There are any number of reasons why a city, town, or even an entire empire goes from thriving to nonexistent: climate change, urban development, and war are just a few of them. For Wade Davis – an ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker who has spent decades traveling the world and immersing himself in indigenous cultures to learn about everything from hallucinogenics to zombies – the answer is simpler than that: "You know the old expression, 'If you don't study history you're doomed to repeat it,'" says Davis. "Undoubtedly, when Pachacuti built Machu Picchu, he had no idea that within less than a century, the convulsion of the Conquest would flood upon him."
From the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu to a tumbleweed-ridden ghost town in Death Valley, the element of surprise is a recurring theme in the abandonment of a town-turned-tourist destination. And whether a place is taken out by enemy forces or Mother Nature, the lesson in visiting any abandoned city, according to Davis, is "to realize the ephemeral nature of power." Including our own.
"The Roman Empire lasted for five centuries," says Davis. "Five centuries ago, people hadn't even come to America. We look back and say, 'Well the Mayans weren't quite as big as they thought they were.' By the same token, the global civilization that we have – based on hydrocarbons, if you will – could be snuffed out just as the Incas, the Mayans, the Egyptians and every other empire." Consider yourself warned.
Tragedy struck this Pennsylvania coal mining town in 1962, when a fire at the local dump kindled an exposed vein of coal, which in turn ignited an underground fire that, over the course of the next two decades, eventually destroyed nearly every building, home, and structure in its path. Centralia, a tight-knit community of 1,400 residents, was transformed into a ghost town. The fire is still raging on today, and some scientists believe it could take another 250 years to fully extinguish it. But that fact hasn't convinced all of the town's residents to relocate; approximately 10 of them remain today, including more than one priest.
Getting there: Because toxic gases and subsidence are still very much realities in Centralia, it's not a tourist type of "ghost town." And the truth is that there's not much to see in Centralia today, which probably explains why so many people drive right through (local routes 42, 54, and 61 all pass through it) without ever knowing its history. If you do drive through, use caution and common sense: Heed any and all signs against trespassing and dangers, and if you see steam and/or smoke rising out of the ground (a common occurrence), remember that a faraway glimpse can equally satisfy your interest.
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