When I was growing up, I loved visiting abandoned places.
I grew up on a farm in the 1980s. Haunted houses, old trash landfills in gullies, rusting farm equipment, and half-collapsed buildings were a major part of my landscape. My world seemed ancient and nostalgic, as if I lived in an actual post-apocalyptic society that had rebuilt itself to become modern times. I was surrounded by the detritus of the Great Depression era, which devastated the area where I grew up. The aftermath seemed almost magical.
But the thing that never connected was that abandoned places had once been not abandoned. I couldn’t conceive of it as a child, not really. Places were only abandoned in the past, which was a foreign country. Not now. Everything that existed now would last forever.
Now that I’m older, I can see abandonment in progress.
It’s strange; it feels like time and space are being twisted, that something is just plain wrong about such places.
Take, for example, a tourist attraction from my youth: the Marine Life Aquarium of Rapid City, South Dakota. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t impressive, but I knew it well. My family would travel to the Black Hills every year for a summer vacation. We must have gone to the aquarium a dozen times. I had friends in college who worked there over their summer vacations. One of my friends got to work directly in the dolphin tanks. He had such a dense physique that he could walk along the bottoms of the tanks with them, without floating. If I remember correctly, he said once that it was as peaceful as being dead.
There were trained seals, trained dolphins, all sorts of tanks for fish, murals painted everywhere. Trainers would feed porpoises raw fish from their mouths. I thought it was miraculous.
And now it’s gone.
There are other attractions from my childhood which have survived, of course. Storybook Island is a free children’s amusement park with everything from live puppet theater to Noah’s Ark. Giant dinosaur statues watch over the town from Dinosaur Hill (built in 1936 by the WPA), Flintstones Bedrock City in Custer is still there, and so are all the caves. Even Reptile Gardens is carrying on. (Sadly, Methuselah, a tortoise born in 1881 on the Galapagos Islands, passed away in 2011.)
But, when I first drove past the area after it closed, there was nothing in the place where the Marine Life Aquarium used to be. It closed in 1997. I don’t remember what year I first drove past. I don’t actually want to remember. In fact, I make a point not to look, if I’m in the area.
And as far as I can tell from Google Maps, there’s still nothing there: just bare ground.
Since the aquarium closed, I’ve heard all kinds of creepy stories about how bad it was for the animals. I wouldn’t have believed it at the time, but now I’m not so sure.
It’s hard to feel nostalgic, exactly.
There’s nothing left to feel nostalgic about. No ruined buildings, no cement pools, no bleachers, no half-standing tents, no rusting metal, no peeling paint.
And yet: that place along the side of the road is not a normal place.
Someday, someone will build there again, and I will still not go there, no matter how tempting. That place along the road just feels wrong.
Part of me wants to go: oh, that’s because it’s haunted. I want to start coming up with stories about how someone died there in an accident, or it’s the tortured souls of the marine mammals who once swam there, or something. That’s usually how a ghost story goes, right?
But I can’t find any legends about how the old site is haunted. If there had been anything left for people to go, “There, that’s where the ghosts of the dolphins still swim,” then maybe there would be. But it’s just a bare spot on the ground, so truly abandoned that it doesn’t even have a street number anymore.
It’s like the place itself doesn’t even exist, it never existed. It’s not a haunted place so much as one that got erased.
It’s a strange thing to have seen a place disappear like that. As a writer, I think, This must happen to everyone, eventually. I’ve known people who have died; I’ve grown apart from other people, knowing that I’ll probably never see them again; I’ve had the strange sensation of still being “friends” with dead people on social media. I’ve seen places where I used to live change slowly, in a succession of snapshots as I drive through, becoming somewhere else.
But this seems different.
I’ve read stories where people talk about how this or that city seems to have a personality and life of its own; one of my favorites is by Neil Gaiman and Alec Stephens, called “A Tale of Two Cities,” about a man who wanders the streets of his favorite city until he accidentally steps into the city’s dreams, and begins to fear what will happen if the cities awaken.
As a farm kid, I’ve never had trouble with the idea that cities are alive and might do something to you that gets you so lost that you never find your way back home again. Of course cities will do that! The first time I went to the Twin Cities I was terrified. (Fortunately, someone else was driving.) Tales about haunted bookshops and antique stores that have exactly what you need but that you can never find again—oh, yes. That is what it feels like, to go to a strange new city. I understand that.
But what about this other thing, where an abandoned place just disappears as though it never existed?
Does the city remember that place in its dreams?
Or do we forget it, because the city itself can’t remember?
The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!