CIA-NEA13 Day 5: Ghost towns, tunnels, and homecomings

This is day 5 of 5.  Click here if you wish to read from the very beginning.

Who’d have thunk it that after 3 days of traveling, walking, and caching we’d sleep so soundly?  Weird.  But alas, I completely slept through my 6:00am alarm I had set and didn’t get up until almost 7:oo.  This being the last and least “eventful” day of the trip, there wasn’t nearly the sense of urgency that was present every other day, but that didn’t necessarily mean we didn’t need to get an early start.  Not only did we still have our trip to Centralia to do, but there was still a solid 600 miles between our current location and home, which meant a good 8-9 hours of travel, minimum.  And while I had planned our day to begin at 7, I still needed to take my shower and we all needed some breakfast.  We didn’t get loaded up and on the road until just after 8am.  Again, I didn’t make any mention of the delay to the rest, but inside I was screaming at myself for not turning the volume up on the phone.  A whole hour wasted.

After grabbing an LPC cache at the Sonic next door to our hotel (how did we miss this the night before), we headed out towards Centralia.  For those who haven’t been or have never heard about this place before, Centralia is a former town that has the distinction of sitting on top of one of the longest-burning coal seam fires in American history.  Believed to have been started as a result of a trash fire in the town dump that was not extinguished properly, the fire has burned non-stop since 1962, but it took almost 17 years before anyone knew about it.  For over 50 years, this small town has had the equivalent of the fires of hell burning just underneath it, and as you can imagine, this has devastated this once vibrant slice of mid-20th century small town Americana.  Dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, sink holes, and ground fracturing led to the state of Pennsylvania invoking eminent domain and condemning all buildings 30 years after the fire began.  Today there stands almost nothing of the town, save for a municipal building that houses the fire department, and a couple houses of those residents who refuse to leave.  If you’re interested more in this place, Google has a wealth of information.

Downtown Centralia before and after

Downtown Centralia before and after

Had we not known where we were headed, we would have driven right through this modern ghost town.  To say that there is nothing left is a bit misleading.  A wide expanse of nothing would be noticeable and out-of-place.  In Centralia, nature has taken to reclaiming that which just 20 years ago was a fully-functioning little town a little over 20 miles southwest of the nearest city, Hazelton.  Where once stood businesses and houses are now nothing but trees and weeds.  Roads leading into neighborhoods are now so overgrown with tree coverage that you can’t see them in satellite aerial photos.  If we weren’t paying attention, we would have raced right through the town and passed it by in less than 30 seconds.  Luckily the Garmin was alert and told us exactly where we needed to go.

Our first stop in the town was what has been affectionately named the Graffiti Highway.  Once a roughly 1-mile stretch of PA Route 61, the road was closed in 1994 due to excessive buckling caused by the intense heat underneath and a nearby road connecting Centralia to another now-abandoned town was upgraded as the new Route 61.  As the years have passed, people have come and sprayed graffiti all along the stretch of former highway, thus resulting in the nickname.  This is the most recognized feature of the area and there happened to be 2 caches along it so it made perfect sense for this to be the start of our visit.

It was almost 9am at this point and already the temperature was in the upper 70s and the sun was bright.  As we began our trek down the highway towards the first cache, beads of sweat had already formed on my brow.  This was going to be one scorcher of a hike.  I don’t know if the fire below was increasing the temps any, but I like to think it played a part in the discomfort.  But at least we had entertainment during our walk.  There are quite a few entertaining “tags” along the way.  Ranging from professions of love to cartoonish depictions of genitalia, the graffiti had something for everyone.  The week prior some friends of ours stopped by and left their mark on the highway so we were on the lookout for their name, which we found pretty quickly.  It was nice to see familiar names.

The gang heading down the highway

The gang heading down the highway

I know this tag!

I know this tag!

Nothing but cartoon genitalia and names as far as the eye can see

Nothing but cartoon genitalia and names as far as the eye can see

Ground zero for the first cache, Welcome to Graffiti Highway, was about .3 miles from where we began, which certainly felt longer with the heat.  Once we reached it and found the cache, that distance suddenly felt quadrupled…..we had forgotten a pen.  Seriously now, between all 4 of us we had a combined find total of over 8,000 caches, so there’s no excuse for this bush league behavior!!  Of course, being geocachers, we knew we’d have to improvise.  We tried using dirt on a twig, but because the ground was so dry, it just wouldn’t do anything.  I tried to spit in some dirt to make mud and write, but it was too messy.  Finally DynamicDs had the brilliant idea to take said twig and dip it in a little puddle of the spray paint she had brought to tag the highway with.  Sure enough, this worked wonders and the log was signed.  We then headed towards the next cache, Hot Time in Centralia, which was about another 1000 feet or so down the road.

While I bounded off into the woods to seek out the cache, the rest of the group decided to start tagging the road with their geo names.  Two cans of spray paint were brought along for this occasion, one lime green, and the other hot pink.  I feared I was going to have to use spray paint to sign the log again so I made sure they didn’t get too far from me in case it was needed, but thankfully this cache had a couple pens inside to use.  There also happened to be a really cool geocoin inside to commemorate the original “stash” that started it all.  I grabbed it to show to the group and headed back out into the oppressive sun and heat.

DynamicDs and TeamAdorkable were both in the midst of tagging their names when I showed them the coin.  All agreed it was cool and DynamicDs grabbed it to move along (I was on a self-imposed sabbatical from travelers as I had just dropped off 2 I had held in my possession for almost a year…much too long).  We then went back to tagging the road with our names.  Luckily there was just enough spray paint left in the decidedly-manlier green can for me to complete my tag.

Does this count as signing the log?

Does this count as signing the log?

After we were done we started walking back, exploring the destroyed road as much as we could while trying not to work up even more of a sweat as the temperature just kept rising……I’m saying it was hot out, people!

So colorful!!

So colorful!!

I don't know how anything can grow when the ground temperature is so high.

I don’t know how anything can grow when the ground temperature is so high.

As you can see, there's still ground underneath....for now

As you can see, there’s still ground underneath….for now

And you thought the potholes at home were bad

And you thought the potholes at home were bad

I can see why they closed the road

I can see why they closed the road

Tons of graffiti and destruction

Tons of graffiti and destruction

The air was so hot in this hole I wouldn't be surprised if it led straight to hell.

The air was so hot in this hole I wouldn’t be surprised if it led straight to hell.

The walk back to the van felt like it took 3 times as long our entire walk down the road, but I’m sure that was just the heat taking its toll on us.  Obviously we blasted the A/C as soon as we got in it.  There are several other caches in Centralia that we went for.  The first was Tourist Information, located at the “tourist center” for the ghost town.  It was a relatively quick find compared to the next cache, Smoke On The Horizon.  This cache was the very epitome of “off the beaten path”.  We had to drive up to a spot where the van could go no further, where mounds of dirt and coal were everywhere.  The cache itself was deep in thicket and overgrowth and I was much too big to get very far in it so I stayed out while my brother and DynamicDs went searching.  I acquainted myself with a dead squirrel sitting just outside the “geo trail” and noticed that it didn’t appear to have died from any outside trauma.  It’s almost like it just fell over dead, making me worry if carbon monoxide levels were more elevated in this area and if we were in any danger.  Luckily they found the cache soon after this revelation popped into my head so we were out of there before I could begin worrying about “the silent killer”.

This ended up being our last physical cache to grab here as we were running out of time.  We still had the Earthcache to log but there wasn’t any stringent photo requirement involved that kept us in town so we took in our last views and headed back on the road.

We didn’t make any more stops in Pennsylvania except to gas up and eat lunch at a travel plaza along the PA Turnpike.  It really is a nice state to travel through, with lots of trees and mountains to look at.  It’s a shame we didn’t get to enjoy it much, but there’s always next time, right?

We had only one cache left to get on this trip, NIGHTOWL’S ETERNAL FLIGHT CACHE, and it was lovely.  A tribute cache to the memory of the COs mother, who apparently was a much-loved geocacher in the community there.  The coords took you to the headstone, where you’d find the code for a geocoin in their honor.  To get credit for the find, you’d have to log the coin as discoverable.  I don’t know if this is due to a no-cache policy in the cemetery, but it is a genius way to get people to come out and pay their respects and log a cache while being respectful of the hallowed grounds.  It still remains as my only find in West Virginia, but it ranks up there as one of my favorites.

While we were in the cemetery it began to rain.  This made for only the 2nd time during our entire trip that it rained, and the first time we were caught outside in it.  We quickly made our way back to the van and got back on I-70 for the final stretch.

I took over driving for the last 300 miles of the trip and used this time to reflect on what we had done over the course of the long weekend.  We saw so many amazing sights and crammed so many states in such a short amount of time.  I couldn’t believe I had pulled it off.  The planning phase had been so exhausting, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it was worth it.  Had I gone into the planning half-hearted and not taking it seriously, this trip would have been a lot less fun or memorable.  Was there anything I could have done differently?  Absolutely.  And perhaps I’ll write up a post-mortem to discuss that.   But what I will say is, as we pulled into my brother’s driveway and officially signaled the end of our epic adventure, I was proud of what we accomplished and loved absolutely every minute of it….yes, even sleeping in the van.

Leg 5

Trip Statistics – Tuesday 6/18

Miles traveled

614 miles

Total miles traveled

2382 miles

Caches found on leg


Total caches found on trip


Categories: A tale from the GZ | 1 Comment

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One thought on “CIA-NEA13 Day 5: Ghost towns, tunnels, and homecomings

  1. Wow! I’ve never heard of a graffiti highway, we don’t have them over in the UK. Love the idea of it though, you’ve got some great pictures here too! Thanks for sharing, Bex

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