That’s what the houses were. Actually, the entire village was condemned at one time. Starting in 1960 there were 15,000 people displaced by the condemnation of personal property by eminent domain leaving 3 – 5,000 buildings abandoned or demolished. The US Army Corps of Engineers proposed to construct a dam that would have created a 37-mile long lake between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, with depths of up to 140 feet. The plan was embroiled in controversy and opposition by environmental groups and embittered displaced residents that had been working farms there for generations.
Because of the considerable opposition, the unavailability of government funding and a geological assessment revealing the dam would be located near active fault lines, the federal government decided to abandon the dam project. It transferred the property to the National Park Service in 1978. The project’s land holding were reorganized to create the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
Peter’s Valley is a non-profit corporation created in one of those abandoned towns as an artist community. There, in the middle of the woods, photography, blacksmithing, weaving, pottery, and stain glass and countless other arts and crafts are taught. The barns are used for various classes and the once condemned homes are now student housing. That is where this story begins. With me deciding to take a photography class at Peter’s Valley. It was before my world was turned upside down by health concerns. A simpler time in hindsight when big problems included where and what kind of classes I would take during my vacations. That year, I decided on Platinum/Palladium printing which is an old form of printing using light and at times the sun. There were three levels of housing costs and at the last-minute I decided to sign up for a single room in the most inexpensive house. I didn’t give it much thought until I arrived.
The house I signed up for was the most inexpensive because it was the one that needed the most repairs. I only realized this as I climbed the worn wooden steps to my abode for the week. It was an old colonial that was once majestic for it’s time – the late 1800’s I suspect. Now the exterior paint peeled like a bad case of psoriasis and the wooden landing was no longer level. The inside was musty. I battled with the front door trying to get it to shut and had to give up.
“We have to make sure we keep this closed to keep the bugs out.”
I shouted this out to an 18-year-old guy sitting on the couch in the living room directly to the left of the front door. His long hair hid much of his face and accentuated his 6’4” lanky frame that only an 18-year-old can posses. He rolled his eyes in response and a shiver went up my spine. “Dam,” I thought, “the house is filled with kids.” At 48, hanging with teens was the last thing I wanted to do for a week. I climbed the rickety steps one flight up and at the end of the landing was my room. Three bedrooms were on this floor and we shaired a bathroom that had an old claw foot tub in it. My room had 3 metal beds with mattresses that had seen better days. The windows had old panes and one was cracked and another missing. Ivy grew through this hole into the room and onto the wall. I sat on the bed in shock. What had I signed up for?
I admit, I didn’t just sit on the bed. I had a full-blown panic attack. Midway through it a clear voice screamed out in my head. “Mae, either leave now or let go and enjoy the week. Decide now.” I breathed in deeply looking at the ivy crawling along the wall and decided to stay. I’m happy I had that moment when I did as when I climbed down the stairs I discovered the house was next to the Blacksmiths barn and everyone staying there had enrolled in that class. They ranged in age from 18 to 70 and it was Nick, the 70-year-old, who brought coolers full of food and a menu for the week. He took the role of leader of the pack and told me to tell him if anything was not to my liking. I was still in shock so I just nodded.
Blacksmith’s chests look like Popeye after he’s downed the can of spinach. It’s a hobby meant for big bulky men and a rather clandestine group too. I could tell they were about as happy to have me in the house, as I was to be there.
One of them mumbled, “Is that your bright blue mini-van parked out front?”
“Yes, it’s mine.”
“Yeah, it’s ruining the house’s image.”
I burst out laughing. “Yes, it is. It’s a company car and I made a mistake picking out the color. You can smash it up if you want.”
He nodded but his eyes smiled.
Trucks, an old camper and motorcycles filled the lawn/parking lot out front. My bright blue van did look out-of-place.
Seven men were staying in the house and an additional 3 were camped out front. It rained the first two days I was there and it was a blessing in disguise. The lanky 18-year-old was signed up for the same breakfast plan as I was and I offered him a ride in the mornings to the cafeteria. The first day we had little to say.
“What made you decide to become a blacksmith?”
“I like playing with fire and making knives.”
The second day we had more to say.
“Class is going great. The teacher brought a special hammer across the country for us to use. He says we have to stop at 8:00 because it’s loud and will disturb your sleep.”
Dead silence except for the occasional swoosh from my windshield wipers.
Luckily, I wasn’t born yesterday.
“Tell the guys they can use that hammer until dawn for all I care. I come from New York and it’s a noisy place. Don’t worry about it.”
Yes, I lied.
His lips twitched and I detected a smile.
That night I went to sleep in a dilapidated house deep in the woods with rhythmic pounding coming from the barn. Surprisingly, I slept like a baby knowing my housemates were happily molding metal. Every night after a day of photographing I would come back to the house and there was always one parking spot open near the front door. Nick made me coffee every morning and I would sit on a stool and we’d talk about what we were working on that week. Some of the guys would come down and drink coffee with us. One looked liked Gollum from Lord of the Rings. He was covered in tattoos and spent most mornings crouched outside by the front door chain smoking cigarettes. Nick would make him breakfast and he’d slink in like a feral cat and eat silently in the corner. Mid week the guys invited me to come visit one night if I wanted to see their work.
Photography, especially those using film, attracts people who like numbers and they tend to be rather nerdy in a non-physical kind of way. My classmates told me that my housemates frightened them. I couldn’t disagree. When the blacksmiths showed up at lunch they towered over all of us, would eat everything in sight and then silently talk amongst themselves at the long tables. The photography group had to rush to get there before them or else the pickings would be slim.
I went to the pulsating barn the night before classes ended. The guys were more animated than I had ever seen them and they were thrilled to show me what they had been making all week. Fluid art forms made of metal and it was beautiful work. Even Gollum had a sort of glow about him as he showed me his piece. On the wall in chalk was written The Easy Way is Hard Enough.
I liked my photography class but would be the first to admit that it was my living conditions that made my vacation. I never would have guessed that when I first arrived. My biggest lesson learned was that there are times you have to let go and you might just have the best time of your life.