Fire Down Below

Trip Start Jul 20, 2002
1
12
Trip End Sep 05, 2002


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Flag of United States  , Pennsylvania
Tuesday, July 23, 2002

I was staring directly into the fissure -- a gory, ragged scar that ripped across the face of the asphalt, heaving up mounds of broken black rock on either side of the opening like a cartoon gopher trail leading off into the swaying scrub that grew alongside the weed-dotted road. I read the sign, photographed for posterity the warning that I was standing on top of a raging, merciless underground fire that, at any moment could swallow me whole, or belch forth great stinking yellow fumes of noxious gas that would drop me right where I stood. That didn't stop me from plunging my face right into the rising steam -- a youthful indiscretion that, at age thirty, was crossing over into that realm that is equal parts dangerous and just plain embarrassing. It's not as if there was anything to see by enveloping my head in the acrid, billowing clouds that wafted up from the fissure. If anything, visibility was considerably worse in that position, and there was precious little chance I was going to catch sight of some distant lick of flame or jig-dancing minion of hell.
 
Ellie was behind me somewhere on that lonely expanse of abandoned pavement, preoccupied with the task of snapping a few good shots of some graffiti someone had laid down. "NS Pimps" said one patch. "KKK kill all nigers," said the other. This was Centralia, just about smack-dab in the middle of eastern Pennsylvania, the heart of anthracite coal mining country. Below me -- I wasn't sure exactly how deep -- was the fire that brought me here, burning since 1962 and showing no interest in extinguishing itself or being extinguished by the occasional intervening hand of man. According to most stories, a trash pit was set aflame to get rid of refuse, and the folks who lit the fire didn't realize that the pit was connected to the vein of coal on top of which the town of Centralia sat and upon which most of the town's residents made a living as miners. Whatever money there'd been in being a coal miner went up quickly, though, as the vein caught and the fire spread throughout the underground caverns. No one was hurt, at least not physically, which made it a hell of a lot less tragic than the shaft collapse that happened in nearby Avondale some years earlier.
 
There was no mining to be done after that, though there was plenty of fire fighting going on. The mines were flushed with water. Chunks of flaming coal were excavated. Shafts were backfilled and redrilled, but the fire refused to be tamed. In 1983, as the fire continued to spread, an engineering study was released that stated the fire could very well be burning for another hundred years or more and consume an underground area of roughly 3,700 acres.
 
All this spelled bad news for the town of Centralia. Living on top of a raging mine fire was bad for the locals. Smoke and steam and toxic fumes tended to creep up through the soil. Water became contaminated. Trees died in droves and sat in barren patches of blackened, smoking soil that made the whole town look like it ought to be criss-crossed with trenches full of German and British troops locked in a Western Front stalemate. It was the sort of landscape you'd see on late-night television, usually in black and white movies that involved a hideous Frankenstein monster lumbering across it. And then the sinkholes and fissures began opening. One nearly swallowed a young boy whole, and people started thinking that maybe Centralia was a lost cause.
 
I pressed my hand against the ragged surface of the road. It was a cold day, gray and sickly with a trickle of limp silver-white sun dripping meekly through the clouds. Damp fog clung to the scrub-spotted hills and mixed freely with the smoke still boiling up from the fire. The ground felt warm, but that was probably just my imagination. I could hear Ellie's camera shutter firing somewhere beyond the veil. She moved specter-like through the murkiness, a hint of a shadow in this sulfuric mess that stank of wet weeds, mud, and rotten eggs. It was a hell of a place to bring a gal, I thought, but she was a hell of a gal, indeed. Her shadow grew larger, more defined as she moved toward me, until all at once she became a solid again, a physical person instead of some disembodied wraith floating through a stew that would make the Scottish moors proud.

"The master race needs a spell checker," she said. Her voice was deep but soft. It flowed like a lazy South Carolina river. "Good thing I'm not Nigerian, 'cause they seem to have something against Nigers." Then she added, "You sure do know how to show a girl a good time."

We covered ground carelessly. Each crack in the earth was a warning sign to stay away, as well as an irresistible, seductive hand beckoning them to come, come peer into the mystery, and I was a little boy enticed by a carnival stripper standing half-cloaked by the dirty linen door of her tent, dutifully following the finger and gazing slack-jawed at the forbidden treasures within. In the case of the mine fire fissures, however, all I got was a load of smoke and dirt, maybe some rubble from when the houses had all been bulldozed. I assume one gets a decidedly different experience when gazing at the forbidden treasures of a carnival stripper, but I'd never had the opportunity to compare and contrast -- not for lack of desire.
 
My Jeep was parked at one end of a posted stretch of road that used to be part of highway 61. The highway department built a new stretch of road away from the portion that was collapsing into a fiery pit of doom, presumably because it was judged that roads collapsing into fiery pits of doom were generally unsuited for automobile traffic, light or otherwise. At either end of the condemned road, they'd piled dirt and stuck a sign in warning of toxic fumes, sinkholes, and the generally inhospitable conditions waiting to engulf anyone foolish enough to venture past the dirt mounds and explore the ruined road. There are quite a few of these people every year, and though photographic evidence exists to suggest that some are just as thoughtless and foolhardy as me, to date the Centralia mine fire has yet to claim any lives.
 
When, in the 1980s, it became clear that the fire wasn't going to burn itself out, that it was apparently feasting on a seemingly endless smorgasbord of rich anthracite coal, the government began buying up the land and condemning the property. Houses were razed, and what had once been a bustling burg became a ghost town. Neighborhood roads bent and curved around houses that were no longer there. Driveways, cracked and green with disrepair and the weeds that manage, against all odds, to force their way up and through solid slabs of concrete, lead to empty lots where once there had been a garage to greet them.
 
I took Ellie's hand as we climbed a small hill. Somewhere down there the fire still smoldered. Or raged. Honestly, I didn't know a whole lot about underground coal mine fires, so whether they smolder or rage was a mystery. I imagined it was a little bit of both, depending on the particular conditions for that day. Above the fire, raging or smoldering, sat what was left of the St. Peter Paul Orthodox Cemetery. I thought that, at one time, it was probably a nice enough cemetery as far as those places went. Generally, when it came to cemeteries, I considered them nice enough places to visit, but I wasn't interested in becoming a resident.
 
Whatever the case, it wasn't a very nice cemetery now. The mine fire burning somewhere below it meant that the grass was slowly turning yellow and dying, and that here and there fissures in the ground billowed with smoke that drifted spectrally along the grounds. Now this, I thought to myself, this is a Frankenstein movie set. Pressure and the occasional upheaval of ground had set several of the tombstones at curious angles, toppled others, and I was doing my best not to think of what might be happening six feet under. We stood and gawked. I wasn't really sure if it was appropriate to make a joke, but then I figured the people down there were dead, and not because of the mine fire, so they wouldn't mind.
 
"I bet you can get one of those plots for pretty cheap," Ellie said, shamelessly stealing the joke I was about to crack.
 
Most of the residents of Centralia became former residents of Centralia. By the time Ellie and I rolled into town, there were only four houses and a shuttered, deserted-looking auto parts store remaining. In the front yard of one of the houses someone had strung a banner between two gnarled trees. "We Love Centralia" it said in glittery letters. It was certainly a sweeter sentiment than the sign about toxic fumes and sinkholes.
 
"They could put it out," a voice croaked suddenly, and I cursed my highly tuned, ninja-like senses for failing to hear the approach of footsteps on crunchy gravel behind us. "They could put it out if they wanted'a."
 
We turned. On the gravel road behind them stood a jumbo-sized elderly man in tan slacks and a dark green windbreaker. Thin wisps of gray hair were kicked up by the wind and resembled the thin wisps of gray smoke drifting from the ground. His face was not unlike the rotten apple carvings my grandmother used to bring home from the annual fall harvest festival. There were eyes and, presumably, a mouth nestled somewhere behind the craggy twists and lumps of flesh adorned with a red, pock-marked fist of a nose.
 
"Course lots of folks come up here now just 'cause a' the fire. I figure y'all to be up here 'cause a' the fire."
 
Ellie and I scrambled gingerly down the slope of brush and rock that had given us a better vantage point. In this desolate landscape that somehow managed to be overgrown in one direction and barren in the other, human interaction seemed incongruous but not wholly unwelcome provided it wasn't with whoever had been spray painting racial calls to arms on the road.
 
"Why wouldn't they want to put the fire out?" Ellie asked of the man who had materialized in the gloom. Nothing in this sort of drizzle and fog and steam "approached." It was all about materialization. A town of ghosts drifting through the shroud.
 
"They could put it out," the man repeated as he stared off at smoke rising from a field full of wretched looking hills sprinkled with spindly, dead trees. "But some of us won't move. And they won't put it out unless we move, because then the land is theirs."
 
He took a pipe from the breast pocket of his jacket, and a stained pouch of tobacco from another pocket, then set about filling and lighting his pipe.  It glowed orange in the silvery embrace of the world and smelled sweet. One of my grandfathers grew tobacco when he was young. Tobacco and quarter horses were his trade, and selling carpet. This man's pipe smelled like the barn where the tobacco would be hung from wooden beams to dry. It was a barn that terrified me. The bundles of browning tobacco looked like pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, dangling so far overhead with sunlight falling on them in dusty beams that seeped in through cracks in the walls and ceiling of the building. The entire place was a breeding ground for wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, and various other bugs that, despite being the merest tiny fraction of a human's size, would still routinely kick human ass in a fight.
 
I wasn't unfamiliar with the man's theory. I did a fair amount of research on Centralia before naming it as the first destination on their trip. Among the very few who remained in Centralia, it was assumed that, despite evidence to the contrary, the government could extinguish the mine fire if it really wanted to, either by digging a system of trenches or, more recently suggested, by flooding the tunnels with flame retardant foam. However, if this was done while private citizens still owned chunks of the land, the government would be doing the work for private industry. If, however, the land was fully vacated, then the government could claim it, put out the fire, then sell the land and the mine back for a handsome profit. It didn't seem outside the realm of possibility to me, but my firm belief in the deceitful nature of the government was well-balanced by the equally firm belief that the government was, by and large, a surprisingly large collection of idiots and incompetents with not a lick of sense, perhaps genuinely incapable of figuring out how to put out the fire. I also figured if they wanted these people off the land for good, they'd make it happen.
 
Whatever the case, a few people remained behind and strung up banners to show their support for the dead remnants of their town. I thought they should find a way to make a tourist trade out of all the people who came up specifically because there was a fire burning.
 
"Not a bad place to live," the elderly man said. "Not so long as you don't fall into no pit." And with that, he erupted into a phlegm-heavy, gargling sort of laughter that flirted with coughing and the sound of choking to death on one's own sense of humor. And then, as suddenly as he had materialized to provide running commentary, he clammed up tight and walked on down the road, vanishing in the fog, the sound of his heavy work boots grinding into the gravel quickly fading.
 
"Did we just see a ghost?" I asked of Ellie.
 
"Nah," she assured me. "He's one of those guys whose purpose in life is to appear out of nowhere and tell strangers stories that start, 'Arrr, t'was ten yars ago, on a night just like tonight...'"
 
"And he'll talk like an old Scottish sailor, even here in Pennsylvania."
 
"Naturally."

"And probably point at us with the end of his pipe," I concluded.
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