Rockwell, Pennsylvania is right where you’d cross the “t” in Trump. Like other small towns along the abandoned rails between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Maryland, the town was rich in the past, now mostly broke. One of the few heartbeats is found in the least expected place, the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail, which carries thousands of spandex-clad bikers, including no small number of liberals, Europeans and rolling pods of Californians. We crossed the American Legion parking lot from the trail to our BnB. An 8 foot trump flag waved across the street as we parked our bikes.
The Casselman and Youghiogheny rivers—and new trail—tunnel through cool green hardwood now as dense as when young Washington walked the wild way. Here was the first push of desperate English through the mountains and tribes to the vast American interior. Over the next twenty decades the streams ran fast in blood, sweat and more blood, shed in a hundred native and immigrant dialects.
Canals and rails bludgeoned their way across impossibly rugged terrain burning money and lives, most immigrant. The hills were covered in fuel wood and were covering fuel of the most potent kind–coal. Long before there were any laws, the mines went deep, some cooked nearby into the coke needed for steel, millions of tons shipped overseas. The Dar Mine disaster killed 239 Slovak immigrant miners (none compensated) just a few yards from where my carbon bike spun past. This trail rides the roadbed of the Western Maryland Railroad, which my dad took care of for my first quarter century of life. I wish I knew what he knew about these valleys.
Today most of these towns resonate with Mr. Trump’s angry rants about people who come to work hard while speaking new languages. I know why he’s doing it. It works and always has. But I don’t understand why people who know so much about how the rich use the workers, like kindling for their bonfires of vanities, would listen. They do. People have gotten elected here–and everywhere–since at least the time of George Washington by blaming one’s problems on the next group that looks like they’re coming for their supper, land, women or coal. Those who carve a living from beaver, lumber, coal or whatever get confused about who to blame when that way fails, as every way eventually does.
The tribes were in the way of British and French land claims given to royal supplicants to pay off war favors. The rails served Rockefeller and Gould dreams of a transcontinental trail to hurry coal to Pittsburgh and the steel overseas. The surviving Slovak descendants knocking down beer in the American Legion have way more in common with the Hispanics coming with the same relentless desire to work of their grandfathers. Why would they believe a dude renting luxury hotel rooms to Russians who has never been inside of a mine or hung Sheetrock? But he’s got them fearing each other, instead of joining to change the rules of what is very surely not a game.
Things change fast here. These rivers of steel, blood and coal are now a tunnel of green with more birdsong than steam. The tunnel called Big Savage opened up the rails to coal country; now it’s topped by spinning wind generators. Along the Allegheny every single tree, even the tallest, has grown from seeds left in the frenzied clear cutting. The rally rants are just social clear cut. Burn the whole culture down to the ground in order to burn out the new ones. Ugly. But social clear cut can grow back too. Generative social forms–democracy, normal churches and non profit helping organizations–explode into every possible niche, just as naturally as the oak and bird cover the land.
The world needs people who are not afraid of the future and not afraid of each other. And they get there not just by watching on some screen. Faith works like a drill at a coal face. It chips away down deep and finds the vein worth bringing to the surface where it can lend power to what comes next. Or maybe it is where the fingers touch the bruised soil, clearing the way for the roots of a newly planted tiny oak to have a chance.
//Let me ask you to do something right now. Got to this website to give money to The Shalom Project. Growing in the social clear-cut, it helps the undocumented and left-behind in the most immediate and practical ways possible: Give here.