Matt Levy’s Lost in History: New Yorkers Go to Hell and Back

by |
07/02/2008 2:30 PM |

By Matt Levy

Flux Factory did it again. For the second installation of Going Places (Doing Stuff), Flux brought a busload of New Yorkers deep into the heart of Pennsyltucky. Can you imagine 35 funny-looking preposterously dressed, multilingual New Yorkers stuffed onto a yellow cheese bus and dragged into the depths of coal country? Would you believe that they had a hell of a time (literally) exploring an abandoned Pennsylvania town bursting with underground coal fires? You bet your sweet ass they had a blast. We would know — we hosted the first Going Places (Doing Stuff) Adventure to Staten Island event a few weekends ago, and we sure weren’t going to miss this one.

Sponsored by Flux Factory and led by artist (and PA native) Douglas Paulson, the whole idea behind Going Places (Doing Stuff) is as follows: throw a whole bunch of strangers onto a yellow cheese bus. Give them a vague idea of where they’ll be headed, how long it’ll take, and what provisions (bathing suit, nominal cash, water, whiskey) they’ll need. Take off. See what happens. In the last (which was also the first and only) Going Places (Doing Stuff), we spent the day on Staten Island, visiting a bunch of religious, spiritual and historical hotspots throughout the whole length of the island — and it’s a big goddamn island! This time Doug Paulson took the group to his home state, and then through and beyond Pennsylvania to the difficult-to-describe but easy-to-find Pennsyltucky (a pejorative yet affectionate term to describe the rural parts of the state of Pennsylvania, excluding the Pittsburgh & Philly areas.)

Departure was scheduled for 9am at the southeast corner of Bryant Park this past Sunday, and took off in classic NY fashion — half an hour late. The cheese bus was stuffed with peoples of all stripes — Germans, French, old(er), young(er), Mainers and Californians, native NYers and two-week greenhorns. After making the rounds and introducing ourselves, we learned about our adventure. First, a PA swimming hole. Then Centralia — host to underground coal fires burning for thousands of years and massive sinkholes in the streets. Afterwards, if we were lucky, the biggest hamburger any of us had ever seen. The stakes were pretty high. And only three hours til our first hop-off.

It didn’t disappoint. Waiting for us in the wilds of Pennsylvania was a swimming hole with a 30-foot jumping rock. Visualize the hysteria when a whole busload of New York art freaks offload a bus stacked to the brim with delicious picnicking foods (queso blanco, apples, cucumbers and stuffed grape leaves) and drinks (water, OJ, vodka, the aforementioned whiskey) and descend on a rocky beach with soft water and a bitchin’ jumping rock. You bet it was spectacular. Picnics and rock-jumping ensued.

Another hour or so onwards and we got to Centralia, in the central part of western PA. Centralia, founded in 1866, was a major coal mining town until the 1960s, when it was discovered that most of the land directly underneath the township was aflame, thanks to rich deposits of coal. Various efforts to extinguish the eternally burning pits were met with failure, and as sinkholes opened up underneath residents’ houses and feet,, the federal government essentially left the place to burn itself out. In the 1980s the Feds relocated the over 1,000 residents to adjacent counties and bulldozed the land. As of the last census, Centralia has seven residents left, and practically nothing to show visitor — except for wreckage strewn-fields and improbably bizarre vents of coal steam issuing up from holes in the ground. It was impossible to look upon the trash and rubble-strewn lots and imagine houses standing upon them. Even more outrageous was clambering down into the lots and sticking one’s face into a sticky hot vent of coal-fired steam hissing its way out of giant slabs of anthracite. Another unbelievable sight: an abandoned highway, carved off from the surrounding roads because of giant fissures that opened up in the middle of the double yellow lines. Unreal. We finally found something stranger-looking than us.

After two hours of exploring Centralia and taking more pictures of abandoned landscapes than normal people would put up with, we were tired and hungry. And we had to get out of Dodge and back to the city proper. But it was nearing dinnertime, and we certainly couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop at the Clinton Station Diner in Clinton, New Jersey and consume the Mt. Olympus — a 50-pound hamburger. That’s 25 pounds of beef, 25 pounds of cheese, tomato, lettuce, ketchup and bun: 50 full pounds of guilt and glory. With a dozen people chowing down, we couldn’t even finish half the thing. Rolling back onto the bus, there were 35 nutty NYers who had reached their fill of the world outside our city. If the real world consists of smoldering underground coal fires and 50-pound burgers, then I’ll take Manhattan.