sitting with ghosts

I wish I could get up on some giant stage and sing a sad love song to everyone I know. But since this isn’t feasible for many reasons, namely the fact that I have a terrible singing voice, I decided to pack up my Bolex, a couple cans of film and a few cans of beer, and head east in search of more ghost towns (see the archives for past ghost town hunting adventures).
After a weekend that one might call emotionally turbulent, it seemed fitting to get out of town in a “don’t look back/just keep going” sort of way. But less than an hour out of Portland, a really bad crash happened several car lengths ahead of me. A semi truck hauling Little Debbie Snack Cakes plowed into a camper trailer, which jack-knifed and smushed into a fuel tanker. Several other cars then piled on, at least six or seven in all. The authorities arrived quickly, but the freeway was completely blocked for almost two hours. It was another example of overt consumerism messing everything up: nobody really needed those snack cakes, but because of them, traffic was backed up for miles and the channel 2 news helicopter even flew over us and took our picture. People got out of their cars and began to mill about, nervously hovering as if expecting important news or exchanging useless bits of information. There is something always particularly irritating about sitting in a vehicle that is not moving. Whether it’s a car stuck in traffic, or an airplane sitting on the runway, gravity feels like it is pulling harder when you are in a stationary vehicle. Something about the forward motion is comforting, even hypnotic for that matter, but when the vehicle is standing still it suddenly becomes less comfortable then ever and more ridiculous than ever.
But eventually the wreck was cleared and traffic was let through. I drove to The Dalles and then cut in on Highway 206, hoping to eventually find the old town of Lone Rock, which was just west of Condon and pretty far out on a dirt road. I had read that Lone Rock was a ghost town, but when I got there it just seemed like a cute small town with a couple rehabbed buildings like the old jail and city hall. I realize now that I probably shouldn’t trust any town that actively calls itself a ghost town- I think they use it is as a ploy to form some sort of identity, to lure suckers from the city out there to spend money. Real ghost towns are ashamed of being ghost towns. They take their signs down and stop taking care of their roads. They don’t actively promote themselves as being a ghost town; they curl up and hope nobody notices them as they drive by. I can imagine some underground network of folk artists, crafts-people, and hotel owners concocting fake ghost stories in hopes of bringing in tourists and boosting sales of their handmade crafts and homemade apple pies. In the case of Lone Rock, there was one ‘artisan crafts’ shop run out of an old farmhouse that looked like it sold nothing but wind chimes, and it was obvious that they had something to do with this scam. From Lone Rock I decided to go for broke and take an old fire road to an old abandoned mining town called Kinzua, but after 12 miles on a un-kept dirt road I gave up, as my valiant mini van (who we’ll refer to as The Red Baron from here on out) didn’t have the clearance to make it over the rough road. I decided to track backwards and get back on some paved roads, and then aimlessly drove around until I stumbled upon an incredible old abandoned farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere. It was a couple hours before sunset, so I decided to camp out and wait for the good light (golden hour as they refer to it in the business).
Once again I was sitting and waiting in my van, but this time it was much more peaceful. Insects and birds were busy making strange sounds, and the abandoned house would creek and moan with every gust of wind. I thought back to the accident and wondered about the people who were involved. I hoped they were okay, but when it takes two hours to clear a wreck it usually isn’t good news. Then I wondered about the house. Who lived there? Why did they leave? Was there a disaster that was equally as efficient as the car wreck, or was it a slow dissolve? With every moan of the house I felt more aware of its history. The wreck happened so fast, but the house is like an ancient tortoise slowly crawling into the landscape.
Clouds rolled in and my sunset shot wasn’t quite as spectacular as I was hoping it would be, but I climbed up on the roof of my van, I mean the Red Baron, and cranked a few feet of film through the camera anyhow. Shooting film is like riding a bike with no hands. You sort of hold your breath while it’s running through the camera and your heartbeats an extra beat just for good luck.
Once the sun went down, I rolled back into Condon, a town of 670 people on highway 19, and grabbed a room at the 90-year-old Condon Hotel. I think Condon was probably a pretty happening town back in the day, but the only thing happening tonight was a bingo game at the VFW Hall and some loud drinking in the bar directly below my hotel window. I’m very impressed that the hotel has Wi-Fi – nothing like live blogging from the frontlines of a ghost town. Tomorrow I steer the Red Baron towards the town of Whitney, another reported “ghost town,” though I suspect the real finds will be what I stumble into along the way.

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10 Responses to sitting with ghosts

  1. lucie says:

    Little Debbie, man.

  2. dalas v says:

    the last photo is really nice. i always enjoyed visiting the dilapidated towns (and there are too many to count) of upstate New York when i lived there.

  3. robin r says:

    Road trips designed as a means of escape always reminds me of the album “Knock Knock” by smog.

  4. willow says:

    Brother, these ghost posts are beautiful. Thank you.

  5. Angela says:

    That white house looks haunted and Its so pretty, Love the land too

  6. Logan says:

    I was wondering if I could use the picture of the white house for a teaser image of my novel that I am currently writing for my website. It will not be used when published.
    Thanks for your time!

  7. Rachel D. says:

    How strange,
    I was just passing through Condon this last weekend
    and also took photos of that house, the birds fly through it and make a nice sound.
    Condon also has an Art festival next weekend that has a lot of Portland people there and a really nice opening with snacks, music, and nice people. It is a Biennial and it’s pretty great.
    Have fun roaming about!

  8. Jason says:

    Nice pics, but don’t be fooled by one person. Lonerock has never billed itself as a ghost town. Just the opposite in fact. During my childhood there, we were still convinced we were a town. It still has a city council and a mayor. With the possible exception of the late-comers you mentioned, no one out there needs or desires the patronage of ‘city folks’, suckers or otherwise. The building restoration occured mostly during my childhood, and happened largely because we were still using those buildings and they were falling down around us.
    Also, you never found Kinzua because you were on the wrong road. (Judging by your picture)
    Happy hunting next time.

  9. matt mc says:

    hey jason,
    thanks for your comment. lonerock is a beautiful place, don’t get me wrong. and as far as the ghost town thing, blame these guys:
    if you know how to find Kinzua (and think it’s worth the trip) please let me know! my gazzetere seemed impossibly wrong.

  10. Jason says:

    Yeah, that site’s been around for a while. I never figured out how Lonerock could be the story of people who didn’t show up until 15 years after its founding. (For the record it was first settled by George Boone, one of Dan’l’s shirttail relatives, around 1885.)
    As to Kinzua, you missed one turn that would have gotten you there. However, due to recent changes in land ownership, Kinzua is no longer accessible from that direction. You may still be able to get there from Fossil. (I don’t know where the locked gate is, exactly.) In any case, while it has an interesting history, Kinzua was removed in its entirety by the logging company that built it. This occurred at some point in the late 1970’s. Not a single building remains to mark the site, although it remains on most maps. When I was a kid (1980’s) we used to get a lot of ghost town buffs passing through that had gotten lost trying to find Kinzua. Probably not worth the trip just to find an empty valley.
    Happy Trails!

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