“How will we do this?” my wife asked.
I looked out the window at the Cedar Point Mill and couldn’t help but imagine the entire structure crumbling into the river—with me inside. The cracks and seams spidering the limestone walls seemed wider and more pronounced than during my last visit two years ago. It looked none too stable, and my intent to climb to the third floor to photograph the machinery a dangerous fool’s errand.
“The timer’s set for 20 minutes,” I said. “I’ll be out by then.”
“And if not?” My wife the pragmatist.
“Stick your head in the door and yell for me.”
“What if you don’t answer?”
A pool of silence spread between us.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Yes, I do. I have to at least try.”
Actually, at dinner the night before I’d vowed to do it or die trying. I’d dreamed of the old mill, had pored over photos taken in years past, had reconsidered from every angle my last visit when I watched Dave Leiker, a friend from Emporia, climb a rickety flight of unsupported stairs onto a shadowed upper landing and disappear while I waited below, too afraid to chance it. Too afraid even after he returned with a story of intriguing geometric lines and rusty equipment. For two years now I told myself that had he shown me the picture he took I would have ascended those stairs regardless of my fear. I would not have hesitated. His picture was a killer, and inescapable; it was even there like an incrimination on the wall of Ad Astra in Strong City where we’d eaten lunch.
Here was my second chance, and still scared for all that. But I do not want a life ruled by fear.
“Twenty minutes,” I said, and hurried off.
Across a grassy stretch to the side door of the mill, into the cool shadows where I traversed a narrow beam to a deep void spanned by a thick-planked door laid down like a bridge and so into the mill itself. The sound of rushing water echoed loudly. A cold breeze wafting through sightless windows and innumerable chinks and crevices brought a fresh smell that almost but not quite overpowered the stench of damp rot. Every step a groan of protesting wood.
I remembered the way, vaguely. Toward the center of the main room a stairway led both upward and downward. Getting there required advancing across fifty feet of worn flooring riddled with gaping holes and floorboards worn thin and brittle. There’s something of a science to exploring abandoned buildings though in the end it’s really just a gamble. Crablegging from beam to fallen support timber to metal sheet to joist got me to the stairs, and from there it was merely a slow process upward testing each step before committing my weight. The top step was splintered so I crawled the last few feet.
Beyond a rusting hulk of metal and a couch whose cushions erupted across the floor in dirty tufts, the last stair rose into the gloom. I paused to study the underlying floor which had rotted away in hunks leaving gaps of several feet in width including one such gap beneath the nearer base of the stairway that left it dangling into space. As if that weren’t enough, the floor had bowed into a concave depression indicating significant structural weaknesses. Clearly there was no safe way to even reach the stairs much less climb them. I thought about sliding a wide plank or beam across the gap as Dave and I had done in a school in Bushong but decided against it. The only way I would get that image would be to do the most logical thing of all—buy one from my friend.
The idea was almost ludicrous in its simplicity. I might have even laughed if not for the pops and creaks and dull reverberations thrumming through the structure creating a sense of restlessness or energy that suggested only an ounce or two of pressure at the right juncture would bring the place down in a cloud of dust. That my bulk could contribute to that pressure suddenly seemed altogether plausible. It was an uncomfortable thought, one indeed that might have been paralyzing if not for the watch on my wrist counting down the minutes. I’d used almost half of my allotted time and needed to hurry, but one does not hurry in a dilapidated mill built in 1875. One backs out, slowly, methodically, carefully.
In the case of Cedar Point Mill, I backed out as if there were no more time, as if the venerable historic structure might be my entombment. I knew how much time I had, theoretically at least, and I intended to meet my deadline. The real question was how many minutes or hours or days were left to the mill.