The road to oblivion
Voyeuring into the past along the Road to Oblivion
Combined with my nearly illegible handwriting, putting directions on paper can’t help but get the anxious traveler hopelessly confused. Just go north of Morgan’s Tower along the Devil’s Highway to Crying Creek, and then straight toward oblivion. It sounds fairly simple to me.
The wanderer is probably unfamiliar with my geographical references and has no context to build an accurate mental map. Unfortunately, GPS is also useless, because many of these locations truly represent oblivion, for they’ve been obscured by time.
Even if I try to be more precise – Head north from Cortez (the town first settled at an old stage stop and ancient ruin complex called Mitchell Springs, where Morgan’s Tower once stood, described by archaeologist Lewis Henry Morgan as a 10-12 foot mound, which was bulldozed by pot hunters in 1977) along Highway 491 (formerly referred to as “The Devil’s Highway,” partly due to its superstition-inspired 666 route designation, just a spur off the infamous Route 66 that attracted a wave of American tourism) where you’ll encounter an agrarian community known as Dove Creek (fictionally renamed Crying Creek in Jack Kisling’s 1966 novel “The Crow Flies Crooked,” which at the time of its publication was not appreciated by local residents) – you’ll wish you’d headed toward oblivion and skipped the encounter with me.
Time is like an unrelenting wind unraveling a shroud of sand, erasing any tracks, leaving the surface smooth and apparently untraveled.
What I love about the route northwest from Cortez to Monticello is the sheer number of tiny deserted houses that populate its roadside horizons like drowsy withered sunflowers originally seeded by an early-to-mid-20th century agricultural push that populated this stretch of land with families. These days, a driver flying along at 65 mph has to really scrutinize the roadside horizons in order to notice the tiny houses. In tallying these lost hopes, I’ve arrived at more than I could count on my fingers and toes.
A portfolio of black and white images, ambitiously titled “North of Cortez on the Way to Oblivion,” would provide a fascinating history – each abandoned house telling its own little story.
But after two decades considering such a project, I’ve given the idea up. The knowledge of the families that lived in these rickety residences has frayed like cobwebs against the hands of unrelated generations. The houses are mostly decrepit crumbling artifacts, often isolated in the middle of a farmer’s field where trespassing is especially verboten, a word that still resonates with the impact a gun’s hammer makes after being cocked and pointed in my direction.
Another detail that strikes me as arresting is the size of these “family” houses. North American females and males in the past century have gained on average 1-3 inches in height, but their house size has nearly tripled since 1950. It won’t be helpful to discuss how our breadth has also increased, an obesity index ticking upward since 1950 from 10% to 35% of the population, so I’m not going there, because we’re all heading toward an oblivion of our own making. The journey, after all, will always be my official answer to the eternal question, “What is the meaning of life?”
Besides, there’s an enormous difference between examining old photographs and encountering the actual shambles of our collective history. The past has so often been a straightforward “thanks for the memories” and a glance over the shoulder on its way out the door. True appreciation, however, is like a favorite shirt you’re afraid to wash, because somehow you just know it will change, shrink, fade, wrinkle or unravel in a horrible, irrecoverable way. And it will; count on it.
Sometimes I just pull off the highway, sit on the shoulder with my hazard lights flashing and simply pause for what Paddington Bear calls “a hard stare” or “a long view.” With my spotting scope zoomed and focused, my eye approaches the broken front door to ask permission, and when not even a shadow answers, my magnified eye slips around to the side of the house. Then, I examine the openings where window glass used to hold out the rain. I’ll take a sweeping tour around the yard to count the trees and flowers before I put the scope away and move along. When I stop, it’s a comfort, like a visit with neighbors I seldom get to see.
One spring I spotted a pair of fruit trees in full blossom outside the backdoor at one of these abandoned houses, and I swear I could hear the bees swarming, buzzing in their frantic effort to harvest and stockpile a cupboard full of nectar. Then the sound merged with the traffic, which I had so completely forgotten as it sped past my idle car. In that instant, there was no difference between the bees and the motorized scurry of constant change. I should have closed my eyes and visited oblivion, but it was late, and I had to be getting home.
– David Feela