To the Class of 2020,
There is something magical about the hills of Huntingdon County. They are in truth no different from the rest of the western Appalachians; they are home to the same corn and soy fields splayed across the rest of Pennsylvania, their geology is not unique. But they dip and roll like gentle waves, bouncing light back and forth and down into those shallow valleys so that no matter what time of day or year, everything is tinged in gold. Perhaps not everyone sees them in this way, but the students at the college nestled tightly in those hills know that they are holy.
Those sacred hills are home to countless memories: hiking around Greenwood Furnace during Inbound, kick-netting for macroinvertebrates in Biology lab, basking in the glory of a day off at the lake, or wandering aimlessly through Rothrock State Forest with nothing but a compass and a map. For as long as the college has stood, its students have learned from the land. The hills are steeped in hundreds of years of tradition, thousands of wandering souls finding a place to belong. Juniata is special in too many ways that my words can’t even begin to describe.
Like any college though, there are recesses that require the students to come and go approximately six times a year. No matter which roads you take, the process of returning is always the same. It is time travel. It is homecoming.
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From the east, the last ten miles of Route 22 stretch on and on forever. I have caught them taking 45 minutes to drive before, although the GPS disagrees. To your left the river winds below the road, a distant blue-ish mountain as its backdrop. In the foreground are countless corn fields and cattails, obscured by oaks at times. To your right a looming ridge threatens a rockslide at every turn. Occasionally a landmark flashes past that declares your approach; first the trailhead for Thousand Steps, constantly beckoning adventure; then Top’s Diner with their big breakfast mess followed quickly by the seldom visited Swigart Museum. Another few miles to go, and anticipation only makes them longer.
From the west, the ten miles on 453 from Tyrone are filled with the biggest sky this side of Ohio. The road rides the waves of the hills, giving glimpses of golden fields bordered by dark green windbreaks of spruce and poplar. In the distance, the faded blue belly of the Appalacihians rolls up the horizon. Finally the road dives deep into the hills where it meets Route 22 and the Juniata river, winding their way east toward home. These last few miles pass in a blur of green and gray, of churches, bait shops, and beer stores. Past Lincoln Caverns and now you can almost taste it. That last rocky hill seems to climb forever until at last you crest the summit and begin to plummet down the even steeper eastern slope. Your descent is guarded by oaks standing what seems to be hundreds of feet tall on either side, channeling your gaze toward the horizon, toward your first glimpse of Huntingdon. The trees break, Walmart whizzes by on your right, and soon you slip into that quiet little town that was just a moment ago so small.
Perhaps you come from the north, winding your way through the forest, twisting and turning with the mountains, zipping past open fields and old churches, past McAlevy’s fort and the bed and breakfast on the corner. Standing Stone Creek leads you to Cold Springs Road, looking over its shoulder and beckoning you to come a little faster, everyone is waiting for you.
Or perhaps you come from the south, riding the rollercoaster of Route 26 past the field station, past the exit for Seven Points, past countless fading barns, sailing through cornfields and old mining towns: Marklesburg, then McConnellstown and good old Mac Town Pizza. Beautiful old brick homes fly by with lawns that stretch for miles, and you briefly consider saving up for one so that this feeling might last forever. Soon enough the country club flashes past your right, and then Beer Sheetz and Kelly’s Corner and suddenly you are at the light, blinker clicking to turn left onto Penn Street. One more bridge lies between you and your home.
No matter how you approach the town of Huntingdon, as the scenery grows ever familiar the giddy flutter in your chest grows stronger. Almost there. You can picture the sun-warmed brick paths, the shady old maples. Almost there. You can smell the musk of the Cloister arch, the fresh cut grass of Sunderland's quad. Almost there. You can hear the sound of Laura or Oak welcoming you back in time for dinner.
With the first glimpse of downtown, an overwhelming calm washes over you as you let go of a breath you didn’t know you were holding. Your lungs ache with relief. How long has it been? Three days? Weeks? Months? Or longer...It doesn’t matter. You did it. Your journey is over and you have returned to yourself. As you draw closer, it seems like every building is welcoming you back. Standing Stone looks as warm as always, beckoning you in for a Mountain Climber and a smoothie. Sheetz grins knowingly, already prepared for your midnight app sampler. Even the houses filled with strangers seem to smile. And as the first grassy corner of campus comes into view, you can’t help but smile too.
You are home. The quad is ready with blue and gold adirondack chairs and plenty of good hammocking trees. You are home. Your friends are waiting at your usual table in Baker, with hugs and stories and laughter. You are home. Back in the Land of One Thousand Hills, nestled deep in the heart of Woodcock Valley where the light is always golden. As you walk up the hill away from Ellis after spending too long in the dining hall reveling in your return, perhaps you catch the sunset slip below the trees, the sound of a train whistle echoing in the distance.
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I like to think that no matter how long it has been, Juniata is still waiting for all of us. That those golden hills are still enchanted in the same way, still lost to a time when we were there. And though thousands have walked the paths before us and thousands more will come to do the same, a small piece of Juniata belongs to each of us, immortalized in the glory of our fondest memories and filled with the love of our found family. I like to think that one day, we will be given one more chance to come home.
Perhaps on your last day you are supposed to exhale and find peace in your departure. To breathe out and let go. Perhaps the memories are supposed to be enough. But I don’t think I am alone when I say that I am still holding my breath.
You’re invited to join us in sharing how you, or another Juniatian, are remaining
#JuniataStrong in these difficult times.
Submit your story at https://fal.cn/37j3u or use the hashtag on social media.