Last year, Stefan and I explored a ghost town, Centralia, PA. Centralia was a bit disappointing because all of the buildings had been demolished and it wasn’t really as isolated as we thought. But this year's trip was a different story.
I never get tired of walking down a stretch of abandoned road. It evokes a sort of primal emotion in that I think about the end of things, that all of our mighty human civilization could one day be just as abandoned as this one stretch and it shows you how fragile our civilization is that without maintenance our roads would begin to becomes patches of weeds and overgrown trees.
This year, Stefan and I visited an abandoned stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and braved the complete darkness of the 1.3 mile long abandoned Sideling Hill tunnel.
I just read the short story “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov this week. In that story a civilization developed on a planet that orbits 6 suns. On this planet at least one of the suns is always shining. Therefore these people have almost no concept of darkness. They have a level of technology comparable to ours and yet they never even invented the light bulb and only recently developed the candle. Their scientists have theorized that there is soon to be a total eclipse and their world will be filled with darkness for 15 minutes. One of their religions tells a story that when darkness fills the skies you can see stars in the sky, but no one knows if the story is true. On the planet, there was a once a ride at an amusement park. In the ride people where taken into a long tunnel for several minutes and put into complete darkness. This ride had to be shut down as 1 in 10 people were driven irrevocably mad by exposure to the darkness. When astronomers studied the upcoming eclipse they theorized that the eclipse occurs every 2000 years. And it seems that their civilization has risen and fallen 6 or 7 times and each time it mysteriously collapses after 2000 years. Will the eclipse cause 10% percent of the population to be driven insane? Will their civilization collapse?
Well, you’ll have to read the story to answer those questions, but I will tell you whether 1.3 miles of darkness drove me insane. No, it didn’t, but I had my penlight and my good friend to get me through it. The two of us sang songs into the darkness and played chicken, each one refusing turn on their flashlights on or admit that we couldn’t see in the complete darkness.
And when we’d gotten through the tunnel there was nothing to do but go back, but we didn’t go back the way we came, we explored the building and found our way to the air vents on the top of the tunnel. When the tunnel was used there were two sets of huge turbines on either side of the tunnel that pushed the hot air that collected in the vents out of the tunnel.
This shot shows you how big those turbines are.
The darkness of the main tunnel was bad enough, walking through more than a mile of this completely dark “attic” was an almost unbearable idea at first. After every few feet there were holes cut into the concrete for the air to flow upwards, so these had to be avoided. And, I’m afraid of heights so from the second I first stepped onto the “attic” and saw one of the holes, I started shaking a little bit. Not to mention the fact that neither of us was 100% sure they were safe. I mean we’d just walked the tunnel and hadn’t seen any signs of structure problems, but the tunnel was completely dark, we hadn’t exactly seen every inch of it. And as we walked we started to realize that the shaft was getting smaller. Suddenly we both had to stoop while walking. Being a short guy I’m not used to having to stoop and so I kept hitting my head on the ceiling. Every step of the way we’d wonder if the next step was safe, but we shined our lights and looked for signs that someone had been up there and there were occasionally empty beer cans or cigarette butts, which proved to us we were the only people crazy enough to make this journey. When we got halfway through the tunnel we saw a brick wall up ahead. This was obviously to separate the area controlled by one set of turbines from the other. For a couple minutes as we walked towards the brick wall we didn’t know if we’d be forced to turn around and walk all the way back the way we’d come. Fortunately there was a small metal door in the center of the brick wall, which had been left open.
By the halfway point, I was no longer scared, I knew with every step we were closer to the end and we had figured out the pattern of the holes in the floor. We started singing again and making jokes. The vent was a tremendous echo chamber so no matter what you sang or said it reverberated all around the tunnel. I had to wonder whether anyone was walking through the main tunnel while we were going through the air vent and I wonder what they made of suddenly hearing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” vocals and background vocals, coming from an unknown location in the tunnel. Did they guess where we were? Did they think we were nuts?
Eventually we made it through the tunnel. We had faced the heart of darkness or the darkest depth of the darkest darkness and survived unscathed.