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.
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