If you’ve ever been curious as to what lies at PA - 61 (Destroyed) - yes, destroyed is actually part of the formal address) in Centralia, PA or if you’re interested in the prospects of graffiti art or ghost towns--look no further.
In 1962, a beast of a coal-mining fire ripped to shreds what was formerly known to be a tight-knit and positive community. Although there are conspiracies surrounding what could’ve led the blaze to become so out of hand, it is most popularly believed that the Centralia County Council set a landfill on fire intentionally, without the knowledge that it was above an open-pit mine. As of 2017, there were only five documented residents in the town, and the population will likely only continue to dwindle.
About three and a half hours away from New York, in Eastern PA, lies what is left of decaying Centralia. My fascination with the abandoned area began when some friends informed me that there was a stretch of graffiti art on the ground that lasted for miles, nestled beside cemeteries and an eerie woods. As a matter of fact, a visit to Graffiti Highway is listed by TripAdvisor as #1 of all TWO things to do in Centralia. Last year, I made the drive with a good friend and parked my car on a grassy bank below steep mountains lined by trees. The colorful highway is challenging to discover in the midst of all of the shrubbery - seriously, we got lost for over an hour, walking around the forest. Eventually we made it to a clearing where we were met with blue sky and a sandy, dirt road that turned into gravel, and the infamous subsidence cracks and spray-painted initials we’d been after.
I had been sitting down to drink a beer in the face of a touristy-sunset on the isolated road when a man wearing an American flag bandana driving a pick-up truck (even though regular vehicles aren’t allowed) pulled up to us and announced that we “ain’t supposed to be drinking,” incase the, “sheriff come by.” While I wasn’t sure what authority he had to administer this advice--maybe he’d devoted his life to warning young alcoholics about the perils of cops in woodsy PA--we obliged and took off towards the closest town, a crooked haunt called Ashland.
Ashland and Centralia practically melt into each other. Tired and thirsty, I parked on the road and we staggered towards the only open establishment we’d been able to find: a small, local bar. I remember being delighted that this spot allowed us to smoke cigarettes indoors in 2018 and offered live music, played by an old man with a flannel and a toothpick and an apparent love for sexist classic rock. It all felt very 90’s - the indoor smoking, the local stopping us to inform us what the rules were. After exiting the bar, I realized that my white Toyota was not in the spot which I knew I had left it. However, there was nowhere for my car to go. The roads were abandoned for blocks, I would’ve spotted it in an instant. Hastily, I returned to the bar and asked the staff if car theft was an issue. They shrugged and laughed big, hearty, BudWeiser laughs, almost like they were mocking me for being so naive to the potential dangers of such a small town. I knew that my car was missing, but it seemed far more logical to me that it would’ve been towed, rather than stolen. I had no idea what to do.
There were truly no other businesses for miles - we were forced to walk through a brisk March evening. We shivered and stumbled for at least six miles before calling an Uber to the nearest town, which was still abandoned and only offered a closed Dunkin Donuts and an encounter with the cops who were unsure why we were banging on the doors of the quiet coffee shop at three in the morning.
The cops scared us, secured us entry into the Dunkin’ Donuts and gave us free cups of coffee before they scared us even more. It felt like we had entered an episode of Stranger Things. They told me that a car with the exact same make and model as mine had been crashed that night by some drunk drivers - a police report had been filed. They seemed skeptical, like I had crashed my car in some insane black out and simply wasn’t telling them the truth. I assured them that I hadn’t done that. They used their walkie-talkies to figure out the license plate of the car that had been in the crash, and sure enough, it didn’t match mine. We were clueless.
We ended up being delivered to a hotel room twenty minutes away in the back of a cop car. The following morning, we returned to the Centralia/Ashland area to search junkyards on foot. With no success, we resorted to calling 9-1-1. But 9-1-1 was broken in this area, evidently, and it took two hours for a Centralia phone operator to call us back with the phone number for the region’s towing company. I called and left a message, only to be greeted two hours following that with an offer: Did I want to be picked up and taken to the top of a mountain where my car could potentially be in temporary residence? Fucking sure.
A burly man in a leather jacket with a slicked black ponytail barged into the tiny sandwich joint. “You Meredith?” I nodded, and my travel companion and I were loaded into the back of an unfamiliar pick-up truck and escorted to one of the Pennsylvanian mountains that overlooked the tiny town. It was beautiful, although I’m not sure if being overwhelmed by relief outweighed my ability to appreciate the scenery of tiny houses and cemeteries and woods lying beneath us. At last, three hundred dollars later, (I had to call my parents to send me money, embarrassingly, and hit the ATM) my car and I were reunited. The heavens opened up and mocked me, insisting that I refrain from being such a goddamn idiot next time. Centralia is a good time--if you are prepared for an overwhelming abyss of locals who refuse to leave despite the perils of residency in an abandoned minetown--and the strange encounters will haunt you forever.