Shale Country Troubadour Thumbs Rides for His Muse
On any given day, drivers along Route 29 in Susquehanna County might spot a gray-haired man with a small notebook in one hand, and his thumb out in the other. He’s Craig Czury, a 61-year-old poet who grew up in the coal regions, and began his writing career delving into that dying industry.
“I was just picking up the echoes of ghosts from a dead industry,” says Czury. These days, the energy industry in Northeast Pennsylvania has more lure and excitement for a poet. So he’s documenting the shale gas rush in his own unique way, hitchhiking up and down Route 29, collecting stories, and turning those vignettes into poetry.
“We are right at the beginning of the gas boom,” said Czury. “And it’s alive and it’s new and here come the filmmakers, here come the photographers and I don’t know who is getting the story down. The media is getting the loud story down. They got the company and the company line and they got the environmentalists and the mic checks and they’re yelling back and forth at each other. But I am not quite certain who’s getting the story underneath that.”
Nevermind the Trucks
A couple of weeks ago, I took to the road with Czury on a beautiful clear day, with the colors of fall surrounding us on the hillsides, and truck traffic buzzing by.
“There’s fresh water, so it must be a fracking day.”
Fresh water trucks used by the gas industry to frack wells are rolling along Route 29 in Springville Township, Susquehanna County, where we stand outside of Joe’s Garage. Across the street is MaryLynn’s Country Cafe, and a small post office. One blinking yellow light directs the rush hour traffic full of drilling trucks. I’ve got my microphone in one hand and my thumb out in the other. We’re trying to get seven miles up the road to Montrose.
“A lot of times the trucks are so heavy,” said Czury. “Usually it’s the flat bed trucks that are hauling really heavy drilling equipment that often times get stuck on this hill.”
Like a modern day troubadour, Czury thumbs for rides up and down route 29, a two-lane road that switches back and forth through the hills and cow pastures of Luzerne, Wyoming and Susquehanna counties. And he’s full of stories about his rides, which range from farmers, to industry executives to gas workers.
“I admire guys from Texas and Oklahoma,” he says. “These guys are far from home. I wonder how they’re making out. I like getting rides with them. They work so hard. And then there are the locals who want to kneecap the gas drillers with bats.”
A common refrain among his conversations with rides is “nevermind the trucks.”
A Texan and a Guy from West Chester
A couple of friendly gas workers pick us up in Montrose. With each ride, Czury is chatty, and curious, starting off the conversation with a question.
“So, where you from?”
“I’m from Texas.”
“So you been up here from Texas for how long?”
“You like it?”
“Naaah. I like the work but I don’t like the area.”
Flacco, and his friend from suburban Philadelphia, rent a house in Montrose and case wells for a living, an important job when it comes to safeguarding groundwater.
Gas drillers have hired experienced Texans who have filled the area’s hotels and rentals, causing a housing shortage and raising rents for the locals. Czury tells me about several people who picked him up and told him how landlords hiked up their rent, or tried to get them out of their homes to make way for gas drillers. We get dropped off at Lockharts Deli, a common place for Czury to stick his thumb out. So common, he’s named the potholes.
“Now we’re going to stand between my two potholes, one is in the shape of Ohio and one is in the shape of Montana.”
Czury says the conversation with rides always comes around to gas drilling. But he doesn’t like to tell people he’s a poet. He says if they knew, they’d be self-conscious. He also says, that to a lot of men, poetry sounds frivolous.
What is Gained and What is Lost
We get picked up by a guy who works servicing fire extinguishers for restaurants and bars along Route 29.
Brian DeGras is pretty typical of our rides up and down route 29. On the one hand, no one seemed to think the environmental damage of drilling could be held off. But everyone knew someone who was better off financially.
“Before the gas came in there was no change around here, everything was the same for years and years and years,” says DeGras. “It’s beautiful country around here, but that’s all they got, not much of an economy around here. Not much business. We’ve got beautiful landscape but they’re tearing it up.”
“Can you have one without the other?” asks Czury.
“Nope. No,” says DeGras.
DeGras says the gas rush has brought jobs, windfalls for farmers, and tensions.
“You got no happy medium, they either get rich from the gas company or they hate the gas company because they didn’t get further ahead,” he said. “And they hate the kids that work for them. But if you think about it, if you were that young again would you not do it? They got a chance to make a buncha money. My girlfriend’s kid started out making 13 bucks an hour filling sand bags. I mean 13 bucks an hour was unheard of around here. Crazy to make that kind of money.”
After each ride, Czury jots down what he remembers most and calls them “thumb notes.” They include date and time, weather, his own observations, as well as the story he just heard. Over the past year, he’s gathered a treasure trove of first-hand accounts of the gas rush.
He says a common theme gathered from his rides is inheritance.
“The whole issue of inheritance is really thick up here,” he says. “What have you inherited as a culture, as a culture of hunters, fisherman, family, family dinner tables. And then here comes the infusion of the gas industry. What part of your inheritance got taken away from you and what new inheritance, what have you unexpectedly gained from everything getting changed, almost overnight.”
Although he lives in Reading with his wife, Czury keeps a mattress at a former schoolhouse in Springville, which has been converted into artist studios. On the wall he’s got a collection of thumb notes and poetry from his hitchhiking trips. In a way he’s a documentary poet, gathering shale country voices that may get lost among what he calls the “loud” story ringing out from the headlines.
To read Czury’s poetry, visit his website here. Below are his “thumb notes” from our rides up and down Route 29. Czury takes these notes to later craft his poetry.
Thumb Note 10.12-13.12
Here´s our gas workers
just off shift casing 531 precision rig
No we´re not Norwegians
mistaking us for the film crew that came through this summer
Hollering over to us no,
they can´t give us a lift in their company truck
Maybe we´ll be out here 30 minutes
Here´s an idea
let´s go across and get Kim´s car at Summerhouse
and let these guys drive us down to Springville
then we´ll drive them back
Radio ethics says we stand here with shotgun (mic) in full view
Radio ethics says we tell them what we´re doing
who we are our names get theirs we need their permission
Radio ethics says we gonna be standing here a long time
I don’t know whose truck these guys make off with
but here are our gas workers
It´s not their work story I´m after
I know they signed clauses
it´s their life far from home story
even if it´s the 3 mile story to Lockhart´s
Nah I like the work but I don´t like the weather
and it´s out in the country
But aren´t you from the country?
Yes but it´s different
I´m from South Texas
Country good ol´boys coming up to live among country good ol´boys
The clash and the gaps to fill in
Take a left at the red broken-down Ford truck
(unless someone came around to take it away)
go down to the rusty old cable guard rail and take a right
How to GPS a gas rig
You´re not from around here are ya? Pennsylvania State Motto
I got a couple of cousins who hired on
we had a bad drought this summer
the gas companies are only licensed
to use so much water from the river
until the river gets too low
it slowed everything down
and they got laid off a lot
they went out to Ohio with most of them
it´s easier terrain out there
It´s like a spider web
Before the gas came in
there was no change for years and years and years
That´s one thing
it´s beautiful country all around here
but that´s all we got and they´re tearing it up
Craig Czury Thumb Notes Configuration 12.24.12 Buenos Aires