Places We’re From

The places we’re from aren’t always where we’re born.  The funny thing about reaching “middle age” is the amount of reassessment that goes on.  Where we’re from has a tremendous impact on who we become.  Not that we can’t change how we turn out, but we will always carry along with us some of where all that coming about took place.  I wasn’t born in Rouseville, but I lived there from the time I was eleven until I left for college, and then for good.  A recent creative project sent me back to the web for some information on my former home.  I’d been a (fairly local) immigrant, and I didn’t know much about this tiny town.  Although from only sixteen miles away, I’d never heard of it before moving there.  It was a small town of about 900 people.

The home of a smelly Pennzoil refinery, not everyone wanted to stop there on their way through, along route 8.  What prompted this post, however, was that web search.  According to a recent census, the population of Rouseville is now just over 500.  The Pennzoil refinery closed years ago, and my return trips to the area have always been bittersweet.  Those teenage years were tough, but formative.  Growing up in a town that small you have no connections.  You eventually learn that connections are how you get ahead in life and if you ain’t got ‘em, you ain’t got ‘em.  Even as I met other Pennsylvanians during college, none of them had heard of Rouseville.  The one exception was my advisor who’d recalled a former student from the town.

I’m not certain that it will ever become an actual ghost town—many oil boom towns did back when the petroleum industry began—but it has started on that trail.  The last time I visited, the house where I’d lived was gone.  The elementary school I’d attended had been razed.  The huge refinery was missing.  Some of the paved streets had reverted to gravel.  Part of my childhood was being erased.  Rouseville wasn’t an easy place to live.  The nearest bookstore was thirty miles away.  You couldn’t buy regular groceries, or ironically, even gas for your car in town.  Drug use was rampant and violence wasn’t unheard of.  Even so, I know the town will always be part of me.  And even if Rouseville never becomes a ghost town proper, there will always be ghosts from there living in my mind.

Oil Heritage

I love optical illusions. Apart from the sheer fun of ambiguity, such illusions are really all about perspective. Shifting perspective can be one of the most powerful ways of changing a person’s life. One of my more stalwart perspectives is that those who originate something deserve recognition. If that something is important, they may even deserve acclaim. And sometimes that thing may turn bad, in which case the discoverer may end up being notorious. Originality, the subject of bestsellers and media gurus, is sometimes the result of thinking differently than other people do. It can be cultivated and grown. Sometimes it’s simply fortuitous.

Every time I visit my own place of origins in western Pennsylvania, I think of the oil industry. It’s pretty hard not to around here. “Pumping jacks” still operate in some back yards, and petroleum tanks suddenly appear along beautiful rustic roads. The presence of fossil fuels isn’t as evident as it was when I was a child, for all the big refineries have closed down. Many of them have been dismantled. Still, I can’t drive by the site where a refinery fire glowed beyond the next hill from my childhood home and not wonder about it. Seeing those huge oil tanks melted and crumpled as if they’d been made of wax is an image that doesn’t get easily erased. Today, that’s all gone. Still, the oil industry itself was originally from this region. The auto industry—although increasingly electric—would’ve never started without the obvious boost that petroleum production gave transportation.

In the light, or perhaps dark, of Hurricane Harvey we’re set to see increasing gas prices. They will impact the economy in other ways, and energy giants will continue to degrade the environment in the quest for cheap and abundant crude. I’m not sure if that makes the discovery of oil in this region worthy of acclaim or notoriety. It does seem, from my perspective, that since big oil is so lucrative, a lifeline ought to exist for the struggling communities in my childhood home. Empty storefronts were rare here in my youth. Now they are almost as common as shops that remain open. I know; if people can’t move on, then maybe there’s a reason the economy is sagging. There are ghost towns in this area, and there may be more in the future. I just wonder how all this will looks from another perspective. Will it all be an illusion once electricity makes the past superfluous?

Hell on Earth, Part 2

Some time back I wrote a post on the Peshtigo, Wisconsin fire of 1871. That fire, one of the worst natural disasters on American soil, must have seemed like Hell to the residents of the small frontier town. Peshtigo regrew after the fire and is a thriving community today. On the way to a family wedding in Ohio, we stopped in Centralia, Pennsylvania yesterday. Centralia is its own variety of Hell on Earth. In 1962, a fire in a trash heap set an exposed coal seam on fire. The fire spread into a coal mine and has proved impossible to extinguish. The fire burns deep underground today, nearly fifty years after it started. Some analysts suggest that there is enough fuel in this anthracite-rich area to keep the fire burning for a thousand years.

Today Centralia is a ghost town. Toxic fumes, sinkholes, and at times unbearable ground temperatures have driven many away. The federal government bought out the remainder; however, fewer than ten people still live here, refusing to leave their homes. When I learned that we’d be stopping in a nearby town for the night, I diverted our route to Centralia. There is really nothing to see. Two houses were all that I counted, and abandoned roads run into the untrimmed bushes like Life After People. While I attempted to get a feel for the place, my family spotted another car cautiously driving the abandoned roadways, looking for some ineffable handle on this man-made natural disaster. While not to the scale of the Deepwater Horizon spill, it is another example of the lust for fossil fuels and what might go wrong when these volatile substances accidentally escape human control.

Centralia, Pennsylvania

I couldn’t find the perfect picture of Centralia. There is no perfect picture here. Wary of sinkholes and reports of hostile locals, I pulled aside to take in the overall scene. On a hillside not far away, giant wind turbines lazily spun in the summer air. This clean energy alternative felt almost like an apology for setting the earth aflame below the feet of a town inhabited by mostly ghosts and less than a dozen living souls. In my head I knew that the temperature was 1000 degrees Fahrenheit well below, that 1000 people had been relocated, and 1000 years from now the fire may still be burning. Who needs a metaphorical Hell when human beings are so good at creating their own physical perditions?