Centralia, Pennsylvania—As I've mentioned earlier, one of my interests in this trip is reexamining the map—looking at alternative versions of what the atlas of the United States might look like in the past and present. Perhaps nowhere in America is that vision more clearly defined than in Centralia, where, since 1962, an underground coal fire has smudged, if not entirely erased, an entire village from the map.Road to Nowhere: (Photo: Tim Murphy)
If Centralia looked a bit more bombed out, it might be less jarring. Thick plumes of smoke and dilapidated shotgun houses are in many ways easier to deal with than a disaster you can't really see. But the town's impact lies in its modest hold on all the senses: Smoke wafting out of small vents on the side of a hill; roads that branch off the state highway but lead to nowhere; carbon monoxide; potholes, cooked by the fires below, which feel like Easy-Bake Ovens. And the sulphur. I went to Iceland, once, when I was barely a teenager, and remember the smell of rotten eggs when I took showers or passed by any sort of geothermal activity, but all the rotten eggs in Altoona couldn't accomplish the same level of unease as my 15 minutes in Centralia. It looks, feels, and smells like the day after the death of civilization. Save for Centralia's last nine residents—who have been ordered to leave by the governor—the only places still showing signs of life are, well, dead: Amid the ruin, the town's cemeteries are immaculately maintained, with fresh-cut flowers and American flags for the veterans.
I was struggling to properly articulate my thoughts on the town, when a middle-aged woman, visiting from southeast Arkansas, offered an epitath: "I think this is a foretaste of hell."
Elmira, New York— We don't stop for long in Elmira—just long enough to confirm our worst fear: As expected, Mark Twain is still dead. There's an inverse correlation between the health of a city and the number of signs leading to a single, not especially compelling historic marker; in Elmira, where boarded up storefronts seem to be the default in the city's crumbling downtown (the city's population has dropped by 40 percent since 1950), all signs point to Twain's resting place.
Meanwhile, according to a poster at the front entrance, a black bear has been terrorizing joggers in the cemetery in recent weeks. I suppose that's probably what Twain would have wanted.
Newfield Hamlet, New York— Our guide in Ithaca is a retired midwife named Lindy, who in her free time makes her own oven mitts and is working on a children's picture book. Lindy takes us through one of the area's gorges, distinguished by its sheer cliffs of jagged grey shale, which, when wet, take on the complexion and shape of stacks upon stacks of stale baklava. The conversation turns to fracking.
Fracking, for the uninitiated, is the hot new craze (although it's been around for a while) in environmentally scarring resource extraction in which sheets of shale are blasted with water and toxic chemicals to unleash sweet, sweet natural gas deposits. I’ve seen "No Fracking" signs off and on since I left Oneonta a day ago—it's a divisive issue, especially in a region as hard on its luck as this. Anyways, here's Lindy’s view of things:
Cooperstown, New York— Yesterday I alluded to a theory in the late 1700s, among a certain kind of abolitionist, that the discovery of maple sugar could end the slave trade. And then, just like that, I never returned to the subject. Well here goes: Basically the idea, explained in detail in Alan Taylor’s Pulitzer-winning William Cooper's Town, was that, since slavery was at its most entrenched in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, any sort of shift in the market for sugar—say, by extracting a new kind of sugar from maple trees—would crush the sugar colonies. Fix the market, in other words, and the market will fix the problem. Or something.
The idea that maple sugar could end the slave trade by replacing cane sugar is a bit like saying that whale oil could eliminate demand for offshore drilling by replacing crude. If Cooper—father of Mark Twains least favorite novelist, James Fenimore—really wanted to end slavery, he might have started by freeing his own slaves. Nonetheless, Taylor tells us, Cooper convinced his old-money Quaker friends in Philadelphia to fund the venture, which turned out about as well as you might expect. The comparatively tiny harvest of maple sugar in Cooperstown was mostly ruined on the trip down the river, and those who tried it decided they like cane sugar better anyway. So much for that. There was also the inconvenient but irreversible truth that for Cooper’s more expansive land speculation to succeed, people would have to chop down said maple trees. So maybe that wasn’t such a great idea. Anyways, now you know.
Fort Ticonderoga, New York—Our road to Ticonderoga, site of Ethan Allen's critical Revolutionary War victory, was complicated by the minor detail that, as of December, said road no longer exists. The only functional bridge over Lake Champlain from Vermont was condemned last year, and, in the fashion befitting cookie-cutter baseball stadiums, subjected to a controlled demolition on local television. The night the bridge closed down, the ferry at Larrabee’s Point stayed open all night to receive the excess passengers. It was, says Nina, the storekeeper at the Orwell, Vt. convenience mart, "a pretty big deal." We take the ferry instead.The Crossing: (Photo: Tim Murphy)
I'm headed to Ticonderoga both because of Allen (more on him later), and because of my lifelong fascination with #2 pencils. And although I don't end up going into the fort, I do meet Evan Zgonis. Zgonis, 68, of Dracut, Massachusetts, flags me down near the park's entrance. He sees my Red Sox shirt, I guess, which makes us brothers. As we talk, a band of college-age redcoat re-enactors are practicing the flute at a pair of picnic tables.
His grandkids are about to start elementary school, where they'll learn US history for the first time. He wants to give them a head start "I was here for my kids," Zgonis says. "And now it's the turn for my grandkids. Americans, they have to know their own history."