Sunday, June 6, 2010

If You Can’t Stand The Heat, Stay Out Of Centralia!

This is a story I wrote back in 2007. It was the second piece I ever had published in the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America’s magazine — “The Owners News.” This story predates this blog and many of my current readers have yet to see it. I don’t hesitate to run it again here, for the first time on this blog, as it remains a favorite of my long-term readers.

The Earth was cast in fire and intense heat. Every now and again, it takes itself apart, little by little, in the same way. In 1962, a rubbish fire ignited an exposed coal vein in Centralia, Pa. The fire found its way into the rich coal deposits under the town and began to burn with an unsuspected intensity. It is thought that shafts drilled to monitor the fire’s progress and to vent gas actually accelerated its combustion. Buried far beneath public view, the fire jumped from one vein of coal to another — never becoming more than a smoldering red glimmer.

Centralia was incorporated as an anthracite coal mining community by Alexander W. Rea, a civil and mining engineer in 1854. It grew into a bustling little town of a 1,000 people, with stores, saloons and two churches clustered around a main street. It supported a school, a fire company and a number of mines that followed the rich veins of Pennsylvania coal almost to the next town. The community was a hotbed of the Molly Maguires, a secret pro-labor organization of passionate Irish miners, who thoughtfully shot and killed the town founder (Alexander W. Rea) one night, to illustrate a point.

The Mac Pac Eating and Wrenching Society (chartered MOA Club #289) is a concept, a movement, and a quasi-religious order dedicated to mileage and calories. The lure of adventure and culinary abandon have sent Mac-Pac riders on transcontinental pilgrimages for the ultimate fried chicken (Nashville, Tn), the consummate Tex-Mex chili (Abilene, Tx), the creamiest ice cream (Strasburg, Pa), the most piasanic pizza (Chicago, Il), the freshest lobster (Kennebunkport, Me), the best breakfast (Auburn, Ne), and the most succulent Rocky Mountain Oysters (shuck ‘em yourself, Fort Peck, Mt).

The preoccupation with eating is manifest in the club’s logo, which prominently features a wrench and a fork against a disc background. It was long thought that the disc motif represented a spinning airplane propeller. But a meeting of the group’s historical committee led to the announcement that it is actually a dinner plate. Yet the Mac Pac’s commitment to food becomes clear when you get a look at many of the group’s GPS units. Numbers on the screens have been replaced by pictograms illustrating drumsticks, ice cream cones, pizzas, flaming sombreros, and cows holding their groins. Open any map case on a Mac-Pac bike and you will discover folded menus.

It was this obsession with eating that recently led to one of the most peculiar rides in Mac Pac history.

The fire spread like a stupid idea in congress. In 1969, the first three families were moved from Centralia. Basement temperatures began to soar in many homes and residents were sickened by coal gas and carbon monoxide. Homes over the hot spots were equipped with special meters to monitor the gas. Eleven years later, the US Bureau of Mines declared the fire “uncontrolled.” The first significant collapse created a hole 4 feet wide and 150 feet deep under Tom Domboski, who was pulled to safety by his cousin. Authorities claimed the heat and gas would have killed him instantly, if he had fallen just a little deeper.

The Mac Pac meets for breakfast at the Pottstown Family Diner on the third Sunday of every month. Service at the PFD is ruthlessly quick and the management has given the group a back room with its own entrance. This provides a buffer between the Mac Pac and the regular customers, who may not be accustomed to the violence of watching hyenas feed in their natural habitat.

At one breakfast early last spring (2007), BMW Motorcycle Owners of America Ambassador Brian Curry stood on a chair and called the assembly to order. The atmosphere was instantly filled with bits of toast, fruit rinds, balled up napkins and half-spent creamers propelled toward the speaker in a reflex action triggered by his “official” voice.

Curry waited stoically until the air was free of detritus, then stood like a bizarre admiral, with an epaulette of orange peel on one shoulder and a bit of buttered English muffin on the other. Then swelling like a blowfish about to sing, he began to speak.

“I would like to challenge the people in this room to put together a ride that substitutes the metaphysical for the menu... The scientific for the sausage... And the epic for the epicurean,” said Curry. “I want you to conduct a ride that sums up everything the Mac-Pac stands for.”

“You want us to ride to Hooters?” asked a voice in the back.

That was the first time anyone had seen Brian Curry cry.

The fire had spread under 582 acres by 1991. Worst case scenarios predicted it would continue to spread to 3,700 acres and burn for 100 years. Nearly 1100 families were relocated and all but 13 houses were razed. Smoke, gas, and steam rose from fissures all over town. A local highway heaved, buckled, and split. Streets collapsed in places. Centralia became a place of bizarre legend. It has been removed from many maps.

My proposal was simple: a ride to one of the strangest places on earth. A place devoid of restaurants. A place where the fires of an underground hell could be felt in the soles of your boots. A place where the Mac Pac could cook their lunches by simply wrapping them in foil and placing them on the ground. I wanted to do a ride to Centralia. My premise was that the heat generated by this underground fire was being wasted. With all the concern for global warming, here was a place where the already warmed globe could be put to good use.

I presented this concept to the group and waited for the usual suspects to respond.

The usual suspects are a nice bunch of guys who tolerate my “leaning” disability. It is whispered behind my back (and sometimes to my face) that I have never leaned my bike 10 degrees beyond vertical. Tom Cutter claims that the chicken strips served by the Pottstown Family Diner show more wear than mine. Another vicious clique says that following me through a curve is like trailing behind a sleepwalker on a treadmill. Among the Mac Pac, where mercy regarding riding technique is sliced thin, it is generally acknowledged that a statue of a biker can take a turn tighter than I can.

(Above): A typical street in Centralia. Note the odd appearance of the house above. It is incredibly narrow. If you look, you'll see it is the width of one upstairs window. This house used to be "attached." The buildings it was attached to, and all the others have been knocked down. Curbstones are periodically pierced for driveways, that are long gone. That is Dick Bregstein's brand new F800 on the left in the foreground. It was totalled the next year.

The usual suspects did not respond. The peg-draggers did. The guys who turned out for the Centralia Cook-Off were the afterburner crowd. And there were 10 of them. These are the riders whose necks have a permenent 45-degree bend in them... They can only see straight leaned over in a screaming turn.

(Above): The boys pulled over to tell me how unimpressed they are. I am the fattest person in the picture, wearing a black tee shirt. This ride will not have a happy ending unless I come up with a good idea fast. I tell them we will go to an area so potentially dangerous that they must all sign a waiver. They are taking a vote to see who will shove the waiver up my ass.

I deferred to local boy Chris Jaccarino as ride captain. He offered to chart a route described as both picturesque and challenging. While it wasn’t exactly the Dragon’s Tail, it wasn’t the Dragon’s barstool either. According to Chris, if you don’t hit a curve every 60 feet, then you might just as well not ride. I insisted on riding dead last. Conventional wisdom places riders of my mediocre abilities in the middle, but I didn’t want to hold anyone back in the twisties. Jaccarino believes that everyone should have somebody else watching out for them in a group ride. So the ride captain had everyone draw straws, with the short straw being responsible for keeping an eye on me. The loser was Clyde Jacobs.

“Why do I have to watch him,” asked Clyde.

“Because I watched him the last 50 rides and I want to see what it’s like to use 4th, 5th, and 6th gears,” said Dick Bregstein.

My decision to hold back was well warranted as I opted not to drag my bar-end mirrors through the curves like the other guys. Jaccarino dutifully collected the entire group and waited at every intersection. There were 170 intersections, each generally situated on a blind curve or between 15-foot high banks on a country road. (I took so long to get through one of these that two guys started a chess game and another lubed his rear spines -- all while waiting for me on a hot, treeless shoulder.)

(Above) Nowhere in town is evidence of the fire's fury so clearly manifest than the pavement of the old Route 61. The pavement has been heaved, and buckled, and split by the raging subterranean flames as if it had been shelled by an enemy army. Here we are surveying the damage, with a line of magnificent BMWs behind us.

The route to Centralia was divided into two parts, with a stop at Hermy’s BMW (Port Clinton, Pa) in the middle. Here it was decided that managing 11 riders (including one who acted as a sea anchor) was a bit much. I announced that I would lead a more sedate group of butt draggers straight up the far less adventurous Rt. 61. (I figured none would go for this and I could cool my heels in true biker fashion at some topless joint.) To my surprise, three other riders joined my cadre. These were Dick “Bermuda Triangle” Bregstein, Clyde “Short Straw” Jacobs, and Dennis “Suspenders” Dooces.

(Above) The Mac Pac boys get ready to cook. (From left: Rich Cavaliere, Dennis Dooces, Tom Kramer (in fissure), John Clauss, Mark Davies, Chris Jaccarino, and John Langsford III. Note popularity of suspenders. The guys couldn't get laid in Times Square.

We beat the peg draggers into Centralia by a good 25-minute margin. A fast reconnoiter of the sizzling landscape made us realize how parched we were, and we retreated to a gas station/convenience store in nearby Asheland. It was here, sipping cool water in the sparse shade of stark gas pumps that we watched our seven peg-dragging pals zip by us. In true Mac Pac fashion, we shrugged and did nothing. Fifteen minutes later, the entire mob passed us again, headed the other way. It was on their third foray up the main drag that one of their number noticed our bikes and signaled the others.

(Above) At this spot, the ground temperature measured 160 degrees!

There is only one part of a two-group ride that gets on my nerves: listening to the white-line dancers go on about their harrowing adventures. There were the stories about hairpin curves that looped back upon themselves like cobras... The spine-tingling recounting of a road that turned to gravel, then to broken glass, then to steel spikes sticking three feet out of the ground. And finally, the finale of how seven hulking street BMWs all “caught air” cresting some hill that ended in a flaming hoop!

I countered this tripe with details of an adventure of our own, explaining how we stopped to help a stalled charter bus of Victoria’s Secret brassiere models who had all developed a sudden allergy to Velcro.

“Did that really happen?” Jaccarino asked my posse.

“Yes,” replied Dennis Dooces. “I now have Velcro burns over two-thirds of my body.”

It was at this service station/convenience store that John Clauss noticed his brake light wasn’t working, and making an audible buzzing sound when he attempted to activate it.

“What does that sound like?” asked Clauss.

“About $300 at the dealers,” someone replied.

Forty-five years after the fire started, the remains of Centralia tell a sad story. Sidewalks trail off to nowhere. Streets appear laid out in an empty grid. Curbs are pierced for driveways long gone. Power lines seem shredded where splices used to be connected to homes. And odd little steps to nowhere tell of stoops and porches that once overlooked streets filled with activity. The handful of buildings that remain are oddly narrow, until you realize these solitary structures were once row houses, standing in a line like dominoes. At last count, there are 13 residents left in Centralia.

(Above) Straddling the fissure, Author Jack Riepe's clothing filled with hot coal gas, inflating him to five times his normal size. It is rumored that he has a 32" waist whenever he gets a hard-on.

I first passed through here in early winter. Smoke, steam, and vapor were easily discernible in the cold air. White plumes could be found streaming from the hill above town, outside the cemetery, and from the remains of old Route 61. Devoid of vegetation for the season, Centralia had a certain bleakness that matched its strange history. Even with temperatures in the 30’s, sidewalks and streets still felt warm. A sign in the old dump warns of eminent collapse and the presence of gas.

Yet on this occasion I led the Mac Pac into Centralia on the hottest day of the year. It was 91 degrees. No smoke was visible anyplace. No vapor trailed off into the sky. No haze rose from the greenery. In fact, the entire place had a peaceful park-like atmosphere that suggested benign serenity.

(Above) At the fissure, From Left -- (Back) Clyde Jacobs and Tom Kramer; (Middle) Mark Davies, Rich Cavaliere, John Clauss, Dennis Doose, Dick Bregstein, and Bob Cook; (Front) Chris Jaccarino and Jack Riepe.

“This is what you brought us to see?” was the first remark I heard. The crowd behind me was about to turn ugly. I showed the boys the unusual landmarks and told them the story of each, but a certain blank look was beginning to glaze over their eyes. I heard several muttering the words, “Dairy Queen.” In a minute, they’d begin drifting off in twos and threes to graze.

The most dramatic example of the underground conflagration is an abandoned stretch of Route 61, hidden from public view by a detour. We found it in the nick of time. The road was split in a hundred places. The pavement was violently heaved and looks like it has been shelled. Best of all, smoke and steam was issuing from a dozen cracks and vents. The Mac Pac boys were on this like physicists on an atomic pile.

(Above) This was my beautiful K75 "Blueballs," with the rare Sprint Fairing. It would be totaled the next year when some sweet old bitch ran into me at an intersection. Dick Bregstein took this picture.

You can’t throw a rock at the Mac-Pac without hitting an engineer. This works against you when attempting to attract wild nubile women to one of the club events. But just suggest something that reeks of science and these guys are in their element. Both Chris Jaccarino and Rich Sichler are geologists. Sichler produced an infrared thermometer and began taking readings of the pavement temperature.

(Above) One of the few action shots of me astride the mighty "Blueballs," in the company of some great guys. That is a beautiful motorcycle. Dick Bregstein took this shot too.

The guys were soon passing this gadget around and measuring the temperature of everything. I was bending over my bike at that moment and heard them log my butt in at 108 degrees.

“I don’t care how hot that gets, I’m not cooking my lunch there,” said Rich Cavaliere.

A series of lateral fissures have violently split the surface of the road for a distance of a hundred yards or so. Some of these cracks are two feet wide and average about two feet deep. White smoke appeared to be rising from vents at the bottom of these, but closer inspection revealed this vapor to be steam coming out of the ground.

Interestingly enough, these fissures attract something of an adolescent crowd. The snarls of ATV’s could be occasionally heard through the woods during our visit and graffiti captions the more prominent cracks in the road. One of these free-spirited expressions running parallel to a smoking gap in the road read, “Going down?” It reminded me of the line Dante penned for the gate to hell which read, “All hope abandon ye who enter here.” The simpler “Going down” seems so much more appropriate for either setting.

The fissures are filled with litter, largely tree branches and sheets of old newspapers. It seems that every person who failed science in grammar school tries to start a fire from the ground temperature, which while hot, falls well below the 451-degree flash point of paper.

“Lunch is served,” I announced. In my K75’s hard cases were 11 MREs (Meals Ready To Eat). Entrees included roast chicken with rib meat, Southern Captain Chicken, Meat Loaf, Minestrone Stew, a pasta dish, and mashed potatoes.

Rich Sichler had discovered several places where the ground temperature registered 173 degrees. Most of the guys planted their meals directly over steam vents, where it didn’t take them more then ten minutes to reach serving temperature.

Clyde Jacobs inhaled his entree, which was meatloaf. “Ambitious but not pretentious,” he concluded, “with a fine aftertaste of subterranean anthracite.”

“I’ve tasted better in a Turkish prison,” said Chris Jaccarino. His was a dish called Southern Chicken Captain. “But the mashed potatoes were good.”

Mark Davies commented that his meal would taste better if he were eating it under different circumstances, like sitting a lifeboat with sharks swimming in circles.

Bob Cook took this whole business very seriously. He went off by himself, found a steam vent, and dropped a packet into the vapor. Twenty minutes later, he was still looking at it. I later discovered he was waiting for a little bell or a buzzer to sound, indicating it was done.

John L. Langsford III pronounced his entree (minestrone stew) as tasty, but was disappointed to discover someone had taken the cookies out of his packet. This discovery raised a hue and cry, and Dick Bregstein’s tank bag was found to contain a dozen looted cookies.

(Above) The big picture.

A Mac Pac Centralia Cook Book was briefly discussed by the group but was determined to be of limited use for many readers, as preheating the ground with huge underground fires would be regarded as impractical. The 11 riders split up into three groups for the return trip. One group followed Dick Bregstein on a five-hour short cut (for a three-hour ride) until it was determined his GPS was actually a miniature Etch-A-Sketch affixed to his handlebars with rubber bands.

Author’s Note -- At the time this story took place, the abandoned stretch of Rt. 61 was partially blocked by well-worn berms that constituted inconvenient bumps. We followed a procession of ATVs and dirt bikes onto the heaved pavement, and rode about three quarters of a mile to the site. There were no advisories nor any signs prohibiting this activity. The author, the MacPac, and Twisted Roads do not condone nor encourage irresponsible motorcycle operation. I am informed that new higher and more substantial berms now block this road. A sign in the old Centralia dump warns of possible cave-ins and toxic gas. This story is presented solely for scientific content and environmental awareness. It is not presented as a recommendation for a destination and advises riders to be aware of their surroundings and local restrictions at all times.

Addendum... I meet A Fellow Blogger In Chicago.

I haven’t been writing motorcycle stories in a while. I have two viciously busy periods each year, in which I must prepare and cover a clients’ press interests from a travel industry convention floor. One of these occurred in May, and I generally give up riding for two weeks before the event. A week of recovery from working 7 consecutive 12-hour days, coupled with a failed fuel pump (next blog), further delayed my return to riding. This spring, the global industry conference I attended was held in Chicago, the home of fellow BMW rider and blogger, Sharon Hicks-Bartlett.

A lecturer at the University of Chicago, Sharon Hicks-Bartlett is also the author of
Sojourner’s Moto Tales. She rides a smoking hot blue F800S, which she nearly took right into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel — just to meet me for lunch.

“You transcend fat,” said Sharon, tossing me her helmet. “You are friggin’ huge.” She wasn’t hungry, and ordered a chicken wrap, which apparently came with a license to prey on my seared tuna appetizer. We spoke of riding, riding technique, potential destinations, and the savage beauty of Key West. Sharon agreed that BMW riders are not the result of random breeding, but are selected by a higher being according to the same plan that orders molecules and atoms throughout the universe.

(Above) Twisted Roads author Jack Riepe meets with Sharon Hicks-Bartlett in a hotel in Chicago. Sharon writes Sojourner’s Moto Tales.

Then there was one tender moment where she looked into my eyes, and insisted we speak nothing but German for the rest of this historic meeting. I asked her if she wanted dessert, and she emphatically said, “No.” This resolve lasted right up until my bowl of lemon sorbet and fresh berries was delivered.

“Mine,” she snapped, seizing the artfully presented dessert.

Fortunately, there was more back in the kitchen, and I helped her fill her saddle bags with it. This was one of most entertaining lunch meetings I’ve had in a long time. Sharon and I had planned to meet up at the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America in Tennessee last year, but she refused to set foot in a cheap Go-Go dancers’ bar (my rally habitat), and missed a great opportunity.

“Well it’s been fun, Fat Boy,” Sharon said, jumping on her bike, and going around in the revolving door twice, before doing a 300-yard wheelie on South Wacker Drive. The pleasure was all mine.

Addendum á Deaux...

I missed a great opportunity to meet with Rick Slark this week. Rick is the author of "Keep The Rubber Side Down," an intensely serious award-winning motocycle blog for riders of renown and distiction. Rick was in town for a tour of Gettysburg, about 90 miles from here, but I didn't hear of it until the last minute. Our paths may cross later this summer.

And once again...

I leave on a four-day ride through the Grand Canyon of Pensylvania tomorrow. I expect to be in pain as there isn't a strip joint within 250 miles of this place. (It will be like being held hostage by Amish extremists.) This ride is being sponsored by a popular motorcycle magazine catering to BMW riders. The editor is paying me $200 for every woman who approaches me and lifts up her shirt, providing she is under 68 -years -old. (The theme from "Mission Impossible" was playing in my mind as I left his office.)

I am riding off with Dick Bregstein, Pete Buchheit, and Clyde Jacobs. Gerry Cavanaugh was expected to accompany us on this run, but circumstances are preventing it. He will be missed. We planned to stick him with at least three bar tabs.

©Copyright Jack Riepe 2010
AKA The “Lindbegh Baby” (Mac Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)
AKA The Chamberlain — PS (With A Shrug)


BeemerGirl said...

And the world revolves again to show just how small it is. I just read another blog today about abandoned cities...and Centralia was on the list. I first learned about it 3 years ago and have been yearning to visit. Had a good laugh at the thermometer being readily available. Of course, I would have kicked myself for having forgotten mine. :-)


RichardM said...

Another excellent story. I think I remember reading it in my very first issue of ON and thought that it was kind of odd. I wasn't at all sure what the BMWMOA was all about. I also thought that the infrared thermometer appearing was pretty funny as well. Thank you for the tour...

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Beemer Girl:

Even in 2007, the Mac Pac was still ahead of its time.

Thanks for reading and writing in.

Jack • reep • Toad

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Richard M:

When you ride with engineers, you quickly learn that they carry everything.

Jack • reep * Toad

redlegsrides said...

Ah, the Centralia story was my first exposure of your writing art. I liked the additional photos that didn't make it into the ON magazine (that I can recall anyways).

I liked the addendums as well, always good to meet an online acquaintance in person, isn't it?

Good to see you posting more often again Jack, your stuff is a vital ingredient in my keeping my sanity while on my new job.

Redleg's Rides

cpa3485 said...

What a srange and unusual destination for a club ride. But fascinating too. I think I would be afraid that the earth would just swallow me up. I assume there is no traffic there and the roads still looked somewhat passable by motorcycle.
Thanks for the re-post. I didn't get to see it before and it ranks up there with all your prose.

Premeditated Scootin'

Unknown said...


I think I like BlueBalls better than FireBalls, and I don't even like blue. Weren't you afraid of riding into the fissure ? better to adopt the stategy of riding last, then you know where not to follow.
Very interesting, never heard about this before.

Wet Coast Scootin

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Charlie6 (Dom):

I dusted this off and posted it just before leaving on a 4-day bike trip. I just got back last night, and will post more this weekend. Thanks for asking.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear CPA3485 (Jimbo):

Leslie and I had been to Centralia before, so I knew where I was going. But in truth, life is a great adventure. I had two marriages that were far more dangerous than the fissure.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Bobskoot:

Both of those machines are K75s. But Blue Balls was a K75S (with much narrower handlebars and a higher seat. The seat was a Corbin Comfort Seat, which must have brought some comfort to someone. Since it was a full fairing, the windshield was not attached to the handlebars. The riding position called for me to lean forward.

Fireballs has a lower, wider, Russel Day-Long Saddle. The Handlebars are wider and farther back. There are three discs on Fireballs and two with a drum on Blue Balls.

I rode Blue Bals and ride Fire Balls like they are new bikes. I pulled the tun on Fire Balls yesterday. It rides like it is brand new.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Conchscooter said...

If Gregory Peck eats Cheyenne I will stuff you in a Centralia vent and wait for the pinger to indicate you are done.
I might do it anyway just to get you over the pleasure of meeting bloggers.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Conch:

Gregory Peck needs to be incited. It is "Scout" who starts all the trouble.

Fondest regards and all that...
Have a fgood trip.

Jack • reep • Toad
Twisted Roads