There’s a place a few miles southwest of here called the Thousand Steps. It’s an old ganister quarry on the side of Jacks Mountain just north of the water gap known as Jack’s Narrows, named for an early settler who achieved great fame as a serial killer of his Indian neighbors. A narrow-gauge railroad on a steep, switch-backing grade hauled the quarried rock down into the Narrows, thence to the refractory in nearby Mount Union. Workers built the dry stone steps in the 1930s in order to make a faster commute.
The steps climb a steep ravine where hemlock, Table Mountain pine, birches and maples have grown up in the more than fifty years since the quarry ceased operation. The old switchbacks make for convenient landings on which to pause and catch one’s breath. Since the acquisition of the Steps as part of a state gameland some ten years ago, they’ve become very popular with local people in search of spectacular views of mountains and forests and the winding Juniata, most poetic of all eastern rivers.
Another attraction of the site is the fortress-like building that used to house the dinkey locomotives, made of the same stone as the talus slopes that surround it. An immense red oak tree stands directly below it; it’s easy to imagine the quarrymen resting briefly in its shade after trotting up the side of the mountain.
Sunday was chilly – a good day to make the climb. Although the air was very clear, the sky was not. A pale mortar connected heavy blocks of cloud, sometimes gapping just enough to permit a brief view of the sun.
Whenever that happened, cameras came out of pockets to record the instant transformations in the landscape. The few trees that had already turned color blazed like torches against the dark pines.
The wind blew in strong gusts out of the northwest. Turkey vultures rose in tight circles above the Steps, catching whatever slight heat must still have been rising, despite the chill in the air, from all those open patches of bare rock. By the time we returned to the car, our legs felt like rubber from the long descent.