For my road trip through much of the Allegheny Plateau, I planned to be there near peak fall. A freak late season heat wave prevented practically any vibrant colors from coming out in most places I went to it turned out, but the rest of the journey went off without a hitch and I hit all of my target stops but one.
I had the good fortune to be doing this trip while reading the book (that I am still reading as of now) When They Severed Earth From Sky, which is about how prehistoric and premodern myths often reflect distorted accounts of real world events. Often natural in origin. The book postulates that in a non-record keeping culture, it is easier to pass down information from one generation to another if human intention and romantic flourish is added to the account. This ensures that future storytellers will want to tell it and tribe members will want to hear it.
One of the reasons I went on this trip is to do ‘research’ of a sort. Since 2018 I have been writing on ongoing fiction short story series about a post-United States (but not post-apocalyptical in the environmental sense) future centered around this region and the new cultures that grow up in the void left by the parting of the old society. The technology level is kind of rustbelt modern, akin to the STALKER games, but with a heavy dose of folk horror and sword and sorcery. Given the propensity of people to claim to see strange creatures in this region, and my past experience road tripping in West Virginia, it made a natural choice. Also, around this time the disastrous Fallout 76 came out, which I avoided and whose release time was coincidental with my own development of this setting. But it kind of challenged me to do the region better, as I knew I could. So far, I have used many of the Appalachian cryptids (as well as less modern folklore) to help round out the stories. The overall vibe kind of comes across as a hybrid between something Laird Barron would write and the game Dusk.
One wonders what it is that makes this region so good for spooks and haints. I imagine the deep religiosity (but for a Manichean monotheism) clashes with the brooding forests and broken hills. This is creature country. Not the desert of the Bible. The desire to treat this still very wild land in the traditional sense of the devout English or Ulstermen fails. But the desire to see something memorable and folkloric remains. The failure to take in enough of the preexisting Shawnee mythology leaves a void that the distant and blandly universal god of the Bible could never truly fill when it comes to regional identity. Point Pleasant, at least, has a petroglyph of an Algonquian water panther, though my picture of it is not good enough to bother uploading here. Anyway, they have their own local creature since the 60s and the tourists it draws in has brought the downtown back from the brink.
With the coming and going of coal and industry, the region feels like its slipping back into something premodern. So why shouldn’t it be a pioneer in re-mythologizing itself? Sure, the Mothman and the Flatwoods Monster strike me as large birds, especially owls, seen in low light conditions and mistaken for giant humanoid monsters since perspective and distance were off. But they represent a very real desire for re-enchantment of the world. Not in the generic occidental monolithic religious way we are used to, but in a localized way that differentiates some regions from another. Much like the Jersey Devil does for my current region or the Kushtaka for coastal Alaska. They are mascots as well as something else. Something specific.
If we lived in a world were Carthage had beaten Rome and our western-Eurasian maritime culture had ended up being a Carthaginian-Celtic-Hellenistic hybrid (one can dream) I can imagine two things: 1. more syncretism with the native traditions in North America upon advent of the colonial period, and 2. local shrines and temples to strange sightings. I imagine this is how gods got started in the first place anyway. My favorite thing about being in Japan, second only to heated vending machines, is the localized nature of Shinto temples. Imagine a Mothman or Jersey Devil or Coyote temple, laid out open plan. Multiple buildings built around natural features for a seamless regional experience that reflects the land that myths arise from, as well as the myths themselves.
Seen in this light, the ruins of the region are not just testaments to a past sinking into entropy, but also a fountain for new myths for the future. A reinvigorated folklore for a changing culture could be born here. This is true for many other similar places as well. As Ibn Khaldun teaches us, its often the neglected and sidelined places where solidarity is re-forged first, and thus where the impetus of history can shift towards. This is how a view a future-oriented trek to the adaptations we need to deal with living in the Anthropocene, a process I have previously written about as The Black Longhouse.
Near the end of my trip, I hiked down the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike towards Sidelong Hill tunnel. One of three abandoned hill-traversing tunnels from a section of the highway that was dropped from use in the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, what I found there was a local youth shrine of sorts. Graffiti and messages, many sloppy, some funny, all of them speaking to the power of this place to communicate outside of oneself and for those of certain dispositions to congregate.
I walked deep into the gash in the earth, into the bowels of the Allegheny mountains. At about the halfway point, when both exits were distant smudges of light, I stopped and shut off my flashlight. In the perfect damp darkness I stood. I clapped, hollered, and sang. My own voice came back to me a hundredfold from every direction, amplified and distorted.
Ancient shamans would have killed for a better otherworldly experience.