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.
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."