The kid couldn’t have been older than 15 or 16. His jeans were ripped and his backpack looked like it had seen better days, but he was giving a monologue in the convenience store on all the reasons why he couldn’t wait to leave town to his friend behind the counter.
“There’s nothing ever to do. It’s just dead. It’s a dead community,” he said, pausing to pay his friend for his Monster Energy drink. “When my band takes off, I’m going to move to Center City and I’m never coming back. I don’t care what anyone says, I’m never coming back. Period. End of story.”
I live about 50 miles from Philadelphia. On a good day without traffic, you can make it into Center City in about 50 minutes. In the heart of rush hour traffic, you’re looking at an hour-and-a-half to a two-hour drive. The community is a mix of old timers, who’ve lived in the area for decades and two income families trying to keep ahead by commuting to jobs closer to Philly, Allentown, Reading, Lancaster and the surrounding region.
Farming, once a staple of the area, is a distant memory. It was kicked out to pave the way for housing developments full of brick McMansions, bigger and wider roads that amazingly still look like massive parking lots, and big box retail stores. All-in-all, it’s your typical East Coast bedroom community.
I doubted the teenager in the convenience store had really thought-through his plan, but I wished him well in my head and went about paying for my gas and soda. “You go kid, you knock’em dead,” I whispered to no one in particular.
A mirror image of myself
I walked to my car and thought of myself thirty years ago and how I wasn’t that much different from the teenager. Every lunch during high school, I would lecture the group of friends who sat with me on how we all had to find a way to leave our rural community for the “bright lights of the big city.” I would use our small school with its strange-sounding American Indian name — Kishacoquillas High School — and graduating classes of less than 150 students as proof that my friends needed to have big dreams and should follow my lead straight out of the area.
Looking back now, I’m not sure why I was so eager to leave. I guess a big part of my desire to get out of town came from my early recognition that I had different dreams. I didn’t want to work in the local steel mill or factory. I saw how the steel mill took years off my father’s life and I wanted something different for me. In fact, I wanted to find something that challenged me intellectually and I wanted to write.
My plan to get-away had lots of gaping holes — like how I would survive for one — but that never seemed to stop me. I didn’t care if I ended up in Philadelphia or Washington or a million other cities, just as long as I cut the cord and got as far away from my small town roots as I could.
I was ready to go and nothing was going to stop me.
A bucolic small-town
In reality, my small town wasn’t all that bad. I grew up in Belleville, a small community of about 1,300 residents in the Kishacoquillas Valley, near Lewistown, in Central Pennsylvania. The Appalachian Mountains, green lush farms and good honest working people dotted the countryside. Most people bled blue and white and cheered for the Penn State Nittany Lions on football Saturdays and piled into church pews and praised God on Sunday.
You could be in Downtown State College, my font of culture, in about 40 minutes, give or take a few minutes depending on if it was summer or winter and could take a shortcut or two and whether or not you got stuck behind a pokey Sunday driver. Despite State College’s close proximity, the range of mountains that you had to cross to get there made the divide feel like a universe away. If that weren’t enough, the Amish plows and farmland common to the Kishacoquillas Valley, known more commonly to locals as the Big Valley, helped to isolate and protect the area even more.
My town was small, but it still had its share of excitement. (Please note the sarcasm.) It doubled and even tripled in population every Wednesday when the local farmers held their auction, selling farm-raised animals, produce, and homemade baked goods. The flea market outside the main barn area attracted all types and had a bit of everything to buy.
But in my mind, I couldn’t wait to get away. When I went off to college, I would listen with rapt attention as friends talked about spending their weekends away in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. It took traveling to Downingtown near Philly or Sewickley, outside Pittsburgh, and seeing the towns where my friends grew up for myself to see that they weren’t the tough, urban city dwellers they made themselves out to be.
In any event, I soon got my chance to leave home.
Changing my tune
I first started to view my hometown in a new light when I came back home for my first job as a reporter. As I started to track down stories and found that it was much bigger than I ever thought, the town didn’t seem so small anymore. But just as I started to sing a new tune, I was off again.
I’ve moved several times since and I really do love living in Southeastern Pennsylvania (great people, excellent restaurants, wonderful things to see and do, the list is endless), but I’ve changed my mind on my hometown. I find that I miss the little things, some silly, some big, everything from the locally-grown potato chips, Hartley Potato Chips, to Amish-made moon pies, an apple-like pastry which I can never get enough of, to the more famous chocolate and cream-filled whoopee pies.
I miss too how my small town community shaped me. It taught to me say please and thank you and to be grateful for the things that I’ve been given. It also taught me to appreciate honesty and authenticity.
For example, I often think of my hometown when someone tries to sell me “a fake bill of goods” and tries to be something they aren’t. My small-town barometer goes off, it helps me to instantly spot a fake. I’m certainly not street smart, it’s not that, but my small town has helped me develop a sense of when someone isn’t being real. Growing up where I did, I have an ingrained sense of straight-talk. You see it when you see it, and you know when you don’t.
A part of who I am
But it goes deeper than food and honesty. I miss my family and friends too. And I’ve found that the mountains and the slower pace have left their indelible mark on me. They keep drawing me back to the area, if not in the physical sense, then emotionally.
We came close to moving back to State College a few years ago and thought long and hard about the decision. But, I can’t imagine ever returning to the Big Valley to live full time. It would be hard to support myself with the work that I do. Yes, I know Bon Jovi says differently in his song “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.”
The area, though, will always have a hold on me. It’s in me. It’s in my blood. It’s a big part of who I am as a man and I suspect it will until the day I die.