Last year I traveled a lot for business. When I put together my Canadian citizenship application this spring, I had to actually count the number of days I was away – Well over 100. Even if you take away the 27 days I spent in India (22 of which were for my vacation – only five for work), that’s a ton of time to spend in hotels away from my family.
On the plus side, spending that much time built up a ton of points in my hotel and car rental loyalty programs – so much so that the day after Christmas, feeling a bit restless, I was able to book a free rental car and several days of hotel stays for next to nothing – we’d only pay for food and gas. And so, Daegan and I headed off on an adventure.
On Boxing Day we headed over to Pearson International Airport where we chose our car for the weekend – a Toyota Camry, tossed our bags in and made for the border. It was dark as we pulled up – clearly we need to do better at leaving early!
We handed the border agent our passports and told him what our plans were – to head to the city where Daegan was born and then play it by ear from there. But, being a crossing in to the US, I knew it wouldn’t be easy – even though we’re both US citizens, born in the states. He asks us “What’s your relationship?” I said “He’s my son.” I am guessing he saw that he has Sage’s last name and wasn’t satisfied (though a look at our crossing history would show how many times the two of us have traveled back and forth together). “Really? (he turns to me) What’s his birthday?” Daegan, eager to please blurts out his birthday, upsetting the guard. “I was talking to him. Now you, tell me when his birthday is.” he said, gesturing to me. Daegan faltered. We don’t generally celebrate our birthdays. We’ll celebrate his with a gift and a meal out but sometimes just somewhere within a week of the actual date. He gave a date that was nowhere near my actual date. “Don’t you know his birthday?” He tried another date – no luck. Frustrated, he let us through anyway, scolding Daegan for not knowing his own father’s birthday before we left.
We rode on through the night, aiming for central Pennsylvania – about 7 hours away, stopping only for washroom breaks and a fast food dinner somewhere in the wilds of upstate New York. Not long after crossing in to Pennsylvania we had to slow down significantly. The weather had turned as we entered the Pocono mountains with fog closing in on us to the point where we could barely see more than 50 feet beyond the front of the car. The night took on an eerie cast and we tried to make our stop at the nearly empty gas station a short one – who knows who (or what!) could come out of the mist?
We finally made it to the hotel hours after we had expected to. We checked in and exhausted, we fell asleep.
The next morning we headed for Centralia.
Back around 1984, my dad was transferred to just outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – about an hour or so’s drive from where we stayed the night. I remember while we were there there was a local news story about a little town nearby called Centralia. Back in the early 1960’s, a landfill nearby caught fire that somehow managed to ignite a coal seam that led in to a nearby mine. Over time with so much fuel the fire spread and grew. By the 1980’s sink holes were appearing and toxic fumes were seeping in to homes. Congress approved $42 million to relocate people from the area and most (but not all) people accepted offers and moved to other nearby towns. In 1992, the governor of Pennsylvania invoked Eminent Domain taking over the land and condemning all of the property on it. After a number of court battles, there are only a handful of people left there who have been allowed to live out the rest of their lives there – over 40 years after the initial offers were made on homes by the government. That’s tenacity. Meanwhile, the fire burns on and is likely to go on for hundreds of years more. It has spread to under Byrnesville – another nearby town that has also been abandoned and leveled.
We headed over, parking a short distance from the former town and started walking down a steep hill toward the abandoned Highway 61.
It wasn’t long before we found our first sign of the fire. As we were walking down the hill, I noticed some sulphurous smoke coming out of the hole in the photo above. Stepping over it I could feel heat – like a heating vent in a house had turned on. Where a fire burning underground had been hypothetical until now, it was clearly real.
We kept going down the hill until we got to the old Highway 61. We had driven here on the “New Highway 61”. Thanks to the fire, some parts of the road had cracked or collapsed with sinkholes and could no longer reliably handle vehicular traffic. And so, it became a bit of an impromptu art project, now termed “Graffiti Highway”.
After exploring the highway we headed up to the town, proper. We saw only one house standing and it wasn’t in the best of shape. I wonder if this wasn’t one of the homes of the last few residents.
The street grid was still somewhat in place and so we could see where some houses had been. Occasionally we would see a ventilation pipe sticking up out of the ground to let heat and smoke out.
In some spots we could see the signs of how some people left. While much of the town had been bulldozed and had no signs of life other than an empty road, in other places we saw that people had clearly lived here and left many of their things behind as they left.
Before we left we walked to the edge of the former town and saw a sight on a hill in the distance. A sign of having learned from the mistakes of the past? Let’s hope.