There is this scene in Indiana Jones where Nazis look at the Ark and their eyes melt out of their skull, and that’s pretty much what happens after a week staring at this computer screen. So it was time to get outdoors. Plus I had been itching to check out some new parts of the Appalachian Trail.
But first, it was time to follow along in the footsteps of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, and check out Centralia — a Pennsylvania town that was rapidly disappearing as an underground coal fire smoked out the few remaining residents.
The drive from Conshohocken to Centralia takes you up the 476 Turn Pike, where I managed to miss the ticket station, and up to Allentown where the toll booth attendant smiled and handed me a dozen forms to explain why I was such a dumbass. There was no fine for the 1st violation. I think this is because the shame of looking in your rearview at the irritated woman in the car behind you is punishment enough.
From there you take the 78 east to the 61 north, which you stay on until you reach Centralia. When you turn off the 78, you very quickly cross over the Appalachian trail as it traverses Pennsylvania from Pen Mar to the Delaware Water Gap. Which I suppose is how Bryson ended up there. Or it just seemed like a nice break from a very, very long hike.
The movie Silent Hill is loosely set in Centralia and so my mind was filled with images of skies darkened by noxious coal vapor, zombie residents stumbling through the streets in gas masks, and black helicopters enforcing eminent domain from a safe but ominous distance. Thwack-thwack-thwack. The reality was more like a crazy uncle. We’ve all got someone in the family who’s a bit off. You can’t banish him to Siberia so you pretend he doesn’t exist and hope no one will notice. Centralia is Columbia County’s crazy uncle Benny.
When you reach the intersection of the 61 and 42, Centralia center according to the map, there are no big signs welcoming you to a disaster area, no smoke-filled skies and no abandoned buildings. There’s not even a sign saying, “Welcome to Centralia, Home of the Smokies” or any sign at all. It’s like a ghost town without the town. According to Wikipedia, the source of all human knowledge, this is because the government has been engaged in a process of eminent domain, relocation and tearing down bought-out homes since the fire started in 1962. They are well on their way to completely erasing Centralia from the map and human memory.
How did this happen? Well, turns out that Pennsylvania is rich in coal (who knew?) and that if you light a fire at the local dump to incinerate the town’s garbage without proper protections, you can ignite all that underground black gold. And it’s very, very hard to put out. Pretty much impossible, actually. So that fire has burned and spread from 1962 to today, and is projected to burn for another 100 to 1,000 years. The fire raised underground full tank temperatures to over 170 degrees, dropped children into giant sinkholes, and even undermined large sections of Highway 61 south of Centralia.
There’s a lot of history here, but sufficed to say it’s a weird place. Bryson calls it “the strangest, saddest town I believe I have ever seen.” His 1997 description is better than I could hope for — another reason to read A Walk in the Woods — but what’s interesting is that things are only stranger since he wrote about Centralia. The empty streets going nowhere are still there, but there are even fewer buildings. There is less smoke and fewer sinkholes, but that just makes it seem more inexplicably vacant.
From a vantage point just north of the Christ Church Cemetery (and other cemeteries in the same area), you get a perfect panoramic view of the town. To the west you can see the coal mine, the the east a row of still wind turbines eerily reminiscent of The War of the Worlds, and in between them a watercolor-worthy view of the Assumption Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church nestled in the trees above what was once Centralia. From the ground at my feet, smoke seeped from the ground and drifted slowly over the cemetery stones and grass.
Road to Nowhere – Highway 61
Everyone who’s taken high school geology probably remembers lessons about river erosion patterns and ox-bow lakes — those forgotten sections of rivers where the river once flowed but no longer. There is a section of Highway 61 south of Centralia just like that; the original route was undermined by the coal fire, and the new route bypasses the ruined ox-bow section of road. At both ends are mounds of dirt blocking both entrance and visibility of the broken tarmac, and you can easily miss it if you don’t know it’s there.
I parked at the north end, walked over the eroding dirt obstruction, and walked onto ow-bow of Highway 61. Form Bryson’s description, I expected to see broken sections of road steaming from underground fires and occasionally belching hellacious fumes. I found that, to be sure, but I also found the place to party in Columbia County. As far as I can tell, every teenager in the area has left a tag or clever graffiti poem somewhere along the road. The first one I noticed said, “Welcome to Hell”. Nice.
If you think about Centralia as a metaphor, this is where that metaphor runs into the lost boys from Thunderdome. Apparently the end of the world will be marked by miss-spelled poetry, biblical mis-quotes, phone numbers for ex-girlfriends who excel at oral sex, and innumerable depictions of massive male genitalia. On the flip side, there will be many sentimental proclamations of eternal love and the occasional calls to military action in the Middle East, WWIII or The Apocalypse.
On the way back to the car, I noticed that someone hard written, “This is what happens when you trust teenagers with spray pain, dumbasses.” That seemed like the perfect close to a very weird morning. A few second later I was laughing somewhat uncontrollably. Maybe it was that someone had painted a thousand penesis along a hundred feet of road or maybe it was the fumes. The artist called his greatest creation “Penis Trail” but clearly should have called it the “Yellow Dick Road”.
Freakin Road Signs
Highway 42 takes you from Centralia over rolling hills and farmlands to Catawissa on the banks of the Susquehanna — a gorgeous, swollen river — to the 11 west and the college town of Bloomsburg. From there it’s a short drive to the 80, which takes you across eastern Pennsylvania to Stroudsburg and the Delaware Water Gap.
Somewhere along the 80 I noticed that there were mileage markers every tenth of a mile. Every. Tenth. Of. A. Freakin. Mile. You could see them marching east like bright green tombstones. Hey, look, I’m at milepost 288. Then 288.1. 288.2. 288.3. It gets either hypnotic or annoying, but either way there was no conceivable point to all these signs. Did the Pennsylvania sign-makers union get together the the road construction union to force this public service on every driver in the area? Did this help very elderly and very near-sighted drivers? 288.4, 288.5, 288.6…
According to PATurnpike.com, “The more than 10,000 new markers feature bold white print that is two-times larger than the old numbering on a highly reflective green background. The markers are also eight inches taller than the old tenth mile markers.” That’s amazing! No, wait, that’s ridiculous. You mean they did this once, thought it was a great idea, and did it again? No wonder the Tea Party thrives in Pennsylvania.
Delaware Water Gap
A gap, apparently, is a hole in something. This is not a familiar term on the west coast. We don’t have gaps. We have valleys and mountains, but gaps? Sounds negative. But the east coast is as full of gaps as smiles along the Appalachian trail. Kidding. But there are water gaps and wind gaps and trade gaps. The Delaware Water Gap is where the Delaware River flows through a break in Kittatiny Mountain from Pennsylvania into Delaware. The Appalachian trail follows the Kittatiny ridge, so the Gap offers two easy access points to the trail on either side of the river. I picked the one on the south side for a hike because, well, that’s where I was. Also, I felt like I’d been stalking Bryson across Pennsylvania, and he climbed the north side to Kittatiny point. So I picked Mt. Minsi on the other side of the river. Sounds like I overthought this? Yeah? Well, you’re probably right. But it was hot and I was wearing full tick-protection gear. I just wanted out of the car.
Stroudsburg and Tick Phobia
I stopped in Stroudsburg to pick up bug spray. Everything you read about hiking in PA warns you about ticks, and in particular Dear Ticks, the carriers of Lyme Disease. I have a relative who suffered badly from a 10-year fight with Lyme, so I was eager to protect myself from a similar fate. And according to the local sporting goods store clerk, I should be. “They’re everywhere,” he whispered. “Everywhere. And they’re small, like the size of a period.” To which he added, “Be sure to check everywhere there’s hair after you hike, because that’s where they lurk.” Lurk is what he said. Lurk. So I bought bug spray. I bought a specially designed tick-resistant long-sleeve shirt. I put on trekking pants and a hat. It was 70 degrees and humid. I was miserable. The ticks had already won.
Appalachian Trail and Mount Minsi
I parked in the gravel lot by the surprisingly scenic and miniature Lake Lenape, which like very lake along the AT in PA appears to have once been the cooling pond for a now missing foundry. Don’t know why. Just gives that impression. Could have been all the bug spray. Just past Lake Lenape, the AT separates from the Mount Minsi fire road and turns into a very cool, shaded trail over the Delaware River. Aside from the noise from the 80 passing below, it’s a beautiful walk. Squirrels dart from hemlock to rhododendron. Eureka Stream flows across the trail in a cool, lush canyon. Bugs buzz happily in the humid air. The book, Fifty Hikes in Easteren Pennsylvania describes the beauty thusly: “Note that most of the hemlocks here look sick, presumably from the woolly adelgid, an aphid that sucks the juices from the hemlock needles, weakening the trees. Some trees die immediately…others soldier on, but no one knows whether they will survive.” You can actually hear them screaming as you walk. It’s quite lovely. The top of Mount Minsi is either 1.5 or 2 miles form the parking lot, depending which reference you believe. From there you get a great view of the Gap and the Delaware as it flows through western New Jersey. Although this presumably varies by time of year, you can also see any number of Boy Scouts peeing in the woods. Mount Minsi is part of the Silurian age Shawangunk formation, so why shouldn’t people contribute a little gunk of their own? It’s the circle of life.
From Minsi, the AT follows the fire road for another section until plunging back into the woods on the western flank of Kittatiny. The forest trail passes massive red radio tower at some point, which I completely missed because of an obsessive focus on all the turny ankle-twisting rocks along the way. You pass scenic views, power line and gas line cuts, and a random grassy bluff at which point I ran smack into the butt of a wild turkey. Well, not really, but I did get to see the giant bird waddle off down the trail as I chased him while trying to extract my camera from my pocket. I chased the bird, assuming it was a turkey, until it disappeared into the woods and I found myself standing under a sign that said “Shelter.” If only the pilgrims had been so lucky. In A Walk in the Woods, Bryson describes the AT shelters at numerous points along the trail. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this Kirkridge Shelter looked quite homey. There was a nearby outhouse and even a water tap (not near the outhouse). The shelter itself was a wooden platform with an overhanging roof and walls on three sides. Courteous hikers left food and water inside, just as Bryson had indicated. They seem like places you’d love to find in the winter, and avoid in the summer. Either way, it was time to head back. The round-trip from parking lot to shelter was 10 miles, more or less (I’m partially guessing here), probably a bit less. I’d like to find a way to do more of the trail without having to backtrack every section of it. Someday.
Stopped at a Thai restaurant near Water Gap for dinner. Service was appalling. The proprietor found me glaring at my menu at the bar about 20 minutes after I sat down, and apologized profusely. “My older daughter is in Thailand. My children do not listen. Have you been to Thailand? You should go. But not now. Too hot. And you just missed the water festival. You can throw water at anyone for three days. Government shut down. Some people use fire hoses. Not supposed to, but do. Can’t do that here. Too many laws. More freedom in Thailand, not like here. Different kind of freedom. Don’t have to work. Not going to starve. You want something to drink?” Charming, sweet woman. Food was also delicious. As I ate, her younger daughter made out with the busboy / boyfriend behind me and commented periodically on The Voice, which was playing on a TV behind the bar. “That one is pitchy,” she said at one point, then hiccupped loudly.
More. Road. Signs.
On the 22 south from Stroudsburg, I was pleasantly surprised to see there were no mileage markers every tenth of a mile. Then I saw them; sneaky little bastard miniature versions of the ones I’d seen on the 80. 11.1, 11.2, 11.3…