Unfiled Thoughts of a Thousand-Mile Pennsylvania Loop

We had seen the spires from across the valley. Three crosses, each with two extra arms, poked from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church into the sky above Centralia. We thought it looked like or might be the church from Silent Hill, a movie inspired by the ghost town and populated with people made of ash and embers. So we wandered into the valley and up the leftover streets, up the hill and found it, the church but no driveway. We had to pull to the side of the road, the roadway not wide enough for two cars, at a strong incline, and a 50-year coal fire underneath. And I get nervous. Always. I pushed the parking brake down and urged Anna to hurry with the camera. And that’s when the chainsaw started. Just yards off and unseen.

And I thought I was scared then. But it was the escape I should have worried about.

We had wandered miles away from Centralia, hoping to find more of it, and found coals fields and a soccer game instead. When the sun went down, we punched the hotel’s address into the GPS, and like we had before, followed the chirps of the British woman inside it.

This time, though, she took us off the primary roads, onto some pitch black, unlined loop, where some monster SUV bore down on us, forced its headlights toward our rear window, tried to run us off the road, but eventually passed. But still I trusted her, the woman in the box, because she brought us back to roads with lines, and because I did, I followed her again, off on another side road, some barely paved mountain climb. But the trust waned, as the panic set in, as the road narrowed, and the pavement seemed to slowly dissolve, washed out nearly as much as the earth around it. The world was black around us and the headlights showed only the ruts in the road and downed limbs ahead. And the road choked down to where the Impala could barely pass, tree limbs slapping at both sides of it. And I kept climbing, because I could see the headlights of some road ahead, through the trees between us and it, even though what was under our wheels had become more dirt than road.

And even though I kept climbing, the farther I got from pavement, the more I thought something had gotten into the GPS. Probably, obviously in Centralia. Because we had come to their town gawking at their catastrophe, and what was left of the people who had been there, spirit or worse, was directing us to where the Centralia faithful could remove our limbs from our bodies and drop us into the fire.

Eventually fear would get the best of me, and I would, gingerly, make an eight point turn and climb back down to safety, but I assume it was some kind of haunting. Couldn’t be a mistake in the GPS.

Like the Trojans won’t ever take in a wooden horse ever again, I’ll never fully trust GPS. But this is only one thing I learned in my thousand-mile loop around Pennsylvania:

  • Although the law may frown upon it, if I was a resident of Centralia, or nearby, I would set up tours of the near abandoned town. They could guide you through the labyrinth of empty, overgrown streets, tell you what used to be there and where the plumes of coal smoke sprout, tell you the story of the place and how it still runs. But most importantly they could guide you to the abandoned portion of Highway 61. Unless we were going about it backwards, the most accessible entry-point to it is at the top of a steep incline, on a bad curve. There’s really no place to park, and because of it, and because I was driving my dad’s car, because we were afraid my 10 year old Malibu wouldn’t survive the trip, we were hurried in our exploration. We still don’t understand what we saw or what we missed, we still feel a great amount of mystery about the discarded and unused roadways, but if you were to lead an ATV expedition up that hill and around the earthen barrier, I would pay for that.
  • On a much more serious note, the sites of Philadelphia do much now to make clear the hypocrisy of the founding of our nation on the subject of slavery. At the site of the President’s House, a window down into the ground, to the foundation of the home where our first two presidents lived, just yards from the Liberty Bell, placards discuss the nine slaves in Washington’s household. At Independence Hall, tour guides explain that one of the sections that Thomas Jefferson wrote into the important document that was ultimately removed during revisions, berated the British monarchy for supporting slavery. A couple signers would threaten to walk out without it in there, Jefferson wasn’t happy either, but the document went to press without it.
  • I’m not a huge fan of cheesesteaks, but Geno’s Steaks in Philadelphia very well might be the best.

  • It may be kind of cheap and it might be kind of a ploy, but Punxsutawney was a lot of fun, even six months after Groundhog Day. I have seen roughly 10,000 woodchucks in my life, but finding Punxsutawney Phil in his burrow at the Punxsutawney Memorial Library, all the groundhog statues around town, just the unifying whistle pig theme around the town, in short, was fun. I’ll call it the Mickey Mouse Phenomenon. Just like how every hamburger and pool of water at Disneyland is in the shape of the famous cartoon mouse, it seems when every aspect of a place is designed around the same spirit, same historical era, or in these examples, the same animal, it gives some kind of undefinable value to a place. As small towns around the country try to find ways to bring people to their town, I wonder if this something that would work elsewhere. Distill your town to its most defining or unusual moment, industry or rodent and design away. Sure it reduces a place to one dimension, but there is something comforting about a place that you can understand quickly, that you know what to expect from. But if you do it right, you’ll get nerds willing to traipse around your town looking for the groundhog dressed up as the mail man, as the mayor, as the Sottish Presbyterian.
  • Probably the coolest hotel I’ve ever stayed at was the Cork Factory Hotel in Lancaster. Looking like a cleaned up, scrubbed down, shined up factory, its name adorns it in a plain, black font, indicative of its upscale interior. The rooms are warm, not only from the exposed brick walls, but the exposed wood ceilings, too. Its restaurant, Cap and Cork, serves probably the best food I’ve had in years, and maybe the best chicken, in the Lancaster County Barbecue Chicken and its crispy skin. Maybe the best chicken I’ve ever eaten. The only drawback to the place is those same exposed wood ceilings that creak and leak sound like a sieve. I lost two hours of sleep because who ever was above us sounded like a family of seven suffering through cold and flu season and holding basketball practice starting at 7 a.m.
  • Second coolest would have to be The Woodlands Inn in Wilkes-Barre. The hotel faces unremarkable Route 315, but then we get into our room, opened the door onto our balcony, and looked out onto the Laurel Run Spring. It’s got a handful of restaurants, bars, one of them outdoors, and the largest jacuzzi I’ve ever seen.
  • I have never been to the real Grand Canyon, and it’s probably safe to Pennsylvania’s version isn’t as grand, but Pine Creek Outfitters provide a nice little service for those who might enjoy biking through the “canyon.”

And now for the complaining:

  • When I stay at a hotel I get a bed better than mine, a bathroom cooler than mine, but a TV always smaller than my own at home, usually not even a flat screen, with a picture quality and cable offerings greatly inferior to what I get on my own couch. Who is responsible for this incredible oversight in every hotel in America?
  • On the highways of Pennsylvania there is a constant threat of construction, and intermittent follow-throughs. As common as construction is, it’s just as common to find signage warning of road work that never materializes, even a sign for flaggers ahead and never find them, or find them miles after the sign.
  • I once thought truck drivers were the order-keepers of the interstate, but the recent trip has affirmed recent hunches that that isn’t the case. They will ride in the left lane for miles for absolutely no reason. They will tailgate at 75 miles an hour. They will pass you while you’re going 75. They will box you in. They love to pass in rain and snow to throw the garbage of the road onto your windshield. They are the bullies of the road.

What happened, truck drivers?


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