Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Ghost Town, by, Alan R. Hill

The Ghost Town

By, Alan R. Hill

We stood on the cold corner across the street from our high school, huddled together against the wind. The news was beyond our comprehension. It took our breath away. What could we do? It was November 22, 1963.  I left for the Marine Corps in the beginning of March and my friend shortly after.


Four years later we were both back home, safe and somewhat sound. In late May we departed for a trip across the United States, to the East Coast and beyond.


We crested the ridge and the vista of the valley lay open before us. A ribbon of road as far as the eye could see. The rolling yellows and greens held in place by a powder blue sky, all around and above. One glance at my friend’s appreciative face and flashing brown eyes told me he saw what I did.  


It was the Wyoming prairie lands we were entering. We rolled over the top and the weight of gravity propelled us downward. We fell quietly, in tandem with the pristine landscape, part and parcel of it, like a hawk sweeping down from on high.


 As the road leveled and straightened we saw some movement in the sage brush to our right. Two wild horses, a white stallion and his roan mare. Shiney coats all. They ran along side us, we slowed and stopped. They continued on ahead of us and they stopped. They started a kind of dance on the edge of the roadway while tossing their heads to and fro. Then committed, they ran, hooves ringing hallow on the asphalt, across the road, off and into the prairie and away.


We gasped for breath, the sight was so beautiful, the experience so elemental.  They disappeared into the depths of the prairie, eventually merging with the variegated yellows and greens. Apparently swallowed by that expanse. Or perhaps re-entering a portal into another time from which they had only momentarily appeared. A loud “clunk”, broke the silence, transmission in gear we continued on our way. A wary eye on the gas gauge, it was getting low. There was a turn up ahead and it looked like the only one we might see for days. We took it.


There was a one pump gas station on the way into town. Relieved we pulled in, but it was deserted. We got out of the car and looked around. The back door on the second story of the worn house that fronted the property, opened. An old man stepped out and came down the rickety flight of stairs. His hair was white, eyes sky blue, he was tall and there was a calmness, and a dignity about him.


He came over to us standing by the pump. “Where you young fellas headed?” he asked stopping to talk to us, rather than going directly to the pump. We explained we were headed out across country, “going to New York and the World’s Fair in Canada.” We continued to talk as he approached the pump.


“If I was a little younger, I’d throw my knapsack in the back there and come along with you,” he said simply, while removing the pump. There was a stillness and quietness in his motion.


At his words I could see a lanky youth with a full head of thick brown curly hair, slinging his knapsack in the backseat of the car, decidedly; as if the direction of time was no object.


He filled our tank with gas, we talked a bit more, paid, wished each other well, and leaving him there, drove into town.


It looked like an old cowboy town. The street was unpaved and the stores and shops which were all closed were bordered by a wooden platform that ran in front of them along both sides of the street. Any paint long ago faded revealing a uniform grayness. Where once their sprouted a rich and vibrant oiled wood, pungent and resounding from the heels of passersby, the boards now complained and ached, and fairly groaned with their history. But it may have been the wind I heard.


When the storefront street came to an end, there were homes. But they also were closed. Made mere houses by boards nailed to windows and doors, signaling absence and barring entrance to their worlds. The wind made a circle of dust that ran up and down the street. Like mini tornadoes in a fast food world, impatient and unable to commit to a full run, hither and yon, starting, stopping, appearing, now gone. From whence does the wind come?


Retracing our steps we were surprised to find an open restaurant. The one shop on the street that was open appeared closed by virtue of its proximity to the others. We looked in, there were people inside. We stepped across the threshold, and back in time. All eyes turned to look at us. We strode to the counter, and sat on the unstable stools effortlessly maintaining center stage. Exchanging the temptation for a mad spin on the stools, to slow half revolutions for the sake of decorum, the seats themselves protesting their years of service loudly with each screeching turn.


 “Where you young fellas headed?” we were asked.


 “Where’re ya from?” another shouted.


 “Headed to New York and up from San Francisco,” we explained.


“What are you “sour dough’s” going to be doing in these parts?” we were asked, amid a round of laughter.


What’s a “sour dough” I thought? Later, I realized it was a reference to the long gone gold rush days of San Francisco and our famous sour dough bread.


 “We were running out of gas,” we answered. “What happened here?” we asked.


“Well, used to be a river there,” said one of the men as he pointed out the window of the small old restaurant. We followed his finger to a red gorge, like a scar in the earth, which must have been the river.


 “What happened?” we asked.


 “Dried up” we were told.


 “Used to do some mining too”, said another.


 “Mostly everyone gone now though,” added a third.


We ate and conversed with the remaining citizens of the town, after which we again said our farewells. Then we walked about the town a bit and took a few photographs. The empty houses with barred doors, the empty wind swept streets.


We passed the one pump gas station on the way out of town. I caught the blue eyes of the old man as we drove past and waved. He returned the salutation.


When our eyes met, an instant before our arms moved, there was eternity unbidden. It was like coming upon a deer in a meadow. You can glimpse it but can’t hold it.  I think the old man knew it, too.


As we drove on I had a feeling he was in the back seat traveling with us, eager for life and alert, running his fingers through his long curly hair as he leaned forward to say something to us, his enthusiasm making us laugh.


It was the summer of 1968. In less than a week we were in New York City. 

We heard the news on the radio. On June 6th we had our suits pressed.  The Chinese Laundry storefront looked harmless enough, and very small. We were a step behind Napoleon Solo as in the Man From UNCLE. We were led behind the counter through the curtain into a cavernous labyrinth of the bowels of some huge hotel. We left our suits, and waited feeling naked and vulnerable.


Next day we joined the solemn procession at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Walking silently sadly, down the aisle and around the closed casket.  What could we do? We paid our respects along with the others. It didn’t seem enough. Both brothers gone, first John now Bobby.


The channel of time carried us on, and swept us away. The Saint Lawrence River was beautiful. We arrived in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. We were surprised they spoke French? The World Fair had ended in October 1967, it was now an expo. Most of the pavilions lived on, what we saw there was an exhibit called “Man and his World.”


Alan Hill (Alanrhill2015@gmail.com 559449-1970 © July 12, 2015.

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