Pennsylvania: the WTF state.

This weekend I went, somewhat randomly, to the town of Bellefonte in Pennsylvania. It’s lovely there. There are lots of nineteenth century buildings that have been well looked after. There’s an attractive park. The food is good. The people are friendly. The town nestles in a long, linear valley full of farms and open land and so is looked over by green, attractive, tree-covered ridges in two directions. What’s not to like?

It’s also quiet. So quiet, in fact, that you can’t help but wonder how the town stays so nice. We took some long drives in the land surrounding the town, and found that to be attractive too. The landscape is so tidy around there that it feels almost Swiss. Small, perfectly maintained villages dot the landscape, each so small that they don’t contain a single shop. Families putter from place to place in Amish buggies. Everywhere there is a sense that the hand of time has been magically held back, and along with it, the pressure to fill the place with strip-malls, agribusiness and the staggering quantity of crap that clots the north east corridor.

Everywhere, that is, except State College. But while State College feels up-to-date, it’s fairly nice too. Sure, there is a fairly rabid football flavor to the place. And sure, the town is still licking its wounds from the whole Sandusky scandal thing. But nevertheless, it’s a pleasant place to spend a few hours. And it, too, seems to be buoyed up by a kind of surreal forcefield of prosperity.

So I thought: okay, Pennsylvania is a ‘Nice Place’. It’s a rural sort of state with a magic-based economy that happens to have Philadelphia at one end of it. (By this point you can probably guess that prior to this weekend, my overall knowledge of Pennsylvania was fairly low. So rather than taking interstates home, we decided to drive across country.

Mistake. Or, at least, a mistake when you have a one-year old in the back of the car who wants to make frequent stops to race around in the grass and eat gravel.

At first, driving seemed like a great choice. There was a seemingly endless supply of pretty, prosperous little towns and meticulous farms. Then we crossed a river and hit ‘Coal Country’.

Holy fucking christ on a bike. Talk about culture change. In a matter of a few miles, you go from magically wealthy to magically fucked up. You first really realize this when you hit Shamokin, a town so desolate that if if desolation was something you could bottle and sell, that they’d be millionaires before they actually ran out of desolation.

Shamokin’s number one claim to fame is that it’s situated next to the world’s largest manmade mountain. By which they mean a crap-heap of mine excreta next to the town so big that it matches the surrounding hillscape. Except that trees can’t grow on it properly because it’s made of crap, so they all sort of lean over and look sickly. And it’s then that you realize that selling desolation for money was exactly what they were doing until the 1970s when the mine there was shut down.

Before Shamokin, we imagined that we’d stop in the next town to get my son ice-cream or something. We did not stop. One look at the extremely sad downtown convinced us that we were not going to have our baby playing around on the median strip eating clinker and playing with crack needles. Maybe the next town, we thought. Or the next one. Or the next one. Etc.

Maybe this sounds dreadful. Maybe I’m revealing some kind of horrific middle-class bias by admitting this. But my point is not to run down Shamokin or anyone who lives there. My main point is this: what on Earth is going on in Pennsylvania that there are such weird discrepancies of prosperity, in towns that really don’t have that much difference between them?

Coal country stretches for miles and miles. And it’s really very incredibly grim.

So what I’m left with at the end of the weekend is confusion. How does this place work? What stops the people in Shamokin from moving west about thirty miles and starting over? How does everyone in Amish country keep their business afloat? Why doesn’t the state have some kind of tax code that inspires revitalization? After all, a lot of those doomed little towns could be quite pretty with the right attention.

At the very least, you could try convincing hipsters to move to coal country and make the place ironically awful. Sort of like the Pabst Blue Ribbon of real estate.

In any case, I’m left confused. To my mind, Pennsylvania isn’t one state. It’s at least two. Or maybe just one but run by evil wizards. Can anyone help me out here?


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