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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Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike Part 1

INTRODUCTION
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

THE HISTORY OF THE TURNPIKE:
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.

[IMG]

SUMMATION UP TO 2001:
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.”

THE FUTURE OF THE TUNNELS:
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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Doña Marina: Ghost of Summer Betrayals

Dona Maria, also known as Malinche, is a much maligned and poorly understood figure in Mexican history. This post will give some context into her role in shaping history, her motivation for helping a foreign army capture Montezuma, her status as a
survivor of myriad injustices, and the changing perceptions of her actions through history up to modern time.

A woman of many names and interpretations:

Dona Marina goes by many names, some of them more respectful than others. As a Nahua woman, she was called Malinalli, named for the goddess of grass. During her work with Cortes, allied indigenous people used a formal form of the honorific suffix “-tzin” to form Malintzin. In keeping with Meso-American diplomatic practices at the time, twenty women were given as a gift to Cortes to establish an alliance, and Malinche found herself among these. Spanish soldiers had her renamed during a (presumably forced) baptism along with some other twenty young women in preparation for distribution to Cortes’s captains.

At her baptism, she was christened “Marina,” a common Spanish name at the time. Perhaps because of some claim to nobility, or a regal bearing, or a cruel sense of humor– they added their own honorific, “Dona,” a gesture not extended to Hernan Cortes until after the capture of Montezuma. Under her Christian name, following her delivery to Cortes, Malinche participated in the capture of Aztec city Tenochtitlan culminating during the summer of 1531.

Tenochtitlan Ruins
Tenochtitlan Ruins in what is now Mexico City

Owing to this perceived betrayal, her name became the Mexican Spanish epithet “malinchismo” or the female malinchista to describe traitors who reject their own culture in favor of some other more prestigious one. Some of her critics blame blame Malinche for the rate of domestic abuse in mexico, and 500 years later, her old home still has a bad reputation. In his movie The Counselor author and playwrite Cormac Mccarthy names the beautiful but sociopathic antagonist Malkina. The movie, set in Mexico, follows a brilliant but wounded orphan Malkina in her machinations for wealth. Malinche even makes an appearance in the French-Japanese cartoon The Mysterious Cities of Gold as a ruthless antagonist who assists a Spanish doctor trying to steal gold from a group of children.

Malinche assisting and obscured by Cortes in a painting by Diego Rivera displayed at the Palacio Nacional de Mexico.

Malinche assisting and obscured by Cortes in a painting by Diego Rivera displayed at the Palacio Nacional de Mexico.

 

A slightly more sympathetic reimagining conflates her with the myth of La Llorona, the ghost of a woman who drowned her children in a fit of rage at their father, then drowned herself in remorse and was doomed to cry beside water forever. One variant assigns her wrongdoings to a twin sister, who traveled north. Mexico has always had a lively syncretic tradition but then– aren’t we all guilty of a little confabulation now and then? As with many other historical figures, her identity has been shaped by hundreds of years of reinterpretations and cross-pollination with other characters. Her particular narrative took a turn in the 1960’s when feminist and Chicana scholars revisited her story and offered up fresh analysis.

Malinche as a diplomat in a doomed country:

Many textbooks describe the Aztecs as a monolithic entity, to the contrary– The Aztec Empire, was a collection of disparate groups who retained their local customs and religions but accepted Aztec rule. So inherently heterogenous was the empire that it is sometimes called The Triple Alliance, comprised of three Nahua “altepetl” city-states: Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Mexico-Texcoco, and Mexico-Tlacopan.

The people who identified themselves as Aztec were a largely (but not entirely) Nuhual-speaking group who believed themselves originated from from Aztlan, a mythic place described in Nahutl legends. The legends describe Aztlan as having seven caves for seven tribes who shared a common language. Fittingly, the Aztec kingdom was a disparate collection of tribes ruled in hegemonic arrangements from the island capital Tenochtitlan.

Malinche summoning the Aztec nobles to bring food and water to the Spaniards.

Malinche summoning the Aztec nobles to bring food and water to the Spaniards.

Malinche was born in a “frontier” region between Aztec and Mayan controlled land sometime between 1496 and 1501. Her father died when she was young and following the birth of a half-brother, she was sold or abandoned. Prior to this, however, she had enjoyed the benefits of nobility described in Chicana Feminist Thought, including the provision of a formal education in another city. Following the disruption of her early life, she likely became a Mayan slave and remained in the city state of Tabasco between her birthplace on the Yucatan Peninsula and the Capital city.

By her young adulthood, Malinche had become fluent in Mayan in addition to her first language Nahuatl. Bernal Diaz del Castillo described her as beautiful in his Florentine letters. These assets made her valuable, and she was traded back and forth between Spanish expedition leaders. During this time she learned Spanish (which is a difficult language) and became sole interpreter. The allied Talaxcaltecs so closely associated Malinche with Cortes that they were referred to as a single entity and called by her name, detailed in the 2003 text Transcending Conquest. Ultimately the married Cortes kept her as an interpreter, intermediary, and mistress– more than one comparison has been drawn between Malinche and Pocahontas.

Malintzin

Malinche and Cortes

 

The Aztec kingdom was largely established by the ethnic group the Mexica, a group indigenous to the Valley of Mexico– a considerable distance from Malinztin’s home on the Gulf of Mexico in the Yucatan. Further, the concept of national consciousness did not exist at that time. Because of this, and the hegemonic relationship between the ruling body in the region with surrounding tribes, modern analysis has asserted that Malinche advanced the interests of her people by assisting the Spanish in conquering the Aztecs, with whom she did not feel affiliated.

Author Adelaida Del Castillo expounds upon this point in her contribution to Chicana Feminist Thought, edited by scholar of Mexican America studies Alma M. Garcia. Here, Castillo describes the oppression of the indigenous people by the Aztecs in the form of violence and forced tributes. The Aztec were also notorious for their human sacrifices and cannibalism. For these people, Malinche lent a sympathetic ear and acted as an intermediary, establishing a sort of uneasy truce with Spain that protected the capital city from being razed as other cities had been. Spain provided the locals special privileges, permitting the locals to keep their own names and maintain their traditional form of government for the following 300 years of Spanish occupation.

Survivalism in the time of the conquistadors:

Beginning in the 1960’s with the famous poem Malinche by beat-era Mestiza writer Rosario Castellanoes, modern depictions have portrayed Malinche as a victim, which she clearly was: abandoned by her mother after the arrival of a half-brother, sold by Mayans to soldiers, and passed around by foreign generals– one of whom was Cortes who she would eventually become pregnant by. Her attachment to her captors has modern precedent, as in cases of Stockholm Syndrome or the tragically common effects of trauma bonding in abusive relationships.

Acknowledgement of her victimhood challenges the prevailing attitude toward Malinche and elicits sympathy and renewed interest in her situation, particularly within Chicana Feminism. However, this limited understanding of her character does not speak to her agency or her resourcefulness. Various sources describe her as striking, capable, wealthy. She is also shown taller than Cortes in most paintings of the pair. In another set of circumstances, Malinche might have escaped to a convent, or avoided marriage altogether in an act of self preservation; according to the fictionalization of her story in the1826 novel Xicoténcatl, that is exactly what she did. Surveying her options, Malinche capitalized upon the path to power available to her at the time, using both her youth and beauty and a bright, incisive mind to avoid further disruption and loss.

Malinche and Cortes mural by Jose Clemente Orozco

Malinche and Cortes mural by Jose Clemente Orozco

Cortes favored her over other indigenous women, but despite her attractiveness and practical value to his expedition, he did not consider her appropriate for marriage. The dynamic within their relationship mirrors the inequitable relationship between the Aztecs and the surrounding peoples, as well as between Spain and the New World. Her work made the capture of Montezuma possible, and some sources report she stood screaming on the top of pyramids demanding the aztecs bring food and gold to the spanish soldiers. However crucial she was, Cortes routinely omitted her from his narrative, going so far as to Cortes omitted Malinche from his correspondence almost entirely, going so far as to imply he spoke the native language himself.

Perpetually at a disadvantage, Malinche made herself made herself indispensable out of necessity, protecting both herself and her new son. Aligning herself with Cortes was not without its risks, as shown by her linguistic reputation in Mexican Spanish, as well as his treatment of women– even those who were culturally on even footing with him.

Cortes’s first wife Catalina Súarez arrived in New Spain in the summer of 1922, around when Malinche had a son by her husband. Cortes named the boy Martin after his father Martin Cortes de Monroy, despite the illegitimacy of the birth. Catalina died in New Spain under mysterious circumstances November 1st or 2nd, during what would be the Day of the Dead observances in Mexico, if that matters. Cortes was suspected of poisoning her, but was not charged and subsequently married a woman of greater prominence and had several children by her, including another son who he also named Martin. Maybe Malinche poisoned her out of out of jealousy or in proactive self defense, but then female on female violence always seems to be on my mind.

Malinche as cultural icon:

Malinche remains a mystery in many ways, due to the disinterest or unreliability of contemporary record keepers. Cortes mentions Malinche only twice in his letters, and only in passing. The majority of what we know comes from one source, written by a man who was a footsoldier to Cortes. This is a shame, but in this absence, a great body of interpolation and projection has developed. She is subject to scrutiny in academic circles as well as by street artists. Her imaginings as traitorous whore, and subsequent reimaginings as mother to all mestizos, politician, victim, and survivor speak more to the needs of the audience than to any objective truth.

Street art in Oaxaca

“From Our Roots is Born the Flower that Will Make the Conqueror Fall,” graphic art by Mojo, Oaxacan artist. (Photo, R. Haskett, 2014)

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Baxter Avenue Train Station

Things change. They lose their meaning or their value. We lose them and forgot we ever had them. We archive them optimistically, desperately. The posts I made when I started this blog have gradually become less functional and slipped further and further in the page rankings as other, better content showed up– and that is a good thing. In an effort to keep sharing what I find interesting, I have been revising some of my older posts, and here I revisit the Baxter Avenue Train Station.

Baxter Station

Sometime in 2008, I think, my friend had a couch surfer for a few nights and I thought she was insane. Couch surfing is like having the entirety of Craigslist show up at your doorstep and ask for a shower. I have had mixed experiences with it, from very nice, normal exchanges with people in Iceland, to my Kentucky attempts to host which included a lovely couple from a nearby city, but also: an evasive German magician, a demanding night owl, a guy who wanted to come to Derby for the “energy”, and a carny I threw out of my car. Luckily, her guest turned out to be a lovely English gentleman taking a sabbatical to sightsee by motorcycle across the United States. He was wonderful, charming and mild-mannered– and maybe a little unsure of what to make of us.

We managed a pretty good tour for the guy, including several local landmarks and the parks. We put messages in bottles and threw them off the bridge into the Ohio River, a practice he seemed unfamiliar with but was enthusiastic about all the same. He threw our bottles for us, because he was “the bloke” and we wanted them as far into the current as they could get. Some guides might have taken him to the Slugger Museum, or the Seelbach Hotel bar, or to bet on ponies at the track. Did we do that? On the contrary, I took him on a low-brow prowl: dive bars, dollar beers, an expedition through ruins of my burned apartment building, into an abandoned crematorium, and up to the gloriously bombed out Baxter Avenue Train Station Platform because I am a broke cockroach.

I’d been to the train platform before during a heat-wave induced fugue state. Trespassing on railroad property is particularly risky in the world of urban exploration. The lines hire their own police force to monitor the tracks, and this platform passes over a major road, exposing us on two sides in the middle of a city. It had also become a safe haven for the homeless and the sheltered spaces were strewn with scraps of cardboard with things like “Christian Veteran, Please Help” written across them, among other bits of hobo camp trash. Before entering a new section, we’d call out to ask if anybody was home.

You can read the post I put up afterward if you are into decay porn. Between the two trips, I was fortunate enough to take some good pictures and upload them to my panoramio account, before the platform was destroyed in 2009.

Though it was built in 1937 by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, by the time I got there, the property had been purchased by CSX (the same company that owned the now-abandoned Moonville Tunnel and owns the infamous Pope Lick Trestle) and hadn’t seen passenger service in many decades. The line runs through the stockyards through Butchertown and at some point it might have been used for livestock or killing floor escapees had holed up there; the rooms still smelled strongly of pigs. I didn’t know it at the time, but I must have passed through the negro waiting room and the ticket office.

The demolition is well covered by Brandon Klayko on his site Broken Sidewalk and a local photographer caught the wrecking in progress. It’s a shame that it had to be torn down; it held a special significance as a PWA commissioned work, and was aesthetically striking, built in the Art Deco style. Dozens of early photos of the station are available at Louisville Art Deco, in an exhaustive post on the topic. They have posted several scans of news clippings, which I will post here to protect from link-rot, because they are really cool and deserve to be seen:

And now it is gone, the good and the bad of it, never to return– but that’s the way of things. The links in this page will break and the writing will age. I have aged. The people who went to the station with me are long gone in one way or another and I forgot the couch surfer’s name. I hope his trip went well for him. He seemed to enjoy his time in Louisville.

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Ice Giants, for Ragnarök

Ice Giants, for Ragnarök

The jötnar absconding with the goddess Freyja.

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Ghost Heart; In honor of Valentine’s Day

Heart transplants have been around for over forty years, saving lives, inspiring Lifetime movies and sort of freaking me out. The idea of my own organs in my chest makes me all squicky, never mind somebody else’s plugged in and mine out in the ether somewhere I can’t keep an eye on them. Luckily for me, but mostly for people in need of heart transplants, there’s a new technology on the horizon– the Ghost Heart.

Credit: Doris Taylor

We steal the hearts of our unearthly enemies.

Ghost Hearts have been developed out of rat hearts, and more recently, out of out of pig hearts. The organs collected from the pig sacrifices are laundered in sodium lauryl sulfate, a chemical found in many shampoos. The solution launders the organ of its cells, leaving only the “scaffolding” of collagen. These husks can then be injected with the donor’s heart cells, so there is no risk of the organ being rejected. If you’ve got a spare pig heart and feel the urge to experiment, check out this how-to for making your very own ghost heart.

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kisses

dinosaurs are not good at it.

no i love *you* more.

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