On The Road to Nowhere

Where it was decided to create a film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the producers needed to find locations that resembled the apocalyptic hell-hole that was the world McCarthy had created.  A nasty, bleak, gray, depressing place that would suck all the happiness from your soul so fast that a Dementor would sit back and go, “Whoa.”  They picked Pennsylvania.  Probably because Indiana wouldn’t give them any tax breaks for filming.

There is, however, an important reason they filmed The Road here.  Because if a big part of your story involves walking down a road that hasn’t seen any maintenance or repair in decades, Pennsylvania is the place to be–

Because of The Abandoned Turnpike.

Starting in the early 1960s the authority that controls the Pennsylvania Turnpike knew there were certain sections of the existed road that required extensive upgrades, or complete bypassing.  While there are sections that saw these improvements come to be, two areas of the Turnpike were bypassed and left abandoned.  We’ll get to the reason for that in a moment.

The largest section of The Abandoned Turnpike is a twelve mile stretch running from Breezewood–near U.S. 30 and I-70–in the west and to about a mile east of the Sideling Hill Service Center.  If you look on Google Maps you’ll see this stretch clearly labeled “Abandoned Pa Turnpike”, and while Street View doesn’t exist, you can find pictures of the old roadbed.

Or, you can read on . . .

There are three ways to get access to the Abandoned Turnpike:  you can enter it by the location of a removed overpass near Breezewood; you can walk onto it from Oregon Road, a service road running through a state forest; or you can drive onto the road off Pump Station Road.  I did all three of these, and saw some interesting things.

First off:  Breezewood.  This was the easiest, as there’s parking right off U.S. 30.  Then you walk up a high, West End Abandoned Turnpike 01sloping hill–what had once been the underside of the overpass–and out you come.  As you can see, this part of the roadbed isn’t in great shape, but then that’s what you want from your apocalypses, right?  You want everything to look like crap, and The Abandoned Turnpike gives you want you need.

Then you head up Sideling Hill and find Oregon Road, which is a gravel road heading back into the woods.  Something to keep in mind is that the Abandoned Turnpike is at the bottom of the big hill you’re on, so at one point you’re heading down a five percent grade with a big drop off on your left.  Don’t worry, the trees will stop your fall . . .

This section of the Turnpike was where most of The Road was filmed, due in part as this is the only place where one can actually drive onto the Abandoned Turnpike with permission.  By “permission” I mean you need to get someone to unlock this big gate and then–ta da!  You’re on The Road.

This West of Sideling Hill 01section of the Turnpike is in the best shape, perhaps due to the West of Sideling Hill 02sheltering effect of the ridges around it, or maybe due to a singular lack of humans.  The road is now being used as an unimproved bike trail, and I encountered five people who were biking riding the trail, or preparing to do so.  You can go about ten miles in one direction–the Penn DOT uses a couple of miles of the road for storage, and consider that section private property, which means you can’t go in there–and if you don’t have a pickup on the other side, you need to turn around and go back.  Or you can walk a couple of miles like I did.

Need I say that it’s very quite, and since it was overcast yesterday, sort of gloomy?  No, you knew I was going there.  The overcast kept it cool, so I wasn’t sweating my butt off as I hiked the road.

From the middle section I hiked west, walking up an incline.  No one around, no one to share my journey.  The road curved up and to the right–was there something waiting for me?

Yes.  Sideling Hill West Portal ApproachThis:

Remember I said improvements were need to the turnpike?  Those improvements involved three tunnels,  At one time there were seven tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike–six of them following an old railroad route–and while the turnpike was four lanes, the tunnels narrowed to one lane each way.  While this hadn’t been a problem when the Turnpike was first opened, by the end of the 1950’s traffic volume was leading to backups as two lanes narrowed to one.

While four tunnels were given a second two lane bore to allow for better traffic flow, three tunnels were eventually abandoned.  The first, Laurel Hill Tunnel, was sealed and is currently used by Chip Ganassi Racing for testing.  But the other two tunnels were not only left unsealed, they were left accessible to the public.  one of the tunnels, Ray Hill Tunnel, was the shortest of the tunnels, and the one I couldn’t get to easily as there were no direct access points to its location.

Not so with Sideling Hill Tunnel.

First, lets see what the in-use tunnels look lCurrent Tunnelike.  Here’s Tuscarora Mountain, all nice and shiny.  Pretty, isn’t she?  Keep the cruse control on 70, blow right in there, and a mile later you’re out the other end.

Now, lets get a closer look at Sideling Hill West Portal 02the west end of Sideling Hill:

Not so shinny, is she?  Mostly because the tunnel has been sitting here, unused, since it was bypassed in November, 1968.  This was the longest of the original tunnels, going 1.3 miles through Sideling Hill.  And it’s open all the way through; an engineering analysis carried out some time back said the tunnel can last another sixty, seventy years before anyone need worry about structural failures.  Yes, they build them well in back in the day.

After this I hiked back to the car and drove over Sideling Hill (Elevation 2195 feet at the summit along U.S. 30), headed down a three mile section of curving road with an eight percent grade and run-off chutes for runway semi, then over to the went end parking area, and back onto the road.

The first thing you come across as you head Cove Vally Plazawest is a huge expanse of pavement.  This is all that is left of Cove Valley Plaza, which was abandoned along with the road.  Gas, food, and restrooms–it was all here.  Now, it’d be a great place to do burnouts if you could get your car onto The Abandoned Turnpike and through the barriers that block off this area.

The east portal of Sideling Hill Tunnel is about a mile East of Sideling Hill 03beyond the plaza, and the road leading to the portal is pretty much crap, and most of the east-bound lane is completely overgrown in places.  Someone in the parking lot questioned me as to why I thought this section of the turnpike was the worst, and I have no idea.  Maybe it’s due to weather; maybe it’s due to climate conditions brought about by being right in the middle of a big mountain hollow.  Maybe it’s caused by trolls–who knows?  It wasn’t hard to walk, but give it another ten years and this section might start becoming little more than a gravel road.

The east portal looks much like the west Sideling Hill East Portal 02portal, though there are a few difference that are noticeable if you look hard.  If you have seen the movie The Road–or should I say survived, ’cause that was one depressing flick–it was here that Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee were filmed walking out of the tunnel, then having to hide from the cannibal hillbillies in the four-by-four–or as I like to call them, local residences.  I kid, I kid.  The raised strip in the middle of the road gives the location away.  Given that there isn’t any direct access to this part of The Abandoned Turnpike from the east, that means the movie people likely drove through the tunnel so they could set up on this side.  No biggie, right?

And what does the inside of that tunnel look like?  I’m glad you asked, because you know I had to see for myself . . .

Oh, sure, the roof is showing a bit of Looking in East Sideling Hillwear and tear, but there aren’t huge blocks of cement lying upon the roadbed.  As one person told me, if they sealed up both ends during the winter, that would slow a lot of damage during the winter.  I was also told that the middle part of the tunnel is in good shape, but as I didn’t have a lamp I wasn’t about to walk the 1.3 miles through the structure.

I did, however, go about a hundred Looking Out of East Sideling Hillfeet inside to get this picture.  So if you ever wanted to know what it looks like as you’re walking through an abandoned tunnel, and you’re getting close to the portal, now you know.

Oh, and while I was snapping these last couple of pictures, there was singing–not from me, but from people deep inside the tunnel.  At one point I saw the red light of a bike tail light, and I saw some lamps being used.  Then there was the singing, some bastard version of Gregorian chants.  The people I meet in the parking lot said they were going into the tunnel to offer their own songs.  There’s a story there if anyone wants to write that–

So there you have it:  my trip to another local filming location.  Oh, and one other thing . . .

Heading The RVdown the steep side of Sidelng Hill there are no house, no one living there, no branching roads.  I did, however, discover this RV sitting up all by it’s lonesome.  I really, really, really wanted to go up to it and knock on the door to see if anyone was at home, but I knew if I did I’d have someone inside screaming at me, “This is my own private domicile and I will not be harassed . . . bitch!”

Naw, best to leave cranky people alone, you know?