Chapter 15: Curious By Default
Great Barrington Fairgrounds
Great Barrington, MA
He is curious by default, and that makes me curious about him.
The first time we shake hands, we picnic on top of an abandoned quarry shaft, a stone’s throw from my house near-ish the foot of the Catskill Mountains. It’s my private island, a crow’s nest that is tough to reach without a hefty amount of gumption and willingness to distort the rules, which seems to be the modus operandi of most of my All-American Ruins expeditions.
He likes that I’m not very good at following the rules and dares to duck under rusty fences and scale tattered brick walls to explore decrepit and crumbling buildings with me, sanctuaries of imagination that have provided spiritual medicine since May of 2020, the same month we met, the same month I first ventured out to explore abandoned spaces.
He, who practices witchcraft and knows about science and food and studies the stars in his spare time, navigating lingering trauma with a steady grace that I pick up on, almost immediately. He is a debonair companion who holds attentive space for others around him, without trying, an effervescent warlock who laughs when he’s slightly nervous, a handsome face who knows more about botany and homeopathic medicine than anyone I’ve ever met.
He, who introduces me to the concept of anemoia, a word not yet officially recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary that describes the feeling of intense longing for a place and time one has never known. It’s what happens in my gut every time I pass through the gates of an abandoned structure, when my imagination ignites, and the wonder of something ethereal creeps in, massaging my spirit, reminding me, “To everything there is a season, turn, turn, turn.”
He, who is eager to join me on this day trip to the Great Barrington Fairgrounds, some two-ish hours from my house, once a bustling site of amusement and excitement, now a desolate echo of the past, a vacant lot with a grandstand, empty, and an announcer’s watchtower, also empty, and a snack bar without snacks and bathrooms without running water and entrance turnstiles without people in the box office admitting patrons to watch the horses run ‘round the racetrack until a winner crosses the finish line.
We glide past the entrance with ease, the green paint against the white trim, covered in cheap graffiti, a threshold that doesn’t even try to keep us out. The property has been purchased by genuine do-gooders who possess high hopes of saving the ruins of the Great Barrington Fairgrounds, first abandoned in 1997, now a blistering reminder of history come and gone, summers full of laughter and cotton candy and ferris wheels and the “ooo” and “ahh” chants of the crowd who watch with fiery intensity as the horses race, ‘round and ‘round, on a now very overgrown, gargantuan racetrack, reclaimed by Mother Nature who has choked the earth with weeds of all shapes and sizes, the kinds that twist around your ankles and pull you to the ground.
“Watch your step,” he warns as we pass by a gate adorned overhead by a sign carved into wood, “Fair Ground,” past an empty field once jam packed with carnival rides and hot dog vendors and games to try your luck and maybe, just maybe, win a giant stuffed bear or an oversized t-shirt. A stretch of land now unrecognizable to the ghosts of community members past who once roamed this property in search of entertainment, each in a private scheme to forget their troubles for a summer afternoon, or evening, the air ripe with soft pretzels and melted “cheese,” the faint smell of horse manure and gasoline wafting through the crowds who aimlessly wander about the hazy property, their spirits catapulting into the sky that dangles insouciantly over the Berkshire Mountains.
In the distance, the grandstand and watchtower seem promising, and we meander towards them with ease. Today is a day for equanimity, for spending time together, talking about the fate of the galaxy, or what defines “good art,” or why god may or may not give a shit about humanity. We begin our journey around the track, trotting along and admiring the grandstand to our left, a massive structure still ripe with the remnants of the hustle and bustle of a typical fairground day. I begin to see ghosts emerge from the shadows under the roof, dressed to the nines, a true 1920s crowd in hats and lapels, in hoop skirts and handkerchiefs, cheering as my love and I, now horses (in my imagination), happily approach the starting line.
From the watchtower, the announcer exclaims, “Now approaching, №4 and №12: Flake and Empiric ready to race.” And I decide (in my imagination) that his horse name is Empiric because indeed, his desire to examine the world empirically is strong. He is enamored with me, and I with him, I think, but I also know, somewhere buried in the throws of my subconscious, that something doesn’t feel quite right.
Something in me feels like I might falter and eventually flake.
I am Flake.
I turn my head and watch him parade down the track, so tall and handsome, so intriguing and admirable, so rich in spirit and delicate in heart. He is a sight to behold, a raven beauty whose sun gleams deep in the mutable sky of Gemini, a staunch advocate for sexual expression, creative freedom, and societal equity. He shimmers in the light of June as we transform out of horse form into human form to ascend to the top of the watchtower and switch shifts with the current announcers. As we reach the top and exchange passing pleasantries with these particular phantoms, I notice how safe I feel and wonder if Empiric feels the same way. My guts churn at the thought of hurting this gorgeous specimen, inside and out, and I convince myself, delusionally, that I am merely trying to self-sabotage, that I am, in fact, deeply in love with this man rather than just deeply loving towards this man.
This man, with whom I share a wildly soulful and tender bond. We have a deep well of admiration and respect for one another. I exalt his compassion, honesty, and sensitivity, but I know, somewhere in the belly of subconscious truth, that eventually I’ll have to revise the constitution of my own derailed sense of honesty and say what’s actually going on: that I’m scared to be alone during a pandemic, and though I have a genuine kinship with this man, in love I am not.
That is the awful truth. I know the happiness my heart says it feels isn’t fully a lie — it’s just a partially misunderstood reality.
Some might call it denial.
We pass a vacant bar clumsily standing on the weeded terrain, and Empiric unintentionally poses for photograph, assuming the role of dashing bartender in a bow tie, passing off drinks to the crowd. We attempt to go further, rounding the bend and out of sight of the grandstand, but a small rainstorm opens up above, so we dart back, cutting across the center of the track, as the groundskeeper, in pinstripe suspenders and knee-high work boots, yells at us.
“Get inside! Tornado’s coming!” (I learn later that a tornado decimated the grand stand in 1995, with a rebuild in 1996, only to close forever in 1997.)
We duck underneath the grandstand overhang and discover an entire world underneath: refreshment stands, bathrooms, and a tunnel that at one time crossed underneath the track to the other side. Every single ghost here seems to be happy. We take off our clothes, hold each other, and make photographs. He is a photographer by trade with a fierce eye for natural light and compelling composition. His pictures always ask deep questions and provide a multitude of possible answers. We kiss, under the shadows of the crowds above, cheering for the horses, cheering for the day, cheering for the intimate connection between Empiric and Flake.
Our bodies continue into the stomach of the grandstand where we discover an RV. Our eyes bug as we step inside. A message scribed on the wall indicates a harsh reality: people, real people, occupied this space at some point. The message they’ve left behind thanks the owners of the fairground ruins for “allowing” them to “take care of the trailer” for a while. Suddenly, my imagination isn’t telling the story. Two people chose — or were forced, for whatever reason — to live in a trailer that, for some unknowable reason, has been parked underneath a grandstand inside an abandoned fairground, left to rot. I press my hand against the message on the wall and whisper, “I’m sorry,” though I don’t know what I’m apologizing for.
We make our way to the back of the grandstand. He’s tall enough to shimmy up a broken set of stairs flawlessly and enters, disappearing from sight. I catch a glimpse of him as he leans out of a window, framed against the blue sky afternoon as the storm drifts away, before he evaporates out of sight once again, into the wiles of the grandstand. He looks like a cloud.
I eventually find another staircase up into the stands, and he shows me things he’s discovered, empty rooms off the sides of the main arcade, full of old ticket stubs, desks and filing cabinets full of employee paperwork. I spot messages on trailers outside, including my two favorites:
We reach the top of the stairs of the stadium seating. I half-expect the benches to be packed shoulder-to-shoulder with ghosts, but they’re empty. It’s just Empiric and me and this long, Sunday afternoon of serenity and belonging. I hop from one bench to the next, a child again, on a playground of my own wonderment. I feel connected to that greater source once again.
It is a reckoning like many I’ve experienced before, on these quests to seek out the untold stories, be them fiction or reality, of these abandoned spaces.
I know that, for today, I’ll be okay.
It’s another day where I’ve navigated a global pandemic safely, in good company, and found some peace.
He grabs my hand as we say goodbye to the fairgrounds. I look left upon exiting and see a giant heart spray painted on an empty sign. It’s so perfect, as perfect as this imperfect moment of confused happiness. The sound of the horse hooves on the dirt has vanished, but the sound of my heart beating for him, however it does, remains.
He is curious by default, and that makes me curious, empirically, about him.