14 Jul On the Road With the Dogs

To read about Ron’s four months in Micronesia, go to the archive to your left and click on “Marshall Islands Story Project.”

Jill and I took our dogs — Frieda and PJ — for a week’s vacation in mid-Pennsylvania’s coal country. The dogs love car trips. One winter day they were Jonesing for a trip so badly, Jill and I piled them into the car and drove them around the block a few times. They were delighted. On this trip, we spent our time in the vicinity of Johnstown and Altoona. The hills here are surprisingly steep, considering their age. The towns are rocky pockets of mostly-crumbling buildings whose heyday was a century ago. That’s what we like, old stuff that’s seen better days. We learned that one of the largest bat roosts on the east coasts is located near Altoona, in an old church that was sold to the state park system as a bat sanctuary. You can see the bats hurling out of their hiding place at dusk. Big fans of bats, we took a video of them and put it on Youtube. Click here to the clip.

We walked the dogs hill and dale. These aren’t smart dogs. which means they’ll run themselves until they’re nearly crippled. The first day we were out, Frieda made a break for it. You’d be surprised how far and fast a squat little basset hound can run. Basset hounds are hunting dogs, second only to bloodhounds. They follow their noses above all other things. That makes them less than reliable. They are stubborn and independent. When the urge hits them, they run and run and run. On this particular morning, Frieda tore down a grassy hill and kept going. PJ followed and soon they were a quarter mile away, Jill and I hollering after them.

They led us to a creek. You would’ve thought Frieda had had enough but then, as we topped the hill (above the creek), she took off again. We found ourselves in the midst of hills that had been stripped for coal but not quite strip-mined, that is, not quite bared to rock. They’d been re-seeded and looked like they’d return to normal, more or less. Given how much oil’s going for per barrel nowadays, it’s no wonder the energy companies will take whatever they can get. It looks like it’s a lot of work for minimal gain. Click here to see the video I took as we chased Frieda all over the countryside.

In Johnstown, we learned that the infamous flood, which killed more than 2,000 people—which ranks it among this country’s worst disasters—was mostly the fault of rich folk who did not take care of the dam at their private lake upstream. The dam had remained in disrepair for years. In fact, the rich folk had narrowed it to accommodate passage for their horses. During a particularly bad rain, the dam broke, sending a 72-foot tidal wave down the narrow valley. The negligent rich folk were implicated but not charged with neglect. Soon after, they abandoned their summer mansions around their now-empty lake.

Jill and I stopped at a local diner for lunch and were surprised to find a few patrons smoking inside. I didn’t know anybody smoked in restaurants anymore. In the search of the most authentic road food, I ordered a meatloaf sandwich, which came with real (not reconstituted) mashed potatoes and gravy. We also got pirogues. And apricot cookies. The weight of the meal still sits with me. We stopped at a local auction at the house of a recently deceased somebody who owned a lot of cool, mid-twentieth century junk. Nobody in attendance was under forty. It seemed most were there to recapture simpler times in the form of baseball cards and war medals and kitschy ceramics and sixty-year-old calendars. I took photos of the attendees. It was a colorful bunch in a geezer, white-bread way.