There was nothing on the radio yesterday morning, as I headed out of Indiana and west along the hilly, winding stretch of Route 422 that leads to Kittanning. And so, as the stations scanned past but nothing caught my interest, I started seeing the world I live in a little more than I had before.
I’ve driven that stretch of road countless times, usually on my way to tense (or rowdy) school board meetings and this day to court proceedings born from the controversy that seems to never stop. But this was the first time in a long time that I was driving it in the morning; and with the sunlight behind me, the details stood out.
Coal truck conveys, empty, coated in gray dust, peel off down side roads into the valley, headed to mines I didn’t know existed. Intersections are stained gray from falling dust and heavy tires; the road branches into two west-bound lanes up the steepest hills, and smaller cars and pick-up trucks gun their engines to make it past the lumbering trucks before it drops back to one.
An abandoned strip mine looks down from a ridge, its sharp step-terraces green now, small trees clinging to its sides. Steam from a power station belch into the blue sky miles away, on the other side of how many ridges? I never know.
Streams trickle down a ditch along the road or down rock faces when it cut into the side of the hill; a song bird swooped in front of me in its pursuit of a bug; wildflowers bloom from fence rows.
Then the mining evidence fades out, and slooping pastures tumble down the slopes into the valley, Black Angus cattle moving slowly through tall grasses, a stream meandering in a crazy looping pattern.
Towns disappear in the rearview mirror just about the time you realize you’re in them. First Shelocta – just an intersection, really. Then Elderton, where signs about the high school start popping up before the borough limit signs. “Help Elderton Remain Open,” the scream in bright green; “Welcome home Elderton,” they’re saying now as it appears they, for the moment, have kept their small high school. There’s a sandwhich shop there, and a convenience store, then you’re on your way again.
And then, just outside Kittanning and on the edge of the Allegheny River valley, 422 morphs into a four-lane highway and the small cars and pickup trucks unlucky enough to be caught behind the trucks slip into the left lane and are on their way.
And Kittanning is where I left it, heading down the steep hill to the river, toward the old, brick buildings built for generations before mine.
It’s a long and often slow stretch of highway, but you can learn a lot about this corner of the world while you’re on it, caught again behind somebody’s grandparents on an afternoon drive or the open-toped truck piled with coal.
You just have to look.