October 25, 2006: Perspective
the top of the stairs
By Mimi Chubb ’06
Mimi Chubb ’06 plans to use her Martin Dale fellowship to write a collection of essays on her experiences of the American West.
Since graduating this June, I’ve become obsessed with the ghost towns you can find tucked away all over the American West, if you look closely. This is not quite as strange as it sounds. In March I was awarded Princeton’s Martin Dale fellowship, which allows one graduating senior to spend his or her postgraduate year pursuing an independent project. I’m writing a collection of essays and nonfiction tied together by the idea of the American West, as it populates people’s imaginations and shapes their identities. I knew when I came up with my proposal that wanting to write about other people and unfamiliar places had a lot to do with wanting to discover things in myself. At the same time I had an idea that turning my attention to what seemed new and alien would be a way of protecting myself from myself, of keeping my confusions and anxieties at arm’s length once I’d left the orderly world of Princeton. It hasn’t worked out that way.
I found my first ghost towns mostly by chance. I had decided to begin working on my project by driving with my boyfriend from Chicago to Laramie, Wyo,; in Laramie I’d check out Jubilee Days, an annual series of rodeo events. I told myself that I would take my time heading out and coming back. If something on the map or off the side of the road caught my eye, I would stop. Near Buffalo Ridge, S.D., I saw a crude sign advertising fireworks, a live buffalo herd, and a ghost town. I stopped. From a gravel parking lot next to the fireworks shop, a weedy path stretched up to a cluster of wooden sheds — the ghost town.
It turned out to be more fake — and, strangely, more authentic — than I was expecting. Each of its shacks contained exhibits cobbled together from a bizarre assortment of junk. A purple-lidded fashion mannequin with a strip of flesh torn off her cheek wore a dusty pioneer-style gown, her plastic hand curled around a butter churn. When I pressed a button, a regiment of mannequin-soldiers sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; they were on a stage surrounded by old farm tools that looked like extracted teeth. The explanatory signs that accompanied the exhibits were made using letters that all seemed to be different sizes, shapes, or colors, so that when I also considered their content — for example, commentary on the preference of the Chinese for tea over sex — they seemed thoroughly insane. When I stepped back and blinked I saw that they were also beautiful. Artful gusts of dust and rain had blown through the entire town; they had knocked over the dishes on the table in the pioneer kitchen, and they had turned the curtains of the stage a decaying greenish-grayish-brown.
A day later I found my first real ghost town. A blonde high school girl who worked selling tickets at an alpine slide in Keystone, S.D., gave us directions to the old Spokane Mine. They brought us to a meadow full of wet blossoming weeds, bug songs, birch trees, a car graveyard, a collapsed shed, an old cellar, a few mine ruts, a fenced-off mine shaft, the grave of a man named James Fernando Shepard who was murdered in 1908 over a mining-claim dispute, and two houses. They were crumbling. Pieces of broken glass from their windows mixed jewel-like on the ground with the quartz there naturally. When I pressed close to their wooden external walls and looked into the cavities their windows made, I saw that the wallpaper was peeling back in palimpsest layers, so that a 1940s flower print was streaked with a bright green. Their ceilings drooped, as if they had ceased caring about being wood and had whimsically decided to be cloth instead — to drape like sails. The walls, too, were gauzy, peppered with holes and patches.
After peering into one of the houses, I screwed up my courage and slipped into the other through a window. Inside it smelled like dirt and air; an animal scuttled nearby. I crept up the stairs vertiginously, as if I had a long way to fall. I wanted to see the view from the upstairs window, but when I reached the top of the staircase I just crouched foolishly on all fours, afraid the boards wouldn’t hold me. After a long minute I inched back down, and once outside I took deep breaths. I felt panicky. It was hard to shake the feeling that I’d failed some kind of test. I was torn between the desire to enter, maybe the desire to occupy, and an intense discomfort.
Now when I look out the window of my new apartment in Chicago, I sometimes imagine myself standing at that window I never reached. I say I imagine myself, but there are two of me: the bodily me that stands, and the thinking, seeing me that squats at the top of the stairs watching the other’s back without catching a glimpse of the view. Even my imagination refuses to let me fully inhabit it. I have an intuition that I’d be able to see and know everything worth seeing and knowing if I could just understand how to sit in a meadow and slowly disappear, as the houses do. I think what I’m after is a way of inhabiting them that wouldn’t be merely temporary or partial, but finding it seems out of the question. The houses at Spokane Mine are past habitation; they have given it up for something lovelier.
Since graduating I have felt overwhelmingly multiple, a thousand paths shooting off around me like the spokes of a wheel. I’m also suffused with a sense of my own lack; I’m terrified that I will fail to see things the way I want to be able to, that I won’t do my life and my world justice. I try to tell myself that maybe actual habitation isn’t what matters, but rather the effort at it — that I can find the intimacy I’m after through the effort of looking and recording. Nothing, however, seems certain right now — although very nearly everything seems exciting, beautiful, and new. After all, it’s wonderful to feel that an old house has been left in a meadow particularly for you, inscribed with resonances intended to sharpen and sweeten you — you, out of all the people in the world.