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More than a feeling

Yes, I drive around the country poking my head into and taking pictures of abandoned houses.

They have fascinated me since I was a kid. And I’ll never forget my first one. An old house stood next to Columbus Field where we had track and field training. It was probably my brother Kevin who hid behind a door, jumped out and yelled BAH, scaring the living crap out of me.

Then there was the old farmhouse on the Antigonish Landing. We’d jog out to Brown’s Mountain and explore the old dilapidated home. One of our coaches, Dave, pretended he was going to fall through the floor … and then he almost did.

Now I find myself in the Old West, where men mined the land for coal and tilled the field for crops.

The coal mines have been stripped dry and many of those crop fields now lie fallow, long since left behind by their residents.

Leaving me with a gold mine for my camera and my curiosity.

I wander the properties, turning the keys left in the ignition of old cars and trucks, wondering what I’d do if the engine ever turned over.

Poking my head into the houses, wondering why that table was left behind.

Touching the ovens tossed into the field, wondering why they couldn’t bake anymore pies.

I struggle to imagine what possessed a person or family to leave behind their homes. Did they simply drop everything and leave for a life of greater convenience in the big city? Were they forced out by foreclosures and the banks never found anyone to buy the property? Did they run away in the middle of the night, in fear of something?

It was cold on Sunday when we hit the road for the Badlands.

And when we spied an abandoned home from Highway 575 near Drumheller, I felt a weird chill. It was the kind of house that gave me shivers, not the least bit welcoming or warm.

I gingerly made my way around the property, always keeping an eye on the house. Its windows, the glass long since shattered away, and the door formed a large dark face of a gaping mouth and eyes.

It  was watching me with every step I took. Every press of the shutter release. Every breath.

I made my way around to the back of the house where Jack had found some rusty cans on the ground. He was bent over, trying to find the right angle, the right light.

I looked at the door. Though my guts were telling me to stay outside, I took a step into the house.

I felt a sudden chill.

The kind of chill that goes right into your bones. But there was no wind. Just a sudden drop in temperature.

I turned and went back outside.

Jack was standing by now, a confused look on his face. He said “that’s weird, my camera just adjusted to f95 on its own.”

Um … hey, Jack, there is no such thing as f95.

“I know.”

OK, waddaya say we get out of here?

We left.

I caught the house in the corner of my eye as we headed back to the highway. It gave me another chill.

I picked up my phone and launched my Dolphin browser. It seems to be extremely rare but other Nikon D300s owners have seen f95 in their EXIF data. Jack reset the camera and all was fine.

Was it merely a coincidence?

Was there a wind I didn’t notice?

Did the tiny little computer in Jack’s camera decide to shake things up on its own?

Or was it all more than a feeling?

Do you believe in ghosts?

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On deadline

Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow.

It’s the mantra of procrastinators around the world.

Wait … let’s get one thing straight. When it comes to work and writing, I don’t miss a deadline. I stare that stone-cold bitch in the eyes and I turn her into a whimpering pile of tears.

But for the last couple of years, I’ve been saying to myself , ‘self, you gotta get back to Lomond and shoot that beautiful yellow farmhouse again.’

I spied the abandoned farmstead from the 531 on a February trip through Vulcan County in 2010. The faded yellow paint was still bright enough to stand out on the prairie hill but the dark holes of smashed-out windows gave away its abandoned state.

I didn’t get a great shot of the house, instead silhouetting it against the brilliant winter sun.

I explored the inside of the house, finding little artifacts left behind.

I promised to return during the summer, hoping for easier access than the knee-high snow Shep and I trudged through.

I didn’t go.

I thought of the yellow farmhouse often, mentally penciling in a visit every time I added a better piece of equipment to my photographic arsenal.

I didn’t go.

Life gets in the way. Other abandoned areas beckon. Trips back and forth to Spokane took up my travel time.

And then I learned I was too late.

My shooting friend Dan drove through the area last weekend on his way to Retlaw. I advised him to watch for the farmhouse the next time he drove through.

It sparked in me a need to hit the road. I started planning my trip last night, starting with the ‘cute little church’ Dan said he found in Gladys and running through Milo, Lomond and Blackie.

My heart fell when I landed on a post on Ghost Towns Canada.


The farmhouse was gone … a smouldering pile of ashes.

OK, don’t give up, I thought. The foundation may still be there, giving the property yet another level of eerie abandonment.

I passed by Lomond and I mentally kept my fingers crossed, hoping something would be there.

Something was.

A new house.

Aye. The old barn still stands.

And the old GMC truck still sits rusting in the hay field.

If it’s possible for ‘new’ and ‘progress’ to tarnish, though, it happened today.

There’s a little less mystique about the property, with the spot where the old farmhouse stood fully bulldozed and covered in fresh gravel.

There’s a little less intrigue as the ghosts of the past seemed to have been whisked away by the future.

And there’s a lesson to be had.

Ghost towns and abandoned buildings have a deadline.

They just don’t tell us what it is.


There’s no place like Dorothy

“Dorothy is a hamlet in southern Alberta, Canada within Special Area No. 2. It is located approximately 21 kilometres (13 mi) east Highway 56 and 85 kilometres (53 mi) northwest of Brooks.”

That’s all you’ll read about Dorothy on its Wikipedia page.

Now make the two-hour trip from Calgary and stand in the short distance between the Catholic and United churches.

Listen to the wind whistle through the hills behind you.

Gaze at the vast blue sky above you.

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Fading away in Scollard, Alberta

The cattle are lowing in the distance.

There’s not much more activity along Scollard Road, aside from the city girl poking around the neighbourhood.

Flanked by two small and very much lived-in houses, the Scollard United Church stands as a testament to another time.

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Family forever … in Retlaw

We land in Retlaw on a day the streets are bustling with life.

About 20 cars are parked outside the Retlaw Hall, a community meeting place on the main drag.

It’s Easter weekend and the Culver family converges here, just as it does two or three times a year. They’re scattered — 11 children and 22 grandchildren — through southern Alberta, from Calgary to Taber to Lethbridge.

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