In Pennsylvania, more than in most places, you can never ignore the ground beneath you. Despite what humans have done with asphalt and wood and mining equipment, the earth still asserts itself. Back roads twist awkwardly over rushing streams, and Interstates struggle up mountains or cleave through them. Rock formations rise up between north- and south-bound lanes like rugged, prehistoric flatiron buildings. In my life I have spent many hours – days, probably – driving across Pennsylvania, over the segment of the Appalachian Range known as the Alleghenies. But I have never understood this so clearly as I have here, in this former mining town that is not a town anymore.
Centralia, in the part of the state known as the Coal Region, was incorporated in 1866. Accounts of the borough’s demise like to note that it once had a population of over 1,000; that it had churches and businesses; and that aside from the abundance of anthracite coal beneath its streets, it was an entirely normal American place. Then the accounts begin their timeline of doom. In 1962, a garbage fire happened to ignite a coal seam. Underground, through a network of abandoned mine tunnels, the fire began to spread. Smoke and noxious gas wafted from the earth. Walls and sidewalks grew warm. Fissures appeared in the ground. In 1979, some gasoline in a subterranean tank was found to have reached an alarming 172 degrees Fahrenheit. In 1981, a young boy almost fell into a deep chasm created when the yard he was standing in split open in front of him. In 1984, Congress appropriated $42 million to evacuate the borough and relocate its residents. A few holdouts held out. In 1992, the town’s remaining buildings were seized through eminent domain and mostly condemned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In 2002, Centralia’s zip code, 17927, was discontinued. The accounts also like to point out that Centralia’s great fortune was also its downfall. The fire still burns.
Today, there is little to see here. A few buildings still stand, and some graveyards are neatly maintained. Also, there is a mile-long stretch of road known as the Graffiti Highway. The Graffiti Highway is listed as “#1 of 1 things to do in Centralia” on TripAdvisor. It is marked on Google Maps (as is a site called “Centralia Coal Mine Fire Ventilation Pipes.”) The “highway” itself, a section of the old Route 61 that was closed off when the fire’s heat had warped it beyond repair, can be seen on Google Maps too – a thin white phantom limb running parallel to the new Route 61, labeled “PA-61 (Destroyed).”
Before I reach the Graffiti Highway, I imagine myself walking alone down a deserted and crumbling strip of pavement as steam rises from the uneven ground, feeling like the last survivor of the apocalypse. But when I arrive, it’s not like that. It’s more like a cross between those creepy abandoned buildings where the cool photography kids go to take Instagram shots, and a wholesome tourist attraction. Even on a weekday afternoon there are six or eight cars here, parked along the shoulder near an almost invisible dirt trail that begins between a cemetery and a vandalized yellow arrow sign that warns of a curve in the road. There are a few couples, groups of friends, teens in twos, and younger children with adults.
I scramble up a little dirt-and-ice mountain and down into a muddy valley. Then I find myself on a road, which, lacking lanes and cars, feels more like an undefined empty lot. And then I walk. It seems flat, at first, until I look back and realize I am descending a slope. There is a median down the center, which at some point begins sprouting dead trees, like a slim island in a hellish river. Further on, the pavement has split open. It looks like footage of highways taken after earthquakes, when the camera lingers on their gaping wounds. Except these wounds, like the rest of this forsaken road, are covered in colors.
A fractured rainbow of spray-painted words and shapes extends the length of the roadway. There is one “Fuck Trump” in white answered by a “Hell Yes” in black. There is one “Hillary 4 Prison.” There is one swastika, but it’s turquoise, and I stand over it for several minutes wondering how to feel about a symbol that calls for my death, painted in my favorite color. But mostly there are layers and layers of initials, names, dates, doodles, expressions of love, alien faces, and a lot of hearts and penises. There is an American flag, and a goldfish, and an intricate Día de Muertos-style skull. It should be solemn and worrying, but it’s whimsical and almost fun, like the public art projects that punctuate drab neighborhoods of troubled cities. Girls in UGG boots are taking pictures of each other against the backdrop of ruin.
And I think, maybe this is what America looks like when it’s over. There will be few reminders of the heights we once attained or the ideals we strived to fulfill, but the land won’t be entirely deserted. There won’t be any obvious signs of the cause of our destruction. People will come, simultaneously curious and bored, in that ambling touristy way, to stare at what remains. Creativity will spring up from the toxic ground like scrappy foliage, and so will hatred, and indifference. Most will quickly forget how the landscape came to be so irrevocably altered, and will view what remains through the lens of self-centered jokes and memories. Those who truly understand what was lost will be ignored.
In front of me, one couple holding hands strolls towards the terminus of the road. Behind me, more sightseers have gathered. I stand still. The ground seems settled, but I know the fire is down there somewhere. Experts say it may burn for another 250 years. I don’t walk all the way to the end of the Graffiti Highway. Part of me doesn’t want to see how it ends. Another part of me already knows.