The Youghegheny River is not to be trifled with.
People think raging rapids and the big western rivers like Colorado, Snake and Salmon come to mind, but here in small town Pennsylvania, steep rolling hills and an ever liquid climate create rapids as powerful and technically difficult as anywhere in the world.
At least, that’s the story during the springtime, when snow melt and heavy rain amplifies the Yough’s flow.
By late August, the rapids are considerably more humble. It’s been a long summer here for the locals, the hippies who come to work the river during the warmer months, and the tourists doing their temporary migration and keeping this cutest, quaintest, hippest of towns in the Keystone State alive and well.
A band is setting up in Falls City Pub, the garage door open to allow both those patrons imbibing good beers inside and those chugging nachos and burgers outside equal access to the coming tunes. Across the river, a small market boasts tents full of Indian artifacts, PA game commission taxidermy showing the array of wildlife in the area, and your typical local produce and trinkets. A bridge spans the river and hikers on the Laurel Highlands Trail and bikers traversing the Great Allegheny Passage share endless miles of trails. A small general store keeps the last hurrah of vacationing campers and adventure seekers stocked aplenty with beef and cheap canned goods for Labor Day escapades abundant all weekend long.
Along the river, mountain laurel, wild grapes and mighty oaks share real estate inhabited by porcupines, black bears and fishers, the latter a sort of cross between a fox and an otter which can rise up 7′ tall on their hind legs to fend off curious children and more threatening predators alike.
At the campground, a crew of women have left their men behind and brought the kids out to enjoy a little ladies camping only weekend. Fires are hard to start, everything in PA is moist, but they burn long into the night as everyone imbibes alcoholic beverages from coffee cups; alcohol is illegal in Pennsylvania’s state parks.
Kids rage hills on bicycles, local rural dads let their guts hang loose and kick back Coors Light by the bucketful, and moms gather in circles around the fire smoking cigarettes and laughing over how they’d like to dry their hair. Stereotypes abound, and it’s a settling sort of feeling. Everyone in the role they feel most comfortable.
Pennsylvania is beautiful, despite the wreckage decades of mining and the subsequent poverty that ensued when the coal ran out. Old barns, dry and faded grey to black wood, towering silos, fat beef and milk cows given ample room to graze, corn fields up and downing the multitude of rolling hills.
These are the oldest mountains in the world, and my homeland, and though I was desperate for the escape of it all and a traveling life, it took leaving and coming back to have me realize how beautiful it truly all is.