On the day after Christmas, four of us set out for Benezette, Pennsylvania, in the heart of Pennsylvania elk country. It’s an impoverished small town, where a “Hunters Welcome” banner takes the place of the “Bikers Welcome” message common in parts of Illinois and Wisconsin. The houses and other establishments are nestled on steep hillsides, in some cases precariously, or so it looks. A few places are owned by candidates for the “Hoarders” TV show, with disintegrating lumber, parts, and trash strewn everywhere.
We discovered the most interesting part of town as we were leaving — a small enclave that lies beyond a wide, expensive-looking modern bridge culminating in a narrow dirt road, like a Pennsylvania version of the “bridge to nowhere.” Beyond the bridge are houses at various stages of upkeep, but the most surprising feature was a railroad line or spur running parallel to the hillside with dozens of rusting cars frozen in time where they’d been left. To the locals, this may not seem unusual, but to me the combination of the oversized bridge, the dirt access road, and the little neighborhood clustered around the abandoned rail line and cars seemed surreal, like the perfect setting for a vaguely disturbing movie. Summer sunshine and greenery would make it only the more haunting.
When my cousin and his wife had visited Benezette before, part of the elk herd had been lounging about in town, including at the tavern with the “Hunters Welcome” sign. We’d seen some in some fields off to the side and some at a picnic area near or in town. We passed through and came to the Elk Country Visitor Center, which looks like a fairly new building and features a gift shop, discovery room, and elk mounted at various stages of life, including a couple that were still spotted. Outside the trees, like most of those on all the private property we’d passed, were protected; the dirt had been disturbed by many hooves; and “biscuits” were piled in several places. Despite the evidence of previous visits by elk, not one was to be seen here.
While driving around, we found a herd of up to 75 in a field near a building maybe a half mile off — too far to get a good look at without binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens. Still, it was beautiful to watch their shapes moving about or lying down against the setting sun.
We spotted one or two in the bushes alongside the road, but the one that came down toward a break in the fence couldn’t make up her mind to cross. Finally, she retreated slowly.
After checking out the Benezette bridge to nowhere, we passed the picnic grounds again, where more elk and more cars had congregated. Like others, I got out of the car to take photos, but the elk, intent on grazing, ignored all of us and our car doors until a clueless woman broke the relative quiet by screeching, “Oh, look at the baby!” (the “baby” being at least half grown). As a group, the elk spooked a bit, trotting away from her — and toward me as I snapped happily away, a lot closer than the recommended minimum of 30 yards. I was disappointed only not to get a photo of an elk lying under the “Hunters Welcome” sign.