In Centralia, in the Poconos of Northeastern Pennsylvania, there’s no need to descend into the underworld, the realm of the dead, the realm of prophecy and hidden insight. Here, on what used to be a street lined with white aluminum-sided homes, edged lawns and wading pools, well-tuned and tended pickups—the underworld seeps up out of the ground, rising swirling and sulfurous from barely visible slits and fissures in the earth. The topsy-turvy displacement is almost complete. Charred roots tendril out from the ash and slag and gravel mounds that haven’t yet spilled into the hot depressions. The mammoth anthracite coal seam that runs for 20 miles in either direction at a 57% angle has been burning for over 30 years now with no sign of letting up.
We’ve had to walk up into the hills, to reach this underworld; we’ve had to ascend in order to descend. We are all replicating the hero’s journey, nervously excited kids included, though there is one man here already who seems more heroic than the rest of us. He’s ripped a branch from a barkless dead limb and he’s poking the ash, leading his family and other followers across a mound. Each time he pokes, prods, scratches the surface, sticks the ground, new fissures appear, until he’s surrounded by stanchions of smoke like a stage Mephistopheles or a rock star in concert or a shaman in his lodge.
“They’ll tell you it was spontaneous combustion that’s the official version,” he says, “but I know that’s not the truth.” Fresh new streams of sulfurous gases swirl in the wind and dissipate. Steadier streams shoot up all around us. “I grew up here,” he continues, “lived here till the late sixties—left to fight in Viet Nam. For years everyone would dump their trash down this mineshaft. It was like one big god-damned fuse—and there was this huge keg party going on and this guy had to go to work and didn’t want his girlfriend hanging round—so he started the fire. I know it’s true cause it was my brother-in-law from over in Mount Carmel. Though he won’t admit it now.”
Mike’s his name, last name an indefinable glomeration of Ukrainian, Polish, and Slovak consonants. He doesn’t live far away, he explains, but this is the first time he’s brought his family—wife and two teen-agers who’ve never seen him in this role before. Reading or Wilkes-Barre or Allentown–he’s got his own business installing security alarms or basement waterproofing. I don’t catch which, because I’m nervous that my own kids, in their search for pocket-size lumps of anthracite, will slip and slide down into a hidden shaft or that their sneaks will blaze up from the heat.
Mike points to the last remaining houses lower down the slope. Less than a dozen old folks who’ve known no other home than Centralia and refuse to know new ones. The mayor, official or not–no one seems to know whether the town’s been officially disestablished or not, with an I Love Centralia sign on his front lawn. He’s ninety-seven and the only male not in the throes of Black Lung. He ran a funeral home for decades, the mines provided him with a good livelihood, why should he leave? I scan the hills looking for the sun to send my way the golden glint from any remaining Byzantine church domes—there is only one parched blue onion across the valley. “The government’s hands are tied till they leave or die,” Mike says. He points to the Ukrainian Cemetery further up the hillside. “The fire left them all alone, mostly miners and their families, almost a miracle, you might say. Everything else for a mile around burned-out—those graves untouched.” Of course, I think, they’re already dead. Here in Centralia, where the underworld has risen to the surface, where all of us, guests, tourists, and guides alike, briefly celebrate its encroachment.