At the end of the road, an airstrip appears, as unexpected as a landing pad for aliens. Instinctively, I look for the Eldorado Mine and the company town of Eldorado that stretched around the lake behind the airstrip and am startled to find nothing but hills and trees and a muddy black field. The plane lands and pulls to a stop on the edge of the tarmac. No one is there to greet us and we get out of the plane and wait. Behind the airstrip are the familiar hills – as rounded and smooth as hills on a golf course, and covered with pine, spruce and budding poplar – so familiar that I listen instinctively for the old rhythms and sounds. Though neither town nor mill were ever visible from the airstrip I can already sense the difference; knowing that I can cross these hills and see only more hills and more lakes makes the silence heavy and oppressive. For a moment it feels like we have shifted dimensions and landed in another time, the turn of the century say, and that the present and even my own past and the past of the town is still in the future and there is nothing here but the rocky hills, the stands of poplar and jack pine and spruce, the warm afternoon sun beating down on the tarmac.
The woman and the pilot unload her trays and boxes from the plane, handing things back and forth without many words as if they have been through this routine many times before. At first the woman hardly registers my presence then, when I help her with a few boxes, she opens up a little.
“So you like living in Uranium City?” I ask. Her judgment matters less now that I am actually here. She smiles with the slight trace of irony that I remember as a Northern trait and shrugs her shoulders.
“I don’t know. My mom’s here so I guess I like that.”
A mini-van blazes up the road and stops at the foot of the airstrip, and a woman and a man and two teenagers spill out of the doors. They seem slightly unreal against the stillness. They appear to be brothers and sisters of the woman I came in with. The man is thin and wiry and sports a broad moustache; he takes boxes from the plane and into the van, talking with the others. His speech has a curious native inflection – heavy consonants, thin syrupy vowels, sh for s – as if he learned to speak on a reserve. I help him and the others unload but he doesn’t greet me or acknowledge my presence in any way except to take the boxes from my hands. If I look at him he looks back guardedly, eyes blank, anxious to retreat into the familiar world of his family.
After everything has been unloaded it transpires that the rest of the family is flying back to Fort Mac and the blonde woman is going to drive the van into town. A commotion erupts – no one, it seems, has a key for the airport fuel tank and there is not enough fuel in the plane to get back without a stopover in Fort Chipewayan, a reserve on the far edge of Lake Athabasca.
“I don’t want to stop at Fort Chip!” the man with the moustache says brightly as the whole family points at the fuel tank and the plane, shrugs their shoulders and shakes their heads. Their voices rise and fall, cushioned by the emptiness, and their arguing has a circular frenetic quality, and the more it continues the more helpless they seem, as if any obstacle at all reduces them to bickering and inertia. Watching them I get the disquieting sense that this argument could go on forever if it was allowed to.
A blue Ford pick-up pulls in and a very thin man with slicked back hair gets out, holding a set of keys out in front of him and grinning, as if this too has happened many times before. The truck looks brand new, hardly dented or covered in dust. I recognize the man: he is Jackie Garret, proprietor of the Garret Motel and U-Drive, one of the town’s few remaining businesses, and an old-timer from the town’s other life. We’d talked on the phone before I came up. Jackie greets everyone and everyone greets him, relaxed now and laughing as they board the plane and, relieved that the arguing is over, I hop into the truck and presently Jackie gets into the driver’s side and we pull onto the highway for the seven kilometer ride to town.
At first the view is so exhilarating, I don’t want to say anything. The highway follows the arm of a clear open lake, then cuts between the two rock cliffs where they’d dynamited right through a hill the year before I’d left. Lichen-covered rocks flow from the road, and dusty blue hills float along the horizon, as serene as extinct volcanoes. Every sway, every dip and peak of the skyline slips into place as soon as I see it, so that I feel like I’ve last seen these hills only a couple of days before and this is home and I’ve never really left.
We round a curve and pull into MASL, the seaplane base on the edge of Martin Lake. There is a sign with faded letters: ‘Welcome To Uranium City’ and a number of houses around a giant white seaplane hangar. The houses are abandoned and fading to grey and the hangar is bolted shut, the white paint on its flanks peeling off, exposing grey wood underneath. Subconsciously I’d expected to find these buildings inhabited and still in use and seeing them abandoned shocks me a little. But the shock is mitigated by obvious signs of life – two seaplanes sit in the water in front of the hangar and further up the lake is the old Kiwanis Beach looking pretty much as it always had: swings on the shore and children’s slide in the water; rocky hill rising behind the sand and water sparkling in the northern summer sun.
We cross a bridge over the river that runs along the edge of town. One more turn and we will be on Uranium Road, the main thoroughfare through the city.
“It’s a hundred times worse than you could ever imagine it,” Jackie says abruptly, “you won’t believe what’s happened to this place.”
He is right.
There are some experiences so profound, so monumental, that you cannot even try to predict what they will be like before you go through them. Despite reading Deborah Foster’s article, despite being fascinated my whole life by ghost towns and derelict buildings; despite being well aware that the town I am about to see would have little in common with the town I left behind, I am completely unprepared for my first view of Uranium City.
Uranium Road leads up a short hill and disappears around a corner. There are the familiar outlines I’d recorded through the undiscriminating lens of youth – the green stucco mass of the old hotel, the yellow cinder block cube that was the bakery, the two-story concrete building that used to be the car wash. But what I had recorded as a young man was open windows, vehicles, people, movement – now there is only parched brown earth and an eerie oppressive stillness. But for a yellow backhoe parked in front of the old car wash the street is completely deserted; even the windows have been blocked by lengths of greying plywood. Disintegrating concrete steps lead to the hotel’s main entrance; the awning has fallen away and the single steel door has been sealed firmly shut, a giant ‘EH’ spray-painted in yellow across the metal surface. Already there is a sense that this is a place that has not seen much movement for a long, long time.
The hotel is particularly hideous. It reminds me of a set of housing projects I saw once in Newark, New Jersey that had been torched and gutted in the sixties and then just left. It radiates the same sullen negativity, an emptiness that spreads to everything around it.
The Garret Motel is a sparse collection of blue and purple trailers decorated with white trim directly across from the car wash. A ragged Métis man stops Jackie at the front door and asks him for ten dollars. Jackie gives him the money then, when the man has shuffled away, he says, “Better take your bags inside while I check you in.”
“Lot of thieves around here?”
“No, not too bad. But if you leave them long enough they might just grow legs.”
In Jackie’s office the curtain are drawn over the windows and a single desk sits in the middle of a carpeted room. Papers and assorted debris cover the desk and the floor and the single couch in the corner – a road map of the USA takes up one wall. I sign for three nights; almost $250 in total with tax and Jackie gives me the key and tells me where my room is. There are eight rooms in all but as far as I can tell I am the only guest. The room is bare but comfortable, with a small bathroom, a double bed, a TV, and a lamp on the single night table. On top of the TV are two Bibles, open to the same page and stacked one on top of the other. In the centre of both pages is a passage from the book of Ezekiel:
“Thus says the Lord God, ‘When I shall make you a desolate city, like the cities which are not inhabited, when I shall bring up the deep over you, and the great waters will cover you,
“then I shall bring you down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of old, and I shall make you dwell in the lower parts of the earth, like the ancient waste places, with those who go down to the pit, so that you will not be inhabited; but I shall set glory in the land of the living.
“I shall bring terror upon you, and you will be no more; though you will be sought, you will never be found again.”
I study the passage for a minute, wondering who would have left the Bibles open like this and whether it is meant as some kind of message. Then I open the curtains to let in some light. Just beyond the window is a pile of wrecked cars, some sitting upright, some on their sides or piled upside down on other cars as if some massive accident had taken place a few years before and everything had just been left.
Too restless to sit still for even a minute, I put my bags on the bed and step back outside.