Chapter 22: A Chance Encounter (with a Drifter Named Steez)

Pass Creek Market / Rock City Pizza & Amusements
Curtin, OR

It almost doesn’t happen.

But then there’s fate. This is a chance encounter. A stumble-upon that requires no research. I don’t take long hours to scrub Instagram comments, private Urbex Facebook groups. I don’t gather information on locations, coordinates for abandoned houses in the middle of the woods or abandoned factories on the outskirts of town.

Nope, this one just falls in my lap, and it’s nearly a lost cause.

That happens a lot. I’m pretty sure my brain has become attuned to the echolocation of abandoned spaces. I have discovered several of the architectural ruins of our country by accident, but oftentimes time constraints or general nervousness forces me to keep driving. I leave these moments disappointed that I’m missing out on another opportunity to allow my imagination to go hog wild, the way it has been since May of 2020 when I reclaimed the adventurous art of exploring abandoned spaces.

I say “reclaimed” because as a kid, I spent hours at an abandoned dairy farm down the hill from my house: talking to ghosts, playing pretend, finding sanctuary in the past that wasn’t my own. It was the genesis of my imagination becoming a place of healing, something that has saved me — and my isolationist sanity — during the pandemic. Behind the walls of these crumbling relics, I have been able to escape the chaos of the outside world through the salve of fantasy. I have also embarked on a reckoning with a country I thought I knew so well. The drudge and decay of the fifty+ abandoned spaces I’ve explored across the country over the past two+ years has opened up a portal of understanding into the truth rumbling beneath the glitzy surface of the American dream.

And sometimes, I’ll find an American ruin totally by accident.

***

As I slide down I-5 from Portland (after a visit with my mom, sister, and nephew) to Medford (for a visit with my dad, brother, and nieces), I pass through a place I’ve never heard of: Curtin, OR. The town feels desolate against the backdrop of the mountainous landscape. Damaged structures or fully vacant buildings dot both sides of I-5.

Curtin, OR

This is not an uncommon occurrence in the United States. Stretches of highway, beat up pavement winding north, south, east, and west, littered top to bottom, back to front with ruins, symbols of corrupt systems of power and greed — economic, environmental, and emotional devastation to local communities all over the country. Housing insecurity and homelessness, unemployment, income inequality, food injustice, billions of construction dollars gone to waste, left to rot, a gross memorialization of every single deliberate step taken to segregate the rich from the poor.

Curtin, OR straddles, unrestfully, both sides of I-5. I pass through, see a spot down below, rapidly getting bigger until I see a derelict parking next to a two-story compound. I have no idea what the space was as I whiz by, the image of it burning into my memory through the rearview mirror. It slowly begins to disappear, smaller and smaller until I begin to see exit signs for the next towns south: Leona, Drain, and Yoncalla. But I can’t get Curtin out of my head. I approach exit 162, and my hands take over for my brain. I screech off I-5 and hang an immediate right onto Buck Creek Road then see a sign for Curtin Road. I swing another right and within a few moments I find myself parked across the street from the property.

My car idles a bit before I turn the key and it sputters off. I stare across the road at the property, still quite unsure what it is. A pickup truck slows as it passes, and the driver stares me down. I pretend I don’t notice, fake typing on my phone until he picks up speed again and drives up. When I’m sure he’s gone, I climb out of the car and begin to cross the street. The soles of my feet feel the impact of the cracked and cragged concrete unevenly distributed beneath them. As I reach the other side, I’m immediately flushed up against the southern side of the building. There’s no fence. Nobody is trying to keep me out. There are several, full-sized broken windows to crawl through, and every door into the building is open.

I look on the ground and see a variety of VHS tapes, cassettes, books, and baseball cards spilling out of trashbags strewn about. “I guess they don’t have Goodwill here,” I say aloud as I make my way to the back side of the building where I discover a metal staircase leading up to an open door on the second floor. I walk up, poke my head inside, then step into a two-bedroom apartment. I’ve entered a giant open room and find a living room and a kitchen, cabinets still stocked with baby food, Nestle cocoa powder, marshmallows, canned corn and beets, and a box of saltines. Stuffed animals and toys are scattered all over the floor.

I stare at a vacant crib sitting next to the kitchen counter, half-expecting a ghost to appear like they always do, but my imagination just sits there, unable to summon any kind of phantom to explain what happened here. Nothing. I stand very still and attempt to will my mind to create some magic in this strange space I’ve fallen into, but I only hear the sound of the rumbling I-5 traffic. For the first time since my expeditions to abandoned spaces out across the country began, I suddenly feel lonely.

I begin to inspect the room, running my fingers along the kitchen counter, picking up the remote in an attempt to turn on the television (to no avail), touching noses with the poofy unicorn pillow sitting on a chair who I anticipate will say something — but again, only a robust silence circulates the room. I start to feel a sense of panic as the grim reality of whatever happened here sets in. Where did this family go? Why did they leave everything behind? Are they safe? Are they alive? What the hell happened here? It’s exceedingly likely, I decide, that at least three people lived here, above the commercial space below, and at least two of them were children, based on the food in the cabinets. It feels like this building was the first in a line of dominoes that ultimately caused the town of Curtin to vanish.

I poke my head into one of the adjacent bedrooms and find a stenciled message on the wall that says “Irish PЯIDE,” the “R” backwards like “REᗡЯUM” in The Shining. There’s a dusty couch and half-body mirror and a strange tapestry on the wall in the corner of the room, a painted patchwork, almost like a collage of drawings done by a disturbed kid in a B horror movie.

Pass Creek Market, 2012

I make my way downstairs and enter the odd commercial space. I’m beginning to doubt my instinct that this might’ve been some sort of entertainment center and realize later through sleuthing Google Maps that it was a county store called Pass Creek Market, packed with cheeky Oregon merch and reasonably-priced snacks. A deeper dive confirms my suspicions: at one point, this was a roadside amusement park, complete with a Go-Kart track, ferris wheel, and other second-rate rides.

Rock City Pizza, 2010 | photo courtesy of S. W. Harvey: https://www.flickr.com/people/primitiveradiogod/
Rock City Pizza, 2010 | photo courtesy of S. W. Harvey: https://www.flickr.com/people/primitiveradiogod/

I find more piles of clothes, stuffed animals, magazines, trophies. I look at a smashed window on the north side of the building and see Winnie the Pooh perched on the ledge under a tag that says, “Smile.”

I can’t smile. This place feels disturbing, and not because it’s creepy, but because of what it represents. Eviction or job insecurity or addiction or worse, death. I don’t know. It doesn’t feel good.

I exit the building and round the corner to the empty lot, covered in tires that surround a vintage Dodge camper, and a fully-stocked kitchen, sleeping space, and bathroom inside. On the makeshift metal wall next to the vehicle lives a message: “WAKE UP.” I couldn’t agree more.

I snap a few more photos and prepare my exit. As I make my way across the property to where I’ve parked my car across the road, I see a tall man crossing underneath the I-5 overpass. He sports a rastafarian cap, dreadlocks, and carries an Arizona Iced Tea and Marlboro Lights. I’m in no mood to talk to strangers, much less this bonkers-looking dude who, quite frankly, feels like he carries a shank with him at all times. I pick up the pace towards my car before I hear him call out, “Hey man! Hey!” We’re just close enough that it would be glaringly obvious that I was ignoring him if I didn’t respond. I stop, begrudgingly, and bark back, “Hey, man.” Because I’m queer, I’ve grown accustomed to adding “man” as part of my greeting to any given straight man, to signal my fake level of masculinity and prevent myself from having to deal with any automatic assumptions that I’m flirting. (Which is honestly the last thing I’d rather do with any hetero.)

The tall man walks right up to me, hand extended generously, a big goofy smile plastered on his face, and it puts me somewhat at ease, though my guard is still very much up. He’s clearly stoned off his rocker, based on the overwhelming scent of bong water that radiates off his body. He begins to question me about the building.

“No,” I tell him, “I don’t know anything about the space,” only that it caught my eye as I was traveling down I-5.

Then he asks if I own the Dodge camper. “No,” I reply again. “But I think it’s beautiful.”

The conversation that follows engulfs me. I learn that his name is “Steez,” and he invites me to his compound in the woods on a hill overlooking the interstate, covered in vines all tangled up on the ground. He says he holds sold-out music festivals there, that he lives off the grid there, that he hasn’t gotten Covid-19 there. He also hints that the pandemic is a government conspiracy, though he doesn’t say it outright. “I just think there’s something they’re not telling us, dude,” he whispers.

He shakes my hands three times over the course of our conversation, and I imagine hand sanitizer and make sure not to touch my face because I still fear contracting the virus. We talk of capitalism and imagination and ghosts. He agrees with me. “Oh, for sure man. Any empty place like that is bound to be full of ghosts.” I don’t think he understands my definition of “ghost,” an emblem of characters I make up in my head whenever I walk through the ruins of America, but I don’t mind. I’m beginning to warm up to Steez.

When our conversation naturally loses steam, Steez asks me for a ride. I immediately panic. I’ve heard horror stories that start like this, missing persons’ cases on 48 Hours where someone with a do-gooder heart offers a ride to a stranger then vanishes into thin air, presumably murdered and buried in some unmarked grave in the middle of nowhere. But for some very stupid reason, I agree, and as Steez climbs into my car, I think about Gabriel Kahane’s “Merritt Pkwy.” I hummed the part of the song where he sings:

I was on the side of the road
Shiny traffic beetling by
She picked up a box of my clothes
Offered me a wash and a ride…

As Steez and I caravan together in silence, a half mile down the bumpy road, away from the train tracks and the mysterious abandoned building, Steez keeps insisting that Covid-19 is just a figment of our imaginations. “I’ve never gotten it, man. I didn’t get the vaccine. I don’t need some strange goopy shit in my arm. My immune system is good enough.” I push back slightly, explaining what I know about the science of vaccines, and Steez actually hears me — or pretends to. We come to an agreement, though I’m pissed about it, that “to each his own.”

Steez motions me to stop at a clearing in the woods that looks like an overgrown driveway leading up a hill. “This is me, man. Thanks for everything. Nice to meet you. Come to a festival sometime.” When he gets out of my car, he turns and tells me to be safe and to stay out of trouble. I tell him I can’t promise him either one. Steez winks and says, “Good, man. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

Then he turns around and begins his ascent up the hill, and I watch him in my rear view mirror, disappearing into the thick trees covering his steep driveway as I pull away. When my eyes fall back on the road, I pass a sign that says “Drain.” Drain, indeed, I think. As my car merges back onto I-5 and continues south, I can’t get Steez or the strange building out of my head. It dawns on me that I have no proof of our meeting, no photos, no audio recording I secretly started on my iPhone of our conversation.

And though I can’t say for sure, I smirk, contending with the possibility that my new friend Steez is just another one of the ghosts I’ve met on my adventures across the country to the ruins of the American Dream.

In any case: Steez, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re doing well.

***

www.allamericanruins.com

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