August 10, 2014

Ghost Story

Do you see what I see? Rusty iron and weathered pine...
Layers upon layers...

Do you see trash? Or do you see a story?

The story I see always starts the same way. It is the late 19th century in the American West. A man slogs into an icy creek in the middle of nowhere, having trekked off the trail that veered from the last fork off the road he found at the end of the earth.
He spends spring, summer, and fall bent over his souped-up strainer, searching the silt for gold, silver, sapphire, garnet. When he stands up, he takes his axe to the fallen pine...
 ...and hews the trees into logs. He lugs these atop one another, till he has shelter from the snows, which will start at the end of September and continue through April.
News of a good strike lures other men....
...and the gears of the business of mining begin to turn.

The hum in the air lures the people who service the miners. Those who sell and repair mining equipment, those who barter dried beans, coffee, sugar. Those carrying grain for mules and oxen. Those selling whiskey. Or women.
 And then come the blacksmiths, the assayers, the bankers, the barbers...and a town comes to life.
In short order, a cemetary appears on the hillside.
If the mines continue to cough up ore and the government keeps those mineral prices steady, the next wave begins. Cast iron behemoths of inexplicable configurations, the machinery of ore extraction and processing, sit like giant mastodons on the edge of town.
And now the families pour in.They need real homes with front porches. Churches and schools. All the accoutrements from their lives back East.

And because men with whiskey and guns will be boys...
...a jail.

Populations surge, often to several thousand. It is called a boom town.

But in these remote areas, boom is just a breath ahead of bust. The men overfish the mines or the government devalues mineral prices. The railroad barons push them off The New Map. The gears of commerce begin to slow...and then they just stop. Everyone packs out, except the odd soul who has no stomach for moving--or no other place to call home. And Nature moves back in.
Sometimes, usually during the 1920s or 1930s, a mining company will take a second look. The town burps to life. With electricity, running water, and the stuff of the 20th century.

But that boom too will last just a moment. And then it will all be over.
Sometimes, a ghost town catches the attention of a private foundation or a state government, who will halt or even repair the decay. In most cases, the town just falls away, piece by piece.

Until it looks like this.
We spend hours roaming these towns. In California, Nevada, Utah...New Mexico and Arizona...and now,Idaho and Montana. He collects images, I hunt for bits of broken glass and china, odd pieces of rusty metal, dirty mattress ticking nailed to a wall. 

But there must be a bigger reason that we are drawn to these places, all of the same single story, over and over again.

We just don't know what it is.


  1. it's late and i came late tonight but this is a really elegant post, Julie. and the question
    you ask...Why?
    i will come back. Begin at the beginning and go through. it's an elegant post. Love,

    1. Thank you...I feel so deeply about these places and I am glad I can communicate that.

  2. this is going to take a few trips to say much about. IT's BIG. it's about dreams, yes?
    About Imagining. about making something from Nothing. about making a life. about
    having that fail. I love this. I really love looking at these photographs with you. How amazing, people, setting Out and going for broke. and maybe some of the FEELING for it comes from the reality that we are children of IMMIGRANTS in this country. All of us. All of us. So maybe it's that we look so long and so hard because it is inside us, really...people who came from Elsewhere and Just Going. Finding sometimes, but then ....Not.
    I love these photographs...the soft whispered stories they tell.....

    1. Dreams...dreams of going TO or getting AWAY from. I am attracted to the sense of self sufficiency underlying it all, even if the early deaths I see in the cemeteries speak to another reality. At bottom, they just believed in their own ability to build a life and that's what just sucks me in. Kinda like you. I felt that same sense in the people around Idaho, although it so often coated in a really icky virulent antigovernment rhetoric.

      I have some other photos I want to show, I will send them to you.

    2. One more thing I feel...these places show me in living color the cycle of birth and death, of growing and then fading. Being immersed in that helps me deal with the inevitable fading away that is going around me now.

  3. looking again...i am always so taken by the linoleum. then the Inside Water faucet. What
    luxury. layers of wallpaper and those inevitable steps to nothing. always around these
    homes somewhere is the place "outback" where the trash was thrown in a hole...i love
    hunting for this....poking through, looking for evidence of the days...
    again...just love these photographs. i could sit and look at them all day. then more.

    do you read Louise Erdrich? for some reason she rises to mind.

    1. I haven't but will now, thank you.

      Finding the bits and should see the extra large box I had to ship home and yes, I am violating every principle of archaeology but I don't care. I kept stuffing little bits of broken glass inside my bra in case anyone drove by and everytime I moved, it felt like cats were clawing me to death.

  4. back again tomorrow. Archaeology is archaeology. saving. you save.
    back again tomorrow.

  5. when at the Old Cowboy's yesterday he had the usual two televisions going at once and
    on each a different western as is his way. and i realized how over the years i'd watched
    so many scenes as i worked for him there...and yesterday, stopped and just watched and was kind of startled that what i was seeing was taking place in just such places as these photographs of yours...when they were filled with people and the dramas of life in that time. it was great and then i come look here more this morning and can juxtapose the movies yesterday on the silence here

  6. ....and the journey continues

    love this back and forth between you and Grace; these images of a way of life that has disappeared, from our part of the world at least, are moving because of that I guess -
    they document the past, a place we cannot visit again, but we can look at it and seeing how culture can be enveloped by nature again comforts me (as long as we don't manage to destroy the earth, she'll keep on turning long after we're gone)

  7. I agree. Thank you to Michelle Slater who shared this on facebook. I shall return for more nourishment - but wanted to say hello to Julie and congratulate her on a provocative and beautiful post.

    1. I am completely speechless. To me, this is like Michelle Obama coming by for a quick cup of tea. Only better, because your work is...well...oh boy, am I speechless. And thank you.