping only! It’s less than 10 miles from Jersey Shore, where the southern trailhead is, and even though I don’t know how to get from the park to the trail, I’m interested. No reservations, so I’ll have to take my chances, but a call to an official with the DCNR (Pa. Division of Conservation of Natural Resources, which manages the state parks) assures me that Ravensburg “never fills up.”
So in mid-August 2011 I return to the Pine Creek Trail, this time to ride it south to north, though again in shuttle fashion. I arrive at Ravensburg on a damp Sunday evening. Sure enough, the campsites are not only not full, there are only two occupied sites out of about 20 in the park. With my tent pitched and other things arranged, I get out my old Coleman liquid-fuel-powered camp stove to prepare my evening meal. Trouble, suffering: I can’t pump enough fuel from the tank to the burners to have the burners burn. No pressure will build in the pump. I can have a hot dinner with the FEMA MRE (“Meal, Ready to Eat”) I have packed, but I intend to have a hot breakfast each day before riding and the only way to do that is to cook it. It’s raining when I get up Monday morning, so, hoping it will abate later, I put on my cycling clothes, put the camp stove in my car, and drive in to Jersey Shore. After breakfast at a diner, I seek out a hardware store. I’m thinking if the stove can’t be fixed I’ll try to buy another. In the store parking lot, I say hello to a guy who commiserates with me on the lousy biking weather. I tell him I’ve driven up here from southeast Pennsylvania to ride the trail, but my immediate problem is my camp stove. Turns out he’s the owner of the hardware store and he invites me in and says he’ll have a look at the stove. He lubricates the pump gasket with 30-weight, swelling it up so it will seal, and my pump and stove are back in operation. I ask him how much, and he just waves his hand. From this piece of suffering over my stove, I learn something: that if I don’t panic, if I act rationally, things will probably work out all right. And the experience confirms an idea: that if you travel in the right spirit, agents of help will appear when you need them. Again, neither my day nor my trip is ruined, even if the weather isn’t very pleasant.
I do ride much of the day in rain, at one point holing up in a comfort station trailside for about 20 minutes during the worst downpour. The surprise of the day — how did I not remember this from ’09? –is a commemorative plaque I find mounted to a bench along the trail. I am not a fly fisherman, nor have I ever heard of “Dr. Bamboo,” but his quote on the plaque speaks to me; I feel like I have acted well in pushing on in spite of the day’s obstacles to come upon this tribute.
On the second day of this trip, the palimpsestic dimension of the Pine Creek Trail will become evident in a novel way. Near a place called Rattlesnake Rock, just south of the village of Blackwell, work on state Highway 414 has necessitated the temporary rerouting of a portion of the highway over top of the trail. The stretch is less than a mile, but the prospect of riding with motor vehicle traffic is something less than appealing. Indeed, I do come upon a car going in the opposite direction, but there’s no problem. The trail has been widened here so there’s ample room for bikes and cars. My third day of riding this year will begin and end at Blackwell, so getting to and leaving there will entail traversing this stretch of trail in my car. In doing so, I encounter no bicycles, but I do get a chance to say goodbye to the trail.
It’s been less than a year since my last trip to the Pine Creek Trail, and sometimes I find myself longing to go back again. Maybe I will encounter a bear, a rattler, a porcupine, or who knows what creature when I have my camera at the ready. But the trail will be the same and not the same. If I do return, will I still be a traveler, or will what I have learned and previously experienced — and how I will get it all “right” this time — make me tourist instead of a traveler? I’m afraid it might.