I heard a radio program the other day about someone who traveled into the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Chernobyl, the place in Russia where a nuclear reactor exploded twenty-five years ago, and has been sitting quietly free of most people since then. A man went into the zone for research and described what has become of the city. The forests have taken over, of course. Birch trees grow up through apartment buildings and reclaim streets. Wolves and ponies wander about freely. What was once a city has been eaten by the woods.
I find this so fascinating. It’s beautiful in its way although please take my advice and don’t google images of Chernobyl. Most of them are unforgettably horrible.
But the way nature has taken back the streets is kind of wonderful, and I have always had a fascination with places that people have abandoned. I’ve sought them out. Those places are powerful. The rise of what we think of Ancient Greek culture was a reaction to what they called Cyclopean architecture. Some previous Greek civilization had created enormous buildings and then abandoned them. Greece fell into a period of dark ages, but the sight of these giant buildings made them yearn for a past they had no record of. The abandoned buildings brought out a romantic side that created the culture of Homer, Plato, and Euclid.
There is something about places that people have abandoned. Campgrounds in the off season are always a surprise. The individual spots lose their individuality, and it’s hard to distinguish one from the next. I wandered around a campsite this autumn, just the dog and my wife and me. I came across a homemade bow, curved bit of wood with a string hanging loosely, and I smiled to think of some kid making and playing with it. But no, that wasn’t it. The string was too loose. This was a bow to help make a fire. This something a father had made to teach his children the ancient art of making fire from friction. He was teaching them something that fathers and mothers had taught their children for ages and ages.
And I think about my trip years ago through Fort Ord, the military base near Monterey, California that had been abandoned. I was there to visit the college that had been built on the site, but I took a wrong turn and ended up in the town that had once housed the military personnel. The neat rows of houses still stood. The driveways were not cracked. The place just stood empty with parks and playgrounds in near complete silence.
And I think about my trips with my father-in-law through the deserts of California exploring abandoned mines. Each mine had been miles and miles from civilization, so each mine had become its own town. The people who lived their left their trash behind in heaps, mostly food cans hacked open at the top with their hatchets. The piles of trash that normally would have angered me gained a kind of lonely significance in the desert, the only monuments to people who had been so desperate they’d gone out to one of the hottest places on Earth to dig through rock. Most of them had failed, and now bats had taken over the caves they’d dug. We’d go into the mines and stare at the bats and look at their trash heaps and think about those men.
And I think I’ve figured out my retirement job now. I love places that people have been and left. I think that when I retire, I will be a travel writer for places in the off-season and places people didn’t want anymore. What could be more beautiful than a factory sitting empty and alone taken over by cats? How could the Grand Canyon be more spectacular than on a Tuesday afternoon in February?