On October 25, 1829, the gates of Eastern State Penitentiary — ESP — creaked open to admit the first of many criminals who would be confined behind its walls and within its solemn cells. Designed by John Haviland, one of the most storied architects of 19th century Philadelphia, it was the first true penitentiary in the young United States of America, embracing the “Pennsylvania System” conceived of by Benjamin Franklin. The primary principle behind the system was that imprisonment should be a time of reflection and penitence, with prisoners confined to solitary cells with very little to do beyond stare at the blank white walls and think about their sins.
I was staring directly into the fissure — a ragged scar that ripped across the face of the asphalt and heaved up mounds of broken black rock on either side of the opening, leading off into the swaying scrub that grew alongside the road. I read the sign, photographed for posterity the warning that I was standing on top of an underground fire. This was Centralia, just about smack-dab in the middle of eastern Pennsylvania, the heart of anthracite coal mining country. Below me — I wasn’t sure exactly how deep — was the fire that brought me here and sent everyone else away, burning since 1962 and showing no interest in extinguishing itself or being extinguished by the occasional intervening hand of man.
Our destination was supposed to close at five. It was already a little past four, so I figured there was no way we’d make it to Adamstown with enough time to do what we needed to do. But then, we’d been lucky throughout the day with everything from traffic to weather to food to destinations, so why not? It’s not like we weren’t going that way anyway. So onto highway 222 en route to Adamstown, Pennsylvania, which is a place with about 30,000 antique malls and flea markets, none of which seem to be open on a late Saturday afternoon. There’s also a microbrew pub, and a place called Black Angus I totally would have eaten at if I’d been the least bit hungry.