The day began with no sign of rain, the first such day of the road trip. We converted the convertible and drove to the town formerly known as Mauch Chunk. The town had been renamed Jim Thorpe in honor of the man named the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, buried there. I had read of his amazing exploits when I was a kid, but had not thought of them for a while. His memorial park had two dramatic statues of him, one of him throwing a discus and one of him carrying a football. The park was well maintained and the placards were informative.
Jim Thorpe is the seat of Carbon County. We passed several slag heaps as we drove through this part of Pennsylvania, signs of the roll that carbon has played in that area. We had breakfast at Bob’s Restaurant (3.5 stars, 3 reviews). The place was so small that our waitress was also our cook. When choosing which counties to visit on our trip we looked at various factors that correlated with the swing in party votes: education level, median income, portion of children living in poverty, obesity, suicide rates, opioid overdoses. The factor that correlated highest with the greater than 20% swing to Trump 2016 from Obama 2012 was percentage of population with less than a high school education. One of the other factors with a greater than 0.2 correlation was opioid overdoses. We were expecting to see signs of drug addiction in the communities. I realize that can be easily hidden. Dealers do not need to stand on street corners and junkies do not need to slump in doorways. When I lived on Kauai, there was a flat patch at the side of the road about half a mile from my house where dealers and clients met up in their cars. I never felt unsafe from that sort of thing, and it would have been easily missed, if I were not a resident. I mention this to make the point that we saw no obvious drug users except one person in town. She had the meth addict’s teeth. I do not dispute the statistics, but I will make the same comment that others have: drug addiction in a rural area does not leave the same footprint as drug addiction in a downtrodden urban setting.
One of our goals for the day was to make the Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg and Antietam. With that in mind, we only drove through the three counties of Schuylkill, Clearfield, and Northumberland. We did not stop to interview anyone or eavesdrop on any conversations. One of us has spent a fair amount of time in Pennsylvania. His observations are that those counties looked essentially the same as they had over the last 20 years. There were no obvious signs of economic hardship that post-dated the manufacturing moves that affected the area in the 1980’s and 1990’s. As noted earlier, it did not appear that a new or sudden economic hardship might have hit the area and motivated the change in voting behavior. I remarked that if the houses had been built when the communities were thriving, they would have been 80 to 100 years old. I wonder how well the houses put up in prosperous technology enclaves near Seattle will hold up when they reach that age.
Then we came to Gettysburg. We began at Cemetery Hill. I was almost immediately overwhelmed at the density of the monuments, the spread of the battlefield, and the specter of sacrifice and valor. We then visited Little Round Top and the monument to the 20th Maine. I am not a Civil War buff; my only detailed reading was Michael Schaara’s The Killer Angels. Standing on that slope, looking at what the Alabama Brigade had to attack, and the 20th regiment had to defend, I was overcome with love and fear and hope. Our country is again at a fraught moment, though not as dire as the one we faced then. We need to rise above our petty and divisive president and recall that we the people are our country. Our government is not our country. It can help us be better or help us be worse, but the choice of what it does is up to us.