Smethport, Ho!

Smethport, Ho!

Yesterday, I drove Roger up to Smethport, Pennsylvania, for a job interview. Smethport, it turns out, is the county seat — and therefore, the location of the county district attorney’s office, where Roger was interviewing for the job of assistant D.A. — of McKean County. Pittsburghers probably haven’t heard of McKean County per se, but they may have heard of Bradford, PA, home of a University of Pittsburgh branch campus. Also, they may have heard of Wooly Willy, invented and still produced in Smethport

It was a harrowing journey. We left at about 9:30 a.m., heading up 28 North. After 28 gets into Armstrong County, it actually becomes a simple, two-lane road, and after that point, we were never on a highway again. In New Bethlehem, a quaint Pennsylvanian town, we got onto Route 66 North, which in turn led us to Clarion. Interesting thing about Clarion: it may have been secretly invaded and occupied by Canada. Roger noticed that all of the street signs had little red maple leaves on them, inexplicably. I considered that the local college, Clarion University, may have something to do with it, but I believe their mascot is an eagle or something — it’s definitely not a maple leaf. No, we think Clarion, PA, was, at some point, very quietly — it’s their way — taken over by Canada. Furthermore, Canada has engineered it so that once unsuspecting Americans drive into Clarion, it’s difficult to get out; Route 66 just ended on us, without any signage. Though we finally found 66 North again and continued on our way, it turned out on the way home that 66 South actually takes a different path than 66 North, thus disorienting and alarming us (and, I’m sure the Canadians hoped, potentially trapping us in Clarion). Tricksy Canadians

Still, getting trapped in Clarion would’ve meant that we retained a grasp on a degree of civilization. After we drove out of Clarion, it was miles and miles of almost nothing on either side of the car. We drove north through Forest County, which is home to part of Allegheny National Forest (real, not-made-up motto: “Land of Many Uses”). In point of fact, the undeveloped sections of the world unsettle me. Don’t misunderstand: I am a conservationist, and I am aware of the many real physical and spiritual necessities of having wild spaces in the world. I just don’t want to spend my time in them. As opposed to the city, where everything is observed, quantified, and qualified on a daily basis by thousands of eyes, ears, and feet, the tracts of wilderness left in the world make me nervous in the way they go unwatched — anything could exist in all those trees along 66 North, unseen and unchecked. The undeveloped world is potentially full of mysterious forces, and their unknown and unseen nature makes me uncomfortable

Speaking of mysterious forces, Roger and I became convinced that the Devil is in Forest County; specifically, he owns a store there. For miles we drove along, reading a string of periodically placed signs enticing us to visit a store located on “ALT 666” where we would find a “magical shopping experience” at a store that “had everything you could want.” “Turn left in six miles!” and, “Turn left in two miles!” When we valiantly continued past the left turn to Route 666, we saw a sign that said, “You just missed the turn to a magical shopping experience!” We expected there to be, immediately afterwards and despite this, a sign saying, “Make the next left to Rt. 666!” The Devil, like Canadians but meaner, is tricksy.

Many winding miles (and many completely inert but massively inconvenient PENNDot workers) later, we arrived in … Kane, PA. It was still a goodly ways to Smethport (did I mention how far away from anything Smethport is?). We didn’t stop in Kane, but I bring it up so that I can quote to you from the Kane, PA, brochure I picked up in Smethport, titled, “Kane, Pennsylvania: A Star in the Forest.”

“Historically known as the ‘Ice Box’ of Pennsylvania, our summer days are warm and inviting, but leave the air conditioner at home, you won’t need it!

“Fall foliage is the most spectacular array of color that you will ever experience. During the winter months, you will feel like you’ve stepped into a Norman Rockwell print, especially while ice skating under the stars.

“Oh, yes, you won’t sneeze here because our pollen count is one of the lowest in the country!”

Well, heck, sign me up for a vacation in Kane.

In Kane we traded 66 North for 6 North, and another 25 almost completely uninhabited miles later, we arrived in Smethport at last. Our first order of business was lunch at the Route 6 Diner; I ordered the “Cold Turkey Sandwich,” which consisted of white bread and turkey — I had to order, for $0.50, a tomato slice, iceberg lettuce and mayonnaise. I also got sweet potato fries with brown sugar on them, and Roger got the chicken tenders and fries. This lunch, plus two coffees, amounted to $16 — I’m not sure if we got a deal or not.

While Roger went over to the Courthouse for his interview, I walked around the town to get a feel for the place. There is a bar, a coffee shop with wireless internet, and a Catholic Church, so technically, Roger’s bases are all covered. There are also two pizza parlors, a Chinese take-out place called “Food King,” and “The Hub,” a 24-hour convenience store. There is also the Smethport Visitor Center. Really.

At the Smethport Visitor Center, I met Karen and Les, but was mostly led around by a nice old lady who either didn’t introduce herself or whose name I didn’t catch, but I will call her Flo, because if that was not her name, it should have been. Flo was very happy to show me around the Center itself, which has continental breakfasts in the morning, a TV room, a computer, “With DSL high-speed wireless,” she pointed out, and a rec room in the back. It was all very … low ceilinged. They were eager to learn why I was there, and would I be staying there? Visiting? Have I seen the Jail and Historical Society? I got several pamphlets. Allow me share some of them with you here.

First, an introduction to Smethport, from the “McKean County Historical Society Old Jail Museum” pamphlet:

“McKean County was organized March 26, 1804, and was named in honor of Thomas McKean, the second governor of Pennsylvania and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. It was under the jurisdiction of Centre County until 1814 and Lycoming County 1826 (sic). The first purchases of land were made by John Keating in 1796. Early villages were Ceres, Instander and Smethport.”

There is also a genealogy library and a “Loom Room.” Additionally, you can join the Historical Society for the annual fee of $10.00, which gets you 50% off admission to the museum, which would ordinarily be $4.00. There are also periodic programs held by the Society, including, this summer, “Backwoods Bootleggers,” described thusly: “McKean County — A hot bed of activity during prohibition … Step back in time and grasp what life was like during this era. Trial reenactment based on actual transcripts and newspaper articles.” The Bucktail News, the newsletter of the McKean County Historical Society (which you get with a membership, or, apparently, with a trip to the Smethport Visitor Center), goes on to point out that in “Bradford or ‘Little Chicago’ as it was sometimes called, the organized crime units of Bradford used their power and influence to run large operations transporting and selling illegal alcohol.” Little Chicago! Won’t Roger be glad to know, if he gets the job, that it is only a few miles away? It turns out that the author of the play “Backwoods Bootlegging” is none other than John Pavlock, McKean County’s District Attorney, and the man who, as I received this pamphlet from Flo, was interviewing Roger. Small world, ain’t it? Speaking of booze, Flo asked me what job Roger was interviewing for.

“He’s a lawyer.”
“Oh, no,” Flo said, “another lawyer in town.”
“No, no,” I assured her, “he’s a prosecutor. He’ll be keeping the streets of Smethport safe.”
“Oh!” Flo exclaimed. “Will he stop the drinking?”
“Um … no. No, Roger won’t stop the drinking.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Roger almost always increases the drinking wherever he goes.

After purchasing a Wooly Willy to satisfy Ted’s request for a Smethport souvenir, I continued my walkabout. Smethport’s … small. There were some nice older houses, and a peculiar tendency to elevate the sidewalks three steps up from the street. There was one apartment building, a converted house, called The Colonial, which Roger later told me the D.A. had referenced as “a good place for bachelors.” There was a bar, a coffee shop, and a Catholic Church. So … yeah.

At the conclusion of his interview, Roger and I headed for home, back through the winding forests down Routes 6 and 66. We passed two Hamlin Townships and a Hamlin Lake. (Me: “Who’s Hamlin?” Roger: “I guess he did something noteworthy around here.” Me: “I think Hamlin done dug the railroad factory.”) We also drove past a tiny bar in the middle of nowhere called the Dew Drop Inn, whose sign featured a jaunty turtle; there was literally five miles of nothing on either side of this bar, but about ten feet past it the state had a erected a sign on the side of the road that read, “High D.U.I. Crash Area.” I think we know who’s to blame.

We got back to Pittsburgh in time to get stuck first in the rain and then in traffic. I don’t know if Roger will get the job, or if he’ll be able to survive living in Smethport for two years (they required a two-year commitment, apparently to keep people from leaving as soon as possible). I do know that if he does get the job, he should watch out for the Canadians and the Devil. And Flo. She might be single.

Note: Roger didn’t get the job. But that’s OK, he has another job now, in Pittsburgh.

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