It is not much more than a crossroads place, really; I have counted the shells of only 23 buildings, after all. But overhead, roiling clouds threaten this town, the torn roofs gaping in awe of them. Little shelter from the approaching storm will be offered here, either for stray man or beast.
A ghost town has such an air of loneliness and desolation about it, yet it is not empty of sounds or life. From the jail at the north end of town comes the clap, clap, clap of a board loosened by time, nagged endlessly by winds; soon, it will splinter off the remaining rusted nail, dropping into the sands and weeds below. A sagging picket fence and gate offer taps and creaks of their own; tap, tap, tap—eerie as the blind man Pew in Treasure Island; creak, creak—scary enough for the Master of Mystery. Doors bang loosely, rattle, again and again, waiting, waiting for the chill wind to blow itself out so they can cease shivering and shaking for a while.
On both sides of the street, tumbleweeds bowl in and out of deserted homes, the hotel, the general store, even the tiny chapel, any building not nailed shut. These weeds, plant-clad ghosts of so many inquisitive fat people, roll airily, mercifully rid of weight and gravity, peering, scurrying, as they were never able to do before. Swarms of grasshoppers, exploding around my ankles and knees, cling to my clothes. The dust devils spiral in threes down the empty main street, around the corners, then pell-mell across the sagebrush, away from the soughing pines on the mountain, each devil daring another to overtake it. Behind the buildings, mice scamper from tuft to bush to rock, tingling from terror of the soaring red-tailed hawk who seeks in ever-tightening circles. Some mice will live to raise the next generation, some mice will die to satisfy the hawk’s chicks.
In between the buildings, yarrow, columbine, purple daisies and golden whitlow, courted by bees, shout joyfully from the graves of rusted machinery, “Look! Look! See what we have done with this place!” Morning glories twist and climb, claim the hitching posts, the fence rails, trumpeting their achievement to all who will pay attention. Sparrows and finches chirp continually, barn swallows swoop and dip, bursting with elation, for the buildings and the world are theirs. Caught out long after sunrise, bats stream toward a chimney and one end of the barn, disappearing in seconds, the rustles and squeaks soon subsiding. Feeling the hawk’s shadow pass over again, a feral cat feints, then cuts swiftly across the street, a patchy kitten swinging from her mouth. To move her litter to a drier, safer hideout, she will brook neither interruptions nor detours not of her own making.
Someone screams inside the saloon; dry bones rattle, dangling from a beam high in the gloom. Shredded by rodents, nibbled by moths, bedecked by spider webs, the clothing hangs in tatters on the mute skeleton. He gives no welcome to those who gape or dare to prod at him, but a metatarsal plops into the dust. Another mystery sits a block away. A “locked” building mocks visitor and vandal alike; torched and pounded upon, it stands defiant still. What is inside? There are no windows, there is no door, there is no chimney. It is a box, built stone upon stone. A bulldozer might expose its secret: another skeleton inside; one stone box within another ad infinitum? Of a certainty, the builder’s ghost will have the last laugh in this town.
An uneasy stillness almost smothers the swinging boards, the singing birds, the hurrying animals, the zinging insects. The entire town reposes like a cemetery that isn’t quite dead yet. I step carefully, things of the past barely breathing around me, snuggled away as they are. The cold wind blows stronger, bringing rain to puddle the dirt. I retreat to my car.
(Originally written as an assignment while attending Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, which is one of the finest smaller universities in the nation. Check them out!)
All rights reserved. © 1981 and 2001 Shirley Ann Parker. All photographs © 2013 Art Brooks, Jr. Used by permission.