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© Miriam Matejova

The Spirits of the West

Miriam Matejova

Miner's Home © Miriam Matejova

As Matt slams on the brakes, the car sways and skids on the loose gravel sprinkled along the highway.

“That was it, ” he says matter-of-factly and rotates the steering wheel in preparation for a U-turn.

“I don't know... it doesn't seem like a road to me. ” I eye the narrow track we've just passed. It is barely visible from across the highway. It is lined with a mixture of wet dirt and dust, medium-sized puddles and small rocks. A few shabby bushes frame its entrance.

“It's a ghost town, ” Matt says sarcastically. “There sure won't be a nice paved road leading to it. ” He turns the car around and takes it across the empty highway.

I stick my head out the window, attempting to get a good view of the dirt road. It disappears, slightly uphill, into a seemingly uninhabited plain, which is abruptly cut off by a mountain.

“Why exactly must you visit this ghost town? ” Matt shoots me a sideways glance and grabs the steering wheel with both hands. It is shaking as the car's wheels bounce on the uneven dirt.

“It's an unfulfilled desire I've acquired from my Wild West books. ”

“Wild West books written by that German guy who has never been to the Wild West…?” Matt smirks and then slightly jumps in his seat when a small rock hits his window. He murmurs something under his breath. I assume it's a swearword, so I don't ask him to repeat it.

“He has been to the West. ” I let a few seconds slide by. “After he'd written those books. ”

“Ha! ” Matt barks out, having expected my addendum. Then he turns the steering wheel abruptly to the left to avoid a large mud puddle. The right front wheel catches the edge of the puddle anyway, sending a shower of muddy droplets and lumps of earth across the front windshield.

Minutes of silence pass. They engulf us as the car rolls to a stop in front of a rugged logging road barred by a large abandoned truck and decorated by both a directional sign for Garnet and a derisive yellow detour sign.

“Damn your German books, ” Matt growls as he turns the car in the direction of the detour. The road narrows, becomes dustier and begins curving up and around the mountain.

I turn away from his frowning face and stick my head out of my window once again. “But now that I think about it, Karl May never wrote about ghost towns. My unfulfilled desire must have come from the Donald Duck comics, ” I yell into the breeze that is hitting my face. My effort to be heard is unnecessarily, since the vehicle is not moving fast enough to generate wind that would make my voice inaudible. The growing abyss just outside of my window, however, forces my voice to quiver as I say the word “comics. ”

In the distance I see rolling hills covered with neat rows of deciduous forests. Fog is snaking around, filling the depressions in hillsides, the gaps between the trees, and the winding valley below. Right next to us, there are no reassuring contours of the dirt road but a grassy cliff side—the kind you usually don't want to be too close to, unless you are secured by a rock climbing rope. As we approach a switchback, the road narrows and Matt slows the car down to a crawl.

“There are tons of ghost towns in BC, ” he says, his voice rising in exasperation.       

Saloon © Miriam Matejova

“But we're not in BC now. We are in Montana, ” I reply, pulling my head back into the car. I glance at the thick tourist book I've picked up at one of Montana's visitors centers. It is now lying by my feet on a dusty rubber car mat that is in dire need of vacuuming. The cover features two cowboys riding into the sunset toward a black silhouette of a petroleum tower. I kick the book to emphasize my point, even though Matt cannot see it.

After several more switchbacks, detour signs and sideways glares, we reach the top of the mountain. At the edge of a deserted parking lot surrounded by lush pines, we find a series of detailed information plaques and a small forest walking trail that allegedly leads to Garnet. After a few meters the trail opens into a natural viewing platform, offering a quasi-aerial view of the town. The accompanying information sign names Garnet as one of Montana's most intact ghost towns.

Garnet doesn't seem intact to me; it is divided by vegetation – pines, shrubs, grass – all keen on reclaiming their former territory. The sight of dark wooden cabins spread over a small hill in no apparent pattern clashes with my idea of a symmetrically built town with colourful buildings, porches, and straight, distinct dust roads. Garnet reminds me of my children's games when I used to pick up poorly molded plastic models of Wild West settlers' towns and scatter them over a green playing mat.

“It's eerily quiet here. You could hear coyotes howling at the moon, ” I say when we reach Garnet's first buildings at the foot of a small hill.

“It's eight in the morning. You can't see the moon, ” Matt replies drily.  

Ignoring him, I take in the view of the first ghost town I have ever visited. Garnet came to being in the 1890s as a result of the combination of long-term geological activity, several lucky strikes and ever-present human greed. The gold-bearing quartz shone bright enough through miles of inaccessible thick forest cover and rugged mountainside. In 1898, at the beginning of the boom, the town had a population of some 1,000 people. Seven years later, this population shriveled to some 150.

Garnet's sudden abandonment stirs my imagination. “You can hear the wind in the trees, the crickets in the unkempt grass, tiny rat feet running across a dusty street... ” I say, enthusiasm rising within me. “A lone miner returning from a long shift, exhausted yet empty handed…” I turn around to enjoy Matt's appreciation of my atmosphere-setting skills, but he is gone. The town is still. The only discernible noise comes from the wind that is slowly moving the branches of the surrounding pines.

I shrug and turn toward the most appealing building in sight. The saloon (one of the 13 that used to operate in Garnet back in the 1890s) is a lone two-story building, unremarkably small in size, with a couple of windows both downstairs and upstairs. I draw my face close to one of the downstairs windowpanes, placing both hands next to my eyes to keep out the glaring sun. “Can you hear the piano tinkling? ” runs through my head, a mental imprint of one of the parking lot's information signs. I tilt my head sideways. A ghostly sound of a saloon refrain resonates throughout the building.

There is an old piano in one of the corners of the main room, its once vibrant wooden parts faded into dusty gray. I imagine eerie music drifting through the shadows. A beam of the morning sun illuminates dust particles suspended in the air – they are slowly falling on the planked floor. The floor creaks as heavy miner boots cross to the bar where the beer glasses are already clinking.

The gravel just off to the right of me rustles. I jump away from the dusty window and turn toward the unnerving sound. I see nothing but a rusting black mine trolley. It has been parked in an uncut grassy area, amidst a few scattered sun-bleached boulders. Its four wheels are resting on a piece of track that goes nowhere. 

Warily, I walk up the gravel road, eyeing the mine cart as I pass it. I briefly stop by Garnet's last standing general store. There is a blackened old poster featuring a drawing of a handsome young man enthusiastically recommending “a mild sweet chew. ” The dark brown and black smudges are eating away parts of the fellow's head and curling up the unpinned edges of the poster. Avoiding the rusty nails, I run my hand along one of the framing planks. I imagine the wood's grooves hold snippets of sounds long gone: children's giggling, small feet shuffling, hands gliding across the planked wall, incomprehensible whispering that precedes a planned mischief. 

I pull my hand away and step back. Then, I continue up the gravel road, uphill toward a cluster of miners' cabins. I pass a magnificent structure of a hotel, standing three stories high, with dark-stained wood and once-carved doors. Across the road, dwarfed by the hotel's size, is Garnet's blacksmith shop. I can almost feel the heat of the forge as I hurry past its low-placed window.

Garnet's miners' homes are small log buildings daubed with mud, grass and moss. Built quickly and with whatever material was available, they now stand in empty silence, their hasty simplicity clashing with Garnet's fulfilled promise of the riches. Missing doors and windowpanes are tempting my inner adventurer but dissuading the child part of me that used to climb into my mother's bed in the middle of the night, terrified of the moving shadows.

The cabin I walk into is nothing but a small, sparsely furnished room, built without firm foundations and abandoned. A small stove, heavily spotted with rust, stands in a corner amidst the debris of some miner's simple life. The faded remnants of clothing hanging on two large rusted nails above the stove move in a wind that isn't there. I can almost hear the crackling of the fire and the scraping of the chair as a heavy body pulls it closer to the radiating heat. The cabin logs release a faint smell of pine; they are beginning to overheat. The dripping of water leaking in through the board roof echoes against the metal curves of a large black pot.

The floor creaks behind me, prompting me to swiftly turn around. Matt is leaning against the doorframe. “Have you seen the jail? ” he asks, his earlier irritability replaced with an enthusiasm of an impatient adventurer.

I breathe out. “I don't think so, but a few buildings here would qualify. ” My claustrophobic tendency seeps out with my words.

“It wasn't actually used, ” Matt offers. “Only once – for some guy who got drunk and killed someone's dog. Now that's a true Wild West story. ” He doesn't wait for my reply but turns around and walks out of the cabin. I follow him.

“Karl May was a great literary figure, ” I say to Matt's back. He chuckles but doesn't turn around.

I continue: “Although some may call him a delusional fraudster, he learned all the facts from books and supplemented them with a great, although at times heavily idealized, imagination. ”

Matt's shoulders shake slightly. He keeps walking down the gravel road ahead of me. “Idealization used to sell back then, ” I shout and run down the hill to catch up with his receding form. He grabs my hand and we step up a forest path, leaving Garnet behind. A cool wisp of air swirls around my shoulders. I shiver and look up toward the treetops. The old pines are motionless. “Imagination, too, ” I murmur as I lose sight of the last wooden building of Montana's most preserved ghost town.  

Miriam Matejova is a PhD student of Political Science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Her creative writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Her Circle and several travel magazines. Miriam has written and co-authored papers on international peacebuilding, Canada's foreign intelligence and environmental security. She volunteers as a translator and reviewer for the TED Open Translation Project.