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The Accidental Podcaster: Roads Less Travelled
It's 3 am once again.

I am in a cabin on the side of a mountain, deep in the woods surrounding my hometown. It's one of those places so quiet that one is fully aware of every sound: the clicks and pings of the heaters, the loud hum of the fluorescent light in the kitchenette, the faint but ever present hum of trucks on the interstate a mile over the ridge. From down the hall comes the much louder but more sporadic snoring of my mother. An occasional jingle of dog tags warns me that I'm about to be dive-bombed by an alleged beagle-corgi mix who we're all fairly certain was the really the result of an illicit affair between the breeder's bitch and a neighborhood mutt.

It's a very noisy quiet.

The interstate, in particular, is significant here. At a hair shy of 2900 miles, I-80 as a whole crosses the United States from San Francisco in the west to Teaneck, New Jersey in the east; the portion I travel most frequently is the stretch between my house in the suburbs west of Cleveland to my mother's cabin just outside of my hometown in the middle of Pennsylvania. As a little girl, the interstate ran a mile north of our house, the din of the trucks and traffic gently mixing and softening to a lullaby as it traversed the hills and trees separating the road from the town. As an adult, coincidence had me buy a house a mile north of that same road: literally and figuratively on the other side of the tracks from where I started.

I was thinking about this earlier in the day while my mother and I hiked the ridge behind the cabin to peek at the traffic below. She, too, now lives on the other side of the tracks, though a lot closer - again, literally and figuratively - from where we started. Clearfield County is, and has historically been, one of the poorest counties in Pennsylvania; the 2016 American Community Survey reported around 15% of the population lived below the poverty line, while the 2015 US Census Bureau estimates pegged it at 16.6%. Education rates aren't any better - while the Census Bureau reports that 87.1% of adults over the age of 25 hold a high school diploma, slightly higher than the national average of 86.7%, only 13.2% of residents over the age of 25 hold a bachelor's level degree or higher, which is significantly less than the national average of 29.8% (if you want to go one step further, only 0.8% of the county's workforce have jobs based around computer science or mathematics. 0.8% of a total workforce in 2015 of 26,045 means roughly 208 people in the entirety of Clearfield County worked in math or computer science. This is insanely important).

The worst of it, though, is the deeply embedded culture of resentment and fear over change and progress. We see this sort of conflict where education is understood to be important, but it's assumed that the more educated one becomes, the farther removed they are from the "common people" and the challenges they face. For example, coal is still a major industry here. Innovation means a change to how things are done - on one hand, it is argued, these changes actually bring more jobs, but the caveat is that these new jobs require an education level beyond what most of the populace has and well beyond what most can afford. This is a very serious problem. What happens is this chain effect of old work shutting down with nowhere for that workforce to go, new work springing up but out of reach of the people who need it to support their families, and then the choice over whether it's worth taking on the massive debt and time needed to try to patch together enough of an education to try to get the new work while simultaneously still trying to cobble together enough funds to keep the mortgage paid and food on the table. Add to that the fact that an unready workforce means the jobs move elsewhere, and is it any wonder why the populace isn't embracing the future? Or why so many people in the United States have drug addictions or alcohol problems?

Present day me lives a life very different from that, and had I gone with my original plans would have been more different yet. It's an incredibly stark contrast that makes itself painfully clear every time I go back, setting off the uncomfortable realization that these are my people, and yet they're not. The things for which I'm celebrated one moment are the same traits that are reviled in general. I don't fit here, and even as a child was told my road was meant to lead elsewhere. Mine is a world of books and ideas that stretch far beyond the poverty tucked in the valleys and hollows, far beyond even the stretch of highway that cuts through the forest and offers a path, quite literally, to opportunities both miles and lifetimes away.

And yet, there's more of me here than one might expect. You see it in the fundraisers put on by the local churches and social halls when someone in the community needs help - no one can afford much, but enough people making their small contributions makes a huge impact when it's needed most. You see it in the scout camps, teaching kids skills in leadership and self-sufficiency. You see it in the do-it-yourself attitudes that are part pride, part necessity; the simple pleasures of life; the wonder of nature in its abundance1; the honor of traditions; the quiet thoughts that try to reconcile the detriments and benefits life throws our way into some semblance of balance. I may not be meant to stay here, but this is my base, my beginning, the foundation to my very being. My road is different from the well-worn paths that snake through these hills. But it still winds through them, carrying the values that make this place beautiful in its own way and tempering my future with the teachings of my past.

Outside, the hum of the highway lulls me to sleep.

*****

WHAT I'M CURRENTLY READING: Anders Rydell, The Book Thieves
THREE THINGS I'M LISTENING TO ON REPEAT: Blink-182, Dammit; The Goo Goo Dolls, Name; John Coltrane, Polka Dots and Moonbeams

1 Except for those stupid fucking elk.
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