The day started the way a spring Dad-with-13-year-old motorcycling day should start: sunny but not too much heat. It was a post-Navy-retirement run from Norfolk, Virginia where I had spent the previous eight years to Maine, where I was raised.
Night One was Locust Lake State Park, near Mahanoy City, PA. We filled out tummies at a Main Street diner named, Angela’s, populated mostly by old men who enthralled my eldest offspring with tales of the glory days of anthracite coal. It was they who pointed us to the Blaschak coal breaker at the west end of town.
There, we were treated by a caretaker (the coal industry had been shut down) to a view of a drag-line shovel that could strip enough dirt in one sweep to scoop a fair-sized town from atop a coal vein. The boy also wangled a tour of the breaker and a small bag of samples, one piece for every size the plant broke and sorted: stove, nut, pea, barley, and buckwheat, in order of size down to the smallest.
Next day, we rode through part of New York state and crossed into Rutland, VT, then and still home to the oldest municipal band in the nation. It was not just a group of community volunteers but a fully-funded Rutland City Band. The band was playing in the gazebo, to the pleasure of a large and enthusiastic audience gathered on the ground.
According to its Facebook page, the Rutland City Band is starting its 144th season.
Pointed toward Saint Johnsbury, and the hour getting late, we stopped at a rest area part way up Interstate 91, two or three streetlights barely illuminating the area around the “facilities” in the fog. The well-aged attendant, in New England English with a heavy French accent, told us how to find the next state park.
Get off at the exit, he said—I no longer remember the name of the exit or the park—and head down the mountain. Be careful on the downhill, he said. It would be very steep and the left turn at the stop sign would be very sharp. He said to watch for a small pond on the right, and a farm on the left with the park entrance road running between the house and barn.
The thing about mountains, at least when you’re between them: the sun goes down earlier and faster than in flatlands, like suddenly pulling a heavy wool blanket over your head. But even darkness has texture alongside a two-lane road through a forest, until suddenly the texture disappears and the space where there was something becomes like looking into a box—of absolutely nothing.
“That must be the pond,” I said.
“Where?” LJ asked.
I pointed into the emptiness.
“I don’t see anything,” he said.
“Yep,” I said, “That’s the pond,” The barn appeared out of the darkness on the left and I turned onto the dirt road.
The park was not yet open—kids in snow country start vacation later into spring than youngsters farther south—but the park guides offered us a cabin if we’d like, instead of our tent and sleeping bags to keep the coming rain at bay. We unpacked the sleeping bags, and hiked downhill to the shower, a few minutes for a quarter, to sluice off the road grime.
As we passed the shadowy puckerbrush bordering the path back to our bunks, something rustled. We stopped to listen. It rustled again.
“What’s that?” the boy queried, moving a little closer to me. “You think it’s a bear?”
“I doubt it,” said I, adding, “A bear would wander away from anything not messing with its cubs.”
“Anyway, you’re too big for a Black bear snack.”
I was not sure he believed me, but we slept well under the smooth, dull roar of rain on the shingled roof. Next morning, LJ walked while I navigated the Harley down the road turned to sloppy mud river from the rain, back to the paved.
The boy, now with boys of his own, still enjoys motorcycling and spending time in the woods, and he knows bears probably won’t eat him. Not New England Black Bears, anyway.
It was a dark and stormy night, and way better than an evening with a video game.
©2023 John Messeder. John is an award-winning environment storyteller and social anthropologist, and lives in Gettysburg, PA. He may be contacted at email@example.com