By Jake Maynard
“You Look, we shoot!” – A sign posted in front of a house in my hometown
It’s funny what can make you miss childhood. The other day I was biking a rail-trail and noticed a few kitchen appliances rusting in the middle of a clearing. I thought of the woods behind my childhood home, in the most rural part of Northern Pennsylvania, where an old wooden oil drum the size of a van leeched sludge into a greasy slick on the forest floor. (Our shoes would reek when we played too close.) The drum was surrounded by hemlocks and beech, and a pretty creek ran by it. Further down the hill, the creek passed the remnants of an old landfill, only partially covered, where you could occasionally find grouse nesting in rusted-out washing machines.
My friends and I loved those oil drums more than the woods around them. We were surrounded by nature—a whole National Forest full of it—and we’d search for manmade trash in the places where wild lands and industry bumped heads. We liked a stone quarry lined with scrap cars that everyone called The Octagon. An old bridge called the Trestle. A railroad excavation, well-suited for biking, called The Dip; an old telephone relay station with a climbable roof we called The Bell. An abandoned sawmill we called The Hangar. The old Bomler Building, re-named The Spot.
Oil, glass, timber, bricks. These were McKean County’s industries and subsequently its relics, and we collected them like the bones of dead saints. All through the woods we’d find sucker rods—large, tar-soaked poles used in the oil industry—and busted axe heads and apple trees where homesteads failed. We’d find bricks stamped with the names of towns that exist only on maps, and the stone pillars of small bridges long since washed away. We’d find angular slabs of green glass the size of your head. Hunting the woods around old factories for slag-glass is a local hobby; people drop them in their gardens to refract light, or sell them on eBay.
One of my favorite places was The Hangar—a huge sawmill that had closed in the early 1990s. The Hanger sat at the edge of the woods, along the railroad tracks that we used to move from place to place, the ancient migratory corridors of townie kids. The sawmill had stored about fifty years’ worth of wood chips at the treeline by the tracks, thousands of tons, tall as a house, steaming from the heat made as the chips decomposed. Snow never stuck there; even in winter, you could kick off the top few inches of chips and warm your hands. We’d climb across them, BMX bikes or skateboards on our shoulders, and feel free.
At first we stayed outside, building bike ramps among the old concrete loading docks and dirt piles. But you know how things go. They’d barely even locked the hangar door.
Inside, the sawmill was dark and empty, the size of a football field. It was like an anarchist’s skating rink. Sometimes we burned scrap wood in old barrels to stay warm. Once we drank some beer a kid had stolen from the aftermath of a local fundraiser at the sportsmen’s club, siphoning it into milk jugs after the adults drove home drunk. But mostly, we just skateboarded and rode our bikes, away from all the things oppressing us: snow, siblings, parents, the nibby old loiterers that stood around Main Street.
We all knew we were there illegally—at The Dip, the Hangar, the Trestle. But we thought of them as our own. The names we gave to these places weren’t creative, but they were true names. Without ever being told, we knew what all the old religions teach us—to name something is to claim it, to make it your own. So that’s what we did. All over McKean County, we claimed the unwanted spaces that adults had left behind.
Even then, it seemed obvious to me that there were many types of trespasses. Private property is more complicated than you’d think, at least where I’m from. It’s somehow both sacred and fluid, highly circumstantial and also based on historical and personal contexts. People love their land—and maintain the right to fuck it up as they choose—but all the timber fields blemished with rusting equipment more or less belong to everybody. The adults hunted the timber fields, and us kids climbed water towers and stashed stolen copies of Playboy in derelict sheds.
Anything not in use seemed like fair game. I remember asking my dad what it meant when there was a sign stapled to a tree that read “POSTED.” He said it meant the owners didn’t want people on their land. I took it to mean anyone without a sign didn’t care.
All of this was made worse by the fact that almost nothing in town was ever locked. Once, when I was very young, some boys and I went into the local Lutheran Church (always unlocked), because my friends thought that since they were church members they would be allowed to play tag there. The lights were off, and the pews glowed red from stained-glass light. I remember thinking I must be trespassing, while they definitely were not. My friend Brett, concerned for my secular soul, splashed palmfuls of water from the drinking fountain onto my face.
The conversion didn’t stick, but I do know that some versions of the Lord’s Prayer ask God to “Forgive us these trespasses.” And, of course, it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask for permission. I can’t say the first time I trespassed, because it happened long before I understood the act itself. But I did know the Hangar, like the church, brought our trespassing closer to town. And the Bomler Building—well, that was too close altogether.
This was around the year 2000, and my hometown was in retrograde.
Mt. Jewett is a tiny town at the edge of a plateau, where the weather sucks and the farmland does, too. Founded by Swedish immigrants who came to work the timber fields after clearing the woods of Maine, its population peaked at just under two thousand residents in 1910, about the time all the sixteen or so downtown buildings were constructed. The population leveled off by the 1970s and stayed consistent until 2000, when it dropped sharply, emptying out storefronts and forcing buildings into foreclosure. The hardware store and diner had recently shut down, one of two gas stations was on its way out, and soon the factory where my mom and half of the town worked would pick up and move to Mexico.
All at once, it seemed, my friends and I had more chances to explore. We came slinking out of the backyards and woods, hungry little opportunists. It was warm, springtime, and my friend Brett and I were being chased through town by Jim Kemick, a middle-schooler who was always on the loose. He had a voice like a frog, colorless, dirty hair, and was the kind of kid you never really associated with having a family. He was bullied in middle school, so he liked to torment us. We never knew if he wanted to hurt us or if we were supposed to be in on the fun. Such is the ladder of life.
Brett and I cut into a narrow alley between the Bomler Building and the old VFW, both recently boarded up. Jim chased us through the alley, up a set of stairs, and onto a little porch with a door that led to the second floor of the Bomler, the highest it went.
Jim Kemick stopped and grabbed the doorknob. Locked. He balled his sweatshirt around his fist and punched out a glass pane. It was a grubby two-bedroom apartment, the kind of poverty that was unknown to me. (I was safely working-class; my parents had full-time jobs and a golden retriever.) Inside, the apartment was empty and abandoned. The tiles were yellowed, the window glass sagging with age. It reeked with that heavy summer apartment smell of never-opened windows. In the cupboards we found a cheese grater and a bag of onions sprouting in the darkness. In a closet, two cans of insulation-pink paint.
We went into the main stairway and down to the ground floor unit (also abandoned), where the carpet reeked of cat piss and mold. It was dark and the power’d been cut off. Brett found two long fluorescent bulbs and smashed them together. They popped like .22 shots as the fluorescent gas escaped. In the bathroom, I found a child’s toothbrush and remembered that two siblings from my elementary school, who had suddenly moved away, were the last people to live there. The boy, who’d been a scrappy, deviant kid like Kemick, had bragged to us on the playground that his father had caught him smoking and made him smoke an entire pack of cigarettes as punishment. “I just kept puking,” he said. I thought of the boy hunched over the toilet in this windowless bathroom, the air heavy with smoke, and I felt suddenly bad for him. There were things at work—poverty, environmental degradation, economic collapse, abuse—that felt just a little out of my reach. It was one of the first times I can remember thinking outside of myself.
The ruminating was brief. Back upstairs, Brett hollered “Guys, let’s piss in the oven!” So we did. We were always pissing onto or into things. But Jim Kemmick wasn’t just a pisser; he was probably some sort of psychopath. He went into the bathroom, shit into the dry toilet, and walked straight home.
I should have known that we’d gone too far. There was a difference between what was allowed in the woods and in town—a difference reinforced by my parents, who let me run free all day in the woods without much worry, regardless of who they belonged to, but hovered over me when I fraternized downtown with the older boys. Nonetheless, Brett and I dubbed it The Spot and went back a few times with our friend Megan. The bathroom was full of flies. We painted the walls pink and tossed around some onions. The smell got so bad I stopped going.
One day, when a Black Chevy Monte Carlo appeared in the driveway of my parents’ house, I assumed it had to be an uncle. I ran from my bedroom down the stairs and rounded the corner to our living room, sliding across the hardwood in my socks, only to see, framed in the kitchen doorway, Craig Morgan. Brett’s father. He was sitting at the kitchen table opposite my father, both of them with their heavy hands on the table. “Mine’s not allowed past the train tracks,” Craig said. My dad was nodding, with a vexed look on his face that was usually reserved for my older sister.
When my father came to discuss it with me, I faked remorse, blaming peer pressure and Jim Kemmick. But, really, it had felt like a natural extension of the Hangar, which was the natural extension of the old shacks in the woods. If nobody wanted it, I reasoned, what was the harm? I was generally seen as a good kid. I knew the definition of words before they were written on the board; I held the door for the old ladies at the store. Regardless, I was grounded indefinitely.
A few weeks later, the town cop made a visit. Each kid that visited The Spot had brought two more, so naturally the secret had gotten out. He sat in our kitchen, where Brett’s dad had sat. He was older than my father, probably in his late Forties, and took his time talking, like he was trying to figure out how to be both the good and bad cop. He was one of the last town cops we’d have; soon, there wouldn’t be the budget or activity to justify one.
I was in fifth grade, and the officer took great joy in pulling a small card from his pocket and reading me my Miranda rights. (He even showed Brett a pair of handcuffs, telling Brett they could be in his future.) My dad leaned against the wall, listening. He didn’t offer the officer any coffee, and he told him I’d already been sufficiently grounded. When questioned about the events, for some reason I kept repeating that “the only thing in there was a cheese grater,” as if that was the point.
No charges were filed, but my grounding lasted one anguished summer month. I was disallowed, like Brett, to cross the railroad tracks. I couldn’t bike at the Dip or roller blade at the freshly paved bank parking lot or jump from the rafters of Brett’s barn onto a stack of moldy mattresses. I couldn’t fawn at the beautiful Bard sisters who liked to stand around uptown, or even put on my new Nikes and walk to the store for a wide-mouth Mountain Dew.
When my grounding was over, we returned to places on the periphery, tucked into the woods, where even the presence of a building felt like an invasion upon the land. Trespassing begets trespassing, I suppose. This land had been claimed and re-named throughout time: once shared hunting grounds for small tribes, it was seized by the Iroquois Confederacy; then stolen by Britain; then by the United States, which whittled away Seneca lands deeded by George Washington, ceding tracks to timber barons and oil magnates like Rockefeller; then sold and re-sold, the most denuded parts deeded for pennies an acre to The U.S. Forest Service, which in turn leased it to back to oil and timber companies, to tourists to build camps, and to fracking outfits—a natural history of swindling, husbandry, depletion, regrowth.
When you live in a place built on boom-and-bust, it feels only natural to kick in a locked door and enter. Through piss and paint and the names we invented, we were trying to supply the pipeline of history, to leave a mark on the place that had marked us. But maybe that’s just hindsight; at the time, we were mostly kids being kids. And when we occasionally got busted, we fell back on same excuses used by the industrialists: we hadn’t known any better.
There were a few more times when we got caught, but we were fast and unafraid and knew the woods as well as the old fat men trying to chase us from their land. And because of our ages, and our whiteness, and because of the fact that most things in McKean County were going down, not up, no one ever fulfilled the “you look, we shoot” promise tacked to that tree in town.
I didn’t see my own privilege then—to run around these spaces with near-impunity. Nor did I understand the scope of rural economic collapse. Eventually, when I went away to college, I realized I’d grown up in a place that was growing down, puckering in on itself like old fruit. Buildings were torn down a lot in those years; I’d return home to find open sores where a building had been. I started bringing my college friends to McKean County for camping trips. They were mostly from Cleveland or the coasts, and they liked the hills and streams. It was hard to see my hometown through their eyes, though. Once, they mocked some people they met in the woods, calling them hillbillies. Another time, a friend called Spring “teenager with a baby” season in my hometown. Because my sister was a teen mother, that one really stung.
Once, we were hiking on the cusp of a state park. It was about to snow, the sky pewter with clouds, and a house appeared in the woods. It was just kind of there, defiant and ugly, with drooping wooden siding and raccoon-sized holes in the roof. From the porch, you could see the 1920s kitchen: chipped, enamel-top table, standalone sink. And the dish rack was heaped with plates and bowls, like the last thing somebody did in that house was clean up after supper. It occurred to me that no one who leaves a place on good terms leaves the dishes in the rack.
A friend wanted to go in, but I advised against it. There was something about that scene—it deserved to be left alone. Or, I thought it deserved to be left alone by them. Now, I wonder if I’d gone in had I been alone. At least, I would’ve felt more entitled to do so. Being from McKean County had become a part of me, and I felt like I deserved to decide which outsiders could look inside its private corners. Which is probably why I continue to write about home even though I’ll never live there again; I write about it in order to claim it as my own.
Many years later, placing my own clean dishes in a drying rack, I remembered that house, and it occurred to me that someday my family home will be the one left jilted, waiting for kids to trespass. In 2080 or 2090, when more of Mt. Jewett has been blinked away by progress, and when my childhood home is trashed and canted, some pie-eyed teenagers will tip-toe through, the blue light from their vape pens bobbing in the dark. It will smell like ashes and mold, my father’s beloved hardwood floors so swollen they’ve buckled. The trespassers will explore, disappointed at the junk that has been left behind. They might brave the steps, enter my bedroom, and peel back a curtain, revealing the closet where I scratched my name with a backwards K. But it will probably be so dark and water-stained that they won’t see my name. And then, maybe, they will keep with the local tradition and rename it for themselves. ■
Jake Maynard’s essays appear in The New York Times, Slate, Inside Higher Ed, Chattahoochee Review, Catapult, River Teeth, Backpacker Magazine, and others.
Cover image of the Kinzua bridge in Mount Jewett, Pennsylvania by Tristan Loper (creative commons).
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