It’s 3am. We rubbed the sleep from our eyes and hesitantly checked the temperature.
Dave and I groaned quietly, but, too stubborn and adventerous to give up on our late-night lightbulb moment, we got up, made coffee & breakfast wraps, and wriggled into an extra layer of clothes. The Subaru headlights burned through the dark and heated seats coaxed the coffee into our bloodstreams as we headed off on our Saturday adventure towards Breezewood, PA.
After stumbling across the Abandoned PA Turnpike & Tunnels on a list of Cool Places to Explore in PA, we knew a visit was inevitable. It offered incredible apocalyptic and moody photography opportunities elevated by the haunting, electric sensation you experience when you’re somewhere you may or may not belong.
We parked our car in an inconspicuous dirt lot, grabbed our headlamps & cameras, and set off into the dark.
You know that feeling when you’re really wrapped up in a wild idea during a fit of creativity and motivation, only to find yourself in the midst of it wondering why the hell you woke up so early to go to a creepy abandoned place? No? Just us? Well, about a mile in, doubts bubbled to the surface. I was cold. Groggy. A bit hungry (but that’s neither here nor there, I’m always hungry). And honestly, little ol’ neurotic me was nervous about trespassing. As if police would be patrolling at 5am along a strip of abandoned highway that is quite literally, only accessible by foot. Despite the inward cries for warmth, we marched onward, stepping over fallen trees and chalk “warnings” scribbled on the pavement that read “TURN BACK NOW.”
To our surprise, we weren’t as isolated as we expected. Houses and trailers dotted the landscape and a few nestled close to the old turnpike itself, heightening our unease. The old turnpike isn’t technically off-limits, according to UncoveringPA.com, but with the stark setting and the sun just beginning to peak over the hill, it was hard not to feel slightly out of place.
Finally, after about 2 miles of me strategizing how to survive my inevitable jail-time, we finally spotted the Rays Hill Tunnel.
Graffiti covered the structure itself and tags littered the pavement along the way, which only added to the aesthetic. (I stopped counting the giant phallic images and beer cans after they surpassed what I could count on my hands). The sun wasn’t shining above the entrance as we had hoped, but we still paused for some photographs. The darkness made it all feel more dramatic anyway.
We found ourselves whispering in the misty dawn despite our solitude. Since bats live in the crevices of the tunnels, we didn’t want to disturb them. (Mostly for the selfish reason of not wanting to outrun flying animals in a confined space). With 4 or 5 cameras between us, we experimented with light and basked in the soft pink glow the sun cast on the clouds outside. I was still hungry, cold, and sleepy but also, I felt a marked sense of pride and adventure fill in between the gaps.
After a few hours of exploring and losing feeling in our extremities from the bitter cold, we said adieu to the Abandoned PA Turnpike and hello to the 2.5hr drive to Pittsburgh.
And the inevitable midday nap that was to follow.