Every two weeks, I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “The Ghost Town Honeymoon,” by Lindsey Trout Hughes.She is a writer and theater maker. Her essays have appeared in Catapult and Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is at work on her first book, a memoir, and lives in Brooklyn with her family. You can find her on Twitter.
This essay was edited by Brooke Obie.
There is a photograph of me on our honeymoon squinting against the sun and standing in a mountain pass. I am pregnant, irritated, and nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. There are yellow glacier lilies beside me and snow at my feet, though it is the middle of July. My hand is on my hip, and my lips are parted as if I've begun to say something, perpetually preparing a question that never comes. In the photo, I am not yet wearing the moss green Stetson I would later buy in a Montana gift shop in an absolute rage at my new husband.
The trip began happily. I could not stop staring at Chris as we drove through northwest Montana in our rented Ford Fiesta—his soft, dark curls falling over his forehead, his deep blue eyes and stubborn jaw, the way the sleeves of his shirt fell over his sunburnt arms. My husband. I couldn’t stop saying the word. It had only been eight days since we'd married on a rooftop back in Brooklyn, much to the bewilderment of our family and friends.
"Are you sure?" people asked me. "Yes." I said this again and again. The truth was that I wasn't sure of anything. But I said yes anyway—yes to this unexpected pregnancy, yes to marriage, yes to forging a life with Chris. So when he excitedly suggested that we spend the beginning of our honeymoon taking the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a winding highway weaving through the Rocky Mountains, I smiled, thinking it an inopportune time to mention my fear of heights and prolific car sickness, and said yes.
Chris and I had careened into marriage. Though we'd dated before, we weren't together when the baby was conceived, having broken up the previous year. He was a bartender trying to write. I was a waitress trying to act. Could we learn how to become parents in New York City? I didn't know. In our long discussions about the baby, I was moved by his openness to life’s unexpected shifts. He could sense the potential for something great, and his willingness to leap with me towards a family that didn’t yet exist was humbling. We remembered how much we loved each other, so we got married. It was a decision born not out of shame but possibility. If Chris could conquer any doubts about partnership and parenthood for me, surely I could manage a fear of heights for him.
As he drove, I closed my eyes, unable to catch my breath each time we approached a hairpin turn on the narrow, two-lane road. Chris pleaded with me to look. It was a bright day, and we were approaching the Continental Divide—impossible peaks, deep valleys, wildflowers, a vast expanse of brilliant sky. "You're missing it." I opened my eyes. My stomach lurched. Closing my eyes again, I wanted to weep at what a poor travel companion I made. Chris touched my arm. "Will you look at this if I can find a place to pull over?"
At a scenic pull-off, he bounded out of the car and towards a waist-high wooden rail, the only thing between him and air and the bottom of a ravine. He threw his arms wide as if offering me the entirety of creation as a wedding gift and turned back to me, laughing. I stepped out of the car but kept my fingers on the door handle, a tether to the ground. I looked out over the mountains, instantly overcome by the ways I desired life and earth and my place in it. I was looking, in awe. And then Chris was gone, disappeared over the guardrail. I couldn't breathe, couldn't move, only felt a panicked wail beginning to form in my throat. My body was compelled toward the space my new husband had vanished into, but the growing life inside of me was like lead in my shoes.
And just as suddenly as he had gone, he appeared again, popped back up into view, the jack-in-the-box of my life. When he reappeared, it felt like the whole of my future returned to me, grinning and unashamed. I let out a furious scream and, stunned with anger, got back into the car and slammed the door shut. Though he was apologetic, I didn't speak to him for the rest of the day, so enraged was I that he could force me to consider, even for a moment, the possibility of a world without him. A chance encounter at a bar led to vows of a lifelong partnership. And all at once I was someone's wife, fuming in a gift shop in Montana, buying a moss green Stetson because I wanted to look like what the law looked like out West. I wanted so badly to believe that I had control. I could not have seen this life coming, and now I was worried that I wouldn't be able to anticipate what would come next. Just as our marriage was beginning, I was suddenly consumed by everything I could not foresee—what would become of us, how all of this would end. It would end, and that was all I knew.
When I returned to the car, my new hat firmly placed upon my auburn braid, I wordlessly handed Chris a pile of brochures. We'd taken the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Now we would do what I wanted to do, and I wanted to visit ghost towns.
Chris wasn't surprised when I announced this itinerary for the remainder of our trip. He knew that I read every historical marker I come across. I can't help it. I stop cold in my tracks. I want to know what happened here. And ghost towns, for the most part, satiate this curiosity.
There are thousands of ghost towns in America—many of them stippling the landscape of the West—clusters of abandoned buildings whose inhabitants left them long ago. On the map I carried on our trip, I circled a dozen in Montana alone—long-forsaken mining camps, remnants of the Gold Rush, and whole preserved towns showcasing what life had been on the frontier.
Each town is abandoned for a reason—boomtowns gone bust, places lost to violence, disease or disaster. In each case, a calamity can be pointed to and named, a danger to add to the list of Things to Look Out For. In the Mojave Desert, the city of St. Thomas was purposefully flooded with the construction of the Hoover Dam. Now, thanks to drought, this Mormon outpost once at the bottom of Lake Mead has emerged again. You can visit what remains of the cattle corral and the Whitmore and Gibson houses, the Sellar's Cafe and pool hall.
Of course, there are ghost towns that defy comprehension. Order cannot always be found. Nothing remains of Bayocean, Oregon. The town was washed into the sea.
To visit these ghost towns is like learning on social media that a friend of a friend who you've never met and know nothing about, died suddenly and young. What happened? You ask the internet. You type some names. You click around until suddenly you've accidentally stumbled upon the online registry of the deceased from his wedding three years ago and wonder if they ever did get that electric kettle. You find yourself pouring over the dinnerware they chose, the color of the stand mixer. You think of the measuring cups listed there and sitting at this very moment in a drawer in the kitchen of a woman who has been a widow for approximately 12 hours. You're no closer to understanding what happened, but you've discovered something.
In our first days as spouses, we drove to Adler Gulch, once a small creek populated by catkin-bearing trees that had been the site of a massive gold strike. Makeshift dwellings sprung up in the 1860s at the water's edge. Nearby Virginia City, the center for trade and entertainment during the gold strike, still exists and describes itself as a "very much alive ghost town," with shops and costumed re-enactors, even a small theater troupe.
Outside the opera house in Virginia City, I peered into the theater, hands pressed to the window, trying to get a glimpse of the rehearsal in progress of a wartime melodrama. When Chris nodded toward an open storefront, I followed. What had once been the dry goods store was now filled with several mechanical artifacts: a machine that offered your fortune told by a human voice for five cents; a dispenser of Napoleon cigars; and a broken mail-sorting machine with a ceramic angel wearing a postman's cap and clutching a bundle of letters, looking quite like I did in those days, ready to either cry or sing—and unsure which was appropriate.
In one wooden building was only a miniature model of a hanging, tiny men lined up in a row about to have the boxes kicked from beneath their feet. I stared at the small and intricate forms—cattle and bystanders waiting for news of death out in the snow—and listened to a tour guide tell the story of a woman whose husband was hanged unjustly. Her ghost still tears through the night on horseback, wailing and kicking up dirt.
From Virginia City, we took the Shortline Railroad to Nevada City, home to fourteen structures original to the time of settlement. There are horses and chickens, and scheduled presentations by volunteer re-enactors each weekend. Offerings include Sowing the Season, Circle of Life–from Birth to Death ("a weekend fraught with emotion"), and Preparing for Winter ("a season not everyone survives").
I watched as a girl in a cream-colored frontier dress with a brown braid down her back knelt on a bench and leaned against the schoolhouse window, paper pressed to the glass, pencil pressed to paper, her head resting against the wooden beams as if she'd been there for days, as if she'd continue making notes that way forever. I approached the window, trying to see what had caught her interest. I couldn't make out anything at all. The girl turned to me. "First time visiting?" Her voice was high and bright, with a slightly affected lilt. I nodded. "We're on our honeymoon." I pointed toward Chris standing further down the dirt road, petting the forehead of a giant brown horse.
"I'll tell you about my character if you want," she said. She told me she's still young, but she'd grow up to marry the sheriff's son and die in childbirth. "Did you make this up yourself?" She gave me a sideways look as if to say, who would choose such a thing? A handful of people in costume would spend all summer in character as the blacksmith, the sheriff, and the cobbler's wife. They could tell us how their characters lived, who they married, how many children they bore, what they accomplished, what became of them. They could tell us how they died. This, though morbid, was the allure.
"When'd you get married?" We both watched Chris as he patted the great brown horse and then waved in our direction. "Last week," I said, beaming back at Chris. The girl eyed my rounding belly and looked up at me, knowing a little more than she had before, and turned to peer again into the schoolhouse. I looked in too. Empty still. The abandoned town felt seductive to me, permission to trespass on a fate already sealed, a sentence already handed down. The disaster had passed. The end had already played out.
As we moved across Montana, I studied Chris as he slept. In run-down cabins and borrowed tents, I was at once relieved and anxious as I watched his chest rise and fall. Would our child be happy? Would love always be available? Would both of us—either of us—know old age? I didn't know. The catastrophes of our lives—small, I hoped—were still ahead of us. I gathered what advice I could: if you kill a rattlesnake, bury its head but keep the rattles for luck; Never use a dead dog's collar or wear a dead man's boots. A snake's head unburied, a dead dog's collar used, a dead man's boots worn—these only result in haunting.
In the northwestern part of the state, we visited a deep lake surrounded by dense forest. Walking along the water's edge, I was filled with dread at the thought of returning to Brooklyn where I would finish the process of moving in with my new husband and his roommate, where I would go back to waiting tables for as long as I was able before the baby arrived. I didn't know how we would manage. I didn't know how we would live.
Chris walked ahead of me, searching for smooth stones, then skipping them on the water's surface. He did this with great skill, turning back toward me and offering a disarming smile, proud of the stones he sent skipping across the surface of the lake before they sank to the unknowable bottom. We approached the ruins of a cabin, half-submerged. I searched the crumbling back wall for signage. Who had lived here? Why had they left? There was nothing, only wild blue flax sprouting up between decaying beams and the deep lake beyond. The wildflowers bent slightly beneath a breeze off the water.
Another couple was honeymooning in Glacier National Park at the same time we were. Jordan Linn Graham and her new husband Cody Johnson had been married for eight days when she pushed him face-first off the side of a cliff after an argument they had on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. On my 26th birthday, his body was found, the same day I bought the moss green Stetson from the gift shop. There was an article about efforts to retrieve his body, which I read aloud to Chris as we drove through miles of pine forest recently scorched by wildfire. "Awful," he said. It felt terrifying and very close: Horror, heartache, what people can do to one another, the many ways a life can go. "It's awful," he whispered again. I nodded and looked out the window at the startling landscape, charred wood where there had once been trees.
He was taking me to an old mining camp. I wanted to see what remained of a flooded mine shaft called Orphan Girl. I shuddered as we approached the mine, thinking of the girl in the cream-colored dress leaning against the schoolhouse. I thought of her voice, the bright tones in which she said, "I died in childbirth.” How clean, how final, how simple to not have to deal with the brutal realities of a place, the facts of the life of that girl when she is out of costume, all of her years yet to come. We didn't stay long at the mining camp. It was hot that afternoon, and I was nauseated.
Back in the car, we drove through gray stumps, the ghosts of trees. "A lightning strike started the fire," Chris said, sensing my question before I could ask it. "But there will be new growth. Two hundred years, and this will be dense forest again." He took my hand as he drove, and we traded baby names for miles.
The honeymoon ended, we left Virginia City, Nevada City and the rest. We walked away from the land, the remnants of buildings, and we have not returned. But I kept the ache I felt visiting ghost towns in the earliest days of our marriage. What was I trying to learn from these places? How to avoid missteps. How to get it right. How not to be haunted. By immersing myself in other endings, I thought I might outsmart my own. But all I discovered was life's ephemeral nature, the depth required to live it well. I thought of the mine shaft, 3,000 feet deep and flooded. Orphan Girl with long-unused equipment sunken beneath it in the blackness of the earth.
We hope to strike it rich someday. We hope to set ourselves on the path for a life of abundance. In some cases, we're lucky. In others, there is loss of fortune, loss of life, depletion of resources. Life is risky. Ventures are unsuccessful. We know this. Still, we visit structures left by the dead, dreams of prosperity, relics of failure. None of this is permanent. I thought there would come some sense of security from being able to point to a causal chain of events. But one day, the mine can flood without warning. One day your husband is hanged just because someone in town is sick of his face.
Still, we organize our lives. We set up the mine and build the saloon. There are the general store and jail, the hangman's tree, and Boot Hill. If things go well enough for long enough, there may be a school, a church. Maybe a hospital. Cabins for the Carter family and one for the Morrisons. We wrestle with the inevitable by propelling ourselves forward in time and space. What do we build first? Where do we place the corrals? We step into the future to, of course, disappear. But we take trusting steps forward nonetheless. We build a mill. We greet our neighbors. We prepare for tomorrow as best we can.
I still scrutinize historical markers when I pass them. My children tug at my arm and urge me along. My husband takes their small hands so that I may stand and read in peace. So that I may ask questions. Of course, I can expect no answer.