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TL;DL (Too Long; Didn’t Listen)
The thrilling conclusion to an internet mystery surrounding a massive pile of dishware in the middle of the woods. If you haven’t listened to our previous episode, We Want Plates, you should go do that first. Ok, you’ve been warned...
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity\. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben Johnson: Previously, on Endless Thread…
GPS: The 3 hour 30 minute drive to Huge Pile Of Plates. Are you sure you want to navigate there?
Ben (In the car): Oh, I'm sure!
Ben: What are you what are we what are we looking at?
Amory: The text reads, “I was driving through the backwoods of Pennsylvania on the way to a camping spot and found a mountain of ceramic dishes and teacups in the middle of the woods?
Ben (In the car) : We're now officially driving through a creek bed.
Amory: Oh Ben oh no no no no.
Ben: Ohhh, wow!
GPS: Your destination is on the right.
Cliff: There’s no plates, never has been.
Ben: Well we came a long way for--
Cliff: You came a long way for nothing.
Ben: --to talk to you!
Cliff: I’ll tell ya, I was hoping you knew more than I did.
Ben: We want plates!
Amory: I agree!
Ben (on the phone): Hey is this Matt?
Matt: Yes this is.
Ben (in studio): I'm Ben Brock Johnson
Amory: I'm Amory Sivertson, and this is Endless Thread.
Ben: The show featuring stories found in the vast ecosystem of communities called reddit.
Amory: We're coming to you from WBUR, Boston's NPR station.
Ben: Today's episode:
Ben and Amory: Pile of Crockery!
McDonalds Employee: Welcome To McDonalds, How can I help you?
Ben (in car): Yeah hi um can I have uhhh sorry... I wanna get some Chicken McNuggets...
Ben: Here we are in a car, on our way home from a sad fail of a Pennsylvania road trip, where we searched high and low for a mysterious, enigmatic, thoroughly unexplained and unfindable mountain of dishware in the woods. We asked like, everybody we could find. And their mother.
Voice on phone: Pile of plates???
Amory: Yeah, like dishware.
Voice: I don’t know what you’re looking for but I know we have never found any kind of plates around here that I know anything of.
Amory: And we’re now pulled over on the side of the road in the rain because the only guy who knows anything about it has finally, after months of giving us the runaround, called us back. He was also driving around with his girlfriend, who was also with him when he found the plates a year ago.
Matt: So um I believe it was July... (speaking to his girlfriend) Was it July when we went to that campground?
Ben: Matt is from Hubbard, Ohio, near Youngstown. He’s not an avid Reddit user. And when he posted this plate mountain photo, he was completely overwhelmed with the online response. Tens of thousands of people. But he’s ready to tell us his story now that things have died down a little.
Amory: His story goes like this: Last summer, he and his girlfriend went driving through Ohio into Pennsylvania to hit up a campsite to meet a relative — an aunt who was up from Florida. It was just kind of a spur of the moment thing, which is probably why Matt doesn’t even remember the name of this camping area.
Matt: And this is what has been the biggest issue — is that there was no phone service in the roads that I was taking in those hills.
Ben: And this is the beginning of what we, in the old journalism business, like to call a fishing expedition.
Ben (on the phone): Was it near train tracks?
Ben: How far how far from the campsite were the plates, would you say about?
Matt: I’d probably say, yeah like 45 minutes. There was a local school that was by a graveyard, if that helps.
Ben (in studio): We would later learn that pretty much every small town in this part of Pennsylvania has this feature. But Matt was giving us some breadcrumbs, at least. He also mentioned a big old building of some sort. Run down.
Matt: It almost looked like uh, I don’t want to say factory, but like a big place, like it was abandoned.
Amory: Matt promised he’d chase down his girlfriend’s aunt and get the name of that damn campground. And that...was something.
Matt: I really, I really honestly wish that I had more information to give you.
Ben: No this is great.
Matt: I personally I'd like to know if it's still there, you know what I mean.
Ben: We're going to we're going to find it for you man.
Amory: We're going to try to find out.
Ben: We’re gonna find it.
Matt: Yeah good luck.
Amory (in studio): We were gonna need it.
Ben: Back to the drawing board baby!
Amory: When we got back to Boston, one of the first things we did was re-enlist a small army of Redditors to help us. We now had some more specific details: the school, the graveyard, the train tracks. Also a kind of loading dock that the plate mountain sat on top of and was visible in the photo.
Ben: And a slightly different general area to search. We had been in north central PA. We needed to go further west and maybe south, too.
Ben: And remember in our last episode when I said I used something called a GIS, or Geographic Information System? Well, our post asking for help on the GIS subreddit took off.
Ben: Fifty comments later, we had some new theories and locations. Some new kinds of maps and data sets to search. The hunt was on! We even roped in one of WBUR’s developers, Will Smith.
Will Smith: We knew distance from a location where this person started a trip, which gave me a sort of search radius to work within. I was told it was within a specific state so I was able to further limit it to that.
Amory: Meanwhile, we were getting to the bottom of one of the most popular theories for the plate mountain’s existence, with the help of the guy from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. That guy’s name is Keith Ruhl. Keith, whose info we got at the house of Cliff Cross, that landowner who didn’t shoot us and add us to his taxidermy collection. Nice guy really. Cliff had even let us go through his business card collection.
Ben (going through a business card collection): Here we go: Keith Ruhl, Department of Environmental Protection. Solid Waste Specialist.
Cliff: Yep, that’s it.
Amory: That’s him.
Ben: We called Keith because he was one of our only remaining leads in the great plate quest of 2019. And he might have already gotten to the bottom of this whole mystery while we were all just peering at satellite imagery like a bunch of NSA agents? Well, Cool Keith Ruhl called back.
Keith Ruhl: Hi there, I’m Keith Ruhl from Pennsylvania DEP in Williamsport, PA. I am a solid waste specialist.
Amory (On the phone): And what is a solid waste specialist?
Keith: Actually I call myself a garbage man because I deal in garbage! And a lot of my work is actually citizen’s complaints! It’s just amazing. Every time the phone rings it’s a new world. But it’s all in the world of garbage.
Amory: And when Keith gets a report about illegal dumping in his jurisdiction, he takes it seriously.
Amory (On the phone): So about three months ago, a tip made its way to you about a giant pile of plates somewhere in the middle of the woods…
Keith: Yes indeed.
Amory: ...in Pennsylvania. How did that make its way to you?
Keith: I believe it came in through the DEP website as a complaint saying, “Hey, you know, this looks like illegal dumping.”
Ben: Now we think that person may have come from Reddit. And just like us, Keith took that internet commenter’s tip and ran with it.
Amory (On the phone): So you had the coordinates, you knew who owned the land.
Amory: Did you just call up the landowner next?
Keith: Well that’s not quite as easy as it sounds because if the landowner has any stake in actually doing the dumping, calling him on the phone may or may not be the best thing to do. So I thought well, I’ll see what I can find. And I started walking back this unplowed road. And it was a beautiful winter day and quite a long walk to the point where I actually found this the area where these plates might have been, and there was nothing.
Ben: Oooooh Keith, we feel your pain, dawg.
Amory: We do. We so do.
Ben: I would like to point out that even though I definitely led us on a wild goose chase to Pennsylvania, my thinking matches Keith’s here — You can’t call a landowner and say, hey have you been doing some illegal dumping?
Amory: Right. But, unlike us, Keith wasn’t very surprised he didn’t find the plates.
Keith: It’s not your typical illegal dump site. The typical illegal dump site is generally on a dark country road over a bank where the public can dump whatever they want and get away in the dark of night without being caught. So, what you find in a typical illegal dump site is a little bit of everything — lots of tires, household garbage, appliances, dead animals, you name it — but a massive pile of one type of material just doesn’t really fit the scenario of a typical illegal dump site.
Ben: What about Cliff Cross? Typical illegal dumper?
Amory: And was Keith buying "pile of lime" explanation?
Keith: Oh yeah. He didn’t really say anything suspicious like he was trying to hide something. He said, "Yeah that was a pile of lime." There was nothing else in Tioga County that would lead me to believe there was ever a big pile of plates there. And if I don’t have a specific place to look or somebody that says hey I saw those things there, it’s a needle in a haystack and you’re never gonna find it.
Ben: Needle in a haystack. Never gonna find it. Cliff Cross might have had a whole wall in his house of the animals he had killed. Keith however, was killing our dreams, he couldn’t narrow our search.
Amory: Even with our whole group of hunters, Team Endless Thread, the developers, a host of Redditors, all scouring the state of Pennsylvania for industrial sites, weird white splotches, we still couldn’t find the spot.
Amory: Our only hope was the original poster, Matt, who seemed to have barely any recollection of where he was when he saw the plate mountain.
Ben: But then? Again, at the 11th hour.
Ben (On the phone): Matt! How’s it going man?
Matt: Good, good sorry for the delay again it was a whole big process.
Ben: Matt called me late one night. He said that there was a reason he hadn’t been in touch for a few days. No biggie, we could get to that. But first, new questions for Matt, thanks to the Redditors who had been helping in our search.
Ben (on the phone with Matt): Do you still have the original photo?
Ben: This was an idea we had. We could pull the metadata from the original photo. It’s called E-X-I-F or exchangeable image file format data. And it’s attached to any photo you take with your phone. But most social media sites delete that information from the photos that get uploaded. So we needed the original picture Matt took to get the location. So, we tried that.
Ben (On the phone): So click on the picture so it's up.
Ben: Now try this, I don't know if this will work for you, but try just swiping up on the picture.
Matt: Okay yeah it says July 5th, 2018. Thursday. 9:50 AM. And then it has the jpeg number.
Matt: And like the megapixels and stuff like that. And then it says Samsung SMG95 and my phone and then that’s it.
Ben (in studio): Foiled yet again. It was almost like everything that could go wrong with our quest continued to go wrong. So I had to ask Matt... the troll question.
Matt: No I’m not f--ing with ya. I’m not messing with ya. To me that would be a huge, pointless waste of time and I’m not a guy like that, so...
Ben: Plus, Matt had some proof he wasn’t trolling: more info on the location of the plates. He had been trying to get the name of the campground he had gone to, with the help of a relative. The aunt, who had been visiting from Florida. And she had had some life changes.
Matt: From the time that we were there last year she actually got a divorce from her husband.
Ben: Oh wow.
Matt: Yeah. So that was the whole big — I guess he was cheating on her or something — but that was the whole big issue because she didn't know exactly where it was. He did. So we actually had her reach out to him to find out what the name of the place was. And you won't believe the name of the exact campground.
Ben: Yes! This was huge. I talked to Matt for a little while longer and he revealed all sorts of juicy information. I had to tell Amory and our producer, Josh. And yes, I was definitely going to string ‘em a long for a bit.
Ben(On the phone with Amory): We just had a very long conversation.
Amory (On the phone): What happened?
Ben: Are you sure you’re ready for this?
Ben: Okay. I have a couple pieces of news. The reason...
Amory: Why are you taking so long?
Ben: Just 'cause I’m really enjoying it. I’m savoring knowing more than you right now. It really feels good.
Amory: Alright, spit it out.
Ben: First of all, the reason that it took so long for us to get this information is that Matt’s girlfriend’s aunt... (The phone beeps) Ah Josh is calling me back, should I conference him in?
Amory: Yeah conference him in.
Ben (in studio): Keep waiting, Amory.
Amory: I dislike you so much.
Ben: Okay. This is a piece of information that was actually already given to us but we, because we’re bad detectives (Josh laughs) we kind of we kind of glossed over it.
Josh Swartz: OK.
Ben: This was 4th of July.
Josh: Oh my god, he was totally wasted, he’d just been blacked out that entire day?
Josh: That makes so much sense!
Ben: So many of our theories about how he was trolling us are now booted by this idea. Clearly he was drinking!
Josh: Well that’s good, that means the plates are real, right?
Ben: Amory, I have a question for you.
Ben: Do you miss home?
Ben: We are going to Ohio, baby!
Ben: He didn’t even leave Ohio! He never made it to Pennsylvania!
Josh: No way, are you kidding?
Ben: I am not kidding.
Amory: Wait, wait, wait, wait. What is the campground? Where is it?
Ben: The name of the campground... is Austin Lake Campground. In Ohio.
Josh: I’m literally running to my computer right now
Ben: The good news is, I think we’re in the zone, dudes.
Josh: Oh my god, we’ve got to find these freakin' plates.
Ben: I can taste the plates. I can taste them!
Amory: Okay let’s practice. When I say O-H, do you guys know what to say?
Amory: Very good. Now you’re ready.
Amory: We’ll be back, in a minute.
Ben: Ok. We were close. Closer, at least. We knew the plates were in Ohio. We just didn’t know exactly where in Ohio.
Amory: But we did finally know which campground we should be starting from: Austin Lake, located in Toronto, Ohio. We started looking all around there on satellite imagery for big white splotches.
Ben: We also updated our Australian, van-dwelling investigator, James — the Redditor who initially thought he’d found the plates in Pennsylvania... except, he hadn’t. James was feeling a little guilty about that, so he continued searching on his own with the new information we had.
James: I kind of went looking for train tracks in the area, and then just followed the train tracks, and--
Amory: And then he found a school next to a graveyard, and then a little further up he found a piece of land with big piles of stuff on it and a business called Maryland Refractories.
James: Once I found this place, I was pretty certain that it was the right place.
Amory: I was less certain. From the satellite imagery, Maryland Refractories looks like a junkyard. There are lots of piles of stuff. A lot of them just look like rocks. Yes, some of those piles are white. But they’re not isolated by themselves in the woods, as Matt the OP’s memory would lead us to believe.
Ben: Of course, Matt’s memory…
Amory: Fair. Well what did make me feel like James was onto something was that he called Maryland Refractories, and they told him they have handled ceramics there in the past.
Ben: Right, and they were like, “Listen J-Dog, you're calling about Matt, aren't you?
Amory: No! No. That's the thing. So James, we are on opposite sides of the world and I have not heard back from him as to what he told them, how much information he's given them.
Ben: So we needed to feel it out ourselves. We needed to call Maryland Refractories.
Amory (whispering): You starting or I’m starting? You start? (phone ringing)
Amory: Hi, is this Maryland Refractories?
Maryland Refractories employee: Yes it is.
Amory: Hi! My name is Amory Sivertson…(FADE UNDER)
Amory: Pretty quickly, we were on speaker phone with a guy named Roy and a woman named Janet.
Rory: And you saw it on what website? Redic, R-E-D-I-C?
Ben: Roy and Janet were clearly intrigued. Also, they said they don’t get many visitors. They’re on 77 acres of woodland and their location, just outside of a town called Irondale in Ohio, has some special properties.
Roy: We’re located in the Bermuda Triangle of the Google Maps. (laughter)
Ben: You don't say.
Roy: We’ve got three different zip codes within five feet.
Ben: No way! Is that true?
Ben: That's amazing. Wow.
Amory: So maybe we shouldn’t feel too badly about how long we’ve been looking for this spot?
Ben: Sure. I mean, whatever we want to tell ourselves.
Ben (on the phone): We're really trying to arrive at these plates. Like, actually go to the plates wherever they may exist and we'd love--
Janet: But why!? Do you wanna buy them?
Ben: That's a great question.
Amory: Yeah, basically this person posted this picture on a on a website called Reddit. And it became this great mystery of what is this giant pile of dishware doing in the middle of the woods. It looks like it's kind of in the middle of the woods.
Roy: It is. You’d definitely get on an adventure if you try to find us.
B: Oh wow. It sounds like you're saying this pile of plates, it does exist and you know where it exists...
Roy: I can't confirm or deny.
Ben: Oooh no! Nobody disappears if they come to see you, right?
Roy: I can't confirm or deny that.
Ben: Oh Roy, you're killing me!
Amory: Roy and Janet, the non-confirmers/non-deniers, put us in touch with someone else at the company who could make the call of what to tell the press. His name is Brad Knoch. And after a little bit of phone tag, Brad got in touch. And he had some big news to share with us.
Brad Knoch: We are the owners of the big pile of dishware.
Ben: You are the owners of the big pile of dishware! Oh my God, my quest might be almost over! I guess the next question for us is, would y’all be okay with us coming to visit?
Brad: I would just encourage you to let us know what day to make sure that somebody’s here.
Amory: The date was set. And we promised we wouldn’t return without hard evidence.
Ben: We got on a plane, landed, rented a truck (just in case), and drove from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, through West Virginia, to Irondale, Ohio.
Amory (In the car): It's just dirt.
(Dramatic gasp from both of them)
Amory: It’s just bricks! Hahaha.
Ben: Oh it’s just bricks. But it’s a pile of bricks!
Amory: That was very exciting though.
(They gasp again)
Amory: Ooooo there’s more piles of stuff!
Ben: We’re comin’ up on the piles! Amory... what is that? What is the white stuff?
Amory: It’s not by itself though. Oh, but it's on a thing!
Ben: It's on a thing!
Ben: This is it, Amory! It's here! It’s reflecting in the sunlight!
Amoey: And it’s up on a loading dock!
Ben: It’s glorious! Oh my god, it’s HUGE! We got to it, dude. How do you feel?
Amory: I’m so happy!
Ben: Are you happy?
Amory (in studio): It was everything we had dreamed of and more. It was even bigger than it had been when Matt took a picture of it a year ago. The mountain had grown.
Ben: It was part of a big industrial site. There were piles of bricks and stone everywhere. There was some big machine with a conveyor belt. There was a massive wooden building that looked like it had been built 100 years ago. There was dust everywhere. Forklifts were moving pallets covered in bags of white powder? And a little construction office, where we saw a long-haired orange cat that seemed to run the whole joint, rolling in the sun and the dust. And a couple of dogs that were very happy to see us.
Amory: Maybe they would’ve been happy to see anyone?
Ben: Oh hi, Jake and Bella.
Ben: Are you Roy?
Roy: I can’t confirm or deny.
Ben: Ah it's Roy!
Amory: We also met one of the owners of the business, Clark Carlson, and our new buddy Brad Knoch.
Brad: Hi, how are you?
Amory: Hi Brad, very nice to meet you, I’m Amory.
Brad: Ben? Pleasure. Nice to meet you.
Amory: Thank you for having us.
Brad: You’re welcome. Did you see the pile?
Amory: We saw the pile!
Ben: Turns out one of the favorite theories during our whole quest — that this plate mountain was some kind of illegal dumpsite — the truth is kind of the opposite.
Clark Carlson: We think that Maryland Refractories is probably one of the oldest industrial recycling companies in the United States.
Ben: You were recycling before it was cool.
Clark: Long before it was cool and it still isn't all that cool now. We wish it was cooler than it is.
Ben: What do you mean?
Clark: Recycling is something that most companies do when it's convenient. When it doesn't cost them anything.
Amory: Brad and Clark know their business. And it’s pretty science-y, like industrial science-y. At a basic level, they are taking bricks and other materials and reducing them to their most elemental form, literally, using a big machine called Bertha.
Clark: So that's where the first crushing here happens.
Ben: Big Bertha has this long conveyor belt and huge wheels and this big crushing chamber with metal teeth.
Ben (looking at Bertha): Those teeth have seen some things. Those teeth have chewed some things.
Amory: She's a hungry beast.
Ben: After the material they put through the machine gets broken down further, it gets sold off to specific industries.
Amory: For instance, Brad says, as the steel industry goes, so goes Maryland Refractories. That's because those big smelters that molten steel gets poured into in the steel plant, those smelters are made of steel. But they're coated with the material that Maryland Refractories makes from old bricks.
Ben: It’s kind of fascinating.
A: Okay buddy, but we weren’t there for bricks. We were there for plates! So Brad and Clark walked us over to plate mountain. It’s actually plate and toilet mountain, because there’s a bunch of toilet parts mixed in there too. The full circle of digestion.
Ben: Think of this mountain as where all the misfits, the misprints, and defects go. There are hundreds of thousands of plate and toilet pieces here. And Maryland Refractories got this stuff from two companies, with a plan to eventually send the whole pile through Big Bertha’s Gnashing Teeth.
Amory: And since it’s all gonna get busted up anyway, we really want to break a few plates. Brad and Clark say go for it!
Ben: Yesss. Yeah I guess it’s helpful, right, it’s almost helpful to make ‘em smaller.
Amory: Alright Ben.
(Plates smashing and falling)
Ben: Go ahead, Amory.
Amory: I underestimated your toss.
(Plates smashing and falling)
Ben: Eventually Brad and Clark join in and the four of us are all just chucking plates and cups at the big pile. This is cathartic and beautiful. And it is actually beautiful. They’re like shells, or pearls glinting in the hot June sun, a gorgeous, cacophonous, seemingly endless splotch, yes visible from satellite.
Amory: But you’d never find it unless you knew where to look. It really is in the Bermuda Triangle of Google Maps. And we got here. Against all odds. And even though Brad and Clark do not want people coming and pilfering their plates, don’t do it, they do want people to know about this part of their business. These plates are being smashed to dust, just like the bricks. In hopes of making a new building material, for everything from kitchen counters to a kind of cladding for big buildings. You can imagine it looking something like marble.
Ben: But this is a new idea. It is not their bread and butter business. The recycling company you probably never heard about is trying to innovate with plates. And it’s not easy to innovate in this kind of business.
Brad: You know it's been a tough road. Uh and we talk about--
Clark: It’s a hard industry to get into.
Brad: It’s a hard industry to get into. Inherently everybody wants to be green. They just don't want to pay for it. So you know we're still plugging away and we hope maybe with this piece more people can find us.
Amory: I need new countertops.
Ben: Me too.
Ben: So we bid farewell to Brad and Clark. There was only one thing left to do. We had brought a gift with us for Brad and Clark.
Ben (With Brad and Clark): We were worried that we were going to come here and have to eat humble pie. But this feels almost more like just desserts.
Clark: There we go.
Amory: Haha. Victory pie!
Clark: Victory pie, very nice.
Ben: We brought you a,
Clark: Coconut cream pie?
Ben: The only problem is we didn’t bring any plates.
Clark: Haha if you want a piece, I think we can find some plates for you.
Amory: Haha well thank you again.
Clark: You’re welcome. It was our pleasure.
Ben: But we have to stand near Big Bertha, the crushing machine, one more time. And of course, the plates. And soak everything in before we get out of the Google Maps Bermuda Triangle.
Ben: Part of me wishes that there was a more salacious explanation. You know?
Ben: I don’t know, I guess I’m just like--
Amory: I know that that makes for like a a juicier story, but doesn’t this make for a better world?
Ben (in studio): Wholesome Amory delivers again!
Ben: I’m not wrong. But truly, neither are you. This is something we’ve talked about while chasing this story. This pattern of waste. We’ve talked about illegal dumping, but we’re making piles of rejects all the time.
Ben (in front of the pile of plates): These are just unused dishes.
Amory: These have never had a job because their logo was printed half an inch too far to the right. That sucks.
Ben: Yeah. But hey, Maryland Refractories — trying to figure out a solution.
Amory: Cleanin’ it up!
Ben: Clean it up, man, get Big Bertha going!
Amory: And now I have a new set of plates.
Ben: I have some plates, too.
- If you want a plate, write us a review on Apple Podcasts. Screenshot that review and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’ve already written a review, send us that! We’ll pick one person at random and send them a beautiful plate — straight from the pile. We’ll even wash it for you!
- If you want to find out more about Maryland Refractories and their plate recycling business, Earth Fire Surfaces, head to mrcgrog.com or facebook.com/EarthFireSurfaces.
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