Roadside markers

What is there to say about an outing where the camera batteries failed after the first few shots, and most of the best sightings went unrecorded? Well, everything, of course. That’s the trouble.


Chicory sprouts from an old leather shoe that stayed behind on the highwayside to gather moss. Where toes of some Sunday Christian used to fit, a splay of coffee-flavored roots. In place of the leg, the sex, and so on: pale blue suns.


What is an osprey doing here in breeding season, far from a lake or river, circling in the heat and haze above the small city, between the dry hills the locals call mountains because they have never travelled anywhere else?


We follow a front loader into the state forest, chafing at the slowness. Is it going our way? It is annihilating our way. They’re working on the bridge. The foreman says, People have been moving the Road Closed signs and driving through, but they’ve been doing so at their own risk. Is there any risk? I ask. No, he says. We’ll be out of here by late afternoon.


We stop for red raspberries and find beside the road the uncommonest looking bee-fly we’ve ever seen performing sexual favors for common milkweed. It’s hunchbacked and lobster-tailed, and it hovers just like a hummingbird moth — a mimic of a mimic. Later, I look it up online: Lepidophora. It doesn’t stay at one flower for more than a few seconds, but keeps circling the globe-shaped flower cluster, and buzzing from globe to globe.


Picking berries into a pail feels like work. Eating berries out of the pail feels illicit. Eating berries straight from the bush or the cane feels natural and liberating, but maybe a little wrong — like shitting in the woods.


These forest roads seem to go on forever, and they almost do. Mostly unpaved, without lines, speed limit signs, or mile markers, they follow the contours of the land as closely as a hand carressing a body, up and down and around. But they are far from innocent, I realize. What the hell is all this crownvetch doing here in the middle of the forest, I shout. The ecological effects of a road can extend for up to a mile on either side of it, L. points out. The leaf duff will be thin, dried out, and full of weed seeds for a hundred yards in.


The roadside forest gaps open and drops away: an official overlook, complete with graffiti, broken beer bottles, and shotgun shells. We are drawn not to the officially scenic view of shapely, green ridges air-brushed by haze, but to the freakish tree in the clearing, right below the precipice: a cluster of 15-foot stems, each topped with a yellow mop-head of fuzzy yellow pencils, aswarm with insects. What is that? Some new invasive species? asks my beetle-collecting brother. I look at the leaves and the bark. It’s an American chestnut! And there are two more blooming within fifty feet of it! Look at all the Cerambycidae, Steve says. I have NEVER seen beetles swarm like that, not even in the tropics. And he’s spent plenty of time in the tropics, too: in Taiwan, the Philippines, south India, Sri Lanka, and Central America. We’re now about 35 miles from home — and 80 years since the time when these ridgetop forests were thick with chestnut trees, before the blight came through. Such a loss, such a rent in the web of life here. My god.


The road turns bad. Steve gets out and walks in front, helping to spot especially dangerous-looking rocks and potholes. I sit in the backseat, craning my neck while L. pilots a zig-zag course. We’re driving a Beetle. At least it’s narrow enough to fit between the rocks, L. says.


Back on the good roads, we enter a stretch where the trees have been defoliated by gypsy moth caterpillars, and are just leafing out for the second time. It might seem like spring if it weren’t so hot and humid.


Dead porcupines start appearing in the road, in various stages of decomposition. In the space of three miles we count seven of them. It’s eerie.


When we reach our destination — a well-known spot for lowbush blueberries at a high point in the Seven Mountains — we find the patch already picked almost clean. Or perhaps pollination was inhibited at this elevation by all the cold weather in May; we can’t decide. We share this artificial bald with radio, cellphone, and microwave towers, and a generator humming loudly in a locked shed. The old firetower still stands, but the bottom 25 steps have been removed to keep people from climbing up it, which was always something to look forward to on state forest hikes when I was a kid. It turned out that wildfires in the eastern forest are naturally rare and easy to control — nothing like the out-of-control infernos of the late 19th century, when these forests were all clearcut at the same time. Now the old firetowers stand like lighthouses on a shore where the ocean has receded out of sight.


On the way back, we stop at a lonely spot on top of a broad ridge. This gravel road was once a throughway of sorts, and someone named Keith built a small stone cistern here for watering horses. Water gushes out of a pipe and into the roadside ditch, and we fill up our water bottles with it, exclaiming over its taste and likely purity. I find myself reluctant to take too close a look in the rectangular cistern where the pipe originates. It’s dark with rotting leaves, and is just large enough to accommodate a body, stretched out in a position of repose.


Peering between the front seats, I spot a bear-shaped stump beside the road. It moves; we stop. It’s a small bear, no more than two winters old, and probably only driven off by its mother a few weeks ago. A stone’s throw from the road it stops running and appears to forget all about us, which is always a useful and instructive experience for a modern human. Running in this kind of humid heat can’t be pleasant for a bear, even one so small. We watch as it ambles along, flipping rocks, digging into rotten logs and nosing about, heading back the way we came. We keep it in sight as long as we can, driving slowly backwards through the hills of central Pennsylvania.

19 Replies to “Roadside markers”

  1. I can’t think too long about the Chestnuts… I start getting angry. Feels like someone stole them.

    Porcupines… when we made our big road trip north several years ago, I was fascinated by the number of them dead on the road. I kept wanting to stop and examine one, but hubby never would stop. I guess he figured I’d be packing the car with quills to take home.

  2. marja-leena – None of that took place on this mountain. It was in the Rothrock State Forest, about 25 miles from here as the crow flies – the Seven Mountains region, which continues into an adjacent state forest (Bald Eagle) to form the largest and nicest block of public land in the area.

    It’s been an excellent year for berries so far, and the highbush blueberries should be starting in another week or two. We pick gallons of them at a boreal-type bog in this same state forest. (In fact, we stopped there briefly on Tuesday. The rhododendron was just coming into bloom.)

    Karen – Was he wrong? I’ve been tempted by dead porkie quills myself. But since I can’t sew, I’ve let them alone.

    I would assume that they are being attracted to the roads for some reason (salt, maybe? Though the state forest roads aren’t maintained in the winter) where they are hit or shot. Many outdoorsmen are convinced that they’re doing a good deed by blowing away a porcupine. We do have plenty of fishers, but I can’t think why they would kill porcupines on roads.

    Jo – Zen? Surely you jest. This is my Zen.

  3. Enjoyed the ride and the sights, Dave. (Picking lowbush blueberries is so much work! Maybe it’s good the patch was picked already.) Most intriguing to me: the chestnuts. Favorite bit: the lines about the chicory. I saw my first of the summer on our last trip up here, in rural Quebec, and the first sight of that color – as usual – went straight to my heart.

  4. Photos on the internet are OK, but…
    I have to say, Dave,
    that your words whip them up one side
    and down the other.

  5. “driving slowly backwards through the hills of central Pennsylvania.” A wonderful line.

    Perhaps there was a porcupine corpse in the cistern making the water taste so good just as (so the story goes) a rat improves the cider down in Somerset.

  6. Wonderful series of observations and reflections. I was looking at chestnut flowers yesterday, wondering how to describe them, pencils is good. Even where they are common and familiar they always seem oddly exotic and larger than life, somehow. A bit Rousseauesque!

  7. beth – Yeah, chicory is my favorite roadside flower, even if it doesn’t attract as many insects as butterfly weed or have a really cool name like viper’s bugloss. The dried and roasted roots make a terrific brewing herb, too – virtually interchangeable with dandelion roots.

    Bill – Thanks. I appreciate that.

    Pica – You do? Damn. Thanks. (Maybe when my year with Shutterchance is up, I’ll consider taking up sketching instead. Unless my camera breaks or gets stolen in the interim.)

    rr – Interesting theory. The quills might act as a natural strainer. Every few years, a porcupine dies right under my house – could be why the water from my shallow well is so good.

    Lucy – “Rousseauesque” – exactly. (But what a train wreck of vowels there in the middle!)

    Jo – “Chunder”? I’m guessing that means to ralph?

  8. I missed the photos, at first, but then sunk into the story. Thanks for the link to Lepidophora. I’ve never seen one and they are fascinating. As was your tale of osprey w/o water. Stumped me.

    Marvelous, overall. I felt as if I was in the seat behind the driver. Always looking, not quite in sync but a chorus to the “ahhhs”.

  9. Dude, I have seen bear-shaped stumps move, too. I love it when things aren’t what we think they are.

    How I marvel at your attention to detail, your observations and your humor, like yelling about all the crownvetch in the forest. But I draw the line when you get XXX rated:

    “We stop for red raspberries and find beside the road the uncommonest looking bee-fly we’ve ever seen performing sexual favors for common milkweed.”

    Um, some people might not want to stumble upon that sort of nasty writing in the middle of a blog post, Mr. I’m just sayin’.

  10. Laughing, yes, chunder, which is also known as tc (a tactical chunder, often employed by drunken students), hughy, kiss the porcelain, hurl, tom and dick……for these and other wondrous translations of your language into ours, go here:

    ps loved dana’s wrist slap *grin*

  11. ..deb – Thanks for reading. I still think one photo would’ve been nice, but there’s no question it forced me to write better.

    Dana – Nature is highly illicit in general. People need to stop sentimentalizing it. If they had any idea of what really went on all around them…

    Jo – Thanks for the link. We do say “hurl” here, but none of the others.

    lisa – That looks like a terrific site! Thanks for mentioning it.

  12. I have vivid memories of watching ospreys fishing — once near Saranac Lake, N.Y., once at a private pond near Nescopeck State Park here, and once at Langley Air Force Base, Va. All very cool experiences.

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