It's 800 miles to Chicago, we've got a full tank of gas in the Prius, half a tub of Ricemellow Creme, it's light, and I'm wearing sunglasses. Hit it.
On Wednesday, September 6, Derik and I set out from Clifton, NJ with the ultimate destination of the Touch and Go 25th Anniversary Block Party
in Chicago. But being a road trip, it was way more epic than that; this was about gawking at Real America, stuffing our faces, and nonstop comedy. And death was around every corner, but so was life. (Photos by Derik, unless he's in them such as below, making a devilish star sign, and more are here
Pennsylvania, homeland of my old man, is a land of Brutality. Mountainous Pennsyltuckey seems to be made up mostly of dismal broken coal-mining and industrial towns, with long stretches of farmland making up the rest of it. My dad used to regale my brother and I with tales of deadly coal-mining follies and the mob-like Molly McGuires
, like the time Great Uncle Felix had gotten their Irish up and a few thugs swung him between a train's cars as it went by, for a little warning. On after-dinner walks when we were little, we'd make the old man tell us stories about he and his brothers exploring abandoned houses as kids where they'd encounter Frankenstein or some such monstrosity. And now I just generally get the fear when visiting the state, since PA's inhabitants are not known as the most progressive types.
This brings us to our first and (for me) most anticipated stop, Centralia, PA.
Centralia was your regular mining town located over a fat vein of anthracite when an underground fire started in 1962. Because of the vast amount of fuel, it was impossible to stop the fire without investing billions of dollars, so the fire still burns today as one of the world's top five underground infernos. But although their basement walls and floors were getting hot to the touch and fumes and smoke were rising from the ground, folks were still living in Centralia until the early '80s, when some kid playing in his grandmother's backyard almost ate it after the ground caved in and he was left dangling from some tree roots above the fire. Sounds to me like that kid was a major sinner, but for the townspeople it meant it was finally time to get the hell out of Hell, aka Centralia. The buildings were bulldozed except for the homes of a few people who refused to move. (If the underground fire/ghost town scenario sounds a bit like Silent Hill, it's because the screenwriter based it on Centralia, so we watched the movie the night before we left to get all scared.)
The coolest sight is the closed-off section of Highway 61, which buckled and cracked so severely they had to reroute the highway.
As you can see, it is impossibly metal.
So what's in Centralia proper now is roads and driveways to nowhere getting slowly reclaimed by nature, two cemetaries, and one area with all the bulldozed rubble where the most smoke escapes from underground. You can't even put your hand a few inches into these vents before it's too hot to take.
So that was robo-goth. And remember: you can't spell Centrailia without "entrail." Unless you spell it the right way, which is "Centralia."
Then we stayed with the most rad woman in Cleveland, Jackie, who owns a correspondingly ridunkulous 1940s home decorated midcentury modern plus her own paintings.
She's a teacher, she has a darling dog, she dehydrates apples that she picked herself and makes delicious vegan pies from them, she made us a multi-course meal, and she used to scream for a band that everyone is still in awe of ten years later. In other words, compared to Jackie, I am a piece of crap. I am now a huge Jackie fan.
On Thursday, we went to a double feature at the Memphis drive-in
, which is still exactly as it was when our hostess went there as a kid, and exactly as I remember the drive-in, except I wasn't in my jammies and I tragically no longer have my inspirational lady superheroes sleeping bag featuring Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Batgirl.
On Friday the three of us headed to Chicago, and in Wicker Park, met our supercool host Steve, the world's only hardcore vegan straightedge pilot, his other guests, two lovely Canadian sisters, and many other new pals. For the next three days, we crammed as much delicious vegan food as we could fit into our maws.
Not quite pictured: complete and utter post-food-orgy bliss.
For me, who was mostly into terrible music when many of Touch & Go's bands were in their prime, the show itself was secondary, and was more of a social space. I hung out with my other buds from Philly
, and ran into a guy from my nabe, pals from Jerse on tour with their band
, and another Jersey guy I hadn't seen since high school. Finally on Sunday our gang lingered too long taking like 172 pictures so the broetry wouldn't have to end, which resulted in an all-night drive back to Cleveland.
This leg included an unintentional midnight detour to southwest Michigan and the simultaneous discovery that we had half a teacupful of gas left. We stopped at a closed Pizza Hut for directions, and my two companions disappeared behind the building trying to find someone inside. Well, those two are gone,
I thought, but at least they'd left the keys in the ignition. We did get to gas, though, and in the flourescent gas-station limbo, a lesser-known B-52's song drifted in all faraway, and it occurred that the time had been so perfect that maybe we'd really been dead since Centralia. As Fred Schneider, I declared, "You're about to MEET YOUR MAKER!" It's fun to sing anything Fred Schneider-style.
Driving through Ohio in the middle of the night, both other passengers conked out, I had to see what scariness was on the radio...AM radio
. At night, even in the most populous places, AM sounds piped in from another time and instills instant loneliness. But when you're driving down an empty highway in the middle of America, and you come across a ghostly religious vocal cross between Julee Cruise and Enya and you can't even tell if it's in English or not, and none of the far-off farmhouses show any sign of life, that is some creepy shit right there. So the driving was awesome.
I imagined having a temporary life on the road while earning good money as a truck driver. I tried to remember the negative parts I'd learned when I did a story called "Mother Truckers" for BUST, but all that came up instead was a romantic vision of myself being an excellent trucker respected by all, never having to be in a tiny cubicle in a flourescent office, staying only in the most wood-paneled vintage Americana motels, somehow having time for sightseeing and thrift shopping, and socializing in authentic bars where everyone drank their crap beers earnestly and no one was ironic (except me sometimes because I couldn't help it).
Monday was our last day, but we still had a visit in Pittsburgh to look forward to, with my good friend known on this blog as Meanieteacher. We decided to spend the night there instead of rushing back. Meanieteacher was my roommate in Dublin, where we got into all kinds of super fun trouble together, and now she's a responsible married homeowner with a wee bun in the oven. Hearing her say "The baby's moving" as we all watched TV was somehow the most surreal phrase of our supposedly grown-up-but-not-really trip, but really touching as well.
Crossing PA again on Tuesday, the potential for adventure seemed limitless, if only we could acquire more comedy albums for the soundtrack, and didn't have to return to stupid-jerk real life. As the light drained out of the day, Derik showed me some sights around and in historic Patterson, NJ, including the abandoned Hinchcliff Stadium
And then, inevitably, real life resumed, until the next trip.