About this blog

This blog has been around since 2008 but has never developed a clear direction. Most visitors arrive here looking for information on some interest we share, like
fringe travel or gruesome deaths, or (weirdly) hyenas. Please use the pages I have provided above to find posts on your particular inquiry, and comment on a post if it is useful or wrong, or if you’d like read more about it.

Otherwise, scroll through for randomness that I found enjoyable and wanted to share. Thanks for visiting.
Americana Exotica

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Gatlinburg Fire 1-2017

Gatlinburg after the November 2016 fire. Arson was suspected from the beginning, though a drought and a burn ban had been in place and wildfires were anticipated. Last I heard, the two teenagers accused of starting the fire were hanging out at Chimney Tops, a popular trail in the National Park and rolled burning tires down the mountain, catching everything on fire as it went. Fourteen people died and the property losses must be astronomical.

On my trip this month, the fires were out and the park was open. The downtown wasn’t harmed, but random buildings on the outskirts were burned to the foundation. Locals described the fire burning on the hillsides and branching down into small low pressure areas, hitting one house and skipping the one next door like a tornado might. The rental cabins and vacation homes were devastated; November I think is the off-season for this region, or this would have been an even greater tragedy.

It’s hard to say who owned most of the homes there, but I think it was a mix of investment groups and independent owners from the area and outside of it. The roads survived, and handwritten “Sell Property Fast” signs are pinned to the trees with the number to call. Many houses are flattened, but random metal bits are left: bear boxes for trash cans, frames of cars, portable grills. Construction vehicles barreled up the windy roads and were parked across some of the roads as barricades.

The town has carried on with impressive reserve. A local woman working at a downtown restaurant said she cried for two weeks, but she was back at work and taking orders. The tourist experience was undiminished, despite everything. The aquarium almost didn’t make it, but the fire reached just to it and stopped. Dollyworld is open. All the silly touristy stuff is open. The city is still there and it’s doing what it needs to do.

Much respect, Gatlinburg. Much respect, Pigeon Forge.

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Sourdough Recipe


1/4 cup starter (2 parts wheat, one part rye, one part quinoa)
1 cup whole wheat
Enough water to make a wet dough or thick batter

Mix together well, refrigerate 24 hours

Add 3 scant cups bread flour, 3tbps gluten, turmeric, seasonings if using, and just enough water to make a dry dough. Knead until a walnut sized portion stretches to make a “pane” about 2 inches by 2 inches.

Refrigerate covered 2-3 days in an oiled bowl.

Split into 2-3 parts. Spread out on an oiled sheet and salt well. Roll up like a carpet and cut the top. Oil and salt the top. Place in a lined loaf pan. Cover and let rise overnight, or until most of the way up the pan.

Cook in a water bath at 375 covered for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake another 10-15.


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Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

These cookies are the best. I used the scientific method.

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (5 ounces or 142 grams) all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted or browned
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 large egg
3/4 dark chocolate chips

Chill at least 1 hour, bake at 360 for 8-10 minutes

shown here with white chocolate chips and coconut

shown here with white chocolate chips and coconut

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Online history of online histories.

This is an aside to part 2 of my series on the online history of the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike and focuses on the nature of online sources.

Though the series is on the decline of the tunnel as related by ever-improving technology, the apparatuses to document the transmission of information from one source to another have changed as well. In oral histories, autoclitics express the degree of certainty of the speaker, and parentheticals like, “as we were just saying” confirm the place of the utterance in a larger context; in writing, citations perform these functions– but paper is static, and the internet is not. Consequently, the changing nature of documentation online has shaped the various reports on the turnpike.

The mechanics of referencing have generated a considerable amount of interest as technology capable of dispersing information grows more sophisticated and available. The PEW Research Center reports that 64% of Americans own a smart phone. High schoolers who graduate this year will have never lived in a world without search engines. All of this makes me feel incredibly old, and I am not very old, but I did have to memorize the MLA format to document my work in a world was not easily searchable (and validate my work, as well).

The essay References, Please describes the overabundance of information involved in academic writing as an “appeal to authority.” This authority places the body of work and the author beyond the reproach of the reader in a distinctly inegalitarian attitude that is unlikely to persist in the horizontal landscape of the internet. The very earliest sources like PENNWAYS use the conventions for books at the time and have intellectual property considerations. In contrast, later-coming pages use one or a combination of the developing reference styles for online resources. This blog, for example, uses hyperlinks almost exclusively and is shareable across several platforms. I guess I have retained some copyright, but honestly, nobody has ever wanted anything on here and I have never looked into it. The most recent additions about the turnpike are geotagged photos on Instagram– more accurate than most maps and searchable by hashtag.

Style guides proscribing citation practices have responded to the new demands of online writing; APA format, the style used by psychologists and in many scientific and medical journals, retains the requirement of urls in citations. The APA style guide blog does not have a readily available reason for this. However, having written within both disciplines, it seems like sources relevant to science and medicine are more durable than those of the Humanities– which might be called upon to analyze the jokes on bubblegum wrappers and the like.

MLA, the format used for writing about the humanities (including modern languages like English along with its literature and the critiques of it), has abandoned the url as a part of references. As the creator of several link-heavy posts, I can attest that urls change often. If I had to estimate, links to sources other than Wikipedia have a life of a few years. Reflecting that, the MLA’s new approach encourages critical thinking in citing, making referencing part of a conversation, in an effort to “future-proof” the references of current documents. The nature of authorship may be changing, as well, but that would be better addressed in another post. Hyperallergic’s article on plagiarism and art describes the new MLA guide for online citations:

“The Modern Language Association just released a new version of its style handbook that departs from its predecessor’s fetishism of citation minutiae in order to show how documenting sources is a crucial way to publicly record meaningful conversations in a changing digital world.”

I find this fascinating, even if it is dry and academic. The above quote describes citations as a record of “conversations,” and when understood as such, they can give insight into the writer’s thought process and place the piece in question into a larger narrative. Online citations are particularly tricky: the format permits traditional references, comments, hyperlinks, screen shots, edit logs, and more. The OWL at Purdue has devoted special attention to this subject, but the conversation is far from over.

One trend online has been to do away with references completely, and rely upon the reader to do the work when it is necessary. It is easier, as a writer, to place that burden upon the reader, but as scholarly author Kathleen Fitzpatrick points out, content on the web is reposted and altered, abbreviated and present to varying degrees of reliability in multiple places. Her essay Why citations still matter in the age of Google describes citations as “always future-oriented,” no matter their apparent preoccupation with the past.

Because I am playing archivist with this series, I have to agree. Hopefully this post was valuable to you in some way, thanks for reading.

parting shot

parting shot

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Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike part 2 (1989-2000)

This is part 2 of a 3 part series on my experience with the Turnpike and will cover the online history of the turnpike. I’ll be blunt– this post will only interest readers who explicitly share my obsession with citations and the nature of academic discourse. If you were looking for sepia-toned soft focus shots of red heads beaming out of post apocalyptic ruin– it ain’t here. But it is here, so don’t go away crying

Despite a serious lack of sex appeal, the turnpike’s online history is almost as interesting as its physical history. The post I wrote in 2009 had by 2016 become completely defunct– the pictures were outdated and of poor quality relative to what iphones upload by the million to Instagram; half my links were dead; excellent writers made better posts than I had on the same material; and the internet just works better now. At rewriting, the most interesting thing I can share about my experience with the turnpike is witnessing the decline of the tunnel as relayed by exponentially improving technology. To illustrate this point, I have divided the references more or less chronologically.


As covered part one of this series, Pennsylvania built the turnpike during the Great Depression. Traffic overwhelmed the turnpike, and in 1968 the turnpike was rerouted and the Bedford-Fulton portion of the turnpike sat derelict in the mountains for years. The turnpike runs through the beautiful Allegheny Mountains and charming hamlets, and the abandoned section, particularly the tunnels, still draw visitors from around the country. Though the turnpike has experienced some privations, Google trends reports sustained and possibly renewed interest:

Google trend report for "Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike"

Google trend report for “Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike”

Internet record on the site begins around 1998 with pages like Pennways, a page devoted to highways and transportation in the area, which links to several USENET groups and despite a 2005 update, provides links that have mostly gone dead.

There are no images, little formatting, and several of the now-dead links are to books. I was in middle school when this page was made, and it was probably sophisticated for its time. The author maintained several similar sites with indexes of resources on related issues. For context— search engines weren’t invented until 1993. There was no Wikipedia, and Google was a start up born of a research project a year before this was written. The internet was accessed through dial-up. Information was difficult to find efficiently on the internet, and indexes like the ones he supplied were invaluable. Bravo, Mr. Kozel! You are an American hero. I just screen shot your page on my phone, sent it to three different devices wirelessly, and put it back up on the internet in about five seconds. It is an amazing time to be alive.

Due to link-rot issues with a reference-heavy blog like this one, and the nature of the post, I’ve screen shot several pages I would otherwise just link to, but it makes it easier to see the improvements of the internet. All the better to illustrate the improvements of technology and preserve the hard work of others. (Early investigator Mike Natale deserves special credit.) Hopefully this will make this page more resilient, but on the other hang, the same mechanisms that make online references fragile also make them responsive. My first post linked to a credible resource on fears of sabotage on the turnpike, from Joseph Topinka’s history. A few days after the post went up, the page was removed. I have a screenshot of the cache, but after further investigation– the history referenced on the page I linked to appears to have been fabricated. See the gallery below for a summation:

The first website ever went live in 1991, so Internet posts on any matter at all are suspiciously absent from the record pre-1990, but luckily there were books and stuff. The Miller Center at the University of Virginia has posted their collection of primary resources and the aesthetics of the Pennsylvania Depression-era posters are really striking.

Some of the very earliest sources available online were adapted from other media, maybe best evidenced by this scan of a book of the oral history of Pennsylvania. Newspapers have uploaded some of their print journalism to their online archives, and the turnpike gets a mention in this 1990 article on the turnpike that makes no mention of the abandoned portion. Wikipedia’s earliest-published reference, the 2000 Winter newsletter for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has since been removed. An email to the “Contact Us” line generated a quick and polite response, but no flyer. Maybe it is gone forever.

1997: The word “blog” is coined.

Gribble Nation was established in 1998, and retains a directory format similar to that of PENNWAYS. Check out the directory format of their Old Dominion Roads section. Gribble Nation posted impressively comprehensive content and was generous in its out-linking to contributors and other relevant sites, but now the most of the links have gone dead. The emails of the contributors are listed on the landing page, but several have bounced back, along with an inquiry to the submission email, which appears to have been a secondary email address for contributor Adam Price. If the others reply, I will post their comments in an update. I’m sorry Adam, I really tried.

Though it was updated this year, this website on the turnpike was established in 1997 and has the straightforward appeal of the other early pages. The sitemap lists the entries hierarchically, and like Gribble Nation, hosts photos. The photos, from the Pennsylvania State Archives and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, vintage photos of the turnpike and show its construction, inauguration, and early history. The images cannot be saved or linked to due to the site’s settings, so I have screen shot them here. Contributor Jeffrey Kitso has reserved all the rights, and I have linked the images to his website, but his email was not available. I will proceed under the expectation that use falls under-fair-use guidelines as this post is about the nature of the internet and not the turnpike itself.

Creating and maintaining a blog was arduous, technical work before Blogger or WordPress streamlined the process. The extant sites, defunct though they may be, express the motivation and craftsmanship of their authors. The webmasters have put forth great effort: research of original source material, careful indexing of links, the uploading (to the then-text-heavy web of the time) of photos and newspaper scans, the provision of no-frills options for users with slow internet connections– and these have been the basis of many other posts (my also-defunct 2009 post included.) Thank you for your hard work!

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Murderous Mary and the Darkness in the South


Today marks the 100th anniversary of the hanging of performing elephant Mary. During a parade in Erwin, Tennessee, Mary’s handler prodded her away from a watermelon rind and struck her on an undiscovered and painfully impacted tooth. Mary, a generally well-tempered animal, threw her handler to the ground in pain and crushed his head. In other similar instances at the time, “rogue” elephants could be renamed and quietly resold to another company. However, sensational news report forced her owner Charlie and his veterinarian wife to follow the protocol of the time and put down their much loved elephant. After failed attempts to shoot her, poison her, and electrocute her (at 44,000 volts she “danced a bit”), the town decided the best way to dispatch of the animal was by hanging her from an oil derrick.


The hanging was gruesome, made even more so by a first failed attempt that broke her hip, reports of failure to unchain her leg when she was first lifted by the neck, and the circus’s performance (without Mary) preceding the entire spectacle. The town gathered to watch the “moral and instructive” event, and her fall from the derrick sent children screaming. The hanging sits uncomfortably close to the lynchings throughout the country, specifically in the south. Some reports of the hanging conflate her hanging with the burning of a black man on rail ties that occurred in the town. Erwin was (and maybe still is) a “sundown town”, and witnessed a racial cleansing soon after the elephant hanging that included the lynching and immolation of black laborer Tom Devert.

This August, the town held a parade in memory of Mary, to benefit performing elephants. The guilt in the town is palpable and possibly unshakeable, but has spurred an initiative to make the small town of Erwin an unexpected advocate of elephant advocacy. The nearby Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald is the nation’s largest natural-habitat refuge for elephants and has been specifically designed to meet the needs of retired performing elephants. Local newspapers have commented upon the miasma in the town for decades. The restorative initiative appears to be succeeding, if the turnout at the Erwin Elephant festival is any indication.

The East Hill Cemetery in Bristol Tennessee includes a memorial to confederate soldiers immediately next to a much more modest slave cemetery located on a slope into the woods. The juxtaposition is alarming and unremarked upon, though the slave section is marked with a sign including the names of several of those there interred.

The town of Bristol appears to be in decline; abandoned office furniture litters the downtown area and many buildings stood vacant. Our hotel was next to a Nascar course, and also several massage parlors and an office for mattress sanitation services. Both Erwin and Bristol lie on a train line, and both are attempting a bit of a renaissance, Erwin by appealing to animal lovers and the run off population of gentrified Asheville, and Bristol through country music tourism. The landscape is mountainous and dotted with coal mining towns and, of course, it is beautiful. Southern charm ran thin on this trip, but most of the people I encountered in both cities were nice enough, though it should be reported that I am white. (It could also be reported that clerks routinely handed my credit card and bill back to the male in my party.) And so the South, there she is in all her complicated and beautiful grotesquery: may elephants live 1,000 years in your heart.

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Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike Part 1

In 2009 I spent a night camping on the abandoned section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and shared my experience in a meandering, informal post that I had a ton of fun putting together. That entry quickly became the most-visited post on this site; early visitors sought out directions and photos (blurry as they were). Since then– other sources have come to perform that function better: more efficiently, more completely, and with more current information. Please see here, here, or here for directions, and look in on the Facebook page devoted to the abandoned turnpike if you are planning a trip.

Today the tunnels are in a precarious situation– caught between conservation efforts and financial realities, and merit more than the casual interest of road trippers. Clearly, there is still a lot to say about the turnpike, so I have divided my original post into a three-part series. This entry will give some history and context, the second will report on the online history of the turnpike, and the last will be an update to the post about my trip there.

Ray's Hill, West portal. As it was in 1981. Photo by Adam Price

Ray’s Hill, West portal. As it was in 1981. Photo by Adam Price

Before the asphalt was even poured, the turnpike was born of abandonment. The expressway runs through the tunnels bored for the never-completed South Pennsylvania Railroad, part of Vanderbilt’s turf war with the major rail company presiding over the area. His bid for dominance failed, and the costly tunnels were never used. Twenty six men died during the astronomically expensive endeavor and the project became known as “Vanderbilt’s Folly.” The suggestion to use the tunnels for the turnpike came at the dawn of the age of the automobile, from a representative of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association and a member of the state planning commission– reportedly as a joke. The idea stuck, and after some investigating, engineers selected seven tunnels for completion. One of the nine unfinished train tunnels was declared unsound– this little known and never-used excavation sits to the side of one of the better known tunnels.

Construction for the turnpike began during the Great Depression, and funding sources included several New Deal programs including: the Works Progress Administration, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and the Public Works Administration. Excavating the tunnels was arduous and full of danger. Mining exposed a sand-seam that flooded the tunnel, there was a freak snow-storm in June, and Laurel Hill collapsed, killing several men. William Leach, a 33 year old man who was working in the tunnel, was caught by the arm during the cave in, and found dangling five feet off the ground. An ambulance carrying a doctor arrived to the tunnels from a hospital some 15 miles away. The doctor put on a head lamp, crawled into the rubble, and freed Leach by amputating his arm. Despite these heroics, Leach died en route to the Catholic hospital and last rites were performed by the side of the road. The St. Petersburg Times interviewed a source who chose to remain anonymous who blamed the Pennsylvania Turnpike commission for “haggling” over the type of reinforcement used.

Tragedy and bad luck notwithstanding, after a mere year of work through a torturous winter, the turnpike opened to vehicles in 1940 with a midnight celebration. Motorists bought tickets and waited days to help inaugurate the turnpike. Visitors competed to drive first on this new sort of road, modeled after the recently-opened German autobahn. The turnpike became a bit of a destination in its own right; most Americans had never been anything like it– 14 miles with no intersections, street lights, or stop signs. Drivers pulled over to better see the new, glowing signs and it acquired the nickname “the road of the future.” Speed limits on this type of road had not been decided, the upper limit was determined by the cooling systems of the cars, and signs directed motorists only to “Drive Carefully.” The turnpike quickly became highly traveled; estimates for the use of the turnpike were only a half of the eventual amount of cars.

The beginning of World War II coincided with the opening of the turnpike, and the military quickly understood the value of the new, efficient design. This innovation was capable of quickly moving troops and equipment between cities and in 1944 Congress moved to create what is now the interstate system. Anxiety ran high regarding the tunnels in particular– the public worried about cave-ins, and sabotage was a concern. During construction of the turnpike, dynamite was found under a bridge in Bedford and equipment was damaged, presumably by rival contractors, but it did establish precedent.

Military exercises were held to defend the turnpike town of Bedford, should it come “under siege,” and guards placed at the tunnel entrances questioned “suspicious” drivers.


By the 1950’s, expansion was clearly needed. Traffic became so heavy that the narrow tunnels could not support it, creating a bottleneck and back ups in either direction. In the end it was most cost-effective to run a wider expressway along a parallel path than to expand the existing turnpike and tunnel system. The commission rerouted the turnpike, and in 1968 the tunnels were abandoned– devastating the communities who had developed around turnpike traffic and were economically reliant upon it. Several neglected buildings stand empty along the actual turnpike, an illustration of the effect on the nearby towns. Visiting the Rays Hill tunnel requires stopping in Breezewood, Pennsylvania, a turnpike-dependent town also possessed of a traffic bottleneck– precisely the situation Bedford and Fulton found themselves in at the turnpike’s re-routing. A Breezewood business owner remarked to the Wall Street Journal, “Take that traffic away, and Breezewood would die.”

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission retained ownership of the disused section until 2001, when it was turned over to the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy group. Since the closure of the turnpike, the trail had become a popular tourist destination for hikers, bicyclists, and urban explorers. Wikipedia reports the turnpike was cosmetically in good shape until the 1980’s, when vandalism began to take hold and the letters were stolen. The area’s post apocalyptic charm only grew, and the tunnels remained structurally sound, by most reports. There was much excitement about the acquisition and plans to create a formal biking path out of the turnpike. Shortly after the acquisition, however, a feasibility study came back with estimates of 3.5 million to restore the tunnels. The Pike to Bike project “imploded” and further progress was halted. Since then, the future of the trail has been unclear.

The derelict tunnels were used to portray a ruined world in the film adaption of the post-apocalyptic novel The Road, and the surrounding area remains a popular hunting destination. Local wildlife has enjoyed the relative peace in the idle space. Several species of bats have begun nesting in one of the tunnels; a 1999 study of the bat population in the train tunnel found the third largest hibernacula of the endangered Indiana Brown Bat. The Pennsylvania Game Commission advises visitors not to enter during their hibernation period, which begins in October, but this is not enforced. The turnpike’s ownership remains contested after the dissolution of its conservancy group and at time of writing, the legality of visiting is ambiguous. Though technically illegal, visiting has been permitted with a “wink and a nod.”

Inter-county disputes pose a major barrier to development. A local paper reports that although the majority of the trail is in Fulton County, Bedford County is the better positioned to gain economically. The feasibility study suggested Fulton County’s share of the profits might be only 20%. Fulton County Newspaper reported in 2014 on the results of the study, and the frustrations of at least one local business owner over the halting progress.

The community remains invested in the turnpike despite the overwhelming odds, and this month a community clean up effort had an unexpectedly large turn out. Potential is apparent, and reviews of nearby hotels include proximity to the trailhead. One survey projected 200,000 to 300,000 visitors a year to the completed trail. Restaurants, bike rentals, hotels, convenience stores and others were identified as points of growth for the town following improvements to the trail; one version of this improvement package would include a museum and solar recharging panels. These improvements would be a considerable change to the trail; during my 2009 visit, the tunnel had no running water, no lighting, and was accessed by gravel roads– and nothing would indicate this has changed.

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