You'll wind up in Centralia

Today I drove up to Centralia, PA. To summarize Wikipedia: in 1962, a trash fire caused a seam of exposed coal to begin burning. The coal is still burning away underground. All but 11 or 12 families have left the town. Most of the town was razed after the others left, and is today covered in new forest growths.

Centralia is, say, 85 miles from my apartment. The drive there took me through a typically Pennsylvanian scene: rolling hills and dense woods. The hills get bigger the further north you go, when finally you cross the Appalachian Trail. A bit further on is Mount Carmel, and to the east, Centralia.

I thought I would come upon acre after acre of abandoned buildings, and homes left far behind. The reality was much different. Almost all the buildings were torn down long ago, so there is not so much to explore. However, there were a few signs that a town once flourished here. The municipal building, home to the fire and police department, still stands. A lonely church sits on top of a hill, and continues to hold worship services on Saturdays.

As I drove down the hill, I spotted a car pulled over on the opposite side of the road. Two explorers, I thought. And I was right, so there. The man's name was John (the 3rd). He grew up in Centralia, and now lives in Mount Carmel. He explained to me that the state had purchased the land, and that there was still coal underneath the town that the mining company wanted. All they needed was for the remaining families to relocate, which the residents refuse to do.

John told me where to go to see the smoke that still rises from the broken roads, so I headed off to see for myself.

Centralia's roads have become derelict, and do not really lead anywhere but back to route 61. Route 61, however, is a bit interesting. Heading back towards the town center, I went south, and pulled off at a cemetery. Up ahead of me was a pile of dirt and rock that blocked old route 61, and a sign warning me of danger. I hopped over the barrier and walked until I came to a large fissure that opened up in the road. Foul-smelling smoke poured out of the hole, and the ground was hot to the touch.

A group of people were riding their four-wheelers up and down this abandoned highway, and put up with me taking their pictures as they zoomed back and forth. When I finally walked back to my car, I found some colorful graffiti scrawled on the ground. These are the great ideas that people will communicate when left to their own devices? Thousands of years of civilization culminate in a big breasted skeleton and a penis? Well, it's no Lascaux, but it is American.

This article was updated on May 7, 2006