Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike

In the summer of 2011, a friend and I traveled almost four hours to a desolate area of Pennsylvania In order to hike and explore an abandoned stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The story of the Abandoned Turnpike begins in 1968 when the relevant committees and governmental organizations determined that a few tunnels pertaining to I-70 were too congested for the heavy traffic volumes that were demanding access. Today, these areas are near I-76’s exit 161. But that is not terribly important. No, what attracted my friend and I was the prospect of 13 miles of weathered turnpike, including the Sideling Hill Tunnel, Rays Hill Tunnel, and a travel plaza. All gone, all taken by time and the elements.
The tunnels are a feature common to interstates across the United States. They bear lengthy tunnels cut through the sides of great hills and mountains, typically lighted and maintained by electricity and maintenance crews. But consider this for a moment: imagine an area of industrial development that has been foregone for forty-some years. Imagine your idea of modern society simply existing elsewhere for few decades. What would you find? What would be there and what would the conditions be? That is exactly what my friend and I sought to find, and why we spent three and a half hours driving.
It is important to note, as in all of these travel logs, that the journey there is almost as important as the destination itself. This story certainly does not fail to live up to this mantra. About twenty minutes away from the destination, we found ourselves on unending winding hills and country highways with no names. We saw a residential homestead every mile or so. We were, as anyone else would have phrased it, in the middle of nowhere. That certainly did not curtail us from not investigating a farmhouse property in the middle of the woods.
Mind you, the speed limits were easily in their fifties when we blew past this grey, rotting structure. It was a simple, two-story farmhouse, randomly planted in a break in the woods. Naturally, we had to stop and investigate. Now, my companion was a young lady a few inches shorter than me and weighing ninety pounds at best. I am a lanky young man, wielding only a digital camera. We were not exactly primed for experiencing local, rustled residents who did not enjoy our company, or any wild animals, at that. But we were determined to explore the property that we nicknamed the Texas Chainsaw house.
I turned around and parked (considering that we flew past it at fifty-something miles an hour) and we got out. The house was not lived in, but was locked up. It looked like there was a lot of construction and home improvement equipment inside, through the windows, but the second story bore a few panes of broken glass and flowing curtains. Obviously, not a residence, but a still owned and terribly maintained property. I hypothesized that someone inherited it and used it for storage, but what do I know? As we wandered around, we found a large barn in the back end of the lot. We walked over to it and peeked inside. My friend was so turned off by what we found inside that we immediately got back in the vehicle. We were obviously foolhardy enough to explore the land, but even we knew our limits when we found a recently lived in corner of the barn, complete with dirty sheets and suggestive ropes hanging from the rafters. We trekked onto the turnpike.
We drove through what appeared to be a small state park / camping area. There were a few locked up cabins and we assumed that this was all kosher. After all, what I had read online promised us that it was not totally illegal to be here, that it was “official” hiking / biking trails and the like. Now, two-three years later, I have learned that that is not entirely the case, but at the time, the paved roads and designated parking areas was all the confirmation I needed. We got out, I made sure I had my pack, camera, and water, and we were off.
At the time, this was the first day I was actually spending with my companion, so there were all sorts of “awkward” injected into the equation. What were we to expect? Were we both up to exploring these dilapidated structures? What was her tolerance for the dark that inevitably awaited us? Leave it to me to set up a “hike the abandoned 13 miles of the PA turnpike as a first meeting” in a friendship.
So, we started walking. It was a typical paved road, broken in some places and a tad reclaimed by nature all over. We walked, excitedly predicting what waited for us in the tunnels. Now, I am a person who has had built up expectations for abandoned visits (See: Centralia, PA) and was terribly let down, having created incredible fantasies that were never promised, but that my mind created, and set me and my companions up to be disappointed in. Well, the abandoned turnpike provided nothing of the sort. We were adequately met with adventure.
We rounded a corner with a few minutes and saw the gaping maw of concrete and darkness. It was a sight to behold and utterly beautiful. You always imagine that these places, whatever abandoned locales you wish to visit, will be normal structures, you know, farm houses, residences, office buildings… you never expect to find an entire length of turnpike desolate and open to your exploring. Never do you expect to see such a major project completely open-sourced and free for your browsing. But that is exactly what these thirteen miles hold.
As we approached the mouth of the first cave, we flirted with the idea of exploring the inside of the building, the actual office area and whatnot. My partner was not thrilled with the idea but I pleaded. So, we went inside. After hopping over a flooded first floor office, we found an incredible piece of forgotten engineering. I honestly have no idea what the large turbine-like structures actually did in their day of use, but I imagine it had something to do with the airflow and electricity in the tunnels. The most astonishing feature of the building was that they went up three stories over the roadway and held the most intricate layouts of design. I remember being stricken with the most surreal sense of syncope and scope when we poked through a doorway and found ourselves in a completely darkened room, with dots of light lining the floor, every few feet of space apart towards the darkness. We were standing on top of the ceiling of the turnpike. The light we saw poked through from the entrance. These were the spaces for the light bulbs and / or ventilation back in the day. But to imagine that this open void that we stood before stretched on for the duration of the tunnel before us, open holes everywhere, was astounding.
We found our way back outside and actually on top of the structure and went back to the mouth. Clutching hands, we trucked through the darkness. The good thing about the first tunnel was our ability to see either end of the tunnel and the light at either end. That is not to say, however, that it was not terrifying to get to the midway point in relative darkness and close your eyes for a minute. That is exactly what we did. We stood, in silence, listening to the ambience of the moment. The occasional drip. The nervous shuffle of your friend. The pebble falling from above. Everything and nothing at once. You opened your eyes to find yourself lost between two points in time and space, between two points of light, fighting the darkness. It was utterly incredible, beautiful, and breathtaking. Even now, miles, hours, and years away, I find myself missing and longing for the experience.
We kept walking and found ourselves through the tunnel. With a high-five and an embrace of imperialism, we continued walking on after exploring the other side’s offices. We reached the abandoned plaza area, which, at the time, had already been demolished and cleared. We sat in the parking lot area for a bit and shared a drink of water. With the concern of losing daylight, we headed back. It was still broad daylight, but with how long it took to clear the mile-plus tunnels of darkness on foot, we did not want to risk it. On the way back, we sat near the midpoint and waited for a couple of bikers with headlamps to pass us, in hopes of not alarming them. I mean, imagine that: riding your bike through an abandoned tunnel and finding two skinny humanoid creatures in the darkness. Ha.
We successfully found our way back to the car and continued driving through the hillside. Incredible. Miles of farmland and country, graced only by the sunlight and permanent green that seemed to overtake everything. We were getting hungry and saw a woman riding on a tractor with a baby and small dog in the back. We joked that maybe they could make us a picnic or something and we could all sit out on these beautiful hills. We even stopped and helped a turtle cross the road, worried that the little guy would be killed on the Mad Max roadways. But, eventually, we stopped for lunch / dinner at a place called the Scrub Ridge Inn.
Now, the place looked like a converted house, as if a couple of homeowners would serve you lunch in their living room. That was precisely what it was. A kind, quiet, older woman seated us in the “dining area” and we sat. It was literally a small living room with a handful of patio tables and plastic chairs. The bar area seemed to be “where it was at” – one or two patrons sat at the bar and watched sports on the televisions. The same woman who seated us took our orders. My friend did not want anything in particular, so we shared a chicken platter. It was more than satisfactory for our day hiking and we enjoyed a quiet dinner, undisturbed by your typical nuisances experienced in modern dining. At the time, we were both underage, but we would have probably more-than-have-enjoyed drinking at the bar with the bartender. It just seemed like that sort of place.
Further research reveals that the actual “inn” portion of the business fares pretty well during the hunting season and that warms my heart. It did not seem like a lot of business would be out that way, so to hear that those kind owners were finding financial viability was wonderful.
We decided to head back to Jersey just before nightfall. The handfuls of “truck bail-offs” on the winding roads was disheartening to say the least. Just before we crossed the river, we stopped for gas. Mind you, I was in a foreign vehicle (my brother’s / family’s Explorer) and in New Jersey, we do not pump our own gas. So, we stopped, literally in the last exit in Pennsylvania and spent a solid five minutes staring at the gas pump, wondering why it was not working. I realize that the gauge read “diesel” and we move up. Man, that could have been terrible. We got gas and continued on.
Overall, walking the abandoned turnpike was a wonderful experience. If you have the interest in / opportunity to bike it, I certainly would. It is a beautiful area and offers a peaceful escape from civilization. I miss it to this day.