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Sunday, June 2, 2013

My Pilgrimage to (Fracking) Nowhere

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, May 29, 2013

By Thom Nickels

Traveling by Greyhound used to be an American rite of passage, and Philadelphia in the 1970s and 80s had a marked interest in bus travel. Both the Greyhound bus terminal near Penn Center and the (less popular) Trailways bus

station at 13th and Arch Street were bustling transportation centers complete with their own fast food eateries, waiting room chairs with coin-operated mini televisions, and easy storage lockers where you could stash luggage for the price of a soda.

That golden age is gone. Today there is only one bus station in the city, at 12th and Filbert, and as bus stations go, there’s not much to recommend it. A tolerable fast food eatery has been replaced by a small hot dog and soft pretzel stand; gone are the lockers, and the personable ticket clerks have been replaced by machines. Not only do security guards roam the station as if on perpetual bomb squad alert, but there are not enough seats for passengers, causing many to stand and wait until their bus is called. Greyhound ticket prices have also quadrupled as have the numbers of people traveling by bus since the 1980s.

Last week I made my way to the Filbert Street station for what turned out to be a pilgrimage to nowhere. After purchasing a machine ticket, I boarded the Scranton express bus for the 3-hour ride to the Pocono Mountains and to my favorite forest mountain retreat, an Orthodox monastery far from the maddening crowds of the city.

Everybody should have a quiet place of retreat, be it a yoga center, a cabin in the mountains, an apartment at the shore, or even your own Germantown-inspired Kelpius cave. My plan was to stay 3 days, just enough time to participate in the quiet and rigorous life of the bearded, black robed mountain monks.

Although the grey and rainy weather dampened my travel spirits somewhat, by the time the bus reached Scranton the sun was out. Scranton on a Sunday is what they say Philadelphia was like on a Sunday back in 1942: closed up. Inhaling the fresh mountain air, I looked in vain for signs of my ride to the monastery, about 40 minutes away in a remote section of the mountains. When my ride still did not appear, I reminded myself that they’d probably be along at any moment. That "any moment", however, turned into a two and a half hour wait and eight desperate voicemail "SOS" phone calls. "Where are you guys?" I asked. "I’m here." Then came the creeping realization that I had better find out the time of the last bus back to Philly, because who wants to camp out curbside, like those panhandling dudes in front of convenience stores? So, slightly sad, I resigned myself to taking the 4:30 return bus if a ride did not show. (For the record, I did check into taking a taxi to the secluded monastery, but the $70 fare seemed a bit steep).

Killing time in the Scranton bus station is like killing time in the Port Richmond Shopping Center when you’ve visited every store twice. I wound up peering into a lot of car windows (looking for a black robed monk) as well as checking passing traffic to see if I could spot someone wearing a black cassock. I did run into a dude in sunglasses who saw me standing roadside with my luggage, and who greeted me with a "Hello, brother."

"Quiet around here," I said, thinking of the old West.

I asked an older man, a Scranton native, if he knew of any unusual ways to get to the mountain monastery. He said I could hitchhike, "though you never know in this day what you might meet up with." Of course, I used to hitchhike all the time when I was in my late teens and early twenties. This was when the world did not have a fear of strangers. In Massachusetts and Colorado, I’d stick my thumb out in a heartbeat, no matter the time of day (or night), jumping into tractor-trailer vans, Volkswagens, or speeding convertibles. These were never long distance rides, although once I entertained a fantasy of hitchhiking cross-country a la Jack Kerouac. I did spend a full summer hitchhiking to work every morning and then hitchhiking home again in the early evening when work was over. During all these rides I never had a bad experience. Only once did things get a little hairy, when my ride told me once I settled into his car, "We’re going straight to hell!" After observing the look of panic on my face, he burst out laughing and said, "Just kidding, buddy."

In today’s world, hitchhiking would be tantamount to putting a "Shoot me" sign around your neck, besides which, men over 30 or 35 who hitchhike just don’t look right. Most people think by that age you shouldn’t have to hitchhike. It’s truly amazing what you can get away with when you’re in your twenties. It’s a shame that people in their twenties today will never know the joys of hitchhiking.

Anyway, after boarding the last Philly-bound bus, I looked out the window in case a monk should pull up at the last minute, but no such luck. The last bus was a 4-hour local, meaning it stopped at every small Pennsylvania mountain town. Unlike the weather during the trip up, the sun was out and the scenery had a clear, crisp look. The bus stopped at beautiful small towns like Easton and Stroudsburg. Both towns had arresting architecture, clean streets, and amazing drive-through vistas that included church steeples nestled against trees and the Delaware River water line. These small Pennsylvania towns looked a lot like the villages I visited while traveling through Austria several years ago.

In one town, a mother and son boarded the bus, both of them so incredibly fat they could barely walk down the aisle. Since I didn’t want to be caught staring at them, I put my eyes down but kept them in my peripheral vision to see if they would follow the usual pattern: sit near me and by so doing, obstruct my view. I say this because, strange as it seems, I seem to be a magnet for fat people. I can be sitting anywhere, in a terminal, plane, bus, or train, with many empty seats around me, but nine times out of ten a fat person will spot me and sit just one seat over. This has happened so many times I no longer attribute it to coincidence but to something in me that draws them near—maybe it’s the fact that I always stick up for fat people, despite the fact that I’m skinny, when I hear anti-fat jokes and worse.

The mother and son did sit in the seat in front of me, although they had to split up because they both couldn’t fit in the same seat. I tried not to stare when they sat down together in an attempt to make one seat work. It’s smart to be discreet. When we arrived in Philly, after the whole bus had emptied out, they waited for me to exit because they didn’t want anyone to see them struggle up the aisle.

But let me tell you about the most disturbing thing I saw on that return bus ride. In that breathtakingly beautiful Pennsylvania countryside, I saw gashes and gaps in the mountain landscape that were most likely caused by "fracking".

Fracking is the latest wonder technology, formally called "high volume hydraulic fracturing". "So here’s what everybody is talking about!" I almost said out loud, thinking of all the fracking articles I used to dismiss as boring—until now. The gaps and gashes in the scenery caused me to do a little research when I arrived home. The facts are frightening.

Fracking, simply put, is forced infusion of chemical and sand laced water into 500 million year old shale formations (or the remains of oceans that once covered much of North America). The high-pressure infusion of these chemicals is like a high speed shot into the shale formations. The impact forces the methane embedded inside the shale to shoot out. Since the methane is mixed with the fracking chemicals as well as radioactive material, when this stuff is released it gets into the water and atmosphere. When you understand that for nearly half a billion years, the methane was encased and protected inside the shale in a kind of secure self storage unit, it’s easy to see how once ejected into the atmosphere, bad things start to happen.

Since 2008, when fracking really began to accelerate in Pennsylvania, experts have found traces of arsenic in the water. This ecological violence has resulted in the deaths of Pennsylvania farm animals like horses, cows, chickens and even barn cats and dogs. Many of the people near the fracking sites have evidences of internal scarring, calcium deposits, and in some cases, cirrhosis of the liver (despite the fact that they do not drink). Farm families and others have come down with unexplained rashes, nosebleeds, headaches and memory loss. While this all sounds a lot like science fiction, the reality is all too real.

As the bus drove past other fracking sites—they resembled surgical incisions scarring previously healthy groupings of trees—I found it hard to understand how this could be happening in Pennsylvania. It was strange too, because before I left on this pilgrimage to nowhere, a good friend of mine referred to fracking as a "so what" issue. "I don’t have children," he said, "so what do I care what happens to the earth after I leave?"

Things ended on a good note when I got home and read an email from the monastery explaining the confusion. The good abbot offered me a free round trip to my rustic mountain retreat sometime this summer.

All’s good—except for the fracking!

I know my sister Carolyn Nickels would agree that 'fracking' not only ruins landscapes, it ruins lives.