Beautiful Messes: A Travel Guide to Man-made Disasters Beautiful Messes: A Travel Guide to Man-made Disasters
Environment

Beautiful Messes: A Travel Guide to Man-made Disasters

by Eric Smillie

June 26, 2008
Whether you want to cruise by the floating pile of plastic in the Pacific or throw some trash into the nation's largest landfill, good has the dirt on where to go to get a close-up look at the most spectacular disasters man has wrought on the environment. Plus: What to do when you visit.

 

Eastern Garbage Patch

IN THE PACIFIC OCEAN
All the plastic that has ever found its way to the sea is still floating somewhere-down to the last plastic bag and wisp of dental floss.Much of it gets pulled into the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a huge, slowly turning whirlpool a thousand miles off the coast of California. "We find floats, crates, tofu tubs," says Charles Moore, a researcher who has explored the area for a decade. "But mostly what we see are fragments. On a calm day it's almost as if someone had taken a giant saltshaker of plastic and shaken it onto the surface. It's dumbfounding."WHAT WENT WRONG:Littering, for starters. But what brings this mysterious collection of trash to a specific place in the waters west of Los Angeles? Circling air pushes ocean currents in a clockwise spiral that draws flotsam into the center of a patch of ocean that covers 2.5 million square miles. There, currents slow and all those lighters and candy wrappers break down into tiny bits of confetti. Naturally, animals mistake the particles-which soak up carcinogens like DDT and PCBs-for food. The toxins then work their way up the food chain, causing hermaphroditic polar bears; overly thin eggshells among nesting birds; and potentially low sperm counts, miscarriages, and developmental disabilities in humans.THE EASTERN GARBAGE PATCHWhen to visit: The gyre shifts seasonally, migrating northward in the summer. In the winter, it drops south and touches Hawaii, blanketing beaches with trash drifts.Where to stay: You'll need a private yacht, and you'll be sailing through a notoriously windless area called the horse latitudes. "I doubt anyone in my business would ever even talk to a client about a trip like this," says Beverly Parsons, a charter broker in the area.Where to eat: You could bring a fishing rod, but your safest bet is probably canned sardines and crackers.Getting there: The patch is centered roughly between latitudes 35º and 40º north and longitudes 140º and 150º west. Plan to spend at least two weeks at sea.Don't miss: Abandoned fishing nets often get stuck together, eventually stretching into "ghost nets" nearly 60 miles long. Look for them on Hawaii's coral reefs, where they wash up yearly.

 

The Salton Sea

IN CALIFORNIA
This accidentally man-made lake, 80 miles northeast of San Diego, is slowly drying up.Despite the dwindling water supply, millions of migratory birds still call California's largest lake paradise. So do birders, who fly in from all over to visit one of the most important avian habitats in the United States. Where else can you stand on beaches caked with washed-up fish skeletons and search the skies for little gulls and roseate spoonbills? "It's always been a big name," says a local guide named Bob Miller, who adds, ominously, "but it's like the Twilight Zone sometimes. I mean, it gets odors."WHAT WENT WRONG:In 1905, the levees for a project to divert the Colorado River burst, spilling trillions of gallons of water into a prehistoric lake bed. By the time they plugged the leak, the Salton Sea covered 400 square miles. Things were looking up in the 1950s, when fishing and boating attracted the makings of any decent resort town-retirees and celebrities-but several years of tropical storms washed away investment dollars. Now, since no new water is flowing in, the Sea is stagnant (and slowly evaporating), causing serious problems for its aquatic ecosystem. Chemical reactions turn the surface red and lime green, causing massive, odiferous fish die-offs, and sick fish poison the more than 400 species of birds that live here.THE SALTON SEAWhen to visit: Skip the summer months and catch the busy south-ern migration around New Year's.Where to stay: Slab City, an RV camp on a former military base. Camping and parking are free, but bring your own amenities. It's on Main Street, a few miles east of Niland, California, on the east coast of the Sea.Where to eat: Enjoy the Chef's Mistake, a hand-tossed personal pizza topped with four kinds of meat ($5.50) at Bobby D's Pizza Plus. 8110 Highway 111, Niland, California · (760) 359-0689Getting there: From Los Angeles, take I-10 east. From San Diego, take I-8 east.Don't miss: Check out Salvation Mountain, Leonard Knight's rainbow-hued folk-art cathedral. Also, if you team up with a Southwest Birders expedition ($210), you may spot more than 100 species in a day. (760) 455-1413 · southwestbirders.com

 

The Underground Coal Fire

IN CENTRALIA, PENNSYLVANIA
Centralia was just another sleepy northeastern Pennsylvania town until the local coal mine was filled with a raging inferno that burned unabated for decades.Even that didn't disrupt the peaceful Centralia life until 1981, when a smoldering sinkhole nearly swallowed a 12-year-old boy. In the wake of the national attention that followed, Centralia became a cult travel destination. To this day, the subterranean fire is still burning. "You can drive through and not even notice," says Chris Perkel, who produced a documentary on the place. "But when the fire's close to the surface, the trees are blackened, and steam and smoke billow from the rocks."WHAT WENT WRONG:The area's anthracite coal stoked the furnaces of the industrial revolution, but by the mid-19th century, companies left the region-and their messes-behind in favor of cheaper energy sources like petroleum. In 1962, burning garbage in an abandoned strip mine sparked a fire. In the years that followed, the flames grew as debate raged about whose problem it was to fix (the debate remains unresolved). Suddenly appearing sinkholes and carbon monoxide poisoning continued to threaten residents untilthe 1980s, when Congress paid to relocate them and bulldozed their houses-though a handful of hard-core Centralians can still be found there.CENTRALIA COAL FIREWhen to visit: Wet days in early spring make for picturesque clouds of steam.Where to stay: Find Granny's Motel by the statue of a pioneer woman holding a pie in nearby Frackville. ($50 a night). 115 West Coal Street, Frackville, Pennsylvania · (570) 874-0408grannys-pa.comWhere to eat: In Ashland, one of the closest habitable towns, grab a cheeseburger with chopped onions and the house hot sauce ($1.60) at Danny's Boulevard Drive-In, open since 1949. 630 S. Hoffman Boulevard, Ashland, Pennsylvania · (570) 875-0711dannysdrivein.comGetting there: From New York, take I-78 west to I-81 north (if you're in Philadelphia, take I-476 NORTH to I-78). Just past Ashland, the road detours around a fire-cracked stretch of highway and then enters Centralia.Don't miss: Ride open-rail cars into the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine ($8.50) where miners explain the region's history. 19th and Oak Streets, Ashland, Pennsylvania (570) 875-3850 · pioneertunnel.com

 

Apex Landfill

IN CLARK COUNTY, NEVADA
In the bare mountains overlooking Las Vegas lies a dusty, half-buried wonder: the nation's largest landfill.Last year, 4 million tons of trash were laid to rest here, and trucks dump up to 19,000 more every day. "It's definitely a place worth visiting, just to say you've seen it," says the pit's general manager, Fred Kober. Just don't expect heaps of trash and noxious smells. As standards for entombing rubbish have become stricter, landfills have become more contained and much, much bigger.WHAT WENT WRONG:In these parts, each resident generates about 10 pounds of waste a day-more than twice the national average. And it's got to go somewhere, so, like giant yellow beetles, Apex's bulldozers bury it in pits lined with clay and plastic to inhibit toxic chemicals from contaminating the local water supply (though it happens anyway). Before you pat yourself on the back for not living nearby, though, consider this: Every American sends 2.5 pounds to the landfill daily, the same amount we trashed in 1960. Too bad there are almost twice as many of us now.APEX LANDFILLWhen to visit: Apex never closes, but spring and fall are its most temperate seasons.Where to stay: A room at the Cannery Casino & Hotel in North Las Vegas ($69 a night) will put you in striking distance of the landfill. 2121 East Craig Road, North Las Vegas, Nevada · (866) 999-4899 cannerycasinos.comWhere to eat: Make like the truckers and stop at B-Boy's lunch truck in the lot by the gate for a hotdog ($1.25).Getting there: From Las Vegas, drive north on I-15 to Exit 64 and turn right.Don't miss: Here's something you can't do every day: In a strangely symbolic act, visitors can drive up and toss in a few bags of trash for posterity.

 

Berkeley Pit

IN BUTTE, MONTANA
Laden with metals and as acidic as vinegar, the water in this former copper mine-which now looks essentially like a massive rusty lake-is inhospitable to all life but the hardiest microorganisms: a flock of geese that landed on it quickly died.At 36 billion gallons and 900 feet deep, it's perhaps the largest of the highly toxic Superfund sites chosen by the Environment Protection Agency for special cleanup attention. Until they get to it, though, for just $2, you can stand at its edge and gaze into its chocolate-red waters.WHAT WENT WRONG:Butte hit it big with copper. The city, the world's top source for the metal at the start of the 20th century, earned the nickname "the Richest Hill on Earth."But the boom ended in 1955, and the party was over. The day the pumps stopped in 1982, water heavy with arsenic, cadmium, iron, and manganese began to rise through the miles of abandoned tunnels. Undaunted by the threat this water would pose if it ever entered the aquifer, Butte turned a weakness into a strength: It built a ticket booth and set up a gift shop on the lake's observation platform.BERKELEY PITWhen to visit: The pit is open for viewing May through October.Where to stay: The Copper King Mansion built in 1888 by the copper king William Andrews Clark (from $60 a night). 219 W. Granite Street, Butte, Montana · (406) 782-7580thecopperkingmansion.comWhere to eat: Try a "pasty," a delicious Cornish pie stuffed with beef, potatoes, and onions that was popular among miners. Now you can find them served with gravy at Joe's Pasty Shop ($4.25). 1641 Grand Avenue, Butte, Montana (406) 723-9071Getting there: Park in the lot by the Pit wall at the corner of Mercury Street and Continental Drive, then head through the tunnel to reach the platform.Don't miss: The Granite Mountain Memorial Overlook, a monument to the 168 miners who died in a 1917 fire that inflamed union tensions in Butte, a hotbed of the western labor wars of the early 20th century.
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Beautiful Messes: A Travel Guide to Man-made Disasters