Tagging Centralia’s boulevard of broken dreams

CENTRALIA, Pa. — The first thing friend Ginger and I did when we finally arrived was turn our noses up at half the graffiti.

“If people are going to go to all the trouble of getting here,” I said with my nostrils pointed skyward, “they could at least entertain us with a something more creative than their tag.”

“Or at the very least learn to spell,” she agreed.

It had taken us several tries to locate the graffiti highway in the first place, so our expectations were high. A white plastic bag knocked against Ginger’s knee, making a musical, metallic knocking. Inside it were three cans of spray paint hastily purchased at a local dollar store.

We were at the head of Route 61, here in the tall hills of mining country where a coal vein beneath the nearly-ghost town of Centralia has been burning for more than 50 years. The fire keeps the land hot and burps up noxious gases and cannot be put out. Most residents were forced from their homes decades ago, and this small stretch of road, on which trespassers can sometimes see trails of steam from the fire below, was barricaded and abandoned. In theory, it’s not safe here. In practice, it’s canvas for taggers and spray-paint philosophers.

All forms of graffiti were represented, from the tags we scoffed at to juvenile obscenities to pieces of art upon which nature was encroaching.

Nature is the forgotten partner along this stretch of blacktop. The road is lined with scrub and mature trees and even in the brutal early spring some hardy weeds pushed through the rocks in the asphalt. And always the fire—one of 38 active mine fires in Pennsylvania—burns under this land. Some say it is heading like a night stalker toward the town of Ashland, though perhaps it will change course and threaten a town with a more fetching name, like nearby Locust Gap, Shenandoah or Laurel Run.

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The heat has buckled and broken one entire section of road, exposing layers of asphalt like a blackened croissant. We walked past that deepest wound to a bend from which we could almost see the end of the road.

Nineteen-year-old Trevor took a can of red spray paint and shook it uncertainly.

“Have you ever used one of these?” I asked incredulously. He had not, which I’ll take as a parental badge of honour.

After a few false starts, he got in touch with his inner graffiti sage: “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” and “Fear is the mind killer.”

The rest of us, including 3-year-old Jilly and Aaron? We tagged the ground with our names and called it a day.

As we wandered back to the van, Ginger shook the empty red paint can and said regretfully, “Ah, man. We could have used this to correct everyone else’s grammar.”

Centralia graffiti highway14

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