In Pursuit of the Normal

RIDGWAY, Pennsylvania—While outsiders like to say there are more elk than people here in Elk County because of the abundance of the former and the sparse population of the latter, today is a different day as thousands of people from across Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland descend here for this town’s annual Mountain Fest.

The parking lots are mud-soaked and so full that not one but two overflow lots are hastily put together as it becomes clear to organizers that if you put together a community-centric event, people will come.

The sun makes a showing and the temperatures hit the 50s, both rarities in Appalachia in March, to add to the sense of renewal.

Main Street, which is about four blocks from the massive old tannery housing, is also packed. Locals and tourists alike enjoy supporting the local businesses, but it is clear they are also enjoying seeing one another.

Smiles and greetings were shared with strangers everywhere you looked—that is, if you were paying attention—as people acknowledged that their lives were largely returning to normal.

There are few things people relish more than a sense that everything is all right. We crave the stability that comes with our families being nearby and our communities thriving, as well as the sense of purpose that comes with being able to provide for and contribute to both.

We expect bumps in the road and setbacks. We expect from ourselves the ability to create a path around those setbacks using whatever our skills dictate, whether our hands, our minds, or a lot of both.

When pandemics and wars and drug epidemics and soaring inflation arose, we used to rely on a vigorous and courageous press that would dispassionately use their skills to find out the origins. We also used to expect the people whom we elected to run our government to not turn these things into weapons to divide us rather than unite us—or, worse yet, lie to us or hide from us their origins.

If those running these institutions wonder why the public has lost faith in them, those three things are a great place to start. When the pandemic began, anyone who questioned the origin story of the coronavirus was marked as a xenophobe and a conspiracist. Everyone seems to ignore that our open borders are contributing to our opioid epidemic. And unless you haven’t filled your gas tank up since January 2021, you’ve noticed that our gas prices, which make everything else more expensive, too, are not Vladimir Putin’s fault.

Several chainsaw craftsmen and artisans displayed their work outside the old tannery at Mountain Fest. (Photo by Salena Zito)

America’s present need is for “normalcy.” Log off Twitter for a few minutes, and you might notice that people are turning to each other, their families, and their communities to achieve it—the one thing they know they won’t find by spending hours of the day scrolling through Twitter.

And that is why they don’t. Do a quick search on Twitter and you’ll see no one tweeted #MountainFest that day; they were too busy living in the moment.

Axios, whose main audience is located in places like Washington, D.C., New York, and Silicon Valley, ran a very self-aware, data-rich story last week showing what I see every day in my reporting: Most people in this country are not on Twitter, and most people are friendly, donate time and money and would help you shovel your snow.

As Mike Allen and Erica Pandey reported, “They are busy, normal, and mostly silent.”

On this day in Elk County, they are embracing all three. Young people, families, mothers and fathers pushing strollers, and wheelchair-bound elderly parents enter the former tannery and walk into 50,000 square feet of artisans, distillers, brewers, craftsmen, woodcarvers, and food trucks—just to name a few of the things they could buy, eat, drink or enjoy.

The sound of local musicians fills the air from the stage—a variety of them circulate and play all day long.

Tanneries are a rich part of the history of this region. When the Ridgway Tannery merged with the United States Leather Company at the turn of the 20th century, it was one of the original companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Elk County’s history is rooted in its origins in the production of leather, lumber, iron, and food commodities, such as distilled spirits and elk. Those roots were reflected in what the artisans and craftsmen were selling at the festival. If so inclined, you could also buy natural beard care from Allegheny Mountain Beard Products or handmade sterling silver and stainless-steel jewelry from a female veteran.

And if you’ve never tried hickory syrup, which is very different from maple syrup in both taste and brewing process, Ox Dynasty from nearby Juniata County had plenty for you to both try and buy. The rich, buttery taste has a smoky quality that most chefs or foodies would love to have in their pantry for their hotcakes or for glazing their salmon.

One hundred years ago, this town had more millionaires per capita than any other town in the United States because of its rich resources and the people’s willingness to use their minds and their hands. There isn’t just an abundance of stately Victorian buildings—there is also an abundance of outdoor activities.

This rugged, mountainous region has been a favorite hunting and fishing spot for people all over the country for generations—family “camps” are dotted all along the backwoods of what many folks call the “Pennsylvania Wilds.”

The generous number of elk, once on the brink of disappearing here, has created a subculture of “elk tourism” that peaks during the rutting season between August and November.

Few ever forget the sounds of bulls going head-to-head, fighting over cows, or the sound of their bugle when it echoes across the hollers. During the height of the pandemic, it became a tourist destination for the un-rugged, an experience that changed many of their perspectives on how much one can miss normalcy.

Inflation, the pandemic, and the crisis on the southern U.S. border have touched virtually every part of life today. They have affected the food we eat, the places we go, how our children are educated, and how people cope with the pain of loss and loneliness, turning even to harmful substances.

The faces at the Mountain Fest show people longing to embrace more normal days like this one.

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