Aki fukaki tonari wa nani wo suru hito zo
Nearing autumn's close,
my neighbor -- how
does he live?
-- Matsuo Basho
I chronicled, in "The Noise Boys," some of my and Bill's travels during the Health South project for ASCC Communications. It gave us good memories to share because it was that rare thing, what a job should be: adventure, challenge, a little danger, new people and places, and a chance to shine away from backward supervision and even more backward co-workers. That was one of the two ways to live free, on the road; the other is to hie yourself off to the deep woods, like Davy Crockett on the wild frontier.
We did the second, sort of, last week. Bill acquired a cabin he'd had his eye on for years, about six years ago, but I'd never seen it. He retired, like your humble author, but more recently. Having completed the big projects at home he'd set aside while still in the work harness, he called me up and we set a date to head west into the middle of Pennsylvania where the small villages are greatly outnumbered by bears. In mid-Cumberland county we were in (to me) unfamiliar territory, with town names I'd never heard. It's a good thing they have names, because they all look the same and if you might as well be in Mongolia if there were no state route signs and the occasional tiny post office to orient by. Every one has a pizza joint, a "beauty" parlor (probably more an aspiration than an actual product) and a metal building purporting to repair cars and tractors. Judging from the detritus surrounding them, not much gets repaired to the point of leaving under its own power.
But the charm lies in the twisty roads between settlements which slowly climb two mountain ridges, closely girded by green on either side. Like a great photo or painting or story, it's what's left out that makes the experience what it is. Once the hand of man is stayed, things settle out to that living equilibrium that old Ma Nature does so well.
Just before the borough of Three Springs, we hung a sharp left and in a few miles turned left again, leaving the named and paved road for a dirt and gravel cut that immediately begins its ascent up a hill. Despite a very hard rain last night, it was not washed out at all, due to skillful grading with cuts to direct the rushing water off to the side. I've seen private roads up similar hills destroyed by every serious rain, so the community of cabins and its loose association governance obviously knows what it's doing. An ex-SeaBee among the residents?
I see why Bill waited until this cabin became available. Next to the last one, it has its own long driveway and, at least while the leaves fill the trees, is out of sight until you're right up on it. Like most of the others, it has an outdoor pavilion with a stone barbeque, but unlike some has full indoor plumbing. The deck is up high and puts you in a perfect place among the hickory, oak and white pine trees; you can imagine yourself looking out for turkey or deer in an early morning, a fat mug of coffee grasped in your hands.
You've got recorded entertainment and books for the late night or the long winter, but you also have long walks, wood to get in and stack, no-rush chores and maintenance, and casual or serious hunting if that's your thing. It might be even if you don't find it entertaining, because there's no grocery or any other kind of store nearby. Mt. Union up to the north isn't much of a city, but that's your long-haul option to do any shopping; the Boy Scout motto about being prepared is something you had better already have made your own.
Several people live here, quite economically I'm sure, year-round. Next time you spend two hours getting home through traffic gridlock like Nancy did that same day, this arrangement (with all its potential hardships) might look pretty attractive. I felt a little guilty having such a good time while she had such a miserable one.
On our way back, we stopped at the one place in Three Springs there was to get gas, one of those home made convenience stores... a sort of reality check after enjoying the sylvan bliss. Now there's no grocery or drug store, so you would think there was a business opportunity to be exploited. I looked around, and there was nothing but candy, tobacco products, and six racks of chips. Hundreds of bottles of soda. The Altoona newspaper and tabloids, nothing else (remember half the year is dark and cold and only one TV station from Maryland if you're not blocked by the mountain). But the lack of entertainment could be easily replaced by nature and socializing; the lack of food not so much even if you were pretty good with the squirrel gun.
If you were healthy, not prone to bloody accidents, and had a sturdy 4-wheel drive vehicle with many years left on it, and were comfortable with your own and the limited local company, you could make a nice life in that cabin. The long drive to anything might just be preferable to four lanes of stopped traffic with billboards screaming at you on either side. Something to think about.
One week later: Karma smacked me on the back of the head. I was to pick Nancy up at work on this Thursday and we were going to the Hershey Grill. Due to two major accidents on I-81, it took two hours to make the 20-minute trip from home to Blue Cross, including a 32-mile detour. I thought the back route on route 39 to Hershey was the way to go, with all the usual routes just gridlocked, but found that we could not proceed past Linglestown (never saw road work just shut a town down before). So back we went all round the mulberry bush, spending an hour and half making what should have been a less than 20-minute trip to Hershey. That woodsy retreat was looking a lot better than this weekly Highway to Hell commuting.