Saturday, September 29, 2012

Damnit, let's go for a walk.

Anthracite Coal- Harder than bananas.
Very hard to mash. Does not suck.

This week, I thought I'd tell you about the walk Damnit and I took recently. The old homestead is located in coal country. 30,000 lbs of Bananas- Harry Chapin's famous song about a truck that went out of control on one of the hills leading into the city and its cargo of bananas, mashed at the end, not withstanding, the area is best-known for its coal reserves.

Every walk starts somewhere.
Yes, the black rock that drove the steel industry, helped fuel our battles and kept generations warm, left a trail of reminders on my hometown as other fuels took its place. Although there's been a resurgence in Anthracite, the hard coal found almost exclusively here, we'll probably never see the production levels that marked the late 19th and early 20th century, again.

In the end, the mighty Susquehanna river, invited into the mines by the unscrupulous operators of the River Slope Mine on January 22, 1959, just outside Pittston, PA, ended almost all Anthracite mining in the area. The Knox Mine Disaster, the name given to the incident, claimed the lives of 12 miners when stop lines were ignored and the six feet of rock between the miners and the flooding river gave way.

Critter hunting Damnit-style.
Which brings me (follow Tangent Man on his journey through the woods) to our walk and a view of nature reclaiming man's intervention.
The motor platform, today.

I picked the kind of sunny, warm end-of-summer day that you remember all winter long for our wander through the woods that pass for our neighborhood.

Damnit was happy as hell to chase a white tail deer and taunt the squirrels while I remembered my Grandfather telling me about the mines. At one time, a motor about a thousand yards from where our house now sits, pulled mine cars filled with coal and shale to the top of a dirt tipple, where the cars were dumped into trucks and shipped to the breaker for processing. The breakers would separate the coal from the shale, with the coal being graded by size and sold.
Standard culm bank- shale and other coal waste by-products.
Photo via

Shale and any other impurities were unceremoniously dumped into piles that often grew to a hundred feet or more in height. These are the "backyard slag piles" Chapin mentions in the song. I guess "backyard slag piles" somehow sounds more romantic than "backyard shale and debris piles." Chapin seemed to know that.
The tipple/loading area today.

Somewhere in one of the many boxes that hold my life story, I have a picture of my Dad sitting on a mine car in the yard of this operation. Today, the mine entrance has been bulldozed shut, the tipple has collapsed into a dirt pile and the forest is reclaiming its own.

In the debris that was a mine, I found a fossilized fern, its print within a piece of shale. Damnit decided if she couldn't eat it, she wasn't interested and turned to search for critters to chase.

Critters are what is interesting to Damnit, although if she ever caught one, she'd be as confused as the cornered critter and lost as to what she should do.

I'd probably end up with an amused critter in front of me and eighty pounds of terrorized, whining moose dog hiding behind me, trying her best to be invisible, After all, squirrels really are a pound or so of pure, peanut-eating viciousness, just waiting to eat a full-grown lab in one bite.

Along the way, as Damnit found new and unique places to mark our trail, I saw the overburden piled in places, just topsoil removed to facilitate mining but never put back. The years are slowly rounding the jagged edges of the piles, making it harder to identify the mounds for what they are.

Tangled tow cables.
Alongside what remains of the road, I saw the rusting remains of tow cables used to pull the mine cars and I remembered the wooden cars with the iron wheels that used to line the road. They've all either rotted away or are in local museums.

A small mine cave-in, about five feet wide
Soon, I found myself standing at the edge of a cave in that spans, perhaps the length of a footall field. The coal companies were supposed to leave pillars of coal to support the roofs of mines. Supposed to got left behind as the companies looked for fast profits, leaving large areas unsupported and making cave ins a common reality. of the woods. The old hometown is known for caves that happened where people live. Caves that appear suddenly, swallowing houses, cars and people. But never politicians. Consider it professional courtesy, from one hole to another. But as is often the case, I digress.

I remembered a company was filling an old shaft in town a few years back. They had to use a machine to break a concrete cap to access the shaft. The cap and part of the shaft collapsed, taking a man to his death. Years after the last shaft closed, the mines still claim victims.

Once a busy road, now a path.
The roads that led away from the shafts and to the breakers are overgrown and disappearing over time. Trees now fill the spaces where trucks once roamed. A few cement pads, cracked and covered with years of fallen leaves, hold the places once occupied by buildings now long gone.

Damnit chased a rabbit down a path that led to where my grandfather said the mules were held in a concrete pen before being taken into the mines. The concrete is dust now, along with the mules and sadly, most of the miners too. Their time is past, their work done, only bits and pieces remain to remind us of the moments that defined them..

It's been about fifty years since this area was actively mined. In another fifty years, only the smallest traces will be legible to those who know where to look. By then, the area will probably have succumbed to tract housing. Time marches on.
Damnit's paw print.
All we left behind after our walk.

An author in search of some fluff for his blog, walked across a field that once was a bustling mining operation, with his dog at his heels. The dog stepped in the mud and made a footprint. In a couple of million years, under the right conditions, that paw print in the mud will most likely be the only sign anyone spent time in this moment.

I wonder if that print will be seen someday by a sentient being?  In that moment, I wonder, what will that being think of the print? Will it know the print represents the simple pleasure of going for a walk with a pet, a friend, just to see what's going on in the neighborhood?

Damnit was muddy and tired and the mosquitoes had found us. We headed for home, scratching and pulling pickers out of places pickers had no reason being. A lot changed since we took the same walk a few months ago. The temperature is on the way down and winter can't be far away. Every year the roads get harder to find and the forest gets thicker.

In my life, I chose the path less traveled and every year the path is less obvious. I suspect one day, my walk will end before it begins. I can only hope each year for one more fall to reveal the paths summer worked so hard to hide.

Damnit only hopes the deer and rabbits she chases keep running faster than her. She, being a dog and truly smarter than her humans, knows catching your quarry ruins the fun and a walk is never really simply a way to kill time. Time doesn't die. Time continues on.

Damnit left her mark, a simple paw print that marks her passage, her moment in time. Will you leave your own paw print, making your passage or will the mud capture only the leaves you disturb as you drift through the moments of your life?

Let your eyes walk all over my latest creations!

If you haven't already done so, click on the title for a free copy of Thirty and Two,  and a sample of  In Another Life! 

And after you finish the sample, don't forget to buy a copy of In Another Life!

A friend of mine who is currently serving in Afghanistan told me he really enjoyed "In Another Life" and will be downloading "Thirty and Two as soon as he gets to an area that has internet service. We're thinking of you, too Danny! You make us proud! We hope to see you shortly! From one sheepdog to another, you make me proud!

*Unless otherwise noted, photos by Debbi Moran, my cover genius and photographer.

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