Anthracite black blankets and rustling leaves

Harley by the riverIt was a dark and stormy night.

The day had started the way a nice motorcycling day should start, sunny but not too much heat. My then 13-year-old son and I had spent two nights at Locust Lake State Park, near Mahanoy City, Pa. The stop had given us a tour of a coal breaker plant. LJ came away with 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. I think.[pullquote]“I don’t see anything,” he said.

“That’s it,” I said.[/pullquote]

We ate at a diner on Main Street, populated mostly by old men who enthralled my eldest offspring with stories of the glory days of anthracite coal. It was they who told us of the Blaschak coal breaker at west end of town.

The ride into Vermont included a stop in Rutland, at the time home to one of the few (maybe the only) municipal bands in the nation. The band was playing in the gazebo, to the pleasure of a large audience. That was 1985; I don’t know whether Rutland still has a town band. If not, I’d have to score it a loss for the area.

Part way up Interstate 91, heading for Saint Johnsbury and the hour getting late, we stopped at a rest area, its two or three street lights barely marking its existence in the fog. The well-aged attendant spoke New England English with a heavy French accent, and told us how to find the next state park. Get off at the exit, he said – 30 years later I don’t remember the name of the exit or the park – and head down the mountain. Be careful on the downhill. It would be very steep, he said, and the left turn at the stop sign would be very sharp. Watch for a lake 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 the flatlands, like pulling a heavy wool blanket over your head. I had never thought how trees give texture to darkness, until even that seemingly featureless effect gave way to nothingness.

“That must be the lake,” I said.

“Where?” LJ asked.

I pointed into the blackness.

“I don’t see anything,” he said.

“That’s it,” I said.

The park was not yet open – kids in snow country start vacation later into spring than youngsters farther south – but we could have a cabin if we’d like, 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.

On the way back, as we passed the shadowy puckerbrush bordering our path, something rustled. We stopped. 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, “Anyway, black bears don’t each much and you’re too big for a snack.”

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 muddy road back to pavement.

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.

I submit kids spend too much time staying safe in front of television and video games, and not enough time listening to bears in the dark. They need to get out more, if for no other purpose than to have stories to tell when they’ve aged some.

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