It all started with a simple post on a message board. In late September of 2006, “impalass” decided to see if he could actually get a group of ghost town and abandoned places enthusiasts together for a weekend of exploration and knowledge sharing in southern Saskatchewan. “Ghost Town Heaven in 2007” soon gave way to “Ghost Town Convention” and Neidpath gave way to Hallonquist, but the foundation was in place.
“impalass” Plants the Seed
The vast majority of us had never met each other before, other than exchanging messages on the Ghost Town Chat forums. I had no idea what any of these people looked like, how old they were, or whether or not they would even show up. Upon arriving at the community hall in Hallonquist my fears were quickly allayed. Mike (the infamous ‘”impalass”) was already there and getting things organized. Slowly we all filtered in, introductions were made and we all began to realize that a common passion for ghost towns was enough to unite us. We sweated our way through the weekend, with temperatures reaching around 37C. We covered our vehicles in oil from a construction project, we were sunburned, we had dust and grime covering ourselves and everything we owned – in short, it was a tremendous success and we planned to do it again the following summer, picking a different area of the province to explore. A tradition was born.
That initial group barely broke into double-digits in terms of numbers. We would grow each year, eventually topping out at around 40 people for the 2009 convention. That number proved to be unmanageable so membership was limited to 25 the following year, the first year I missed out on joining the group – not from a lack of desire, but rather a scheduling conflict with a trip to Washington state.
So, that’s how I found myself driving alone down a dusty road on Friday morning last week, heading to a town called Marysburg. Actually, “town” is a bit of a misnomer – there is an impressive church, a community hall and a smattering of family farms but not much more.
The Road to Marysburg
I am the first to arrive at the community hall. I immediately begin to poke around the area, starting with the church. As I am standing there reading the sign a pickup truck slowly rolls to a stop behind me. I immediately brace for a confrontation. At home in Alberta where there is a much higher population density I seem to get hassled much more when exploring than I do in Saskatchewan.
I turn to face the truck and raise my arm to shield my eyes from the glare. The window rolls down and the blinding reflection of the sun off the glass disappears, leaving me with red spots flashing in my eyes for a few seconds. As my vision clears the weathered face of a farmer becomes clear. Immediately he asks if I would like to look around inside the church. When I respond in the affirmative he produces a key from his pocket and ambles over to the westernmost door. He slowly unlocks it and pushes it open. “Head on in, he says.”
We exchange a few pleasantries and I discover his name is Joe and he moved to the area in 1969. He wanders over to a door which has a sign on it which reads “No admittance – absolutely no exceptions!” He pushes the door open and says “Go have a look from the loft, you can see better from up there.”
It is as I am photographing the crumbling drywall below a stained glass window that Matt from Manitoba arrives. He and I met at the 2009 convention in Kayville. As we are talking, our organizer Mike arrives and greets us, along with Matt’s uncle. Ghost Town Convention 2011 is officially underway.
People slowly arrive throughout the Friday. Friends who haven’t seen each other for a year greet each other with the easy-going air of casualness of friends who were just together for coffee last week. For the others there are introductions, somewhat guarded at first but they are quickly being ribbed like veterans and before long they are joining in the banter. First-timer or perfect-attendee, everyone feels welcome with this group.
This year our navigation was somewhat complicated by the huge amounts of precipitation that had fallen in Saskatchewan over the course of Spring. Several backroads were newly repaired, some spots were soft, and others were completely submerged. We were always able to adjust on the fly so that even those with low-clearance or two-wheel-drive vehicles weren’t left behind. After all, we’re all in this together.
Anyone Bring a Boat?
Growing up in southern Alberta, these grid roads are where I learned to drive. I never feel more at home than I do when I am cruising down a backroad with my windows down and the wind blowing everything around inside the cab of my truck. If I describe hiking in the mountains as “soul cleansing” then driving dusty backroads is “soul liberating”.
The routine carries on for two solid days. We drive, staying close enough to each other to keep the rolling cloud of dust in sight, far enough way to try and avoid chipping our windshields. We stop, seemingly at random, but knowing Mike has something of interest to show us at each location. Whether it is an old schoolhouse hidden behind decades-old caragana bushes, a general store stuffed to the rafters with antiques, or a grain elevator rising above the prairie, there is something that we will find interesting enough to photograph from every conceivable angle.
After all, the ghost town convention is more than abandoned places – it is just as much about photography. Mike is a very accomplished photographer and you can learn an awful lot about the art by following him around and seeing how he does things. In fact, with this many camera-toting enthusiasts around you can’t help but get better at capturing light. One of my favourite parts of the trip is watching the convoy roll to a stop and waiting to see how everyone approaches their shots. I like to see where people set up for shots, the angles they use. I like to try and understand why they are shooting from that particular angle, or what it is about that particular subject that caught their interest. Of course, checking out the images people post after the event is also a great lesson in photography.
Exploring an Old School
Ghost towning is like most of my hobbies – if you don’t “get” it, you’ll never understand. But, if I could somehow convey the feeling that comes when you’re driving down the highway with a fellow enthusiast and you both see a perfect sunset forming on the horizon and you know you need to find a spot to park *right now* before losing the light – then you would understand in a heartbeat. The frantic rush to get the gear out of the backseat, to find the right angle, to get the exposure “just so”, and then to capture the image – that’s pure magic. Then to drive down the road a little way and find an even better spot and then do it all again? Those are the sort of memories that transcend time; you’re not just capturing light, you are literally capturing a moment – a moment in time when everything just came together perfectly.
Folks, that’s what the Ghost Town Convention is all about. I can’t wait to do it again next year…
Moments of Pure Magic