We went to the Laurel Highlands a few weekends ago. It's about an hour from our house and felt both very familiar and very, very different. The western Pennsylvania woods are filled with ferns and mushrooms, logs and boulders, a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees (I'm still working on the names of local trees) and very familiar birds. Nothing too exotic.
The parts that were different were the huge spaces between homes and businesses. Long stretches of road with no traffic lights or stop signs. Not too many places to eat, and not too many great options. That felt a little sad since we saw many farms in the area.
We hiked to Jones Mills Falls, visited a scenic overlook. On Sunday we navigated to Cole Mill Falls and then hiked down the mountain to a popular spring and swimming pool called Blue Hole. Even though some of us were tired and frustrated from falling into the creek on the way there, it was a lovely sight. We spotted small, then big, then REALLY big rainbow trout swimming in the Blue Hole.
Families filled their camp water bottles at the spring. They told us where to get delicious fresh water and then left. A man arrived and dove into the water, which was about seven feet deep. The water was COLD. Very cold. But refreshing. The man was impressed we had hiked all the way down from the top of the mountain. No, he wasn't a local he said. He lived with his parents in a nearby town called Derry.
We were really enjoying ourselves until the man, a total and complete stranger, asked us if we went to church.
Like, out of nowhere, out the blue (hole) he asked us that. It was such an awkward strange moment. Everyone was very uncertain how to answer, or if to answer. Why was it any of his business? What would happen if we didn't reply? What would happen if we did? We were out in the middle of nowhere, near no one, with no cell signal.
Sure, he was in the water, swimming around. Sure, he probably wouldn't have done anything.
But in the past year we've been filled with uncertainty about our safety. We've seen the violence people are willing to commit if they judge someone as unworthy or evil. We've seen everything from a lack of decency to rudeness to anger and physical harm.
As the designated talk to strangers person in our family, I answered in a cheerful tone and gave the old name of our church. It has since changed. He guessed that we were Catholic just based on the name. I said yep as I hustled the kids quietly to gather their things so we could leave.
Nothing came of it. No one was hurt. We never saw him again on the return trip. We talked about it with the family, how we handled it the best we could, even if in hindsight we would have done a few things differently.
We got back to our car without any more upsetting moments. But my memories of this beautiful place will always have him in it, and my worries about him. It will take time for me to ever shake the feeling that we were not safe. And having our visit to this beautiful, wild, nature place tarnished like that makes it hard for me to forgive him.