Saturday, May 25, 2013

From Albuquerque to Santa Fe on the Roadrunner Express

 My parents, Audrey and Carl Parker. My dad was a P-51 pilot. Awesome.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Time running out

            “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?”

“Call 911.”

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.

Roaming the Bisti Badlands of northern New Mexico

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The house on the river

       Sometime in the night whether through a hard wind coming off the river, a minute shift in the mole-tunneled undersoil or the implacable pull of gravity, a small handhewn sliver of limestone that had been teetering nearly untethered for years beyond count wobbled free from the lower front wall and tumbled in a series of shortening arcs to the frozen grass. It might have lain there undisturbed for a few minutes in the star-silvered frost or a few hours or even decades if not for a growl of rotted timbers and a sudden displacement of weightier stones whose momentum once engaged could never be contained but carried forward as if under their own volition. The squared corner collapsed dragging down dismembered window frames and oaken doorways, powdered grout and grooved stones of various sizes and shapes, spidered glass that exploded into jagged shards and weathered shingles and a portion of the ceiling joists black with rot. The brittle clattering echoed up and down the valley but went unremarked and unnoticed except for the owls and coyotes hunting the stubbled fields abutting the river. 

The owner discovered the house the following day. What had been the living room was now a gaping cavity latticed with splintered planks and piles of rubble shadowed by an overhanging section of roof. It wasn’t what he expected to see nor entirely a surprise but nevertheless a concern, especially that dangling roof that seemed suspended more by memory that any physical underpinning. He parked by the gate and walked the gradual incline nearly to the front step and surveyed the damage. Some of the wood could be salvaged and the rest burned. Smaller, manageable stone blocks would be perfect to line the flower beds his wife was after him to make. Larger blocks could be repurposed somehow. The house would not die in vain.

I learned of it about a week later. It wasn’t so much that people knew of my interest in old abandoned houses, especially the limestone homes of original settlers, but that by dint of its rarity and sad demise a small piece of our shared history was gone. The house had graced the drive along the river as far back as people could remember and longer still, their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles knowing it, and some not as an empty owl-haunted relic but ringing with the laughter of children, wreathed in woodsmoke, its windows of a winter’s night radiant with the flickering glow of candles and lanterns. I’d taken quite a few photographs of the house but never one I would consider defining, and was even then in the process of arranging a short excursion for yet another attempt when I heard the news.

It wasn’t the first time I missed my opportunity. Several years ago I was on the hunt for what was reputed to be the biggest and most beautiful one-room school in Washington County. Bad roads and weather hampered my search for weeks. By the time I managed to reach it all that remained were two scorched walls furrowed with the chiseled names of former pupils.

This time I was on time if not a little late, and yet not so late that I’d find only a gravelly indentation of darker soil like an oil stain spreading against the hill. If anything the scene was altogether peaceful, a momentary suspension between the relentless fatigue of time and annihilation, no more than a heartbeat in the historical sense but enough to whisper a soft goodbye. The roof still sagged unsuspended looking none too stable, and shadows stretched long and thin on its opposite side reaching deep into the oak forest as if fleeing the sunset or, perhaps, my intrusive presence, but new cracks had riven the remaining frontal wall in stairstep patterns tracing the outlines of joints. It was only a matter of time, had indeed always been a matter of time, something not restricted to houses but encompassing the enormity of all living beings of which I was but a particle myself favoring my one good knee and listening with my one good ear at the early calling of a barred owl somewhere within the trees bordering the river, the house and I both on the long end of experience and yet surprised somehow to find ourselves in the slow act of reduction. 

Taking the photograph felt wrong, an act not of remembrance but invasive, so I put the camera away and cased the tripod and stood there watching the last light radiate warmly from the remaining stones before shadows swallowed the fields and the sun dipped below the western horizon. And yet something constrained me to stay, and I did so until long after stars glittered overhead and the howling of coyotes drifted downriver, and left only when darkness was complete, grateful that I could no longer see what we had both managed to become.