In Uncategorized on November 21, 2009 at 6:49 pm

As we bombed down I-79, we passed an exit for Laboratory, Pennsylvania.

Also Prosperity. Crucible. Then some place called Deer Lick.

The highway between Washington County and Waynesburg is long and monotonous, especially on a Sunday afternoon, when the sky waffles between storm-clouds and blinding sun. We’d woken that morning with a desire to go somewhere — to “take a drive in the country.” And now we were here, cutting through the country, where the forested hills had shed their foliage and the landscape was dead and brown. Valleys opened up, showing the dots of cattle beneath us; red barns topped ridges and high-tension power-lines garlanded the horizon. But mostly the land was empty. On a four-lane interstate, everything looks distant, even the highway’s shoulder.

Waynesburg stands about an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh. Waynesburg is the largest town in Greene County, a region famous for its autumnal colors. I had written an article about the area for a local magazine, telling readers exactly what the Tourist Promotion Agency had told me: Greene County is famous for its covered bridges and winding country roads. Recently, O, The Oprah Magazine, had cited Greene County as one of America’s most beautiful fall drives. So why not take a day-trip out there? See some scenery. Stop in a diner. And walk the Warrior Trail.

“Do you know where the Warrior Trail is?” Ky asked me.

“Not exactly,” I said. “But we can drive into Waynesburg and ask there.”

Travel Rule #1: Ask the locals first.

After all, Greene County is “Nature’s Corner of Northern Charm and Southern Hospitality.”

The charm did not begin at the edge of Waynesburg. Quite the opposite: Waynesburg’s suburbs are a glut of fast food restaurants and Sheetz stations, carelessly spattered around five-way intersections. I puzzled through the mix of traffic lights and grassy islands, and as we accelerated toward downtown Waynesburg — the Old City, if you will — we spotted a large billboard for Chuck’s Collision Shop. The shop was an enormous tan warehouse with cars and trucks parked outside; the nose of each vehicle was smashed, the windshields shattered, the hoods crushed like aluminum foil. It didn’t matter, as we blew past in Ky’s Volvo, that Chuck and Lisa Kreuzer were expertly running this 25-year-old business, that they provided “precision collision and automotive repair.” Their expertise in “paint-less dent removal, windshield replacement and 24 hour towing” were irrelevant to us. The bottom line was this: Waynesburg, a town of 4,184, actually needed a “Collision Shop” — a business that throve entirely on car accidents. But more power to the Kreuzers: As far as the eye could see, signs for Burger King and Taco Bell loomed, and Chuck’s Collision looked like the most significant locally owned business.

We saw a McDonald’s sign, and the sandwich-board letters advertised “McTeacher’s Night, Nov. 17.”

We reached downtown Waynesburg and parked next to the Locker Room (Est. 1960), a small sporting goods store. High Street is Waynesburg’s main drag — a wide, straight street that planes through town, flanked by reverent brick buildings.

It was Sunday, and everything was closed. We realized, stepping out of the car, that we hadn’t planned this outing very well. By early November, the most vibrant leaves have fallen, and the branches are snarled and naked. We paced the sidewalk, spotting CLOSED sign after CLOSED sign. The only open business, it seemed, was the tavern; as we passed, Ky and I heard the din of conversation within, the clinking of glasses behind the thick wooden door.

Then we found the diner. As we stepped inside, it looked like an old-school roadhouse, unchanged since the 1950’s. A couple sat in a cushioned booth, way in a distant corner. At the long counter, a thick-bodied man nursed a cup of coffee. He turned his enormous bald head and studied us with his one good eye; the other was squashed tight, and I wondered if it was missing.

We stood by the glass door, waiting for someone to notice us. When an elfin young man approached, he said, “You can take any seat you like.”

“Actually, we’re just looking for directions,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, surprised. “Okay.”

“Do you know where to find the Warrior Trail?”

“The Warrior Trail,” he said. He looked to the floor, trying to remember. “The Warrior Trail.” He looked up and backed away, toward the kitchen. “Let me just look that up for you.”

A moment later, a waitress offered help. Then a second waitress. When we explained our destination, a third waitress offered advice. Ky and I stood there, wondering how a diner could support four Sunday employees when there were only three customers.

“I hope it’s no trouble,” I said.

“No problem,” the third waitress said. “I mean, we aren’t doing nothin’. Just watching the Steelers game.” She threw up her hands and grimaced.

At last the elfin waiter re-appeared. “Okay, the one way you could go is down High Street, but it’s about a 20-minute drive,” he said. “It’s actually right past our house.”

“Your house?”

“Yeah, our house.”

“Oh, okay. Where is that, exactly?”

“You just take High Street, and you keep going. And you should see a sign for it.”

“For the trail.”

“Right, the trail.”

So, not a sign for your house, then.

“The other way is to go back the way you came, to the highway, and take the exit for Kirby. You take the main road until you find the Visitors’ Center, and it should be just around there.”

We thanked them profusely. The second the door closed behind us, Ky said, “They were very nice.”

That must be the Southern Hospitality part, we decided.

As we walked back to the car, we saw a little park. It was wedged between two buildings, bedded with wood-chips and lined with young spruce trees. In the center stood a bronze statue of a boy piggybacking a small girl. The girl held an umbrella over both their heads. The sculpture had rusted green, and it had a nostalgic look to it: The umbrella was old-fashioned, like the ribbed parasols that were fashionable in fin de siècle Paris. They children looked so free and innocent, the kind of kids who love to cup toads in their hands and skip stones on the crick.

Near the car, a wizened old man stood on the street corner, watching us. His body trembled, and his bloodshot eyes glared warily. He watched us pull out of the parking space and pull into the traffic. The squad car, idling in a side-street, did the same.

These things should have nothing to do with each other, but they do.

We never found the Warrior Trail. We took the exit for Kirby and drove a winding road for several miles, but no Visitors’ Center emerged — only some farmhouses and wetlands. We weren’t disappointed so much as surprised: The Warrior Trail is 67 miles long and follows a creek. All the Greene County brochures boast its beauty. Indeed, the trail was trodden by Native Americans for 5,000 years. Surely somebody knew where to find trail access.

As we U-turned back toward the highway, Ky and I spotted an ATV rumbling down the road. Two teenagers — one guy and one girl — sped through Kirby’s main crossroads and accelerated up the long hill. They wore no helmets, no pads, and the guy had no shirt. The girl extended her arms, a gesture of freedom, victory. They rounded the corner and disappeared. I hoped that their ATV, riding illegally on a main-road, wouldn’t end up at Chuck’s Collision Shop.

We drove back along the barren highway, startled by what we’d found. Waynesburg has an airport and numerous bed-and-breakfast hotels. Waynesburg University is a respected Christian school. The business district is beloved for its intact Victorian architecture, though the town has sprawled into complete disorder. The other towns of Greene County beckoned us with their quirky names. There is so much potential here — like Greensburg, which could be Western Pennsylvania’s most attractive small-town, if only the Walmart hadn’t gutted its center. Like Windber, if young people decided to sette there and lay off the heroin.

But this is the trouble with rural Pennsylvania — not the “clinging to guns and God” that President Obama cited, though there’s some truth to this. More so the loss of place: interstates dumping drivers into formless sprawl; public school teachers congregating at McDonald’s; the town itself a clusterfuck of one-way streets; and even the management of the local diner, kind as they are, need the Internet to find the county’s most ancient monument. The region seems unfamiliar to itself, foggy with fatigue.

Travel Rule #1 doesn’t really work here. You can ask the locals first, but they may not realize where they are, what they could have.


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