Friday, Oct. 8 | Day 3: We took leisurely passage to St. Pete this time, mostly on old U.S. highways or county roads, making it a slower, tramp-steamer-type of motorcycle ride instead of a supersonic rush down the interstate.
It was better for Linda’s Vespa and my Yamaha1. The reward was scenic views, small towns, and a number of abandoned buildings – old gas stations, motels, diners, and other places – that were fascinating and depressing, in a scary story or science fictiony way.
The ghost town/ghost story comparison is inevitable, I suppose, though none of these really felt haunted. They were much more understated, like the John Steinbeck story, “The Cottage That Wasn’t There,” written and serialized in the New York Herald Tribune in 1943, during World War II2.
But walking into some of these places (taking nothing but photos) and seeing the rain damage, damp floors and mold also reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s 1950 short story, “The Long Rain,” in which four men crash-land on Venus, a planet of eternal rain, and try to get to safety3.
We’re talking about buildings that used to be popular, once upon a time; you could envision them as set players in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or part of the background in American Graffiti.
Stopping at these places wasn’t part of the mission profile, but that changed as I realized how many were there and how interesting they were.
I confess to breaking (to Linda’s exasperation) our ride protocol4 by simply pulling over and pulling out a camera whenever I saw something of note.
Some reminded me of ghost towns we visited when living in Nevada:
- Bodie, California, kept in arrested decay5 by California State Parks;
- Rhyolite, Nevada, an abandoned town about 35 miles from Death Valley.
I don’t know why such places attract me. Part of it is history, I reckon; I wonder about the people who worked and visited there, and what led to the abandonment. And whether the businesses and livelihoods could have been saved.
Take the derelict Horne’s restaurant/souvenir shop in Lawtey, Florida, for example. It appears as though the owners simply walked away from it, leaving counters and shelves stuffed with items, very much as the things left behind in Bodie long ago.
The Interstate truck stop in Ulmer, South Carolina, must have been a thriving business until the construction of I-95 killed it.
And Ray’s Place in Sylvania, Georgia, looked like it was a nice place, way back when.
There were no spooky incidents to report, only silent rooms and broken windows and dripping rain.
I do wonder what we’d have done if we’d filled up at a strange little gas station and later met someone down the road (probably an ancient, wizened gentleman with hair longer and whiter than mine) who’d say:
“Oh, no, you couldn’t possibly have bought anything there. That place closed down years ago.”
1 – Sometimes I regret not taking my Vespa Sei Giorni instead of the Yamaha Super Tenere, though carrying all our stuff was easier. I’ll attempt to pack lighter for the GTV next time, definitely.
2 – A story that grabs the reader unexpectedly; during WWII, a British sergeant tells Steinbeck of walking at night in England from one outpost to another and seeing a house with its lights on and a little old lady inside.
He’s charmed by the scene and reaches his destination without incident but starts thinking of how the house should have blackout curtains since it’s wartime. It slowly dawns on him that the cottage isn’t actually there – it had been bombed by the Germans months earlier with only its walls left standing.
The story is in Steinbeck’s book, “Once There Was a War,” published in 1958.
3 – They’re trying to reach something called a Sun Dome, a structure with an artificial sun. The first one they find has been attacked and destroyed by indigenous Venusians, who punch holes in the roof to let in the never-ending rain. We saw a lot of rain damage ourselves.
The story was part of the collection in “The Illustrated Man,” published in 1951 and “R is for Rocket,” in 1962.
4 – That’s the duty of stopping with notice to your riding partner. Linda sometimes didn’t realize what I was doing until I dropped out of her mirrors and she was forced to turn around to look for me.
5 – Arrested decay is a practice of preserving, not repairing, buildings by preventing them from falling apart with outside braces or other means.
3 thoughts on “Not Necessarily Haunted, but: Ghost Buildings Along the Road That Would be Perfect in a Ray Bradbury or John Steinbeck Story”
Beautifully told, George. There’s a documentary that revisits the sites and scenes of the Blues Brother movie with Akroyd and Belushi. It’s changed a great deal. The shopping mall where the old police car turned 360s is abandoned now but you could still take a large car right down the mall and into a store.
Given that we’re in the midst of another spate of scrapping – the burned out hulk of the St. Clair was towed from Toledo to Port Colborne last week, Manistee is set to follow the same route in April and her owners have announced that this season will be Ojibway’s last — being a boatnerd is kind of like that again.
I bet it was comforting knowing that, if you had the misfortune of a mechanical breakdown, you were off the beaten path and away from cars whirring by at 80mph. I enjoy taking the backroads sometimes. And doing it on a bike makes it even more interesting as you can take in the sites even better.