The hawk and the Klansmen

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The Stavitch Bike Trail extends for 10 miles on the Mahoning River, just south and a little east of Youngstown, Ohio, past the giant ruins of Republic Steel and Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company and alongside a railroad track that connects the post-industrial towns of northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

The trail is a bike enthusiast’s dream: an almost level terrain save one or two inclines, and combines shade, sun and solitude. It’s isolated yet connected, rural but just minutes away from the urban slums scattered throughout the once-proletarian landscape. Along the rusted-out valley, fast moving railroad trains keep company with the slow drift of the river. Squirrels and rabbits compete with butterflies tracing themselves back and forth through pussy willows blowing in the wind. On the other side of the railroad track, a Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco billboard backs a barn-like structure across a town square and the city’s courthouse.

About four miles down the trail, a rustle in the trees reveals a brown flurry in flight, a five- to six-foot wingspan sailing across the path and into the forest. Following in its wake, another hawk soars noiselessly in pursuit, twinning its partner’s movements, dancing through the trees. The sun comes out from a behind a cloud, a small yellow butterfly skirts the path, a train whistles somewhere down the tracks.

And then, a turn in the road. Suddenly there’s a hint of darkness. Has the sun lost its race with the clouds? A look up reassures, but then to the left along the path, black bushes decorated with an even darker fruit and in the distance pools of stagnant algae-filled water from which rise the rotted trunks of trees, like so many fingers grasping. A look down upon the winding path reveals it: first, a star circumscribed with a circle and in each of three triangles the number 6, and a second later, three hooded figures and under them the letters KKK, and chalked in white beneath, “The Klan rises again.” For a moment the breath catches in the throat and even in movement, the world stands silent and still. And then through the screaming silence, a sudden screech and the hawks rise away and into the trees.

Joe Sims (joesims @politicalaffairs.net) is editor of Political Affairs.