A friend of mine grew up in Tasmania, Australia, and although I can’t recall the name of his town, it is wiped from the map. It’s one of the numerous mining ghost towns on that island and belongs to the silent fraternity of abandoned (“ghost”) towns across the world.
There’s something romantic, sad, mysterious, scary, yet peaceful to me about these towns. Once lived in, now abandoned, inhabited — some say — by ghosts. Yet we see them now because the people who built and lived in them built them to last.
“Abandoned ghost towns” have staying power, and they are the destination visits some take instead of, say, Cinqueterra.
We humans tend toward wistfulness.
We tend to remember things — even “good” things — with a sense of sadness and mental arthritis. Like our memories wince when stretched.
We gloss over the pain and remember the laughter; forget the loneliness and remember the times we laid on the hot white sand mere feet from the crashing Atlantic Ocean waves and listened to “Blinded By The Light” on our boom boxes. We may remember the break-ups in surround-sound, but the first kiss has a soft focus and patinaed surface.
Whether outdoors or inside, that which was and is no longer remains imprinted on our memory. We can see the phantom writing as if on the second page of a legal pad after we’ve taken notes on the first. An exact copy that tells the original story but in a whisper. After sitting overnight on the shelf, though, it may be mute in the morning.
The peaceful “eeriness” of abandoned ghost towns
When I look at a place like Bodie, I feel both emptiness and peace.
There’s a sadness in knowing that people lived there and all moved — not even their descendants chose to stay — but a certain peace knowing that they lived their lives and, while there, some were happy and some not. They built a place that stands today. Like the Romans and Greeks before them, and the Egyptians before them, they put up walls and roofs so that their roots stood a chance.
Then died or moved away.
But do you remmeber those days you moved with the help of friends, or when you helped friends move?
A couple days out, I always think ahead to the end of a move and imagine the hot pizza I will get from my new neighborhood pizza joint while navigating through the boxes cluttering my new living room. Maybe my moving buddies get beers while I drink water or a Coke. THere’s always excitement, and when you finally get moved, you don’t remember all the hassle and pain.
Or at least very little of it.
But before you sleep that first night — or at the latest, before the sun goes down the next day — you return to the first place to clean.
It takes you longer than expected, because you stop. A lot. To think. To remember. All the fun. ANd rarely the tears.
I remember when we sold our beach house, the one I spent summers in and had more wonderful memories than anyone deserves to have. I was blessed beyond measure. I spent five lifetimes in that house in the span of thirty years. The day came when I was supposed to collect some personal effects and then leave the next morning, leaving all the other furniture behind, just as many things were left for us.
The house was not “broom clean.” It was memory-full.
I couldn’t see myself spending the night. Instead I left late in the evening, and I drove all night to get to my new home. The home we bought with teh money we got from selling our share of the beach house.
Yet move we must
That I am not. In fact, if anything, I throw out too much. I remember being written up at a job for throwing out some back-up paperwork too quickly, when I had thought it was clutter.
My father, on the other hand, bought things like he was going to live another three hundred years. When both my parents had died, we went through the New YOrk City apartment my brother and I grew up in. In multiple places we found storehouses: a case of pickles Dad bought at Odd Lot; a quiver of 1970s era advertising posters from his days on Madison Avenue; jars and jars of nails and tacks and screws and small nuts and bolts. There was nothing in that apartment that would go unfastened.
“This place is not our home,” says John Koenig.
“Sometimes you move through the city and feel in your bones how strange and new this all is. The spectacle of modern civilization, just barely older than you are. …there’s a part of you that thinks: you are not at home here. That still remembers Eden, and longs to return.”
Is this true?
I don’t know.
I do know that moves make me sad because I feel I never made the most of the place I was living in, yet I know I never would have succeeded in a million years. It’s as though I expected my life to be perfect in that place, and it wasn’t. I entered with the highest of hopes, and even though I left with good memories, there was something missing.
My true home
When I visit somewhere I used to live, there is that sense of kenopsia. There’s an “eeriness of a place left behind.”
Like a ghost town. Like the gold-seekers who settled and built with the highest of hopes. And they either struck it rich and moved, or they struck out and moved. But they moved. Were these former residents to return to Bodie, they would remember only heartache or the joy of having a gold-paved highway out of town.
Either way, Bodie was never a place one would stay. Not forever.
Neither was Point O’ Woods, my summer home.
Neither was 50 East 96th Street in New York City.
It’s because none of those is my true home.
In those abandoned towns and houses and apartments, there are no ghosts. Only phantoms. Imprints of the page before. Sepia photographs of the future, of the place I’m eventually moving to.