Whenever I go to a new place, I look for its ghosts.
I don’t mean this literally. Some people actually go ghost hunting, and that’s fine I guess, but that would freak me out. No thanks.
No, the ghosts I look for are, ironically, a lot more concrete.
I grew up in western Pennsylvania, a place which, as my best friend once put it, is haunted. Flannery O’Connor’s South was Christ-haunted, but my western PA is self-haunted.
This is not in the sense that you literally see ghosts walking around, pushing carts at the grocery store, pumping your gas, or giving you directions to McDonald’s. (This may happen, but if it does please don’t tell me about it.) Western PA is haunted because it lives in the shadow of its own history. There’s a story behind the millions of wooded acres and crumbling brick storefronts. It’s one of a post-industrial area trying to survive past its original purpose.
It’s like when someone leaves a piece of carpet in the woods, and a whole ecosystem grows over it, vines and grass and clover, and you don’t notice what’s underneath until you start to question whether the ground truly is the real ground, and you start to peel up the edges of the carpet, ripping the life on top to shreds. What’s underneath is real, but forgotten, and sometimes it’s easier to forget. Sometimes it’s better to pretend that the carpet is the ground.
I grew up thinking it was normal to find rusty machinery in the woods, that every state park had a ghost town in it, and that all small towns were struggling and hopeless. It wasn’t until I moved away, traveled, and studied some history that I realized how remarkable and tragic these places really are.
Now when we go home to visit, I realize how haunted it is, haunted by itself. I see a city block and know what it used to look like. I drive through woods and know how the hills used to be shaved of trees and dotted with oil derricks. I listen to the stories people tell of the good old days, and that lost society feels close enough to bring back, if we could just beat it at hide and seek.
And I feel the ghosts. Not literal, spiritual entities, but ghosts in the sense that there were layers upon layers of lives before mine who lived in these places and called them home. Layers upon layers of eyes looking at the same things I see, layers of thoughts pondering the same things I think about, layers of joy and love and anger and frustration like I feel.
All those layers, all that history, all that life, builds up until going home feels so thick with stories I have to cut a path through them just to find my parents’ house.
The funny thing is, I can no longer go somewhere new without knowing the place’s ghosts. When I know I’m visiting a new place, I must do two things: look up the map, and look up the history. I must be able to mentally, as well as physically, find myself around.
Sometimes I’m not homesick; I just don’t know the local ghosts.
It sounds weird, or at the very least exhausting. That’s okay; it is both those things. But the best part about ghost hunting is it reminds me that life is made of stories. If we don’t seek out the stories, if we don’t look for the ghosts, they’ll be forgotten. Huge chunks of life will be forgotten.
And that’s why, I think, you have places like western PA. When we forget our ghosts, we get places that are little more than haunted, overgrown carpets in the woods, thick with layers of history that people live in, feeling overwhelmed or hopeless with no idea why. That’s why you have small towns where a whole life and society is built on forgetting. Remembering is exhausting.
But as a writer, I know my craft is one of remembrance. It’s my job to learn as much as I can, to choose not to forget. It’s my job to get down all the stories, all the chunks of life, we forget as the years go by and the world moves on.
It’s my job to tear up the carpet, shred up the turf, and look for the ghosts.