a fire you can’t always see

Last summer I asked family members if anyone cared to join me for a road trip to a post apocalyptic coal town in Pennsylvania called Centralia. My brother was the only taker. We headed west through the rolling hills of New Jersey through the Pocono Mountains. This would be my first visit to coal country.

I had wanted to visit Centralia for years after reading that it was a town condemned because the ground beneath it was on fire. In 1962, a coal seam at a nearby mine accidentally caught fire, and for the last 50 years it has smoldered underneath Centralia, engulfing the town from below. Sink holes have opened and lethal levels of carbon monoxide leaked from the cracked earth, forcing state officials to rule Centralia uninhabitable in 1992. The townspeople were divided: stay or go. Most left. Less than 10 people live there today.

Our route to Centralia wound through small mining towns clustered off the interstate. I don’t know what I was expecting to find when we got there. I thought perhaps there would be a historical exhibit and a few homes waiting for the earth to cave in. I hoped Centralia had become an environmental pilgrimage of sorts – a place where individuals come to reflect on what happens when we are not careful stewards of the land.

M and I actually drove through Centralia without knowing it. We backtracked a few miles and found a small grid of streets, a church that was closed, and two houses still standing. The rest of the town had disappeared under weeds. Abandoned homes were leveled years ago. The only sign that an entire community once existed there was a handful of cement stairs leading to houses that no longer stood their ground. You would never know a fire is burning underneath your feet.

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Less than a mile from the downtown core we came upon truckloads of trash bags, stained sofas, and plastic bottles strewn in ditches off the roadway. It was a place where people tossed their unwanted things out of car windows and from the beds of pickup trucks. The soil at my feet glittered with flecks of coal. I picked up a chunk of anthracite and squeezed it. Tiny pieces rubbed off onto my palm.

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Centralia was never big by population standards. Its heyday was the late 19th century when Census records indicate the population was just under 2,800. The day M and I visited, we saw six other people in Centralia and none of them were residents. We all walked the decommissioned stretch of Route 61 known as Graffiti Highway.

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I peered into the woods lining the highway and saw more bags of trash scattered along the hillside. Empty spray paint canisters littered the median strip.

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M and I studied the graffiti. There were some peace signs, some flowers, some words of kindness decorating the asphalt.

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But a lot of what we saw was angry. A collection of profanity, penis symbols, and a handful of swastikas.  At the time I chalked it up to teenagers acting out in a place where there was no one around to tell them otherwise.

But looking back, I am not so sure.

The election of Donald Trump last week came with some very loud support from some very dark corners of the Internet. I’ve started wondering if the writing was there all along. I just couldn’t see it.

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