The first thing I noticed on the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike was just how wide it is. The twin, parallel roads each have two lanes. There’s a median, overgrown with grass and saplings, that divides them. The shoulders make the highway broader still. The highway is fenced in by walls of trees. So much paved land, yet hardly any cars have driven here in 40 years.
Instead, the turnpike is a bicyclist’s dream. On a recent visit with my friend Bill, the old artery offered us some of the most novel cycling in the Keystone State. Yes, the pavement is cracked and potholed, ruined by years of frost heaves, but it’s flat. You don’t have to compete with traffic, because the highway was diverted in 1968, and this 13-mile stretch is off-limits to almost any motor vehicle. Technically, it’s not even a bike trail; cyclists pedal at their own risk. The scenery is downright apocalyptic—empty asphalt, overgrown bushes and tall trees casting long shadows.
When the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation rerouted this piece of the turnpike, they also changed much of the landscape. The once sleepy town of Breezewood was transformed into a major thoroughfare for travelers, and business boomed. Today, the interchange is familiar to anyone driving from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and most people dread it: Breezewood has become a wasp’s nest of fast-food restaurants and cheap hotels. Little do they know that the old turnpike lies only a mile away. The segment is short and hard to find, but cyclists travel from all over the region to ride this ghostly road. And the novelty of interstate riding is only half the fun: The real draw of the Abandoned Turnpike is “the tunnel.”
Into the Dark
The Sideling Hill Tunnel is over a mile long and completely unlit. Entering this long, manmade cavern means plunging into total darkness. Voluminous and chilly, the tunnel is empty except for some scattered debris. Halfway through, you can spot a letterbox of light at the far end, and because the tunnel is inclined—to siphon rainwater outward—cyclists barely have to pedal. Visitors are strongly encouraged to wear headlamps as they pump through the echoing black. Deep inside the mountain, cell phones are useless.
There’s another tunnel, Ray’s Hill, which comes first and isn’t quite as long. This serves as a kind of warm-up. In the Ray’s Hill tunnel, riders never find themselves in total darkness. Still, headlamps are recommended. Bill rode through without light, and the disorienting darkness caused him to weave like a madman.
The Turnpike ends abruptly. Look around and you’ll find an expanse of concrete—the last remains of an old travel plaza. For nearly three decades, people would stop here to refuel and stretch their legs. More recently, the area has been used to test rumble strips and military vehicles. And a couple of years ago, the turnpike was used to film parts of The Road, a 2009 movie about life after global Armageddon—which, considering the setting, makes perfect sense. End-of-the-world aesthetics aside, the old plaza makes for a perfect picnic ground.
Locals hope that the Abandoned Turnpike will one day become an official bike trail. Ideally, the tunnels would be electrified, like so many converted rails-to-trails passages, and the highways would be repaved or replaced with crushed limestone. Such initiatives face funding issues and endless red tape. As it happens, the turnpike passes through two counties with conflicting interests.
For now, the turnpike feels remote and lawless, a kind of freeway outback. The tunnel entrances are covered in graffiti, from the crass, to the artistic, to the wise. True explorers can climb into the tunnels’ upper tiers, where ventilators and dark antechambers await.
With any luck, the Abandoned Turnpike will find new purpose as a haven for bicyclists. The so-called “pike-to-bike” project could be a boon for Breezewood, and the vast tracts of forest could attract a new generation of visitors. Until then, the stretch of abandoned road appeals to adventurers with a somewhat morbid curiosity. Like me.
ROBERT ISENBERG is a writer, photographer and stage performer. He will film his first feature-length documentary, about the Great Allegheny Passage, in June. Find him at robertisenberg.net.