Tracking down the amazing abandoned mile-long Graffiti Highway

5w ago

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Eric Adams is an automotive, aerospace, and technology journalist/photographer for titles including Wired, Gear Patrol, Popular Science, Men's Health and DriveTribe.

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The Graffiti Highway, located above a long-smoldering underground coal fire in the ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, is most easily accessed on foot. You park at the top of the hill, or the bottom, scramble over some earthen berms built to keep vehicles out, and behold: a mile-long stretch of abandoned highway completely covered in graffiti.

This is no exaggeration. There’s no raw pavement visible anywhere. It’s an utterly perfect spread of colorful swirls and amateur designs, offensive social commentary, a few bastardized corporate logos, occasional bursts of legitimately inspired art, crude jokes, some spectacularly foul-mouthed insults, baroque signatures, and, of course, dicks galore. It is perhaps the largest contiguous surface in the world that’s completely covered in unsanctioned street art, in this case of the most literal kind.

Though it’s closed off to traffic, the urge to violate the sanctity of this concentrated work of public vandalism with an actual vehicle is as powerful as the urge to shake a can of spray paint and add a few tags of your own. Who wouldn’t want to drive up and down the Graffiti Highway? It’s irresistible.

Fortunately, I had in my possession just the vehicle to do it: The new Jeep Gladiator, the most renegade pickup truck on earth, and imbued with the off-road chops of the Wrangler from which it is derived. After gazing longingly at the Graffiti Highway on foot during several recent visits – it’s a pretty long slog deep into Pennsylvania, but an easy hop from Interstate 81 – I’d finally be able to crack through, take some pics to document my smart-assed glory, and also fully grasp what sort of hardware you’ll need to get around in the post-apocalypse future that surely awaits us. After all, Centralia is very much a post-urban hellscape literally cooking in its own juices.

Well, sort of. The site was indeed once a bustling small town in coal country, until a coal seam caught fire in 1962, starting the subterranean blaze that burns to this day and will for likely another 200 years. The town was abandoned by the mid-80s – though a few stalwart holdouts persist to this day – and most of the structures razed. The streets and roads, though, remain, including this bit of State Route 61 that had to be closed when a fissure opened up in the pavement, spewing toxic gas.

Today, there’s little evidence of the underground fire – the air is clear and crisp, and there’s no detectable odor. Casual exploration is not a problem, so the town has become a hangout for locals on ATVs and tourists drawn by the Graffiti Highway. Technically, that property is owned by a local mining operation, but the Pennsylvania State Police who have jurisdiction over the area told me that they only show up if there’s trouble – say, if a fight spills out into the bypass that was built around the abandoned stretch.

The berms at the top and bottom the downhill stretch of highway are replenished regularly in a seemingly half-hearted effort to keep vehicles out. On the Saturday night I was there, as pockets of people strolled up and down the highway with cans of spray paint in their hands and a cluster of locals were cracking open brews beside their quads, I took a crack at the berms. Though a conventional Wrangler could’ve likely made it over one, the Gladiator’s longer wheelbase nixed that effort quickly – I bottomed out and had to wriggle my way back own in reverse. (Fortunately, I don’t think anyone saw that, as this isn’t the kind of crowd you’d want to embarrass yourself in front of.) On to Plan B.

That would be a trail that snaked off the main road and up to the lower portion of the highway from the west. It was overgrown, so required brushing through tall weeds and bushes. The path went well at first, but then turned into a steep ascent liberally sprinkled with massive, gnarly looking rocks. I was already in four-wheel-drive, so I started up a few feet just to gauge progress. Then I got cold feet. I’m pretty sure I could’ve made it, but didn’t want to try without a spotter and risk having to wrestle with a flat on unfamiliar turf or damaging the Gladiator on the way back down. (It’s not actually my vehicle, after all.) So I managed a tight three-point turn at the bottom of the hill and slithered back out to the highway.

Next I went up to the top, where most visitors park by the side of the road. A few hundred yards down I found a trail that began on the opposite side of a deep runoff gully. I walked the trail first to eyeball it, and discovered that it led straight to the Graffiti Highway. While riddled with rocks and tree stumps, it was clearly the entry point most used by the locals to get their own jeeps and lifted pickup trucks onto the road – the ATV’s could get in easily pretty much anywhere – so the only challenge was that roadside gully.

I strutted back to the Gladiator. Back in four-wheel-drive after coming up the hill in 2WD, I took it at an angle, first dipping the front right into the little dirt valley before steadily applying throttle to power up the other side. After some predictable jostling and brief grinding away with the tires, I popped up onto the the flat surface and motored carefully up the rest of the trail. Within a few seconds, I was finally on the Graffiti Highway, my modest dream a success.

I drove up and down the mile of painted pavement, chatted with some of the folks out for some casual Saturday night vandalism, and stopped at several points for pictures of the truck and the road itself. I stayed through nightfall to grab some stars in my pictures, then packed up and headed back out the way I’d come.

By then the highway was abandoned once again to its natural unoccupied state, though bursting with evidence of human activity.

In truth, traversing the Graffiti Highway isn’t all that hard – any reasonably capable 4x4 can get in there, though certainly not a typical crossover or SUV, even with all-wheel-drive. It needs to be legitimately off-roadable, as successfully navigating the surrounding terrain requires faith in your machine, understanding of the terrain, and modest skills to get over the berms or up the hill, depending on which way you decide to go. I tried the hard ways first before discovering an easier path that I ultimately followed in and then back out. But even the hard trails would’ve likely yielded success if I’d had an extra pair of eyes and no worries about returning a relatively unscathed vehicle to its corporate owner.

In a post-apocalypse world, of course, you’d just go, and it’s a good bet the Gladiator would get you there.

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