Gradually they traversed the steep incline. The young man walking ahead of the older man, who, though he was old, never fell very far behind. The trail was rough and obstructed at many points with large jagged boulders, and the two men could barely see much beyond the veritable wall of great oaks. Near the apex of the trail, where it cut across the peak, the tree line thinned and they could see where, below, the Lehigh River cleaved through the Kittatiny Ridge. In the clearing, where the forest broke and there was a long meadow, beyond which the whole of the valley was laid out in lush oak and birch forests, full in their summer green, the young man stood a long time looking out. During this pause, his whole expression changed and he breathed deep of the thin mountain air, while the older man walked ahead, still expressionless.
The old man had spent a great deal of time in these hills. He had bushwhacked his way off the trail searching for blueberries, and to find that peace of mind which comes only from knowing one cannot be found…
Though already 78, he still found the vigor to leave the orchards of his Palmerton estate to drag a shovel and pick up the mountainside to repair the trails he had helped once to build. He let the young man walk ahead, not because he could no longer keep pace, but because he did not like the spiders that were now spinning their morning webs. Still, he told the young man that it was time for the young greenhorns to charge ahead. The young man did not understand. So, much of the time they walked on in silence.
Every so often the young man would ask questions, or talk about himself, or complain. Though the old man would have preferred silence, he understood that it was necessary for the young man to speak, even if it was idle chatter… That it made him more comfortable. Most of his questions were, at least, earnest ones, about the history of the area, about what the old man had himself lived through…
“You see, I am a history major and I particularly like environmental history,” the young man had said. “That is why I am so interested in this area. You can see directly the effect on the landscape, all the scars from the extracting.”
Driving up to the mountain, the engine whining, struggling with the hills, the old man’s voice breaking over the sputtering roar, he had told the young man about the west plant that the New Jersey Zinc Company had installed in Palmerton in 1898… How it used to sit just across the river, and how it had long since been torn down. In the years before the doors and the windows had been shuttered up, when the smog still rose from the monumental stacks, it had fogged up the whole valley with a dark grey cloud, so that even on a clear day, driving into Palmerton, one needed to have the headlights on. Now, as they walked along the barren meadow, where there were the ash grey corpses of old trees, the young man asked whether the forest had always looked as it did now.
“No,” the old man replied. “It had burned down three times, and for a long time nothing would grow. Neither here nor over on the other side of the pass.”
“There are still parts where nothing grows.”
“That is from the smog. It would drift north east with the prevailing wind. It would get caught up against the Blue Mountains. On top there, there is still nothing that will grow there. Even the dead trees will not decompose. There had been no bacteria to break them down.”
Looking around as the barren landscape turned again toward the tree line, the young man asked, “Are we nearly there?”
“I think so.”
“About how far?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I no longer know the distance. I cannot think of distance in numbers. I have my anniversary and my social security, and that is all I can think of numbers.”
For a little ways the young man did not speak and the old man was contented with the silence. It was nice to walk such a long way, he thought to himself. They came to another clearing, where again there was the meadow and below it the hills stretching out like veins rising in the skin of the earth. Atop the furthest, which was bare, and where the rocks were purple, there was a tall Victorian house. It stuck up over the valley like a white citadel, with spires that loomed over the porch like minaurettes.
“What is that house?”
“That is the general’s house.”
“There is nobody that lives there now.”
“It is abandoned? But it looks so clean from here…”
“Nobody lives there now, but it was built by a general of the Union army, in the Civil War. He moved here from New York when his wife had died. He was said to be crazy from the war… He never left the house, until the day he died.”
“Is it purple because of the zinc?”
“No, that is from iron.”
“Did many people here get ill from the zinc?”
“Well…” The old man thought for a minute. “My father, who lived out everyday of his life in Palmerton, lived to be 91 years old. He worked twenty years in that factory, down in the smelter, with all the fog… And he lived to be 91. For a long time Palmerton had the highest life expectancy… The highest in Pennsylvania… or it might have even been the whole nation.”
“That is something, even with all the contamination.”
“And you? Have you been here the whole time?”
“No. Well… I had been in the navy. Some years I was in the Navy. Before that we used to come up here often. We used to come up here hunting and on fishing trips to the river, but when I got back from the navy, everyone was married, you know, and having kids… So that, for many people I knew, was that… For them, the interest was a fleeting one, but I got a job, and I worked a lot and I got a car… But I didn’t like being in debt. So I paid the damn thing off by taking another job, and these kids with worse jobs than me were my boss… We I just said ‘see ya later.’
“Then I learned to fly fish, and I came up after it had just rained, and I was using worms on a fly line. And I saw this trout, maybe about as far as you are now.” The old man stopped walking, so lost in what he was say was he. “Well, I saw him rising and I quickly tied on a fly and I flung it over there, just like Mark Trail, and as soon as it landed on the water he took it. I been fishing some 40 years since, and I never caught one like that again. Usually I’m splashing around, scaring the fish, and then I catch a tree branch.”
“Were you in the navy during the war?”
“Did you see much of it?”
“My grandpa was in the war. I never met him, but I am told he was at D-day.”
“Let’s not talk about it.”
There was a long time in silence. The old man seemed to have drifted somewhere else, and the young man stared sheepishly at his shoes.
“You don’t come up here as often anymore?” The young man asked, finally.
“Well… I joined the hiking club some years back and my buddy and I used to come up here when he was unemployed. We came up here, as you and I are now. To do what work needed to be done… But when he found a job again I was on my own.
“That is how it is with me. Even my girlfriend won’t come up here. She’s from Philly. She doesn’t really understand it. She’s afraid of bears and doesn’t like leaving the concrete. She always wants to go ‘down the shore.'”
“My wife would come, but she is paralyzed.”
The young man hung his head. He felt embarassed for having complained so much. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be. I shouldn’t have brought it up… Let’s not speak of it.”
“A man should never speak of his troubles to another man.”
Their eyes did not again meet. The old man set down his pick, “This is the spot I had in mind,” he said. “We will work here to put this dirt… the shale below the ferns, below the duff, over the rocks.” He brought the pick down hard against the rocks above the trail, letting them fall down upon his feet. The young man, using the shovel, picked it up and placed it in buckets. The two of them carried the buckets over the rocks and laid the dirt out, forming a new piece of trail. The shale made it so that the rocks, which started off uneven and jagged, were now flat. They worked at this for nearly two hours without pause. The whole time they dug at the earth without speaking. Only the intermittent whang of the pick against the rocks, and the scraping of the shovel along the ground broke the heavy wooded silence. After two hours the old man stopped and said, “Let us do one more load, then we will call it a day… Then we will go.”