If there is one constant at yard sales, estate auctions, and second-hand bookstores in this state, it is the presence of old books, Bibles, classics, and diverse texts that once made splashes before sinking into obscurity. Perhaps the most frequently seen volume, after the Bible, is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a book that, again, was second only to the Bible in most American homes up to the end of the 19th century and, in some homes, albeit mostly rural ones, well into the 20th century. Indeed, its ubiquitous presence throughout most of our young nation’s history may well account for the stability of American political life. For Pilgrim’s Progress is the most un-utopian book imaginable: a testament that, in this world of the City of Destruction and Vanity Fair, there is no hope at all short of the Celestial City. My rekindled interest in Bunyan was stimulated by two recent events that made me contemplate the importance of this 17th-century man. The first was the Grange Fair, the annual county festival in our neck of the woods. It is held in August, usually a dry and golden period of high temperatures and low humidity, just after the summer haying and before the corn harvest. The Centre County Grange Fair, according to its sponsors, is the last of the nation’s tenting fairs, where area farmers and their families pitch and live for a week in large tents, today built on concrete slabs at the Grange Fairgrounds in the village of Centre Hall. The tents are half-walled ones, the kind that used to be standard Boy Scout issue, the type that in my youth housed Methodists who went to “camp” once a year in a nearby forest. Back in the old day’s, when a trip to the county fair by horse-and-wagon could take up to two days, “tenting” was a necessity. Today it’s a relic, albeit a vital one.

For while our county fair has its share of carnival activities—ferris wheels, games, food vendors, and country and gospel singers, designed, I suppose, to enliven the atmosphere and brighten the tan-and-green world of crops and ploughed earth us rubes live in—the heart of the fair consists of the tents and the awarding of prizes for animals, crops, canning, and crafts. Indeed, the essence of the fair is serious business: judging the best steer, the fluffiest rabbit, the biggest pumpkin, the finest quilt.

The tents, in even rows along well delineated and named streets, are the social fair’s heart. Here are found descendants of most of the area’s original settlers, families whose recorded roots trace to the end of the 18th century, when our local valleys were settled. These are the farming families that moved here from Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, and Germany to plough the fertile limestone-based fields. Like the land they till, each tenting place at the Grange Fair is inherited from one generation to the next. There’s no doubt who your neighbors will be next year. The tents’ inhabitants represent intertwining family trees—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws—as well as an endless stream of anecdotes that comprise the county’s verbal history, replete with family alliances and clan feuds. The fair is a time for Centre County’s old families to gather and to make their statement of roots simply by possessing their inherited tenting places. But the Grange Fair is only the culmination of their togetherness. For all summer long these clans have held their annual picnics, wherein relatives from near and far flock to one farmstead or another to eat, frolic, and remember their common ancestors.

As a newcomer to the county, having lived here only 17 years, and as a genuine Ellis Island descendant, I find the tents and their inhabitants fascinating. For around those family tables, conversations contain echoes of those who fought in the Revolution, who made the Civil War, who participated in every stage of our nation’s history. Even when not consciously trying to do so, these families express values that hark back to early America. Think of the tangible reminders many of those tenting families retain: old rifles, uniforms. Bibles, books, and, in many cases, barns that date to that long bygone era. It is these tenting families that are the old Americans of John Bunyan’s tale, the rural Scotch-Irish and German farmers who put America on the Straight and Narrow Path and have prevented us from descending into the mire and the hot ashes. It is these families, by their dogged devotion to tradition, that are the backbone of America. For they continue honing the values that keep us going.

This is not to imply that these tenting families are, or ever were, straight and narrow pilgrims on their way to the Celestial City. Like everyone else, they are caught up in the snares of Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Mr. Ignorance, Mr. Formalistic, and Mr. Hypocrisy. They are ordinary rural Americans who act and dress like rural Americans, in baseball caps, blue jeans, and tank-top shirts. Their women wear cotton print dresses or, if young, blue jeans or shorts. Their tents are neat, if often filled with tacky couches and old TVs. They are not so much the “raise-hell-Saturday-night-and-go-to-church-Sunday” kind of Christians as Christians like Bunyan’s hero: people who carry a big load, have tried to be good but have fallen into the Slough of Despond, have seen the man in the iron mask, have known the Doubting Castle and a fear of its dungeon, have wandered down the Easy Path instead of the Straight and Narrow, and have lived in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Having grown up with people like them (indeed, my natural speaking accent is mountain Allegheny ridge), and having served with them in the Army, it is not hard for me to attest that they are the salt of the earth, the American earth, the hard-scrabble Americans of the Appalachian Ridge who form the most reliable reservoir of fighting men and women that any nation has ever bred. They are the kind of neighbors that make me certain of what “we Americans” means.

In a way, you best can understand them by viewing their work at the Grange Fair. In the cow barns, the milk cows are clean and combed and the stalls are mucked and filled with fresh straw; at the show barn, the judge not only chooses the best “light heavyweight” Angus steers but explains, in an agriculture professor’s twang, why each steer was judged as it was. Among the milk goats, young men trim excess hair from the backs of restive charges and pre-teenagers lather and gently shave the ears of patient goat-pets, “redding” them for the judging. In the swine barns, blue, red, and white ribbons already have been handed out and hang above the stalls—stalls, not styes. And in the stalls are found the cleanest, best trimmed, most combed pigs ever seen in all creation. The cleanliness of the barns and stalls, the grooming of the prize pigs, goats, and sheep is so meticulous that you know that only in America are there such exhibits, such severely clean livestock and housing. Having seen similar exhibits in Germany, Holland, and Ireland, I can attest that America’s livestock facilities are the best.

My first experience with fairs was 90 miles away from Centre Hall, at the Indiana County Fair where my father used to volunteer in the office during and after World War II, when men were scarce and city folks helped keep the fair going in the soldiers’ absence. My job was to help a Mrs. Sandford clean the stall for her cows and steers, animals, by the way, that she had brought to town tied to a flatbed wagon towed by two largehoofed work horses because she didn’t have gasoline ration-tickets to fuel the truck. She was a severe woman around the barn, demanding spic-and-span work, but a lovely lady who, in gratitude, bought me cotton candy and candied apples. That’s when I learned how hard the 4-H kids work to groom their cows, ones named Millie, Honeysuckle, Miss America, or just plain Missy; how nightly the farm kids go out to feed, wash, and talk to their charges; how they worry about their feed and health and how a bond develops between the human and the animal as they prepare for the fair, where they hope to win a blue ribbon. There is no joy in the world more honestly unselfish than that of a youngster who sees his or her pig or cow win a prize, who beams when a beloved Honeysuckle beats out that ugly Missy—even though they’re both simply registered Holsteins from the same sire.

This is the world of Bunyan’s pilgrims in America, however unlikely it is that today’s kids, who live in regional or consolidated school districts, have even heard of Bunyan, his hero Christian, or Christian’s friends Faithful and Hopeful. Likely as not, their pastors sermonize on social and political issues more than on the virtues of chastity and sobriety. Yet Bunyan’s pilgrims retain that straight and narrow drive to run a good fair, to compete straight up with real standards, to want the best to win. There’s no affirmative action for pigs at the Grange Fair.

It was the fair that sparked the memory of my father that, in turn, made me recall Bunyan. For while my father was a die-hard Roman Catholic, he worshipped, as did my immigrant grandparents, all things American. And to my father, that meant John Marquand’s Protestant America, the America of hard work and reward, of character, not pleasant personalities. He always emphasized that immigrants to America had to forgo old country ways in order to become something new, to be American. To help accomplish this, we were required to learn the complete American canon, partly by reading the American classics of Hawthorne, Cooper, Melville, Twain, and others and by being able to recite, in the best declamatory style, Washington’s Farewell and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural speech. Finally, we had to read Pilgrim’s Progress, which he said was the most common book he saw in the farmhouses he visited as an insurance salesman.

When my father passed away recently, I liberated his copy of Bunyan, imprinted with his library seal on the inside cover. As a child, he had been given the book by a minister for whom his widowed mother worked as a domestic. He kept that copy, even rescuing it from the waters of the infamous 1936 flood; it retains the water marks. In any case, my curiosity peaked by the Grange Fair, I reread Pilgrim’s Progress.

Its message hit me more powerfully today, at age 53, than it had 40-odd years ago—no doubt because I’ve learned the hard way about the Straight-and-Narrow, the pitfalls in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and the terrors of the Slough of Despond. Only this time the suspense arose not from worrying about the fate of Christian the Pilgrim, but from an attempt to measure myself against the Worldly Wiseman and Ignorance, Bunyan’s examples that came far too close to home. Indeed, it upset me to see how far down the Easy Path I had wandered; how dull my perception had become about what was essential, by having given myself overmuch to the wiles of Vanity Fair, where Christian’s friend Faithful was martyred; and how few friends I had, like Hopeful, to engage in Christian discourse with in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. The story had changed so that I, not Bunyan, was the Pilgrim, and the load now rested on my shoulders.

The other thing that struck me from the vantage point of experience was that while the Celestial City’s glory was beautiful and desirable, it no longer was a Utopia, but a reality we all seem to nurse in our psychic bosom. Following Christian as he approached the Celestial City, he seemed to walk far ahead; I thought I’d never catch up, that I was caught in the snares and would never join him. And though I didn’t fall on my knees in utter penitence, the book left me with two clear messages: that I had been asleep and Bunyan woke me and that I knew what to do. Henceforth, my effort to enter the narrow gate would be more purposeful, more directly effective. I felt that Protestant awakeness that characterizes the Founding Fathers’ writings and Civil War reports, the awakeness that inspired John Milton and Hawthorne. It is a Protestant tension that underlies the Declaration of Independence, infusing it with a limpid clarity that informs each thought and phrase.

It is this tradition that lives on in a sleeping way in the severe cleanliness of the Grange Fair barns and in the dogged tradition of the tents, though in our era, unlike that of our ancestors, fairgoers can quickly drive home. I have no doubt that the values of Pilgrim’s Progress live on in the bosoms of my county neighbors, among whom, if there is ever an awakening, I’m sure we’ll find the progeny of Christian, Faithful, and Hopeful. It is this presence of the Pilgrim’s influence that made mc comprehend Robert Frost’s statement, “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” Exactly the way Pilgrim’s Progress affected me: miles to go and so little time.

In movies, county fairs end up in stories of love and sex, instead of depicting more visually vivid messages like that of Pilgrim’s Progress. But then movies are meant to lull viewers to sleep, not to wake them up. So those of us who want to be awakened will have to forgo movies and attend the fairs, in order to see the reality more clearly, to escape from the couch and the plastic reality pedalled by the cultural elite of the moment. America remains just outside our door, if we have the desire and energy to seek it and enough open-mindedness to understand what we see. We must leave Vanity Fair behind to reach the real spirit of America, which I figure has more to do with Bunyan than with all the movies ever made.