I vividly recall a Sunday afternoon of long ago when I was still a child, an innocent with longings for adventure. I was exploring the neighborhood by my grandmother’s house with a few of my cousins. We had ventured a couple of blocks farther away from the area where we usually confined our play, taking advantage of the daylight and the fact that our parents were busy visiting with Grandma and didn’t notice our absence. Our intended destination was to get as close as possible to the mountains of gravel and sand that stood like exotic behemoths on the grounds of Parker Brothers’. We were hoping that we might actually be able to climb on the manmade peaks if we were clever enough to find a way inside the fence that guarded the the mounds that beckoned us. Ours was childhood excitement on a grand scale, and we set forth on our expedition feeling rather courageous and a bit guilty that we were leaving without first consulting with our parents.
We had not gone far when we encountered an abandoned home sitting seemingly in the middle of an urban industrial zone. It was easily as eery as any haunted house that we had seen in horror movies with its peeling paint, broken windows and overgrown yard. We were fascinated by the structure and agreed almost without uttering a single word that we must learn more about the strange place. We carefully waded through the weeds and inspected the structure from all sides, moving along a three hundred sixty degree path near the foundation of the once noble building.
It was a two story house that surely had been a show piece in a neighborhood of tiny bungalows. Our grandmother’s place might have fit easily inside the cavernous space. We whispered our theories of who might have lived here and why they had decided to leave, but mostly we discussed whether or not we should dare to go inside. The open door beckoned us, but our knowledge of fairytales and the trouble that envelops children who are careless gave us momentary pause. Eventually our curiosity overcame our caution, and we crept quietly and slowly past the threshold and into the unknown void.
Birds flew freely inside the rooms through holes in the roof that allowed the sun to serve as lighting. Cobwebs decorated corners and dust served as carpet on the floors. The scene was at once serene and frightening. There was something oddly disturbing about the elegance of the architecture overgrown with neglect. We surveyed our find with a kind of reverence as though we had unearthed an archeological dig, noting the features of the rooms and using clues to determine who we thought might have lived there. Then we saw the staircase leading to the rooms above us and we were overcome with desire to venture into an area that we somehow understood was taboo.
Like Ulysses of old, the siren call of those stairs overwhelmed all of our common sense, and we began our dangerous trek up the wooden construction that wobbled under our feet as though it was ready to collapse from the weight of our bodies. It was a precarious path on rotted wood that snapped now and again beneath our feet, but we were determined to overcome our fears and reach our destination, and soon we were peering into a strange world that made our hearts beat so rapidly that we felt the pulse of anxiety in our throats. There before us stood evidence that the house was still very much in use. The trappings of civilization were all around.
A mattress lay on the floor with the imprint of the person who used it still visible. A dirty pillow lay at the ready for nighttime slumber. There were changes of raggedy clothing, packages of food items, a comb missing many of its teeth, and other artifacts of human civilization strewn on the floor. It startled us to see the humble possessions of some unknown occupant and we quietly wondered who might be the inhabitant of this strange world. For the first time we felt like trespassers, and determined that we must quickly leave lest the owner of the habitat return, but first one of the more daring among us decided to get a closer look at the scene. He stepped gingerly inside the room while we watched him from the safety of the stairs. As his confidence grew he almost danced as he reported on the things that he was viewing. He threw caution to the wind which was ultimately his fatal flaw, for without warning part of the floor beneath his feet collapsed, and he listed to the right as his leg disappeared into the hole. We rushed over to pull him from danger and with fear overcoming us ran screaming back down the stairs and directly out into the yard.
Our eyes were as big as saucers and we were hardly able to catch our breaths because we had suddenly come to our senses and realized that we had overstepped our bounds in invading the property. We were overwhelmed with a desire to get back to the safety of our grandmother’s house as quickly as possible, and without uttering a single word we also took an oath to keep the details of our transgression a secret that our parents would never know. We ran as if someone was in pursuit, and only laughed at ourselves when we were standing safely on Grandma’s porch.
We never returned to the old place again. Somehow we had quenched our curiosity about that house and never again discussed it. We eventually made it to the gravel mountains on another day and were chased away by a security guard who warned us of the dangers of our explorations. As we grew older we became more circumspect and shuddered at the risks we had taken as children. Still, the memories of our urban explorations would fuel a curiosity in me that never quite went away. I continue to be fascinated by abandoned locations whether they be houses or buildings or manufacturing sites. My imagination takes flight whenever I encounter the remains of mankind’s folly. Such places might be found just about anywhere, and while I am now far more respectful of the shrines than I was as a child I still long to get a closer look and to know the stories of what happened.
In my travels I stumble upon such ruins now and again. New Orleans is a particularly good city in which to view the remains of former dreams, and I rarely fail to drive past what was once a thriving amusement park that now stands empty as a kind of homage to the devastation of hurricane Katrina. In the heart of San Antonio there is an old Catholic school that is overrun with weeds, mold and graffiti. Near Jefferson, Texas is a steel mill that is rusting to the ground. There are so many locales that once held the hopes and dreams and laughter of people whose tales I would so like to hear. Now the structures are shells of their former glory, caverns of uselessness except as keepers of a silent history long past.
I recently learned that urban exploration is a kind of hobby for a number of people. There are photographers who specialize in revealing the beauty and artistry of forgotten structures. There is something quite lovely in catching just the right angle of the remains of another day. We humans are as fascinated with the anthropology of modern man as we are of the ancients. I am one of those who searches for such things with a fascination that began long ago on a lazy afternoon when my cousins and I were daring adventurers. My curiosity lingers to this day.