There’s an old house that sits on one of the most popular running routes that our college team used north of Decorah, Iowa. That house was not in great shape even back then. These days it is close to collapse. On a trip to Northeast Iowa two years ago I took photos and did a pastel drawing of the place.
Back home in Illinois, I frequently pass abandoned homes and farms while driving on country roads on bird trips. Those old joints all seem to have a story to tell. Mostly it is one of inevitable neglect because whatever enterprise or income once sustained the place no longer lasted. Then the residents or tenants moved out and the slow process of decay and collapse begins. There is a haunting quality to that knowledge, no doubt.
Usually the aging process starts with paint flaking off the sides of a house or barn. That’s usually the first sign that a homeowner is struggling. They either can’t afford to paint the place or no longer care.
When the shingles start sloughing off, that’s the point of no return. In comes the rain and other elements. Then the place starts falling apart from the inside out. Gutters sag and fall off. Glass windows are long gone. Vandals or wildlife invade. The place is no longer fit for civilized living. So it sits there.
Recently I stopped on a drive to cautiously inspect an aging barn with an old Chevy parked inside. There back windshield still bore stickers featuring the Coyote and Roadrunners. The license plate was gone. That car was going nowhere fast.
I’m not alone in being fascinated by these old places. There are groups all over Facebook sharing photos of abandoned homes and places. Some people view them the home of ghosts. Others poke around inside to see what evidence of occupancy still resides there.
I tend to stay out of the interiors. No Trespassing signs far out in the country may not seem to hold much authority, but someone posted them there. In this day and age, it’s not wise to test someone’s patience or their notion of propriety. Nor do should we seek to test their claim to property or the range of their shotgun, if that’s what moves them.
Sometimes while pedaling by on my bike I’ll stop quickly and take a set of photos because it captures a moment in time. There’s a certain amount of sentiment that goes along with looking at abandoned old homes and farms. Some of us recall the time when farms such as these had cattle or milking cows out in the fields, and there are still a few working farms with cattle and hogs here in northern Illinois. Passing by those barns in summer is a real olfactory treat when the wind is blowing right at you on the bike or run. Then you know you’re really alive.
Some of that sense of connection draws from my own experience. While I did not grow up on a farm, I visited both farms on which my parents grew up. I shoveled manure into the troughs, let a calf suckle on my fingers so hard it scared me, and rode on the tractor with my wild uncle as he roared the thing down the two-track toward the Susquehanna River. That farm is long gone now.
That fascinating realm between the quick and the dead is what moves us to be curious about old, abandoned place. Looking at the crumpled remains of a former farm property is like conducting a crime investigation into past lives and agricultural ventures that takes us back decades. It’s as if the remains of these places hold some secret we’re supposed to know. They are the wheelhouse of regrets that are not our own, yet they do allow a touch of remorse to reach us. We need that bit of sadness to shove us along sometimes, and remind us to take our own notions of home, and life, a bit more appreciatively.