Chasing Ghosts

by Thomas Day

My grandson, Wolfgang, and I rode 3,800 miles through the Black Hills and the Rockies this summer. We took two weeks to travel that distance. We were far from Iron Butters and there was no plan to set any mileage records or work hard enough to impress anyone. We were traveling for the sake of seeing places, meeting people, and being on our own as much as possible. Whenever possible, we stepped off of the main roads and went ghost town hunting. In the Rockies, that’s easy prey. There are ghost towns all over the place. If you aren’t picky about a few live residents, there are a lot of near-ghost towns in South Dakota, too.

We found ourselves on a dirt road on the west edge of the great state of Colorado approaching a husk of a town that I’ve discovered before, probably 18 years ago. This particular ruin stuck my fancy way back then because it had a beautiful stone bank. The back end of the bank was gone, crumbled away like it had been made from dust and the wind had blown it away artfully. The front, however, was almost in perfect shape. I could stand there, looking at that bank, imagining the people who came through those doors, feeling the life that was once in that place. I love ghost towns.

Back in the early 70’s, my family lived in central Nebraska and we used and abused the amazing bounty of “limited access” roads north and west of where we lived. We had miles of those roads to explore and my wife and I and many of our friends spent hours and days riding those sandy trails, cut with deep ruts from the occasional tractor and regular erosion. Miles and miles of plains, grasslands, hills, and ranches and farms. Nebraska, like many Midwestern farm states, had a law that prevented farmers from bringing the fences together until a road had been unused for several years. I suspect there weren’t a lot of years left for those roads 40 years ago. Twenty feet of farmland, hundreds of miles long, is a lot of profitable acreage and this modern world doesn’t tolerate unused natural resources for long.

Before GPS, in a place that wasn’t interesting enough for anyone to bother with detailed topological maps, we mostly navigated by asking for directions when we really strayed outside of our known boundaries. Otherwise, we just wandered around until we found some kind of identifiable landmark or highway and made it back to our cars and bike trailers. We got to know those roads well enough that we became pretty confident in our ability to find out way back home from practically anywhere in a 100 square mile area.

One early spring Sunday afternoon, east of Palmer, Nebraska, we found ourselves at the bottom of a steep hill with rain grooves cut so deeply into the road that we paddled out way up the last few feet, scraping the pegs and dragging the frame and engine cases on the edges of the ruts. At the top of the hill, we discovered a small village, abandoned not that long ago, in Hollywood movie set condition. There was a 1950’s-looking Sinclair filling station, with the red clock-tower hand crank pumps, thermometer glass fuel inspection window, and white dome lights perched on top of the pump. My uncle ran a station like that back in the 1950’s and it stood on the edge of his property until a railroad-caused fire burned down the neighborhood. There was a two-room post office, a small general store, a barber shop, and a half-dozen cottages in livable condition. The dirt road through the middle of town was severely deteriorated, but the structures looked like they’d been abandoned recently. The lawns were just starting to turn green, so they looked cared for. The wooden structures were mostly sound and painted, although the roofs wouldn’t pass close inspection. No one had bothered to break the windows or trash the buildings. The little town looked habitable, but it was completely abandoned and had been for a while. The road in, was impassable for anything other than horses or motorcycles.

We spent a little while, looking through windows and testing doors and walking through the buildings that weren’t locked up. After a bit, we got back on the bikes, went back down the hill, and continued our weekend exploration. That town has never left my memory. We never managed to figure out where it was, so we never found our way back to the place. No one I knew had any idea what dinky village we’d managed to stumble upon. A short while later, we moved to Omaha and never returned to that area on motorcycles. Every time I find myself in a vanishing village or a completely empty ghost town, I think of that empty village in Nebraska.

Like adventure touring, one of the ideas I love about history and ghost towns is, “You can’t get there from here.” My father’s family all lived in dying Kansas towns. When I was a kid, I spent hundreds of hours exploring abandoned banks, stores, barbershops, newspapers, and homes. I walked, freely, among small crumbling civilizations and read the public news and personal letters of folks who had been gone from those places, from the world, before I was born. Those places are lost in time, slowing decaying back into the raw materials from which they came. The closest you can come to being there is to be there by yourself, imagining the lives and the place when they were fresh and vital. It’s not time travel, but it’s the closest I can come to it.

Riding a motorcycle to those places provides a connection to the past that could only be beaten on foot, bicycle, or on horseback. I’m too lazy to bike or walk and I’d rather bike or walk than ride a horse, so my motorcycle is the best time machine option. This summer, I was blessed to be able to share my passion with my grandson. Even better, he seemed to be as drawn to the experience as I was when I was his age.

MMM

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