On our second-to-last day of the trip, we hit the Pennsylvania hills. We had spent the night in an overpriced hotel and were eager to get somewhere (or go back to Canada, for that matter). Though we had been driving through the mountains in New York, the ups, downs, twists, and turns were more intense once we crossed the border. Somewhere in the hills, we passed one of Pennsylvania's pro-seat belt signs.
"Buckle up next million miles?" Ty asked operatively. "Who prints this shit? Why? And then all the signs for the falling rocks? I mean, why even buckle up if you're just going to get hit by a rock anyway?" he sighed, sharply tilted his head to the right. "Roll of the dice."
Zoë and I sniggered, then stared at the trees, the rocks.
"See that vista?" Over and over, over the droll of Elliott Smith.
"That's some good vista." Our phrase, our mantra.
Earlier in the day, we had decided to visit Centralia, a "town" only a couple of hours northeast from Gettysburg, the day's ultimate destination. We girls had never heard of it before, but we were instantly intrigued once we learned what had happened there 50 years before.
Centralia, like my hometown, used to have around 1,000 residents. However, there are only about 10 residents in the town now, labeling Centralia as a ghost town. Residents have been evacuating the area for decades.
The town used to have a landfill atop of an old strip mine, which connected to a coal vein that ran near the surface of the ground. Each year, in an effort to clean up the town for Memorial Day, townspeople and workers would burn the trash. In 1962, however, the fire was not properly extinguished, and it set the exposed coal vein afire. The flames then spread beneath the ground, to the abandoned coal mines under the city. To this day, the ground beneath what was a busy coal-mining town burns. The pavement is warm to the touch, and pockets of steam and carbon monoxide are emitted from sinkholes that appear suddenly in backyards, sidewalks, grassy lots.
By the 1980s, many of the residents had left the borough with the aid of a federal relocation program. In 1992, however, the town was claimed under eminent domain, and all the buildings therein were condemned and demolished. When we visited, we saw only a handful of homes--ones with mowed grass, watered flowers, porches with neatly-arranged chairs. These, of course, are mainly the homes of those who refuse to leave; the homes of those who insist there is no danger.
When we pulled into the city, Ty, iPhone in hand, announced that we were now driving on Centre Street. All three of us looked around, seeing only emptiness and overgrown trees. Sidewalks were covered in weeds, moss. The grass was tall, dry, spindly. Telephone poles remained, crookedly erect at that, but, all the same, they were ghostly checkpoints to nowhere, nowhere at all.
"Ty, there's nothing here."
"Main Street. This is MAIN STREET, guys. This used to be a town."
Zoë sat quietly in the backseat, her thumb deliberately resting on her chin.
I shook my head. "There's nothing here. I mean, you showed me the pictures but ... "
Ty stopped the car on Park Street, just around the corner from Highway 61. We all exited the car, hiked around the rusty chain-link fence and through the knee-high grass.
"Take a look at this." Ty kneeled next to a stone monument, one approximately two feet long. It thrust itself through the overgrown grass, though a few rogue insects crawled over its inscriptions.
"It's a time capsule," I said, skimming its words. "1966. To be opened ... four years from now."
Zoë stood behind me. "Why would they put in a capsule four years after the fire started?"
"Well, the town wasn't officially evacuated until the '90s," Ty answered. "And they didn't think they had much of a problem for a couple of decades." He shrugged.
"Will anyone be around in four years to open it?"
My question went unanswered, as we heard a car door open and shut behind us.
"Have you been here long?" the driver, a middle-aged woman with short, brown hair asked.
My friends and I looked at each other. "Umm, no," I answered. "Umm, we've only been here about five minutes or so. We're just ... uh, yeah. Driving through."
"Have you seen any smoke?"
More silence on our end.
"Well, I come here every year," she continued, "and last time I was here, there was some smoke coming up out of the ground on the old highway."
"Oh, no. Again, we, uh, we just got here."
"Okay, then," the woman said, clearly disappointed that we had nothing of interest to tell her. "I suppose I'll just drive around, then." She crawled back into her car, mouthed words I couldn't hear to her passenger, and drove down Park Street, a road with cracks, weeds, a stop sign with graffiti.
At that point, we split off, wandering the grasses, the trees, the cracked streets. We stared at the blankness of it all, the overgrown everything. This used to be a town. This used to be home. This could've been my hometown. At one point, after I stumbled over some loose gravel, Ty turned to me, his camera raised in front of him. "Can you imagine, I mean, can you really picture a thousand people living here?"
After some time, the three of us headed back to the car. We wished to drive around a bit more--see Old Highway 41, the strip mine. The lane on which we drove narrowed--barely wide enough for the car--and turned to gravel.
"Arms and hands inside the vehicle, please," Ty mockingly instructed, as plants and vines thrust themselves into the open windows. "We're gonna do some off-roading in a Chevy."
The lane turned to the left, curved up through small hills. There were dips, divots of rock and grass. Ty maneuvered the car around the mounds of crumbled shale, around a mattress and other various piles of forgotten garbage. He stopped the car atop the old strip mine, a piece of land on the outskirts of town. The remnants of a home's foundation still stood, the concrete blocks at attention. In the distance, you could see the new mine, the current mine. Every few minutes, a large truck would emerge from behind the mounds of rock and haul itself down the mountainside. A trail of dust would follow it, dance in the empty air.
See the wind turbines off to the left?
It was humbling, really. Humbling to know that this had been a place, a home, to so many people. And now? Now it's just vacant, a hilly Pennsylvania ghost town without a zip code. All it has is a deep, threatening, decades-old hell burning beneath what it once was--a community.