Ray’s Hill Tunnel and its abandoned Pennsylvania turnpike

BREEZEWOOD, Pa. — I had driven through the night, fueled by coffee and restored by an hour-long nap at a “unique area” in New York.

I had detoured us to a long, beautiful concrete rail bridge — “but not if it’s, like, 20 minutes out of the way,” I promised before leading us astray us for more than half an hour. My god it was lovely, though.

Built by the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad, the Tunkhannock Viaduct was in 1915 the longest concrete structure in the world. It has 11 piers and pale, smooth arches.
Built by the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad, the Tunkhannock Viaduct was in 1915 the longest concrete structure in the world. It has 11 piers and pale, smooth arches.

And so it wasn’t dawn when we finally parked at the mouth of the abandoned turnpike, as I had hoped. It was after four in the afternoon.

Also, it had just started to rain.

There are so many tunnels in Pennsylvania. They pierce coal-filled mountains and have romantic names like Friendship and Hickory, Allegheny and Big Savage, Shoofly, and this — Ray’s Hill. The rail tunnel was completed in 1885, and converted to highway by 1940. But it’s narrow and long and dark, and with two-way traffic, cars had to slow so much some of the first of America’s bottlenecks happened here.

We started along the pockmarked, overgrown roadway with the hoods of our raincoats pulled up and our hands in our pockets. It was unseasonably chilly and the landscape was shades of brown and gray with green pressing its nose against the door trying to be noticed.

This is no graffiti highway like in Centralia, though a few bored souls have made an attempt along the road. It was vacant but for a couple of give-no-shits brown rabbits.

The rumble strips were full of clear rainwater and the paint that edged the highway was slick with damp. We pressed on through the tunnel was a vague promise — we trusted it was there, but the road kept curving and we weren’t sure how far we’d gone, nor how far we had to go.

Pennsylvania traffic jams became such an issue the state commissioned $100 million to study and fix the problem. Other tunnels in the area were twinned, including the several we would drive through on our journey to Pittsburgh: Blue Mountain, Kittatinny, Tuscarora. But Ray’s Tunnel and its mate Sideling several miles down the road didn’t make the cut.

A new turnpike went around them and they were abandoned at the end of the 1960s, then used for a time to train snowplow drivers and test road paint and safety reflectors.

We walked about three kilometres in the rain before we were finally rewarded with the hazy outline of Ray’s Hill Tunnel.

It is deep and dark and echoes more truly than the mountains at Roger’s Pass. The doors to the control rooms are nailed shut, but have been pried apart. One can look inside, or climb the side of the tunnel to gain entry from above; while we were there, tiptoeing through the darkness using our phones as flashlights, there were a couple of souls above us, shining their lights down to try to frighten us.

The rain stopped and the far end of the tunnel was a tempting bright spot the size of a fingernail. It’s an optical illusion, my research had suggested. It’s a long, dark walk to the other side. We went about halfway, sometimes whispering, sometimes yelling, before turning back, sidestepping open manholes with rusty ladders leading the gods only know where.

Nothing left but echoes.

A walk in the park: Fort Chambly

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

I don’t know, maybe Parks Canada employees train alongside the Disney people or something. Because these folks are happy.

In our travels, we come into contact with service providers ranging from gas station attendants to hotel clerks to small businesspeople making a go of it to regular Janes working for big corporations. Most make a true effort to be kind even when their heart isn’t in it.

But people who work in parks, we have found, are consistently friendly and helpful.

And of those people who work within the parks systems here and in the U.S., the kindest, the ones with the biggest smiles, and those who clearly love their jobs more than most people on earth, work for Parks Canada.

And they should be proud. From the Parks Canada website, here’s their job description:

We are guardians of the national parks, the national historic sites and the national marine conservation areas of Canada.
We are guides to visitors from around the world, opening doors to places of discovery and learning, reflection and recreation.
We are partners building on the rich traditions of our Aboriginal people, the strength of our diverse cultures and our commitments to the international community.
We are storytellers recounting the history of our land and our people – the stories of Canada.

I recently wrote an article about Fort Chambly in Quebec, to which I will be awarding stroller wheels in a moment. A note from the heritage presenter I interviewed was sure to include not only himself, but “all my fellow guides.” That sense of community is a powerful thing — how great it must feel to look forward to getting to work every day.

Tap here to read the story: Fort Chambly: Bring your family to war in the 17th century, via the Montreal Gazette.

We are awarding four strollers wheels (out of an arbitrary five) to Fort Chambly. It might look like little more than four stone walls, but we swear it’s bigger on the inside.

Children can wear French soldier uniforms throughout their tour, play a scavenger hunting game and are engaged in a hundred other ways, alone or alongside guides.

Beyond the fortification, the grounds are immaculate, and seem to be a meeting ground for the entire community. There are picnic tables, trails, bike paths, and a nearby cemetery that is crumbling and rich in history. The Chambly Rapids roll past, filled with fish and birds and providing water to small creatures that will poke their heads out if you’re very very still.

There were two men practicing sword fighting when we were there, and a squirrel trying to hone in on a picnic, and there was a wedding, and a quiet boy fishing where he wasn’t supposed to be.

The park is completely free throughout 2017 with the Parks Canada Discovery Pass that celebrates Canada’s 150th birthday. Want to work or volunteer for Parks Canada? Go here and hunt around.

A one-day love affair with a red Camaro

The rented 2017 red convertible Camaro had 400 miles on it. I’d add another couple hundred over the next eight hours or so, up in the hills of North Carolina.

From behind the wheel the hood had a sexy hip-like curve, and the barest suggestion of speed was met with a throaty growl of impatience. Let’s go, let’s go.

We flew east into the hills, toward Township 9, and had one perfect moment on a wide boulevard when a classic Chevy came up beside us and we were beautiful there together, and smiled and gave each other the thumbs up before separating.

The roads narrowed and the traffic fell away till it was just us hugging curves and holding our breath as we crested hills. “There’s a ghost town near here,” Melani said, setting the map on her cellphone without having to ask whether it was a good idea.

The signal was sketchy in the hills, but we followed as best we could and were ready to turn right onto a narrow ribbon road, but for the bright orange sign: Road closed.

There were some cars down there, locals, we assumed, yet we followed the detour and let the mapping system catch up and reroute. We were as high up as we were going to get, roughly following Little Meadow Creek past the gold mine, then up toward Ophir and Troy in the Uwharrie National Forest. Jilly was asleep in the back and we hadn’t yet realized she was burning slightly in the sun, in stripes because her hair had blown over her face.

We were lost but had hours yet.

The Camaro’s belly was low to the ground but didn’t feel it. She wasn’t bothered by pockmarked roads or dimpled grass, sliding onto them and creeping over with equal ease.

We had circled far around this alleged ghost town and had stopped twice to explore abandoned buildings. Then the asphalt fell away and we were faced with a slim dirt and gravel road. We looked at each other with lumps in our throats. This would be a breeze for old Jo the Truck. But this beautiful monster with her smooth cherry shell and slinking form … yet we’d come too far.

Detour 4 miles.

There is no turning back. And so we turned in. It was only four miles, after all.

The Camaro fought me, pushing to go faster, steady with those low wide tires that could handle this. Let’s go. Let’s go.

There were folks fishing at the edge of the one-lane bridge. The land opened up enough that we’d have plenty of space to turn around — we were only one mile in. Their heads turned, shaking slowly because the Camaro was so beautiful but so very very out of place. We eased onto the narrow bridge with its low barriers.

We met jeeps and trucks on the other side, as we crunched along the narrow road, cringing each time a rock slapped against metal. They pulled into the woods to let us pass, bemused looks on their drivers’ faces.

The Camaro and I had found our rhythm but I was still watching the odometer as the cellular signal wavered.

Two miles to go. One mile to go.

“Almost there,” Melani promised. “You’ll be turning right up there.”

And sure enough, there was the road — we’d done a giant looping detour to arrive here, at the mouth of our destination. And there was the sign, the twin of the one we’d come all this way to avoid: Road closed.

The Camaro was rumbling behind my thighs. Melani and I shared another look. There’s no turning back.

We snuck around the detour and onto the forbidden road. Bits of debris suggested parts of the road had been washed out, but it was otherwise passable. And quiet. Not ghostly quiet — just country-road quiet.

The Camaro was pulling now, desperate to get back up to speed. I let her take the lead. There was no ghost town here, and we had a plane to catch.


Circuses, sideshows and marvels at Ringling and in Gibtown

It was a bit of a hard sell, convincing me to fly to Florida for just a week. I hemmed and hawed, but my ears perked up a bit when Melani told me some of the circus history of the Sarasota area. There could be some good stories there, behind the tents. And then she mentioned, in passing, “that’s where the carny graveyard is.”

“You didn’t lead with that?” I said. As though she’d just met me. With some encouragement from a colleague I made a story pitch and started making phone calls.

In the end, the story wasn’t about the carny graveyard, though we did visit it, and one of the most important lessons I learned is that I don’t have the right to use the shortened form of “carnival worker.” I’m not one of them. I’m not their friend.

Everything is bright and shiny at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, including the statues and staff.
Everything is bright and shiny at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, including the statues and staff.

Deborah Walk, assistant director of Legacy & Circus at the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, spent nearly an hour with me in the circus archives in Sarasota. She’s passionate about her work, and about circuses, and her voice lilted in laughter, then near-whispers, in the manner of true storytellers. But she couldn’t tell me about sideshows. “Oh, you should call Doc Rivera and visit the museum in Gibtown,” she advised.

Rivera, a former travelling showman and curator of a carnival museum just north of Sarasota, was harder to pin down. But finally he answered an email. It was clear he’d been burned by people like me before and he wasn’t impressed by my clear punctuation and overly polite tone. He explained why in Question 6, where I had asked whether I could use the word carny:

“You’ll find doors closed in your face if you throw that term around in this town and you’ll just be considered another ‘mark.’ People have been bashed, trashed and painted in a very unkind way by so called ‘journalists’ promising a sensitive. insightful and thoughtful piece only to find out it was finally done as another badly written, sensationalist piece of crap. Folks around here have become very leery of the media for good reason.”

Old trailers from the American Circus — the one in the foreground is modestly labeled "Girl Show."
Old trailers from the American Circus — the one in the foreground is modestly labeled “Girl Show.”

Fair enough. I’m not good at sensational, and I hope to have told the story of wintering circuses in the voices of the experts, Rivera and Walk. Unfortunately there appear to be technical issues with the online story, so the PDF version is here (page 1) and here (page 2).

The mausoleum at Showmen's Rest, where hundreds of performers are buried.
The mausoleum at Showmen’s Rest, where hundreds of performers are buried.

Mabel Ringling and Ca’ d’Zan, the house that love built

“I’m a little bit obsessed with Mabel,” confessed Alice Murphy, without a shadow of shame.

In her capacity as PR manager at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, she was guiding me across the sprawling Ringling grounds to the mansion on the bay and giving me an impromptu tour as we went.

If one must be obsessed with a character like Mabel, these grounds — bequeathed to Sarasota by the Ringlings — are the only place to be. They are as close to one can get to the quiet, media-shy wife of a circus baron who oversaw the construction and decoration of Ca’ d’Zan.

Every reference book on Ca’ d’Zan — House of John — remarks that it truly is the House of Mabel, as she was present throughout the building, oversaw the mixing of colours and ensured that not one tile or nymph was out of place. But of course she named it Ca’ d’Zan because written between the lines of each of those references is how very much she loved her husband, who showed her the world and gave her the means and freedom to build a palace.

We do not know how Mabel and John met, though she might have been a dancer or other sort of performer in the circus he ran with his four brothers. We do know that they married when she was 30 and he was nine years older, and that they spent most of their time travelling with the circus or on their own, and that she had a special place in her heart for Venice.

They spent only three months of each year in Sarasota, but were pillars of the community. The real-estate baron side of John dreamed of turning the city into a resort paradise, and Ca’ d’Zan overlooked his lands across the bay.

While the grounds are demure and park-like, the Dwight James Baum-designed mansion is exactly what one expects of a circus family. It rises several stories in tones of copper and gold, with tiles as rich as sky and water. Inside are chandeliers and murals, and technologies at the cutting edge of the mid-1920s. It is rich and on the edge of gaudy.

Shy Mabel threw grand parties in and around the 57-room home and on their boat moored just outside the breakfast-room doors. She filled the palace with treasures from auctions, and with quirky design elements, like the sketched punctuation on her bedroom ceiling and the delicately painted flowers in her bathroom cabinet.

“There is Mabel’s rose garden,” Alice says, nodding to our left. It is grand, befitting the first president of Sarasota’s garden club.

Tucked away on the other side of the path and closer to the house, Alice points again. “Mabel’s secret garden. She and John are buried there.”

It is just past a tree that has grown around a statue, trapping it like an unlucky sprite. We honour an unplanned moment of silence. “Just them? Did they have any children?”

“No,” Alice smiles. “Just them.”

Mabel died in 1929 of complications from Addison’s disease and diabetes. John engaged in a short-lived marriage sometime after, but his heart wasn’t in it. It is said he never recovered from losing the beautiful Mabel; he died in 1936 at age 70.

A Walk in the Park: Silver Springs State Park

One day, there were two people who wanted to ride on the boat. Their names were Melani and Jillian. When they were rowing everywhere, they saw two baby alligators. One of the mothers of the babies came out with its whole body and it attacked the little girl’s brother. Her friends were up by the bridge, and they saw everything.
— Jillian, age 5

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

We were in that part of Florida because I was researching the post-sideshow lives of carnival workers. So it was kind of fitting that we stumbled on this old Hollywood starlet, Silver Springs State Park, who has starred in the Creature From the Black Lagoon, and James Bond, and Sea Hunt.

These artesian springs provide fresh water to more than half of Florida. But also, because they are exceptionally clear — you cannot tell whether you are looking six feet down or 65, they are the perfect backdrop for filmmakers who need an underwater stage.

We took the glass-bottom boat tour — designed starting in the 1870s to show off this wonder — and then rented kayaks. 

The wildlife warning “if you see the baby, the momma is nearby” had been impressed upon us by the good folks over at Wildlife Inc. the day before, so we responsibly kept our distance when we twice paddled past young napping gators.

“There’s a big one down there!” hollered someone from the bridge as Melani and 5-year-old Jilly headed toward home base to return their tandem kayak. Twenty-one-year-old Trevor was close behind them, having sped away from me when I told him he looked very redneck-y with his ball cap and a snoozing gator over his left shoulder.

Melani eased the kayak to a safe space to take a look at the sunning eight-footer, and Jilly dropped her paddle into the water to help out. The sound and the sudden jerking motion of the boat made the gator open her eyes and lift her head, which made Jilly scream, which made the gator say, “Nope nope nope damn humans” and slither away through the water, cutting off Trevor’s kayak and slapping the tip of it with her tail.

The little audience at the top of the bridge hollered their approval.

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We’re awarding Silver Springs State Park the ever-elusive yet completely arbitrary five out of five stroller wheels, and not just for alligator sightings. We can’t name all the birds we saw, and there were dozens of turtles and hundreds of fish. The park is rich with history going back thousands of years to when indigenous peoples used this water and harvested the land. The paths are wide and clear — though we only got to walk a bit of them because of time constraints.

The food at the canteen is very well priced, and there are many tables throughout the park to picnic instead. Entrance to the park is only $2. The glass-bottom boat and kayak cost extra (you can launch your own kayak for $4), but the price is reasonable and the experience well worth it. We were on the water for a total of three hours and retreated to our Airbnb exhausted and happy.