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Back on the Road in America.

Catherine and I set off yesterday for Ohio, in preparation for the birth of our first child. Catherine wants to do a home birth, but for that a home a bit more spacious and commodious than our cabin seems desirable, and in the end we decided on Ohio, where her family is. And specifically, we settled on Amish country in Ohio, where home births are a way of life and where there are several highly respected and experienced midwives. Our experiences in New York City – another place we considered for the birth – is that home births in the city are, like many things in New York City now, not a way of life but a “luxury product,” an experience to be had for top dollar. I could tell she wasn’t happy with her options in New York City, and I asked her if she wanted to check out Ohio instead. She took a trip to Amish country in Ohio, where she immediately found a suitable midwife, and now here we are.

So yesterday, a month before the due date, we put an unusually large number of things into the back of my truck (I got a cap for the truck for this purpose) and set off to spend two months in the nation’s heartland.

Many of the traits of rural America are found in the Catskills – pickup trucks, country music, a strong Republican majority – but mostly the Catskills is vacation wilderness for East Coasters. On the road driving across Pennsylvania it didn’t take long for things to feel different. The Catskills used to be known as “the Jewish Alps,” and there were summer camps for all kinds of different Christian groups; several Catholic religious orders still have their monasteries there, and every time I hear someone talking about a Buddhist monastery, it seems to be a new one I’ve never heard of before. And there are a number of Utopian groups and religious sects I’ve never heard of anywhere else too. But along I-80 I could see the signs on the road: “ONE WAY: JESUS.” For one stretch of the road there were four different Christian evangelical radio stations, two country stations, and an NPR outlet.

Elsewhere, there was still a lot of ZZ Top on the radio – after all these years, still ZZ Top. Talk about arrested development. Some of the songs on the country radio stations were different too – how had I never heard the “Shut Up & Fish” song? I listen to a lot of country radio in the Catskills, and I’d never heard it before.

We stopped for lunch in Dubois, Pennsylvania. So many terms for woods – bois, sylvania. It’s still accurate: I-80 passes through hundreds of miles of forest, so much of it still thinly inhabited. There doesn’t seem to be any lack of space, for Syrian refugees, or Palestinians, or people from India or China or Africa. But it’s not clear, if they came here, they would want to live in the woods of Pennsylvania either. Poor soil, not much going on. They’d probably want to be in New York or Boston or Atlanta or Jacksonville like everyone else.
The interstate system really should be called the intercity system, because it really links the big cities; 80 links New York City to San Francisco via Cleveland, Chicago, and Salt Lake City; almost anything smaller it is entirely willing to bypass. In Pennsylvania it seems to bypass everything, eschewing State College for Milesburg, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for true wilderness (the intersection of 80 and 81, two hugely important interstates, does not even have a gas station or motel, so wild and uninhabited is the spot), in order to remain true to the 41st parallel linking New York and Chicago. The principle that reduces this part of the earth to Flyoverlandia is implied in the interstates as well.

Lunch at Luigi's.

Lunch at Luigi’s.

As a result there is almost nothing interesting along I-80, and finding a worthwhile stop along the route is an actual challenge. I have done Bellefonte a few times, which is a few miles from the highway but it has some great antique shops and makes a good stop. This time we picked Dubois, which again required a substantial detour off the highway, but I am always glad when I detour into an old downtown. Dubois was a decent little place, with the kind of old brick unbeauty you might find in an English mill town; a few nice churches, some pretty houses on the high ground, and a few walkable blocks at the center of town. There were a pair of Mexican restaurants, and a bakery, but we opted to eat at the fancy place, Luigi’s, where we got the kind of humongous portions you would expect from a sit-down Italian restaurant. The inside of the place was covered in framed pictures; mostly they were pictures of locals and friends, mostly at the restaurant, but also pictures of Little League teams, cheerleading squads, Boy Scout troops, Bowling Clubs, just about anything. This was interspersed with iconic images we associate with Italian restaurants: Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe, The Godfather, and Ebbets Field next to Michelangelo’s Sibyls, Da Vinci’s St. Mary and St. Anne, etc. The more you think about it, the crazier it seems, but there is a general cultural agreement that it is completely normal and fine for an Italian to put a poster of Frank Sinatra’s lockup photo (“crime: seduction”) in between framed shots of Padre Pio and the Pieta.

Back on the road, I heard an advertisement for “patriotic and military Christmas ornaments” available at a local shop – again, odd if you think about it too much (what says Christmas better than a Battleship USS Missouri tree ornament!), while my eyes were diverted by the truck I happened to be passing at the time. There are a lot of trucks on I-80 at all times, but there were a hell of a lot of trucks on the road yesterday. Early December is the time that goods move in the U.S., for Christmas sales. This truck bore the logo BIG HOUSE PRODUCTS. Beneath it it read, “Teach Inmates To Work In Pennsylvania.” Apparently this is a $60 million per year business in Pennsylvania. You can go online and browse the prison products they offer. I am not entirely opposed to this idea, but I am impressed by how little I knew of its existence: there is a whole “National Correctional Industries Association.” I suspect a business model like this is rather ripe for abuse (Pennsylvania has already had trouble with judges getting bribed by private prison executives to give longer sentences). If we had a truly redemptive prison system, the proceeds from this prison labor would go to the victims of their crimes, to repair the holes they had cut in the fabric of their society.

How strange this country is – what an odd mixture of good and evil. I heard Bill Bennett on the radio – he apparently has a show, “Morning in America” – and the Williams graduate, architect of the War on Drugs, and author of The Book of Virtues and The True St. Nicholas was publicly hoping for a Donald Trump presidency. The presidential election this year, for its bizarrerie and the hope I have that some kind of moral contrapasso will overtake all of these oligarchs, reminds me of nothing so much as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I thought it would be interesting to be in Ohio, the purplest of the purple states, just at this time.

And I would be in a strange part of Ohio too. We would be on an eighty-acre farm in Amish country – idyllic. And yet since the nullification of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005, which exempted fracking from the groundwater contamination standards which apply to all other businesses, eastern Ohio was now frackland. The countryside we would be living in would be half-Amish, half-fracking rigs.

We’ll see how it goes.


  1. Allan Taylor

    No special reason for posting here, except that I thought my comment would be more likely to be noticed here than elsewhere. There is an article in the newest Arnoldia (Volume 73, #2) which you might enjoy reading. (It is available on line) It concerns the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden, which I believe that you visited last summer. Enjoy!
    (And congratulations on the new baby!) Allan

    Posted on 14-Dec-15 at 7:18 pm | Permalink
  2. Allan Taylor

    Should have checked Arnoldia on line before I wrote. The newest volume (Vol 71, #2) is not yet available on line. Sorry; watch for it! Allan

    Posted on 14-Dec-15 at 7:50 pm | Permalink