This column is a departure of sorts from the usual subject matter of Gutter Archaeology. This issue’s zine, About a Ghost Town Bike Tour, is an art projectI purchased on Etsy. The zine is not explicitly about the practice or community of urban exploration, but does document a tale of urban exploration, and a meditation on the sights witnessed. It is written by an author who uses the handle ofcourseyoucan.
This zine does away with urbanism altogether, being “explorations of humanless homes and musings on the death, or at least decay, of rurality.” The abandoned communities and farmsteads explored have a relationship with the city, however, just as they have a relationship with nature. Nature is described as majestic, but not idyllic; displaying a certain ruthlessness as it reclaims the creations of humans. Similarly, the absence of people in these towns and houses can be blamed on the city, as children move there upon maturation and formerly resident agrarians are able to transport themselves to and from their farms without having to live there. Some of the architecture spotted on this journey is outdated as a result of this shift, as small communities no longer have a need for small-scale churches or schoolhouses, being able to use those of urban centers. Continuously musing on the past, the zine even notes the mode of transportation used on the tour, the bicycle: “because bikes are inconspicuous, easy to stash, easy to fix, quiet, and slow enough to let you really look at the places you’re passing through.” The author shares with many urbanists a distaste for automobiles.
Beyond the broad themes, there are many interesting observations of specific locations. Many of the houses have been stripped almost bare, with only a scattering of items (a table, a children’s book) left by the former human inhabitants. One of the towns visited is not completely empty, having three “and a half” inhabitants. This is “what a town is like just before it becomes a ghost town.”
The project’s text only tells half the story though, serving as a complement to its black-and-white photography. The written words (not exactly captions) are pasted over the pictures in strips; with a few pages focusing on paragraphs, but others with the writing tucked unobtrusively in the corner, prevented from blocking the visuals. These come in many different types, all of the abandoned locations: close range shots of specific features, medium-range pictures of entire rooms, and a few exterior shots encompassing an entire structure. To my mind, the most interesting picture is that of a pressed aluminum roof tile in a derelict church, which is now used as a shelter for livestock. This ignominious but practical use for a well-crafted and formerly holy building doesn’t need its incongruity to be spelled out. One image that appears a few times is that of peeling paint; the commentary may be especially familiar to the urban explorer when the author notes how they “unconsciously hold our breath at peeling paint (lead?) and crumbling walls (asbestos?).”
Though the zine is Canadian, ghost towns hold a powerful image in the American subconscious, especially in the mythology of the west and the frontier; I suspect this is similar for the Canadian psyche. They are a reminder that the nation’s rapid move west (the driving force in creating the nation’s identity, according to Frederick Jackson Turner) left detritus in its wake, as not everyone was able to share in the prosperity. Railroads and highways shifted course, oil wells dried up, and infrastructure was created then abandoned, gradually or en masse. The ghost town is more than anything a symbol of decay along this frontier, showing that not all efforts at settlement are given the chance to thrive before they decline.
About a Ghost Town Bike Tour may not be a de jure work on the subject of urban exploration, but it provides moving photography and thoughtful ruminations on a subject near and dear to the urbexer’s heart. It has a welcome focus on rural subject matter, although I think that urban exploration writing often glosses over the fact that some of its subjects are in fact in a geographically rural setting, even though they are “urban” in the sense of being part of the built environment. Overall, it is an excellent example from the well-populated world of abandoned photography, an artsy cousin to the world of urban exploration.