Centralia - Motocross

Nothing but trouble in Centralia Pennsylvania

Nothing But Trouble is a 1991 comedy (horror) film starring Dan Akroyd, Chevy Chase, John Candy, Demi Moore, and Taylor Negron. It was directed by Dan Akroyd and written by Dan and his brother Peter. The film is very weird. I believe the Akroyd brothers knew how weird it was, but they didn’t know it was so weird that the average American would reject it. The film only made $8 million dollars in theaters — one-fifth of its budget — which is a flop by any measure.

Nothing But Trouble

So, why is it weird (or at least too weird for the average human)? Spoilers ahead: It’s a hero’s journey but the protagonists are not heroes. All the characters are despicable on some level, so it is difficult to empathize with any of them. Chevy Chase & Demi Moore’s characters are unlikeable yuppies. Dan Akroyd’s “Judge” character and his clan are demented serial murderers. I think we’re supposed to root for Chevy & Demi’s characters, but I get the feeling Akroyd’s true sympathy lies with the Judge, who is a victim of bad bank loans and spends his life seeking retribution. John Candy’s character does have a heroic moment but ends up only exchanging his despicable family for a new wealthier one. I don’t want to give away too much — I want you to watch this film and see if you can enjoy it. Perhaps the weirdest moment of the film is a song and dance scene featuring Digital Underground and 2Pac (then a member of the band).

The town of Valkenvania was inspired by Centralia, Pennsylvania, a very small town that was all but abandoned due to a below-ground coal fire. Like much of Pennsylvania, the town sits above vast deposits of coal. Legend has it that someone lit a fire too close to a coal shaft, the coal caught fire, and the town eventually had to be abandoned because it was not safe to live above a massive, underground, inextinguishable, poison-gas-producing inferno.

There are a few documentaries and urban-explorer videos about Centralia on YouTube. These explorers cruise the local streets, enter abandoned homes, find the occasional doll head or VHS tape, and hike the graffiti highway. Most encounter a local or two — the town does have some inhabitants, the graveyards are well kept, and the graffiti highway is owned by a coal company — if you visit, you will encounter other people, so be respectful.

July 12, 2019, I drove to Centralia to check it out. When I arrived, I drove right through it — I saw no indications that there was a town there. Just a weed-lined, two-lane county road (61).

I expected Centralia to be abandoned, but it was not. There are homes standing, and they seem to be occupied. Most of the town has been raised with the exception of 5 or 6 houses, a municipal building, and 3 cemeteries. Look at the town on Google maps — the homes have green lawns and cars parked outside them. Granted, they could be cars belonging to urban explorers in some cases.

I felt guilty for invading their town and disturbing the peace. I live in a tourist town and know first-hand what it’s like to have a city slicker come to town, cause a ruckus,  and relieve their bowels on the street in my neighborhood (no joke), so I can empathize with Centralia’s remaining population. I imagined a resident living in their home clutching their head wondering what was worse: a migraine from coal fire fumes, or jackasses from New Jersey, or YouTube doing k-turns in their front lawn.

obey the law or face the reeve
Don’t disturb the peace or you might face Dan Akroyd.

So, I left the local streets and went looking for the graffiti highway.

I saw a half dozen cars parked at the bend of highway 61 and figured this was a good place to stop and start looking. Both sides of the road had tell-tale graffiti marking, so I flipped a coin. I walked east down a gravel road, which led to a small cemetery and motocross trails, punctuated with piles of coal, shotgun shells, mud pits, vents for the coal fire, and weathered piles of people’s stuff. I assume the stuff — which reminded me of things you would find in a thrift store dumpster — were dumped there, or stolen from abandoned homes and left there by urban explorers.

Centralia - Coal
A random pile of coal in a town known for its out-of-control coal fire.
Centralia - Vent
One of the vents that vent fumes from the Centralia coal fire. I think it’s supposed to look like a vampire.
chevy chase car
Chevy Chase’s character’s BMW passing piles of coal and a fume vent.

 

Finding nothing east of route 61, I headed to the west side. After scrambling around a mud pit, twisted trees tagged with graffiti, ankle-rolling used graffiti cans, and tick-encrusted weeds, I found sunlight and the graffiti highway.

It was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen: a wide two-lane road, every available inch covered from beginning to end with a tangled rainbow of spray paint — much of it fresh — for 7/10ths of a mile. I expected the air in Centralia to smell like coal fire fumes, but it smelled like paint.

Most of the graffiti was tags/signatures and cartoon characters & memes. No Mona Lisas or Starry Nights — just 1000s of colorful, funny, and ephemeral modern-day runes & hieroglyphs. There were dozens of people walking the road, riding bikes, or adding to the graffiti.

 

graffiti road
Centralia graffini road

 

Centralia - Motocross
Motocross biker showing off for the camera.
Centralia - Poo
Winnie the Poo Meme from 2019
Centralia - Shaggy
Shaggy Meme from 2019.
Centralia - Leaves
Everything gets painted. The road, the guide rails, the leaves of trees surrounding the road…
Centralia - Gouge Collapse
One of the prominent ruptures in the highway, making it unusable. I’ve seen photos of steam/fumes rising from this rut online.

I did not see any vapors or steam rising from vents or cracks in the road. I did get a slight headache, but that could be because it was HOT and sunny out and my large forehead was baking in the sun.

I think everyone should go see it, but…

In early 2020, the road was covered with soil by the coal company that owns the road. They probably don’t want someone breaking their leg or exchanging viruses, and then suing them. For the coal company, the road was probably “nothing but trouble”.

Life lesson: make sure you get out there and see stuff while it’s still there to be seen. You gotta get it, while the getting is good.

Land Yacht

A little bit east of Pittsburgh

Another year and another road trip to witness and map a 17-year periodical cicada emergence. This year it was Brood VIII (8), a group of cicadas in an area wrapped around Pittsburg on the east, north, and west. Disappointingly, my trip only lasted 4 days, including driving to and from Pittsburgh, thanks to crappy weather (rain) and a blown turbo intercooler.

Driving through Pennsylvania is rarely exciting, though much of it is pleasant to look at — mostly long green mountains that hug the ground like exhausted dachshunds, and the occasional tunnel to break the monotony. Blue, Kittatinny, Tuscarora, Allegheny. Route 70 is nice — not amazing, not grim, just nice.

I chose to stay at the Springhill Suites in Latrobe Pennsylvania because it was near a golf course. Golfers wake early and make quite a racket — cloudy brains in the grasp of a hangover struggling to assemble themselves, knocking into every wall, tripping over every chair, slamming every door. I wanted to wake early each day, and a hotel full of golfers is as good as any alarm clock. The Suites were nice — Paul Mitchel soaps that smelled of orange & spice; a desk in the room; a refrigerator to hold Redbull and snack cakes; a window facing west towards and a small airport — nice sunsets. Free Chupa Chups in the lobby. The Wi-Fi wasn’t free but also wasn’t expensive. The free breakfast was bland, but you get what you pay for.

Most of my trip was spent driving from one park to another, with the guidance of the built-in navigation system that came with my 7-year-old car. The system is outdated and often takes me along some wild paths — plenty of as the Germans say “hoffnungsvollunddocherschaudernd” — hopeful yet cringing — like mud & gravel one-lane roads with no exit for 2 miles.  Two white knuckle miles of potholes and ruts and the constant fear that a Silverado 6500HD is heading around the bend at 70 miles per hour. Still plenty of fun. It’s usually on roads like this where you find beautiful bubbling road-side brooks or a Grand National with 36″ tires parked next to a slowly oxidizing tractor. Life becomes interesting when your GPS forces you outside your comfort zone.

My favorite named location was the Hoodlebug Trail in Black Lick, PA (a “lick” is a natural salt or mineral deposit).

I use my entomological road trips as an excuse to partake in a few of my favorite things: gas station convenience store junk food fireworks stores, Little Debbie Snack Cakes, and weird, or not so weird, roadside attractions.

I’ve decided that my current favorite convenience store is Sheetz. I also like United Dairy Farmers (know for their ice cream). Circle K, Wawa, Quick Check, and 7-11 are fine as well — they all have their quirks. Sheetz has the best-iced coffee-flavored drinks — banana, coconut, chocolate. Good stuff.

Frog Prince and Princess Fireworks

Glitter Mountain fireworks store in Donegal, PA had an enchanting selection of novelty fireworks, like Frog Prince and Princess, a Black Cat Mobile (like a Bat Mobile), and meme-themed rocket batteries. I love fireworks packaging as much as fireworks — all the bright, contrasting colors, hissing cats, grinning frogs, menacing aliens, metallic jellyfish starbursts — all advertise amazing explosive experiences. I want them all.

Little Debbie Snack Cakes

The biggest Walmarts usually have the best selection of Little Debbie snack cakes. Ever since I heard the band Southern Culture on the Skids sing about them in their song Camel Walk, I’ve been into them. I have a painting of Little Debbie on my office wall. I don’t eat them every day — but when I’m on road trips I track them down. I love their flavor, sweetness, and their unique plastic-like frosting.

As for roadside attractions, I didn’t see many of those. I did blunder upon The Laurel Hill Iron Furnace in St. Clair Township, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. This was an iron furnace back in the 19th century — now it looks like an ancient temple found in the jungles of South America.

Laurel Hill Iron Furnace

A shed being consumed by a forest…

Shed being consumed by a forest

And a car on a pole (Excel Auto Body in Export, PA on RT 66):

 

Here’s a map of the places I visited:

Map

Here’s a list of places I wanted to visit but did not because of time and the blown intercooler:

  • Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney
  • Johnstown Flood Museum in Johnstown
  • Quality Dry Cleaners in McKees Rocks
  • Trundle Manor in Pittsburgh
  • Fallingwater in Mill Run
  • Kecksburg Space Acorn in Mt. Pleasant
  • World’s Largest Teapot in Chester, WV
  • Bayernhof Museum in Pittsburgh
  • Mars Flying Saucer in Mars

 

A chunk of coal

Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania

A lot of my travel revolves around periodical cicada emergences, and this year my visit to Jim Thorpe, PA was no different (read about the Jim Thorpe periodical cicadas emergence). Documenting a cicada emergence requires you to not only to travel where the cicadas are but also where they aren’t because we have to document the geo-spacial dimensions of their brood. This means I see more sights than most people who visit a town. Combine that with my in-dash GSP’s nearly suicidal compulsion for taking me down the most hairy, rocky, slippery, narrow, axel-busting roads, and I see some really interesting, out of the way stuff.

An aside: you’re thinking “in-dash GPS? Dan, it’s 2016, why aren’t you using Google Maps on your smartphone as your GPS?” Well, I do use WAZE when traffic gets atrocious, but the thought of using a tiny screen balanced in my palm or in a cup-holder isn’t appealing. “But Dan, you can buy an attachment…” Whatever, I like my in-dash GPS; it’s crazy, but it also gets me where I need to go while showing me miracles along the way.

Back to Jim Thorpe aka the Switzerland of America aka Mauch Chunk. Jim Thorpe is a small city in the Poconos region of eastern Pennsylvania, in the county of Carbon (because this is coal country). It is nestled between three mountains, Broad Mountain, Pocono Mountain and Bear Mountain (used Peakery to figure that out). The original name of the town was Mauch Chunk, which means Bear Mountain in Munsee.

My original guess was that the “Mauch Chunk” was the big chunk of coal located downtown, but no.

Coal chunk. I could not lift it

The mountain is actually shaped like a bear:

bear mountain

Jim Thorpe Jim Thorpe gets its name from a gold medal-winning Olympic athlete and football player, but the story of why is a little out of the ordinary. As told to me by a friend: Mauch Chunk wanted to gain some attention, so they paid Jim Thorpe’s family for the right to bury Jim in their town and name it after him. Money talks, and so now the town is called Jim Thorpe and Jim is laid to rest in a memorial park in on route 903. It’s worth mentioning that Jim was not born in this town, or even in Pennsylvania.

Jim Thorpe is also called “the Switzerland of America”, not because of cheese, but because of the mountainous terrain. Parts of the town seem like they’ve been poured onto the side of a mountain, like hot fudge on a pile of ice cream scoops. There is loads to do for bicyclists, hikers, and whitewater rafters. There is even a train that will drop you off on the other side of town so you can cycle back. The natural features that are worth seeing are the Lehigh Gorge and the Glen Onoko Falls (which I only made it halfway to due to time constraints, but the path there was beautiful). If you want to get away from the crowded city or bland suburbs where the only green is your lawn, and you like physical activity, Jim Thorpe may be for you. It is a breathtakingly beautiful place.

The Lehigh Gorge. The hole in the mountain was originally meant for a train to pass through:
Mountain with a hole in it. Jim Thorpe PA

This small rock formation on the way to Glen Onoko Falls reminds me of Fred & Wilma Flintstone’s house:
Rock formation. Jim Thorpe PA

A forgotten Tea Cup in the forest:
Upended soup bowl in the forest

Hi Bear Downtown Jim Thorpe is interesting as well. I don’t possess the knowledge and vocabulary to properly describe the buildings, but many are crafted of fancy bricks and stone, with ornate filigree (not sure that is the right word; one moment while I look it up; close but not really) hewn out of the rock itself. I would equate the experience to when you see an old European town, and you see the amazingly intricate and expensive looking buildings, and think “how did they ever afford to build such amazing things — all we have today is crappy strip malls and cheap homes made of clapboard and sheetrock”? Google “Prague” to see what I’m talking about. Well, Jim Thorpe is like that — not every house; some look like shacks meant to be temporary housing for transient coal miners (as I’m sure they were) — but much of it is beautiful. My guess is coal money paid for the fancy buildings… but I’m sure some of it was due to craftsmen who came to America for a job in a coal mine but ended up applying trades learned in their home country. I could be wrong. I could be very wrong.

As you ramble on foot around town, be on the lookout for waving wooden bears, the Cheshire Cat in the window of the Through the Looking Glass Cafe, giant water turbines, the Mauch Chunk museum (which was not open when I was there — drat), the Mauch Chunk Opera, the Jail Tour, and angels in windows. Be respectful when you visit and wander the streets; residential homes are interspersed between bars, cafes and tourist attractions; don’t be the guy who yaps loudly on his iPhone at 12 am outside someone’s home.

The tourists are part of any tourist town experience. Many tourists dress in bright primary-color uniforms that seem to be the only color available for weekend bicyclists and rafters. Add to that the similar palette of their bikes & rafts, and the whole town seems to be a swirl of brightly colored plastic particles. Maybe like a cheap kaleidoscope or if you spun around in the laundry detergent aisle at Walmart. I think Agnès Varda called it the “plastic colors of summer”.

Downtown is generally well-paved and friendly enough for those with soft hands, but just outside of downtown, roads become single-lane rock n’ roll rim busters with more craters than Verdun France. Amusing hyperbole aside, my GPS loves to take me down such roads, and then the challenge becomes balancing my desire not to die with my passion for sharing every interesting exhibition of Americana on Instagram. The struggle is real, but the rewards are rich. Adrenaline for now; memories to last a lifetime (maybe, or a few months, depending).

For instance, check out this gem. It looks like the set of American Pickers:
Collector

That’s about it on Jim Thorpe, PA. If you’re into nature, physical activity, uncharacteristically interesting American architecture, and Americana like waving bears, Jim Thorpe is worth the trip.

One last shot. The local drive in. Cool.

Mahoning drive in

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