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  • IT WAS AN ideal day for a sentimental journey through the Pennsylvania Southern Anthracite Coal Field on the Monday after Christmas – that is, it was overcast, threatened precipitation, and just about everything except the Russian Orthodox churches seemed sprinkled in coal dust.

    One iconic structure from the history of King Coal, the Saint Nicholas regional coal cracking plant – the St. Nick Breaker – had been reduced to a skeleton of its former self, awaiting total demolition.

    I drove north on State Highway 183 into Schuylkill County, through Cressona and around the west side of Pottsville, thence north on State Highway 61 through Saint Clair, Frackville, and Gilberton, into Shenandoah. Back in the early 2000s, I frequented that countryside while I was writing Book One of my first novel, Up Home, and I discovered that L’Ascension of Olivier Messiaen made a perfect, contemplative, melancholy musical accompaniment to my wanderings.

    (God is in the details, my dear fiction coach of yesteryear counseled!)

    From Shenandoah (Shendo or Chendo in the regional parlance), I picked up Highway 54 through Gilberton, past the St. Nick, and into Mahanoy City. This sad little town is a “city” in name only (although I’m sure there are many who love it, and I certainly don’t mean to speak ill of the place; in fact, back when I was in a literary fervor, I positively thrived on the atmosphere there).

    From Mahanoy City, through Hometown and Tamaqua; thence to Coaldale and a visit to Saint Mary’s Russian Orthodox Church, then through Summit Hill (where an outcropping of anthracite coal was reportedly discovered in 1791 by a bushwhacking mountain man who fell asleep without dousing his campfire and awoke to find the rocks burning all around him), and then on down Owl Creek Road and 45 miles home.

    Following are some photos to give you a sense of the area.

    And now, it’s time (past time, really) to get to work on Book Two of the Up Home series.
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