November 20, 2004

"Pennsylvania Horse and Buggies Me Out"

Day 2: Wilkes-Barre, PA to Pittsburgh, PA

Pretty much the last structure standing in Centralia

You know how every hack director begins a gloomy movie with a sweeping shot of fog and rain and urban blight? Consider me your hack writer and consider the scene set. Think Dickens novels; complete with soot spewing coal-fired factories, cold driving rain, low-hanging clouds, and toothless rubes. Even worse, unlike Dickensian London, this day had no charming British accents to at least distract from the grunginess. Yes, central Pennsylvania, you have to love it! (It's been said that PA is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. We were out to see for ourselves.)

Again, most of the things you are about to read about were touched on in my Pennsylvania highpoint report, so if you've read that already, I'm sorry for the repetition. But some of the things we experienced were so surreal I can justify revisiting them again for this Road Trip series. As mentioned, we woke to a downpour at our hotel in Wilkes-Barre in the northern Poconos. Brightening the scene was one of the best continental breakfast spreads we've ever seen. Especially surprising was that this was at an Econo Lodge. I usually like to stay in nicer hotels if we are doing something the day before or after that requires physical exertion, so I have something in my back pocket to dangle in front of Hoang. However, since we were pretty much just driving, we dropped our usual pretentiousness and slummed it. Actually, this Econo Lodge got rave reviews on some trip websites I consulted and they were right; this place was better (and way, way cheaper) than loads of supposedly better hotels we've stayed in. So, you know, next time you're stuck in the Wilkes-Barre area (why? Just why?) stay here and you won't regret it, I promise. Just ask any of the 10 obese people eating breakfast with us that day. There must have been an Overeaters Anonymous convention in town that weekend, as seriously, everyonethere was over 400 pounds. Luckily, we got our modest meal before most of them arrived, otherwise, we'd be stuck eating only the healthy stuff. Bleh. (Here's what the breakfast area looks like, for no particular reason.)

We hopped on I-81 South and began the infamous drive across the state. Everyone has done it at least once, and everyone hates it. Their problem is that they don't seek out cool little detours to spice up the drive like I do. After you finish reading this, you now have no excuse either, so don't let me hear any more whining about your next trip to Columbus or visiting your aunt in western PA. About an hour southwest of Wilkes-Barre, take exit 124B to Frackville (not sure where Frickville is) and follow Route 61 north through the aptly named Ashland towards the aptly named Byrnesville. It's here that my directions may not make sense by the time you go there. You see, the road (Route 61) may or may not exist anymore. It may have melted, been swallowed up, or maybe just cracked in half Huh?

Centralia "Welcome" Sign at the "end of the road."

Welcome to one of the oddest, most confounding civic environmental disasters to plague any town anywhere: The Centralia mine fire. Over 40 years ago, an open trash pit was left burning in town and apparently grew hot and deep enough to ignite a seam of anthracite coal - something this part of the world is famous for. Apparently, when coal catches on fire underground there's nothing anyone can do about it... Which really sucks for the people who happen to live in the town above the fire. Over the years, the mine fire has evicted most everyone from town and has caused extensive damage. What is left is a gridwork of roads and street signs and not much more. Very, very strange. There are some perfunctory warning signs that did nothing to dissuade us from driving around "town." Sure, there's always a chance of the earth opening up and swallowing our car with us in it, but if we worried about every little thing like that, we'd never get to see such wondrous sites as burned out former towns in central PA!

Let's go, this place is dead anyways...

There are still some holdouts who refuse to leave the outskirts town. Most residents had no choice as their homes simply burned up at some point during the last half century. We found a good, solid place to park (no open smoking crevasses in the road) and began to explore. Ugh, sulphurous fumes filled our noses and the acrid smoke burned our eyes and throats. Who needs to go out to Yellowstone or Hawaii to experience stinky smoking earth vents or burning underground pits? It's all right here in beautiful Centralia! We poked around the "town" for about 45 minutes and did all the cool things like spitting on the road and watching it evaporate immediately, like touching dry sticks to smoking rocks to start a fire, and like playing "guess the next thing that will burn up." For more (better) info and pictures of Centralia, check out this site.

Although we'd have liked to hang around some more, we had to get back to the highway and continue our westward drive. We did stop for gas in Ashland and noticed what a quintessential coal town it was. There was a certain charm to it - but not a charm I need to live in to fully appreciate. Ashland's landmark seems to be a giant statue of an old lady in a rocking chair at the center of town, labeled "Mother." Maybe it was built back in the days when all the fathers were dying of black lung or mine fires/collapses, and there were only mothers left in town to raise the next generation of men to die early of black lung or mine fires/collapses. Who knows...

Old Mother Mine Fire hopefully watching over Hoang as she enjoys the smoking pit

We made our way back to the PA Turnpike and continued on through the heavy rain and fog. There were points where the speed dropped to 20 mph because the fog was so thick. I drove with my eyes on my rear-view mirror as much as the road ahead, as the threat of a car smashing into me from behind was very real. This only added to the creepiness that had already pervaded our day. A few hours later, our next stop was Mount Davis, the highest point in the state. As most of you know, Hoang and I are on a quest to summit the highest peaks in as many US states as possible. We bagged Mt. Davis without incident (read the full report here, which will fill in the gap in this story) and wound our way back up to the highway for the last leg of our journey. At this point in the day, we had had our fill of gloom and doom. From the depressing weather, the stark charred emptiness of Centralia, the endless ennui crossing PA, the angry tenor of the day just would not stop. And the creepiness was only getting worse. In Somerset, the Turnpike exit town, we noticed a ghoulish sign that really rubbed me the wrong way:

Y'know, I'm sure the proprietors mean well, but "souvenirs" of one of America's worst days in history? (On 9/11, Flight 93 crashed some 15 miles in a remote rural area near here.) A policeman watched me take the picture of the sign, noted my Connecticut plate, and followed me all the way to the highway. Maybe I was just being paranoid, but I wouldn't be surprised if he was running my plate to see who I was. Whatever, buddy, your state has underground fires that won't die out for hundreds of years (literally). And a bunch of Amish people.

On to the bustling metropolis of Pittsburgh, a place neither of us had been to before. The sun had set by this point and we were eager to relax in the comforting cocoon of urban sophistication. We checked in to the downtown Westin which afforded some very nice (cloudy) views of Pittsburgh and it's famous rivers. Before the trip, I had gathered some intel about the town and where the hotspots were located. I also asked the young man at the hotel reception desk and he gave us some pointers as well. So, after showers and a change of clothes, we took a taxi to one of the Pittsburgh funiculars (called "inclines" here) and rode the century old beast up the steep side of Mt. Washington. The ride was certainly pretty cool and afforded some unique views of the city. We were very fortunate it had stopped raining as we had an unplanned 20 minute walk to the Mt. Washington restaurant row. I don't know how she does it, but Hoang can navigate slippery city sidewalks in 3 inch heels with the best of 'em. At least the whole walk allowed us to soak in the skyline views of what is actually a very nice city. We ate at some place that jutted out over the cliffside and we were able to see into Heinz field which was hosting the PA state high school football championships. Then the fun really began...

There was another incline right near the restaurant, so we rode it down to the bottom, very near where the "Three Rivers" intersect. We walked out to the road and immediately noticed it was a ghost town. "Hello-o-o-oooooo? Taxi-i-i-iiiii?" Nothing. Nada. No one. Where were we? We returned to the incline booth and asked the 97 year old guy in there if there was a taxi stand nearby - this being a big tourist thing to do in a rather large city and all. It turned out that no taxis come out this way, but he could call one for us. Great, thanks.

Except for the fact that his yellowed scrap of paper with the number for "TAXI" was out of service. Now this was getting weird... It was 9 PM or so on a Saturday night and we were stuck in the Twilight Zone, with nothing to do but hoof it back downtown. This normally wouldn't be a big deal except that it was night time, rain was threatening, Hoang was in heels, and the "walk downtown" happened to be along a freaking highway. A blindly curving highway. Great. The walk was just under a mile and we did it without too much trouble, but it wasn't the way we wanted to spend our big night out in Pittsburgh.

After that nonsense, we did get a cab and went to a bustling neighborhood full of bars and clubs and shops. We ended up having a good time (despite being in the smokiest bars we've ever experienced) and not totally hating the city. (This happened to be the day after the infamous Pistons/Pacers basketbrawl and we sat in a bar and watched it about 900 times with everyone else. Remember that? It was like the Zapruder tapes of the NBA). In the end, Pittsburgh was alright but I don't really see a need to ever return. And no, neither of us likes Andy Warhol, so we don't care that we didn't see his stupid museum. And besides, if you were to add up all the weird stuff Warhol did over his life and career, it still wouldn't compare to the day we had. PA is most definitely a freaky state. Tomorrow, it was on to even freakier western Maryland and freakier still West Virginia! Can't wait!

See what happened here, on Day 3.

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