Zoey wants to explore ruins. Sort of. My twelve-year-old niece mentioned it in passing as something we could do while she's visiting us in Harris. She thinks it would be creepy, and therefore fun. I'm not entirely sure that she was serious when we discussed it, but I was. I know that a ghost town called Valley Centre is located on Highway 768, so on the sunny Saturday before she is scheduled to leave Harris, Zoey dons proper exploring shoes and an embarassing shirt of mine that we don't mind getting dirty. We leash the dog, board the Mazda and drive the gravel highway looking for someplace "creepy".
The old Hillview schoolhouse is locked and, despite Zoey's urging, I am unwilling to force the door. We peer inside basement windows at a plastic Christmas tree and octopus boiler, then decide to move on. Set against the golden hills in the distance is a brown grain elevator. I am reasonably certain from my memory of Google Maps that Valley Centre is located on 768, but the distant elevator is north of the highway. Then again, Google Maps also thinks there is an Indian Reserve to the east of Harris and the Stonebridge neighborhood in Saskatoon is called "Stonerideg". We decide to check it out.
It is not Valley Centre. According to the faded paint on the elevator, it is Bents. I stop the car on the hill to prevent the undercarriage getting scraped by weeds on the disused track into town. To our right is an abandoned house with smashed windows and flaking white and red paint, beyond that is a cluster of wooden buildings greying with age. To our left is the elevator.
"Oh my god," says Zoey. I feel the same way. I had expected to explore some toppling farmhouse with outbuildings filled with old paint. This find is scarcely believable. Such places exist.
We decide to avoid the nearest house because it looks the most recently-occupied and for some reason I find this unnerving. We follow the track to what was obviously once the general store. We tell the dog to sit and stay outside the door. I enter first, partly because I have no idea how stable the structure is, partly because Zoey is skittish.
For an abandoned ruin, this store is surprisingly sound. It is dark inside but light leaks through broken panes. Where on tracks more beaten an old building like this would be thoroughly ransacked and looted by boozing teenagers and people like myself and Zoey, the Bents general store is surprisingly intact. Stock still sits on the shelves, including a display of women's shoes. Old appliances and cabinets lie open everywhere. In places the floor is plastered with ancient paper and piles of swallow shit.
A counter with a porthole in the wall separates the general store from what looks like a post office in a rear room. Tiny cubby holes are labelled "McNaughton", "Wylie" and other local family names. Here the layer of paper on the floor is thicker. Zoey discovers a pamphlet promoting John Diefenbaker's Conservative government from 1962. I smile to myself as we sift the papers and discover personal documents from the late fifties and early sixties. Confidentiality was apparently not a huge issue when this office was abandoned.
The dog is now whining and circling the building. Before we leave, Zoey searches the women's shoes to find a pair that match as a trophy. By now, any fear she felt in exploring this place has vanished. So has her search for identity: the need to prove herself as a good person, a bad person, or a pretty girl. In this desolate yet beautiful place, I am also seeing Zoey for the first time. She is adventurous and free-thinking and I am secretly pleased.
We stash a load of loot at the car and then head toward the first house we saw. Hundreds of swallows wheel around the old TV antenna. Inside are drooping light fixtures, swallow nests, wood panelling, a used bar of soap and signs for an auction sale.
Judging from the No-Name shopping bags lying on the bathroom floor, this house was abandoned in the late eighties or early nineties. The whole town of Bents must have been auctioned off in this way. The last resident of Bents, probably an octogenarian, lived in this house on the edge of this rotting town, watching it collapse. At last concerned family members or death pried them from this home and their life was auctioned for a pittance. If ghosts exist, one surely stares from the windows of this home, watching the remains of Bents slowly vanish beneath the grass.
The next house we explore is in worse shape. In the living room a rusty pram is sinking into the floor. Zoey and I have found the creepiest thing we will see today. As we are leaving, we discuss why it was so creepy. I tell her, "Icons of youth in the midst of death are always creepier than just death." She agrees.
Zoey can't help posing every time she sees me readying the camera. I try to secretly photograph her without much success as we search the grain elevator. The elevator shelters an enormous scale, old machinery for scooping wheat and rotting bowls full of screws and nails.
A sturdy-looking ladder leads to an upper floor. Zoey wants to climb it. I forbid her to do so. When she asks why, I tell her it's because I don't know anything about architecture and I wouldn't want to be the one to tell her dad that she was crushed when a grain elevator collapsed on her. She says, "So, if I was your kid you wouldn't have a problem with it?" I confirm.
Outside the elevator is a graveyard for farm machinery. As Zoey and the dog clamber around in it she speculates on the function of various contraptions. She believes that the tractor she is sitting on might still run. "Alright," I say, not wanting to shatter any fantasies. Zoey's mind is open and imagining possibilities in this place and I don't want to spoil it. Just by being here she's discovering volumes about the lives of long-dead Saskatchewan and I don't even have to say anything. I am proud of her again and keep my thoughts to myself.
As evening approaches the sky turns radiant and high clouds paint strange patterns in the eerie blue. It occurs to me that this moment is of such shocking reality and beauty that it is to be treasured forever. In my adulthood, I can recognize these moments as they happen, but when I was a child I had no idea. Now I have only scattered memories and regrets that I didn't pay more attention. I hope that Zoey will remember this moment as I will.
On our way back to the car, Zoey wants to get a picture of herself riding on a rusty swing set. It's awkward but she manages to take a seat and pose. The symbol is painful. There she is, a girl poised on the edge of maturity, the toys of childhood becoming uncomfortable, her youth vanishing as surely as Bents is vanishing. In twenty years she will be a freethinking woman and Bents will be but piles of windblown, grassy timber and iron.
All things must change and have their beauty. But for now my niece, this town and the prairie that surrounds us are perfect. I thank God that I remembered to bring the camera to capture them as they were in this moment.