by roger topp
We sit on the sand waiting for a flight with a bag of cameras and half a rare sunny day in the middle of the Aleutian Islands. Pacific ocean. Dead center, but north until you hit rock. We rode a ship out to explore the islands, the beaches, and the streams, the gullies and the snowfields. We went to look under both rocks and storm-born debris, for beetles, on volcanoes. Most rock here is volcano, and when the wind blows, exfoliant sand leaps into our eyes. We returned to the big island a little dirty, a little ready for a bunkhouse shower and stovetop mac and cheese. Eager to go, eager to return, we’re ready to love a few rooms to ourselves, a padded carpet, a little election news, a little Wi-Fi by the hour. The jet lands tomorrow.
Derek brushes sand from driftwood. He looks for a crack he can poke his knife in, wrenches it back and forth till the wood splits and all the little creatures spill out. The beach is perfectly isolated, and every couple steps we can pick up sand dollars, whelks, sea stars, barnacles, and urchins. The gulls take their time picking through the guts. The only thing that slows us down is the driftwood and the hollow silence of the ghost town next door.
Adak is under cheer blue skies a day after we are blown back from the sea, the R/V Tiglax jouncing between shadows where the whitecaps are threshed grain. We’ve sailed a small stretch of a beaded thread of volatile islands that divide one sea from another. We’ve been returned to warm beds and fortune-favored couches and a broad dining table that stays level. It’s an outpost and a home, even if there’s not an open restaurant within hundreds of miles, even if, here, ramen and powered milk are mainstays this far into the twenty-first century.
Legless and squat, the Fish and Wildlife Service bunkhouse is a ranch rectangle split from the log of basic suburbia. The earth bulges about the foundation like the rim of a scab. The lawn is golf green and humpbacked. Inside, the facility feels well stocked and capable of outlasting the apocalypse. Outside, the satellite dish between the bunkhouse and the airport is something stolen off an unfinished Death Star.
This morning, we climbed Mt. Moffett, that old volcano, to the snowfield. We walked left of what we estimated was the perimeter of an ad hoc minefield, UXOs and unidentified scrap metal—except for that one piece of rusted steel I planted my boot right on, because it was right in the middle of a faint footpath and every boot before mine had taken the same step. We crossed no fences.
Just below the snowfield we ate lunch by a melt water stream. Logan pointed to some wet rocks near the water and said that was where his beetle, in the way science adopts rare and stray animals, would live. Logan climbed down into the gully and overturned the rock he had pointed at—and there they were, three of them, small and black and hiding under the wrong shelter. He relocated them to his pocket vial.
From the mountain, we looked upon the town of Adak, wedged between the sea and the airport, a flat spot in a bay surrounded by volcanoes. In 1994 the Adak naval air station downsized, closing the schools and the family housing. By 1997 the base pulled up all the roots and shook out the dirt. The town once supported 9,000 people, airmen and families. Now the population is thin as the summer sunlight. There never has been much of an economy. On the main drag, a McDonald’s is still recognizable, even though they have collapsed the arches and sent them to a graveyard for such things, or perhaps tipped them in the pit where they drop the unexploded ordnance, or perhaps shipped them to another small, rural town where they still might serve millions.
Back in the truck, we rolled the rest of the way down the mountain into a neighborhood in a ghost town, a stocked kitchen, someone’s bottle of imported Scotch, the music of The National broadcast from a laptop, and a white, crescent beach. On the way, we stopped to take pictures of canted telegraph poles. A giant has pulled them over and then ripped out the cable and carried it off to make a nest.
The parking lot at the bunkhouse is overgrown with weeds—so it’s good we have a weed botanist. He asks the captain about the old trailer park, as if there might be a new one, as if there weren’t hundreds of empty homes for the asking. The captain has no idea, but sounds as if a particular invasive weed was spotted at the old trailer park years ago. Maybe it’s still there. Maybe it has spread everywhere. Maybe it’s tunneling up through the McDonald’s’ unsuspecting tiles.
When we crisscross the last frontier for science, collecting, documenting, interviewing—we never know how the time will go. How much of the month will be ship time, or hiking, or waiting in a canteen for the weather to clear and the plane, or helicopter, or fuel drums to arrive, the fog to lift, the high school basketball game to end, the village to get back from hunting season…. How many hours will be drying gear from a wet week’s crawl across beaches and gravel bars, wading streams and tall grass, dodging ravine-funneled rock falls, wondering if the foxes have peed on the float coats, wondering if the onshore chop will allow the skiff to land? We learn to read anything available, to find conversations like driftwood, places to explore, and to mind the barbed wire and the weathered signs.
A bag of cameras to record science in the field, and naturally, I walk into the abandoned town without a camera. I think I am going to walk the streets like I once cast about my boyhood neighborhood north of Philadelphia—not quite randomly, hands in pockets and thinking about the invisible, the map, the microcosmic, and a girl I liked whom might have been out for a walk, or on the porch, or looking out the window because she had nothing better to do that sit on the porch and wait for me to walk by—not like a photographer, not even like a writer. I am probably being lazy. I go back and grab my phone. I do not want to see any faces in a window today, but walking is good after being on a ship. The weather’s remarkably good for the Aleutians and perfect for practicing how to saunter and look a tad disreputable, eyes down, like I have an attitude and thoughts in my head. There’s a spark of danger in my fists and purpose in my legs. It’s a walk tailored center-cities and ghost towns.
When I visit my old neighborhood now, there is little movement on the streets, but it’s always a weekday in late fall, and the dogs have been walked and dinner is coming out of the oven. Mom and dad will complain I’m not waiting for it, TV yammering, news of recession and economics and trade and climate. Big TVs flash colors behind window glass and today’s dry, overstuffed couches are more soporific than new pajamas. Oak leaves and maple seeds will skitter in the wind and remind me of my favorite thing from long ago, walking this way to school when the husks of summer were flying the other way and dodging them was a game that could take me all the way to homeroom.
I have walked about those then-new suburban Philly neighborhoods with a camera. First time was soon after we moved there. Elementary school. School assignment. We were to photograph houses for unique points of architecture—and probably write something about them. The loaner camera sported a magnesium-aluminum flashcube. It rotated each time I took a picture. No doubt the exercise was more in the looking than the art of documentary. I should look for the prints.
The phone doesn’t have a flashcube, but there are other things going for it. It goes in and out of my back pocket like it’s the only bottle opener at the party. I wouldn’t keep putting it away but I want to walk with my hands in my pockets…
…and think what it would be like to have watched all my neighbors abandon their houses and disappear across the water, what it would have been like if there was no one left to buy cut-rate lemonade, no smaller boys to chase and big boys to evade. I could have walked into their unlocked kitchens and turned the wall clocks backwards, deconstructing years of finding nails in the yard and rocks in the path of the lawnmower.
We knew all the other, original residents. And a few families did move away, and because second generation residents are never as attached to a house as the first, the same few houses gained a reputation for going on the market. But while I lost friends to the next county over, because the next county over was distant as a Pacific island, other friends came into our lives. I have dim memories of doing the same, before that, before I was of school age, boarding ships to cross back and forth across the Atlantic, new apartments, new countries, two steps forward, one step back, but gradually, eventually moving farther and farther west. My parents started it. I’ve just kept going.
And here’s Adak, a quiet suburbia and property is a steal. A few more steps west and we’re in tomorrow. Pick a box with an attached solarium. The grey days demand light and undamaged shields on the windows. You will want to open a window without losing it to a windstorm.
I can hear children playing somewhere, and while they are not ghosts, I can’t quite locate them. The swing sets are empty and grassed over. Everyone that drives past waves. I recognize the same truck go by more than once. He waves both times. I wave back, nothing elaborate, and put my hands back in my pockets.
I have heard there was one major exodus, and then another slightly smaller one, the first when the military pulled out and the second when the airline threatened to stop the jet service. Researchers take advantage of the twice-a-week jet, half passengers, half cargo. Without it—and how profitable is it really?—there’s going to be a day when the last resident shuts the terminal building and climbs aboard an evac turboprop after removing the chocks. The 737s already land of their own accord so long as they can see their way in. I entertain the thought that the last resident might go round to all the houses first, and all the buildings, high school and hospital, store, and wildlife office, airport terminal, bowling alley and garden shed, and leave all the doors stopped open, or better yet off their hinges. Regardless, the wind is going to find its way in to breed.
I stop at a huge, concrete sign surrounded by empty car park. I believe it once read “Housing Community Center,” but this doesn’t make sense to me, and I want to rearrange the words, and I’m not sure there is really enough room for the missing letters. “H sing m ity enter.” I want the first word to be the most personal, the second not to slip with my tongue into cynical “conformity.” It should be a name Joe can call across the street to Bob after washing down the car. “Hey, Bob, I’m off to the H double-C. Fran and me. We want to see someone—knows something about why we can’t buy a light bulb anymore.”
As read, sounds more like a place you drop by, diverted by the great big billboard on the freeway—”new homes, low interest rates, upright, upstanding neighbors, 4,467 days since the last felony.” You check out the neighborhood and grab a brochure and some paint chips. Why are there paint chips? You think of cutting ten minutes from your commute because you spend so much time in traffic you are starting to calculate your gas-mileage in your head. Your hands polish the steering wheel. With the time saved you will have time to paint.
On Adak, ten minutes from the “H sing m ity enter” will get you as far as the road goes. The freeway, such as it is, is miles out to sea. This may not be the best spot for a bedroom community. No one here is trying to make the porches pretty for intercity commuters with dreams.
But if communities such as Adak cannot survive, how can we start colonies on Mars? How can people live in tin cans for years if they cannot make a meal of these green hills? Forget the end of the world. Forget the military UXOs. It’s easy enough to teach your kids not to pick bits of metal out of the dirt, and to walk in old footprints when you can find them. Stay out of the movie theater, the schools, the pools, the roller rink, and off the bombing range. No trespassing means no trespassing. Towns nail up doors and windows everywhere all the time. Plywood or plastic, not whether you look the other way when the broken windows stare back at you. After a while your eyes do slide right over. If it’s not worse than the last one, you are numb to it. Camera stays in pocket.
At the McDonald’s, taking away the arches was taking away the mailbox. Leaving the dishes and flatware was leaving behind a cigar box of collected rocks. No one wants them? The registers are gone. That should tell us something right there about freight costs and disposability and landfills and what we build on top—and you’ve heard what it costs to put a pound of crap into orbit.
Debris makes itself flat as possible. Shallow chunks of home hide behind leaves of grass and a twenty-something spruce grows in the wind’s shadow, branches blocking a door that has not been opened in two decades. Driveways slowly sink beneath a sea of moss and tufted grasses.
A wind whistles through an open garage, blue sky visible through a ragged hole in the side of the long, silver room. The wind has made its own flute. I look about for a square of loose plywood so I can play a tune, an off key happy birthday to the “birthplace of winds.”
I stand just outside the mouth. It would be easy to step inside the garage, but this place is haunted—and private now, more than it ever was thirty years ago when the neighborhood kids borrowed your new road bike for the novelty of gears and handbrakes. Back then families came for a tour of duty. Now, it’s something less than a death sentence, something greater than a round-trip to Mars.
I imagined ghost towns as a russet clutter of tin cans, dusty shelves, flooded floorboards, stained, half-wild, half-human landscapes, the dark holes I’ve seen in photographs. Everything is cuttlefish sepia from time and hot days and old, screaming glass. Our Mars future. What I did not imagine was my childhood home: third of an acre backyards, jungle gyms tucked down blue jean alleys, again and again pocketed by circled wagons of aluminum siding, shingle roofs, a hundred homes from a single Willy Loman brochure. Choose your own porch stoop. One dormer or two? A porch walled in brick or framed in stone? Forsythia or Juniper along the path? A pine tree or a sycamore in the half-bagger front yard, equidistant from sidewalk and door and the windward post? The math says that’s the right spot. Three-car garage—or a penny-pinching single? Our house was bought out of a showroom, the way we pretend we buy cars—just the two bedrooms, no bay windows, sliding glass in the breakfast nook, washer/dryer finished in peach enamel, garage door a muddy brown, standard transmission, spoiler, running lights, and premium sound. Check all that apply.
This is heartbreaking. This is too soon. Thousands of miles to the east, my once Pennsylvania neighborhood was built on farm acreage once landfill, and before that a limestone quarry hollowed out by constructive, community building bombs. During construction, we visited the lot after the men had gone home, so the house appeared to assemble itself like a prefab robot and time-lapse magic. We ran about the deconstruction, picking up sheared ribbons of steel strapping and the electricians’ metal coins, counted the sawn offcuts of two-by-fours. So many stones and we dreamed of lawns. We pushed on the framing and kicked the heaps of the day’s dust. We guessed at where the still missing walls would go. Later we climbed storm-wet stairs and looked out through holes that were never going to be windows. We traced the Romex and the plumbing and criticized the plan like we might a good attempt at a bad movie. I remember sitting on a plywood floor thinking soon I was going to sleep there. We imagined it would be warm inside, but that house was always cold, as if we were keeping windows open, like in that commercial for better windows.
But I don’t remember the day we moved in. A special day, no doubt. Our first house—and I can almost get there if I plant the smell of new carpet between my ears. Too many new carpets. I remember the holes, not the ribbon cutting. We still called it “the lot” many years later, as if the government had given it to us recent immigrants. When the sinkhole fell into old limestone rotted out by currents in the water table, it missed us and put the hole under the cul-de-sac to the west. The nearest car was spared. The houses all looked the other way.
After we moved in, we watched the homes go up on either side. Those too we visited at twilight, admiring the radial growth of a suburb attached to a freeway on-ramp. Like SUVs, the houses got bigger over time. That’s how I grew up, lurking and looking out through the skeleton walls of homes to be, looking through bathrooms into bedrooms into the next house and the next all the way out to the sky and the threaded red beads of radio towers and the lights and rumble of the turnpike. Over the years the walls went up and the shot from my sling bounced back instead of scattering among sap-bleeding frames and insulated ductwork. Grass grew from dust. Rock gardens sprouted from scrap lumber—tufts of pink insulation blew on the wind… electrics in a puddle, a yard of scrub and clay and rock, quiet-empty streets, and the odd, inexplicable truck parked amid windrows of empty driveways. Back to the present. If you talk to the mayor of Adak, yes, you can buy a house, but you will need to be creative. The boiler will not have survived these twenty winters.
Aluminum siding captures the shouts of a child at play and tosses the sparks between these rotted boxes. Half a dozen houses in a row have the same wall ripped out by the same furious fist of the onshore wind. Each of the identical homes is now a diorama, and the black holes are made by water, not fire. I walk in the middle of the street, certain mothers here, like mothers everywhere, tell their children not to go into the abandoned houses. “Dangerous, honey.” In some, the beds must lay where they were last used. In others, they are sandwiched with couches and love seats and coffee tables, in the garage and pierced with a toothpick. One brown, rolling door has sprung open to eye level, as if the bungeed furniture has absorbed moisture. It is beginning to spill out onto the driveway. In other houses, who knows? Though that gaping wall I can see a fridge and the kitchen sink. The stovetop has fallen out into the yard. Variations upon a theme.
Behind the last line of duplex homes, the road is seamed with island grass, and moss jogs up the middle like a wandering tide line. The beach is clear white sand, empty except for a couple scientists collecting beetles and soil samples and turning over rocks and driftwood. Travel is costly, and there’s no better time for science than waiting for a plane. Maybe. Being on the island, I get a distinct sense that the withdrawal of the reach of human civilization is not only possible, but it has already begun. Mankind might further fold its wings and retreat to inhabit cities like silos, then only the tallest, slenderest buildings, and then floor by floor disappear upwards until everyone floats on the wind.
Science is a positive, repetitive exercise. We can only see what we find, so we turn over debris to see what lives underneath. We split the wood down natural cracks to see what’s surviving inside flotsam scrap. We aspirate the residents into little, tube-like boxes. We sit up and stretch out our backs. My skin is raw from yesterday’s wind, which is always coming off the water. When the microbursts hit the sand, once again a little cloud of dust is kicked into a fury and I shut my eyes. Blind, I press the camera shutter and listen for the whirlwind to subside, wait, safe to come out again and see the sand coming to rest in tiny dunes and be driven into cones around the thick leaves of beach succulents, ant-hills in a dust-dirt yard, a yard before it became a yard, before the ball games and plastic soldiers, before the lawnmower wars and the atrocity of bagged leaves. Yet visit my folks on the other side of the world, and to this day I think I could find a long-lost rusted nail flattened under a rock, the skin of the earth having now thinned to expose a culture of rubble. The metal will still show the teeth of the carpenter cut into the shank, moments before it fell away and was forgotten.
From the beach, I can see just the rooftops of the abandoned town peeking over the dune grass. I pick up a barnacle the size of a boar’s tusk and attached to a pebble, the grooved flanks like the wind-parched mouth of a volcano. I raise the house of the recently dead to my face, and the sharp fangs of fish rot bite me through the sinuses. I reel for a second, my eyes bleeding, and lean into the next gust of onshore wind. I drop the shell back to the sand where it strikes something hard hidden underneath. The barnacle shatters. The fragments and gauze stick to the sinuous animal inside.
Roger Topp lives and writes in a boreal forest of interior Alaska. He is director of exhibits and design at the UA Museum of the North and travels extensively to photograph and write about scientific fieldwork. With graduate degrees in creative writing and physical oceanography, he has appeared in the wildly disparate ZYZZYVA and the Journal of Marine Systems. He can also be found online at thewellandthewicked.com and @rmtopp on Twitter.