Weeds rise from the cracks in the underbrush along the edge of the parking lot, reaching up the concrete steps to the hotel’s main entrance. In the fog, the weeds look febrile, like they are about to crawl right up the walls. I climb the steps, pull on the steel door that once opened onto the lobby. Locked tight, as they’ve been since 1982, when the hotel closed. Up close, even the yellow ‘EH?’ that decorates the front and back of every road sign the seven kilometers from town to airport, looks faded, like it was painted a decade or more ago. Even the steps are crumbling: a few more years and they will collapse altogether.
Yet pull back a few feet, and the hotel looks as impregnable as a fortress, a block long three story building of green stucco, so monumental you expect it to remain standing long after every other building has collapsed into the ground.
The door to the Zoo bar on the ground floor is just below the big ‘Welcome’ sign carved into the concrete slab behind the parking lot, black letters painted on a white background, the first thing anyone sees after they turn the corner into town. To my surprise that door opens without resistance, and as I step inside I want to believe that despite the outward signs of abandonment, inside the hotel will still be functional — the bar and café, just as they used to be, maintained and frequented by townspeople who never left – who file in through underground tunnels to drink beer or shoot darts in the bar, or gather in the upstairs café for coffee — a parallel existence, cut off from the rest of the town by the boards over the window, the hotel’s menacing stillness. Stepping inside, I almost expect to see lamps or candles, hear music, hear a voice from somewhere deep within, shouting out a greeting.
Or a warning.
Stale air hits my face like a liquid wall. The door slams shut behind me and everything is dark until my eyes adjust. A shaft of light reaches through a broken window at the back of the bar. The bar is much smaller than it appeared when I stared through that same window, waiting for a miner to get me and my girlfriend Willow a six-pack. Hardly big enough for a hundred people. The little round tables that cluttered the space have been taken away, and lengths of wood cover the floor next to the single beer counter which has been kicked over on its side. The bar fridge, still protected by a half-dozen heavy glass doors, sits against one wall. A Carling Old Style box, cardboard warped with age, lettering faded white with yellow borders, sits in front of one of the doors.
The air is as heavy as the air in a cave — decades of rot, of mysterious man-made substances vaporizing in the stagnant air. That fake wood paneling on the walls like some ’70s basement den. I can almost imagine how it would have been, even if I was too young to ever actually get inside. Cigarette smoke hanging below the drop-down chipboard roof, country music wailing off a battered jukebox, plenty of drunks, white and native. Maybe some greater sense of transience than the average small-town bar, with the miners coming in from the bunkhouses, the natives by truck and skidoo from the reservation towns fifty, a hundred miles away. The fights spilling out into the thirty below cold with the northern lights crackling overhead like signals from a distant planet, the taxis pulling up outside, depositing miners, people from around town. She’d taken me down to see it, many times. It was like a carnival, electric and a little dangerous, faces brighter in the lights and the cold. Then the announcement that the mine was closing and for a few weeks everyone in town coming to the bar wondering what the hell they were going to do, how they would fight the powers that had torn their lives apart, until one February afternoon the moving vans pulled up off the ice road to that barren parking lot outside.
Light, fainter than from the back window, slants through the door that leads upstairs to the hallway and I follow the light until I am standing at the bottom of the stairs leading to the second floor, next to the men’s bathroom where I’d score pinners of bad weed when we couldn’t get weed anywhere else. The hallway looks as if an army of looters has run amok, scattering acres of debris over the industrial carpet which still covers the floor, kicking holes in the paneled wall. The trash seems almost incongruous, since the three kilometers of abandoned houses outside are mostly empty, denuded of the artefacts that must have been left in great abundance when the town was abandoned. It’s as if all the trash, all the artifacts, from the rest of the town, has been swept up and dumped here. The carpet is over-run I can’t even make out its original color, and in the places the debris is ankle deep. The air smells of mold, plaster dust, a sulfurous decay that could be anything from rotting asbestos to corroded pipes.
It is too much to handle, so I go up to the second floor, a space I never saw when the hotel was open. Light, muted by the fog, streams through the open window and into the hall, so that the rooms at the end of the hall appear to glow. Like downstairs, the walls have been kicked in, the floor covered in trash. I bend down to look at it. Newspapers from late 1981, the first months of 1982, beer cans with whitened logos, indecipherable plastic bottles, some papers with town letterhead, copper pipe, electrical wire, lengths of wood; refuse too decayed or fragmented to identify.
The ceiling here is only a foot above my head, the rooms off the hall too narrow for more than a bed, a night table. Must have been a hell of a place to stay, with the brawls spilling out into the parking lot, the local girls coming up to hang out with the miners, the parties continuing in the rooms until the early hours. The floor buckles as I step down the hall, enough to make me cautious about each step. Some of the walls between the rooms have been kicked away, and in the back of the building entire sections of the exterior wall have been smashed out. The ceiling sags then collapses at the end of the building, exposing the rooms to rain and wind. Graffiti runs across every wall: ‘Laureen sucks cock!’ ‘Fuck you whore!’ – the same graffiti kids write everywhere. The dates on the walls start at 1985, run right to the present, September 2000. So the kids keep coming here, year after year. Do they come at night, carrying flashlights and cases of beer? Do they kick in the walls during the day, ignoring the adults on the street below who in turn ignore them? The holes in the back look like they were knocked out with two by fours, steel beams. One room has been so badly damaged it opens right onto the lot behind it.
No way this kind of damage was done by kids. Not small kids anyway. Maybe it was someone I know, one of the native guys we used to hang out with when we hung out in the parking lot on those winter nights, one of the native guys who got left behind when everyone left. Coming here during those hard years when it became obvious that no one was coming back, and nothing would ever happen. What a relief it must have been, in the face of that knowledge, to come up here, drink beer and smash holes in the wall until you saw the whole town spread out below you and the phosphorescent sun glowed through walls and ceiling and warmed your flesh.
Back downstairs, I am a little shaken. Even if I understand the violence in the abstract, it freaks me out to think of someone I know coming here to tear this place to pieces. The hotel was the centre of town after a fashion, and I have to wonder just what happened in those dark years after it became obvious that nothing would happen here again, and everyone who was still here was stranded. The hotel is less menacing than some of the other buildings, where you feel angry forces seething in the darkness; here it is just eerie, as if, despite being at the heart of the still occupied centre of town, it is that much further removed from the town’s living history. Downstairs, the rooms seem to go on indefinitely, opening onto black holes, burrowing deep underground. Somewhere down a hall is the old Chinese restaurant, the Stope bar that acted as the respectable drinking place to the bedlam in the Zoo. In the darkness these rooms appear without form, denuded even of air. And perhaps after so many years sealed away, the oxygen has gone, so if you did venture back there, you could slowly asphyxiate and never come back.
At the end of the hallway, a thin shaft of light creeps in through the cracks and holes in the plywood that covers the windows, illuminating the lobby in multiple shafts of grey light, like the light in the depths of an old stone church. The lobby ceiling is at least fifteen feet high, and the front desk where the old Chinese manager used to stand, toothpick in the side of his mouth, is virtually intact, as are the rows of boxes for keys and mail. Even the windows here, unlike in virtually every other abandoned building in town, have been preserved, protected by the plywood that went up when the hotel was closed. Closed shut, as if they expected to come back, pull the plywood down, open the hotel up again like nothing had happened. And I can almost imagine it: the hotel coming back to life if the plywood were taken down. The foggy light streaming through the tall windows as it did 20 yeas ago on fall afternoons when I came here with Willow after school. Watching the breeze scatter red and yellow leaves across the intersection. The first snowfall, wet flakes spiraling out of dark grey sky and landing against the windowpane, the metal door banging shut every time someone came or went. Mrs. Mercredi, the daytime waitress, emerging from the gloom coffee pot in hand, taking us in with that knowing smirk around her lips as we edged into one of the booth tables in the cafeteria.
But even if the plywood did come down, the steel door would still be sealed shut, the floor covered ankle deep in garbage. The air would still taste stale and faintly poisonous. And this place would still give me the chills. Even if the lobby is relatively intact, the centre of the occupied town right outside, there is a sense of being completely removed from the rest of the town. I can feel the ghosts Sonny spoke of, lurking in the darkness at the back of the building, where the cafeteria and the lounge used to be. Even if the spirits here don’t feel as malevolent as those in the school, I sense that if I stay here too long, I will be absorbed into the cold air, the trash decaying on the floor, the undefinable film that coats every surface. Like the debris, the ghost presence that lurks everywhere in the empty town seems concentrated here, as if the lobby is the place where the spirits gather before spreading out to their posts in the abandoned town. Even the emotional twists that have yanked me to and fro for the five days it’s been since I got town seem concentrated here, so that even as I stand stock still, I feel alternate forces of fear, longing, elation; overwhelming and crushing depression.
I turn to go, glancing back at what had been the cafeteria. The booths, round counter seats and even the counter have all been ripped out, leaving a row of plugs on the laminated floor. It looks so ghostly, so absent, I can’t bring myself to cross the barrier of the doorway. I wonder if she ever came back, in the year or so after the mine closed, when the town had yet to completely empty out and the hotel was still open, when it still seemed by some miracle that the town might be saved. I wonder if she sat at one of those booths staring out at the winter dusk, looking on the fast-emptying downtown, sinking into the shadows that must have already been sinking in.
I step carefully to the back of the hallway, suppressing the urge to check behind me for the figures I feel there in the gloom – to run, gasping for oxygen, the steel door banging behind me as I rush back onto the silent street. It feels almost sacreligious to be here now, as if the hotel had become a sealed tomb. And perhaps that’s exactly what it is – a tomb at the heart of the occupied town.
Outside, the air tastes cold, fresh, alive. I release the metal door from my fingers and it taps closed, the sound muffled by the fog. The street is so still, I can feel my heart beating, like the echo of a metronome, ticking away in the gloom of the old hotel.
I won’t be back inside. The hotel, of all the buildings in town, deserves to be left alone.
My footsteps crunch on the gravel as I walk to Main street. The Robinson’s Drug Store, the CIBC bank, the MacIntyre shoe store, the pinball hall. Everything boarded up, bushes pushing from the concrete. Charred beams, distended pipes sticking out of vacant lots. No one around, even the Athabasca, the town’s only remaining restaurant, locked tight. Fog cloaks the end of every street, and as I continue down Main street, I feel as if I am walking through an abandoned cathedral.
A single fire hydrant pokes from the weeds at the end of every street. Even if every building in town were burned off the face of the Earth, and trees and bushes overtook the lots, the fire hydrants, the odd sign or foundation would remain, covered by the very forest they supplanted a half century before. A century from now, an explorer, ignorant of the area’s history, could stumble on these remnants and wonder what had been here before the forest closed in. I wonder if even then he would feel the presence of the spirits, still lingering about the foundations and the rusted plugs of the fire hydrants – spirits of a town that had wanted, desperately, to live.