Monday, January 26, 2009

Ghost Towns

There was a house down the street when I was growing up that I only knew as the Nye's place. As long as I remembered, no one lived there. I didn't know the details, but at some time the owner of the house had died and his widow had left to go live with family back in the Midwest. The family had asked my father to act as the part time caretaker for the place, tending to the yard and checking on the house occasionally.

The odd thing about the house was that it had been left full of furniture and frozen in time when the owner left. I remember my mom took me with her once to retrieve something from the house for Mrs. Nye. We stepped inside and it was as if someone had just stepped out for a few minutes instead of a few years. A plate of crackers sat opened on the kitchen table. An envelope sat on the table with "Paper boy" written on it, obviously a long over due payment for a paper that had stopped being delivered years ago.

It seemed strange to me as a child. I knew little about grief and the decisions people make to pick up and leave when under the influence of emotions. Now I assume Mrs. Nye just couldn't stay in the house where her husband died and live with memories.

Or ghosts.

We played in the Nye's yard when my father tended the yard. Every few weeks he would open the flood gates on the irrigation ditch that ran down the alley and would flood the yard (this was how people in rural Idaho watered the grass back in those days). We'd sail our wooden boats in the flooded yard and play hide and seek in stands of wild asparagus while my father trudged around in rubber boots.

It could have been our young imaginations but on more than one occasion, either I or one of my brothers would swear we saw a curtain flutter inside the locked house as if someone had pulled it aside to watch the strangers playing in the yard. But still we played at the Nye house. Occasionally we even would go to the Nye's yard at night to hunt for night crawlers (earthworms) to use for weekly fishing trips at Lucky Peak Reservoir during the summer. I could never get over the feeling that someone was behind me while I crawled around that yard on my knees with a flashlight with red celephane over the lense looking for worms.

Eventually Mrs. Nye passed on as well and her family sold the house. We lost our boat yard and night crawler hunting grounds. I assume whoever bought the house either dealt with the ghost or laid it to rest.

The memory of the Nye place surfaced when I was reading An Angel on My Shoulder's recent post about her fascination with abandoned buildings and places. I reminded me of my similar fascination with places that people seem to have just walked away from and left to the elements. I spend many summer weekends with my father (an amateur treasure hunter) tramping around ghosts towns and abandoned mining camps in Idaho as he searched with his metal detector for hidden treasure left by the former occupants.

It occurred to me then that if the occupants had had any treasure to hide they could have afforded to save their homes. But I kept that opinion to myself for my father's sake. He did so want to believe he was going to find a treasure trove in some old outhouse and retire early.

While my father scanned the earth with his metal detector listening to it's high pitched whine, I scanned the abandoned structures for the hints at the people who had lived there and then left, either by choice or by necessity. There is a sadness in abandoned places. A sense of loss permeates the walls. Because too often when one gives up on a place, they give up on themselves or their souls. And perhaps it is the souls that remain staring out the broken out windows, pulling aside curtains that have long since crumbled to dust.

They don't call them ghost towns for nothing.