by jennifer hetrick
last summer, berks county’s fourth poet laureate, craig czury, traveled to his home region in northeastern pennsylvania to take up his old love of hitchhiking. but this time, it took on a much larger end goal. czury has been hitching many a ride in pushing forward with his marcellus shale poetry project, reaching out to the hearts of locals and gas workers along route 29 in susquehanna county every time he’s busy thumbing it.
czury takes to the introspective angles of how natural gas drilling (also known as fracking) affects the lives of those who see it happening around them on a daily basis. having grown up in the back mountain region of wilkes-barre in luzerne county, his latest efforts are about a half-hour drive from where he spent his childhood, surrounded by the dead coal industry.
a year ago, czury received a grant for common ground: a community conversation about natural gas and northeastern pennsylvania. the grant in the amount of $3,000.00 came together through a partnership between keystone college, countryside conservancy, north branch land trust, cabot oil and gas, summerhouse grill, and springville schoolhouse art studios.
the art studios are where czury has been taking a comfy shelter since beginning the project, when he’s not commuting back to berks county to teach creative writing courses.
earlier this year, czury won the f. lammot belin arts scholarship through the waverly community house situated in waverly, lackawanna county. totaling $15,000.00, the scholarship is aimed at helping czury to continue with his thumb notes, or his poetic reflections of the voices of all the people he’s met while hitchhiking.
the collection will eventually transition into a book known as his thumb notes almanac, accompanied by photographs courtesy of kim glemboski. the project’s results will also be a part of a magazine publication once the passenger’s side and backseat interviews are all finished.
“i get rides from gas workers, farmers, locals, redneck locals who want to knee-cap the gas workers with baseball bats, and yes, even women still pick me up,” czury admits.
tucked into his pocket is his marcellus journal, which he doesn’t pull out to ink up well with pen and story after story till he’s given his thanks for the ride to wherever he may be going, once wheels are stirring onward from the gravel dust at the side of the road.
his hitchhiking spans mostly between the towns of tunkhannock and montrose, which are about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from reading, berks county.
“what’s most interesting to me is the reasons why people stop to pick me up. one man told me he stopped because his son used to hitchhike this road to work and back,” czury says. “a woman told me her father used to hitchhike. a young couple told me a story about rescuing a family with a baby in a snowstorm. one gas worker told me his father had to hitchhike from montana to oklahoma when he lost his job in the oil fields, and they took away his company truck.”
while many may cringe at the concept of hitchhiking, czury’s ties to this form of connecting with strangers very quickly shine through every ride, as he’s welcomed into the vehicle and after the door slams following his quick words of gratitude for the lift.
“at each split second when each of these drivers decided to stop to give me a lift, they were transferring a loved one or someone they felt for onto me—looking at me and seeing them,” czury says. “there’s something very magical in this.”
dale motions for czury to walk up route 29 from the blinking light in springville to get into his maroon sedan. he soon gives his introduction and says he can tell when people have good hearts, and he means even those who travel by foot and gladly scoop up charity car rides.
having served for many years as a taxi driver, dale quickly tells czury that he understands why the fracking has to be done, but he doesn’t agree with how the gas companies go about it all.
an environmentalist who is often the man behind organizing powwows in the area, dale found himself in discussions before where he was told by gas company reps that the drinking water was safe. but when he pushed a glass over to the man making such claims, he told dale he wasn’t thirsty. dale responded in saying, “then the water’s not safe to drink.”
dale has heard explosions at compressor stations while mowing his grass, only to see his house and its windows rattle fiercely as the earth reacted hard to the penetration.
after a few miles of driving, dale kindly drops czury off at pj’s restaurant & bar in south montrose for breakfast while several area softball teams compete across the street, having played late into the dark of the night the evening before.
once czury has filled up his stomach for the morning, he puts a tenacious thumb out by the road again. in a few minutes, dan obliges, whipping his oldsmobile around potholes as he hits the brake to let czury hop on in.
an excerpt from craig czury’s thumb notes—
from the kitchen window
from the back field near the pond
from your truck swerving potholes
your story augers deep
through a tangle of roots
home or far from home
lit by a tower of stars
written in earth and water
with flammable ink
at the age of 54, dan has 20 grandkids and four great-grandkids. one of his daughter’s works at a shop along the road, so he goes for saturday drives, with the windows down, to visit her and to grab a coffee.
when czury asks if he’s ever seen a bobcat in these parts, dan nods. when czury asks if he’s seen a cougar, dan says that he has but points out that the game commission isn’t willing to admit the same despite the evidence.
dan says he doesn’t own land, but some of his adult children do.
“these guys who own land out here are making it rich,” dan says as creedence clearwater revival’s portrayal of “midnight special” belts out through the beaten radio speakers.
czury has heard stories of families broken apart by gas leases signed and by refusals to sign, often involving farmers who have suffered through the dairy crisis.
some of those he’s talked to have mentioned farm families barely living on making $30,000 a year, scraping by, then signing a gas lease with a pair of wells drilled on their land so that their income is suddenly around $100,000 a month.
but czury has learned that for those families who do sign gas leases, many are known for contributing large sums of their new wealth to local service organizations.
a treatment station tucked beyond the hills away from the main rural highway separates the gas from water, recycling it back into the ground, with the only road there covered in grit instead of macadam.
the region has recently been the sight of more pipeline preparation along route 29 for transporting the gas once it’s drilled into waking.
czury is known to drive to sites late at night when workers are extracting the natural gas.
even in the latest and most quiet hours of the night, czury has seen the sky light up into a white fury from rig flares burning off excess gas and fracking fluid, following fracking.
glimpsing so much of the scenery and northeastern pennsylvania landscape lit up when the town’s people are trying to sleep has a strong influence on czury’s insides as he continues with the poetry project.
an excerpt from craig czury’s thumb notes—
again i’m standing out here with my thumb
but i am standing out here with my thumb
and a pocket notebook
i’m writing this as i stand out here
springville joes’s garage – quality used cars since 1950.
at the CIT O station well hands pile
out of a white company truck
with their work gear and get into their cars
and drive off into who knows where
never mind the trucks.
a woman walks to her car carrying
large cups of coffee in both hands
sets them on the roof of her powder blue hybrid
looks over at me and smiles
looks over at me and smiles
when czury first began his poetry project, gas drilling at a single site lasted about 29 days. now, it only takes about 14 days, from start to fracking-finish.
since film is one of the most common ways others are documenting what’s going on in marcellus shale regions in how it affects local life, czury likes that he is approaching it instead through what he cherishes so much—poetry.
“this is my home region, as well as all those ‘shit-ass coal towns,’ as my mother would say, which i documented through poetry 30 years ago,” czury reflects, grateful to be able to bring poem-fragments to the vulnerable humanity and weighted honesty weaved into the stories he has absorbed during the project’s long-stretching minutes.
czury’s laureateship in berks county ends next month. to learn more about all of his poetic endeavors, visit www.craigczury.com.