First things first: I didn’t write my article yesterday. There were various reasons for this, mostly because the afternoon slipped away from me before I knew it was gone, and I walked a little over two miles in the rain to go to and from my dinner location before sitting down to watch Torchwood: Miracle Day and Season One of Orphan Black. I was very bad, I admit it, though during my walk I worked out a long scene between two of my characters. So not a complete loss: it’s still writing if you’re thinking about your story, right?
But the highlight of my morning was the drive up to Centralia, Pennsylvania, the location of a coal mine fire that’s been burning since 1962. As was mentioned, the town was the inspiration for the look of the movie Silent Hill, though these days much of that inspiration is gone, vanished into the mists of whatever hell that movie rose from.
First off, the road into town. State 61 is the main route into the town, but a stretch of the highway passed over the burning coal, and the heat caused the road to buckle and split. These days St 61 detours along an old logging road that used to pass through Byrnesville, the other town that was eliminated by the fire. The bypass route is winding, narrow, and a bit funky, but whatcha gonna do, right?
You can walk along the stretch of old St 61, which is covered in graffiti for most of the way to the most damaged section of the road. You might not be able to tell from the pictures, but there was a heavy overcast, and while I half expected it to rain at some point, it didn’t. No need to get drenched while keeping an eye out for things that want to kill you.
Even though the new St 61 passes close by, that roadbed follows terrain lowers that the old St 61, so when you factor in that, trees, and a light breeze, you get silence–lots of silence. And I was the only one there that time of day–or was I? That’s one of those things that plays through your head when you’re in a place like this, though being out in the open during daytime didn’t get that flight or fright reflex going. This was more of a morning stroll with my computer in my backpack (yes, I wasn’t about to leave it in the car), walking along in a place you’ve heard of maybe times before.
Finally, you reach the spot where the road has buckled and split, and . . . yeah, it’s just as you might imagine, minus the demons crawling out of the ground, asking if you’ve got a minute to hear about their dark lord and savior, Leviathan. There wasn’t any smoke coming from the highway, has has been photographed up until a few years ago, but that’s okay, because this was freaky enough.
There isn’t a lot of smoke rising from the ground these days. According to the people who study these things, they believe the fire has moved into deeper seams of coal, moving the center of the fire away from Centralia. At one time the town was shrouded in a light cover of coal smoke, but that doesn’t seem to the rule these days. Today you’ll see a few plumes of smoke here and there, but nothing so thick that you’re going to feel like a character in a movie . . .
I did find a place where smoke was venting, but the breeze was doing a good job of dissipating said plume. Trust me, though, the smoke is there, and I stayed upwind the whole time. i should mention that just to my left of this picture are the town’s two cemeteries, which at one time saw tombstones sinking into the ground because of the heat. That means it was keeps all those body-filled coffins nice and toasty–and here I was, about a hundred feet from them all. Anyone wanna go back there with me at night? Anyone? Tap, tap. Is this thing on?
These days there isn’t much to Centralia. A few years back the state went in and tore everything down, because why not, right? Yesterday all I saw were empty streets and the places where homes and businesses used to be. There are still people living there: eleven at last count. I saw four houses and a trailer, and someone had four vehicles all done up with camo paint jobs, and I don’t wanna know what that’s all about. There’s no zip code for this place, but I saw a mail box in front of one of the homes, so someone is coming out here to deliver. And since there’s a wind farm on the ridge to the north there’s mobile phone signals, ’cause when you’re working on the windmill, you wanna call in and let your boss know zombies are trying to get you.
Not long after I left Centralia I came down with the damnedest headache. I suspected I’d been around carbon monoxide, and a friend told me the same thing later. Makes sense: coal fire burning deep in the earth, here I am standing near open vents, and the car is sitting close by with the windows up. Or maybe it’s something else . . . Well, I’m not sprouting wings, so maybe I’m okay. Maybe.
There you have it: my trip to a place you thought existed only in the movies and in games, but psych, it’s all real. And if you think this is something that doesn’t happen that much, guess again: there’s something like this in Germany known as Brennender Berg, and if you go to a Land Down Under you’ll find Burning Mountain, which has been burning and venting for six thousand years. No, I didn’t add a zero there: six thousand years. Rock me, baby.
There is my tale, and like Sean Bean, I lived to bring it to you. Next Saturday I’ll take trek to a another location that some of you have seen on the big screen, and give you some more historical lowdown. As my buddy Big C says, “Y’all come back now, I need your soul–I mean, ya hear?”