Not long after I got my driver’s license, I’d drive out 68—past the stone prison-sized mega church, past the open fields and the flat open sun-drenched four lane road, turn right at the fork by the country store, down into the woods, down the curving dark tree-canopied road, veer left, then right, and then left again, as the two-lane road snaked and carved its way through hewn gray cliff and jutting cut rock wall, until I’d come out onto the long open concrete bridge looking down over the big muddy Kentucky river, and on the other side of the river—the jagged gray cliff to my right rising and bespeckled with prickly evergreen and leafy shrubs sprouting from cracks in rock—I’d pull left into the thinly graveled and leaf-covered parking lot of Ward’s Landing. I’d drive out there day or night. Sometimes I’d take off around midnight, and not see another car past the country store; lots of times, during the day, I’d catch a car behind me, and they’d latch onto my bumper and hold tight like a boxcar on a train all through the winding ride. Back then Ward’s Landing had a faded and cracked white painted wood sign with green lettering advertising a buffet. But as often as I drove out there, I never saw it open.
Ward’s Landing sat right on the edge of river and bridge. An in-between place. It sat like a castaway heart at the center of the desolate palisades.
A lone 4×6 stone cellar doorway stood out in the yard like a door to nowhere.
From the outside of the building, the inner rooms always looked dark behind the mostly-drawn gray blinded windows and light gray wood siding walls, which turned to gray stone towards the full-windowed back room with its concrete outer basement walls below, stretching out down the slope of the river bank. The combination of its location there at the end of the bridge, hanging onto the descending, thickly wooded bank which gave way to limestone cliff, its always allusive buffet, its time-imprisoned sign that conjured a n’er do well river man and a down-home country diner past its prime, its leaf covered roof, outer chipped gray wood walls that never saw sun——only shade and night, the miracle of the combination of its decay and resilience to hang together in major structural ways——and not even brandish a broken window, gave it the air of a place that had been forgotten, let go, yet still cared for.
Across the road from Ward’s Landing, a large cave entrance opened in the side of the carved cliff. Two stone pillars stood on either side of the cave opening, and a half-attached metal tin roof and wood scaffolding sat crumpled and leaning into itself. A chain link fence, with pinned-on black-gray faded signs that declared “PRIVATE PROPERTY” and “NO TRESPASSING,” surrounded the mysterious cave entrance. In the past, the cave had been a gas station, restaurant, and gift shop—a front for illegal gambling in the hidden back room; and hidden tunnelled exits snaked through the woods behind. A man named Colonel Chinn—who always had dynamite—had blasted the opening in the sheer limestone cliff—put in doors, windows, a restroom, furniture—opened it for business, then closed it—permanently—once the authorities could no longer ignore the gambling.
On the other side of the road, a black iron victorian era gothic gate crouched in front of Ward’s Landing. Toward the river line, tall yellow sunflowers swayed in the wind and gave way to a thin row of dark green trees behind that ran along the edge of the property. Yellow light cut through the green tree leaves and brown-gray branches and reminded you a steep fall, a wide ravine, and a large moving body of water was near. If you were quiet you could hear the sound of open space and slow moving water.
Ward’s Landing stood like a strange, dark, lonely, and vacant lighthouse of the muddy crawling Kentucky River.
All these physical details that comprised and surrounded Ward’s Landing, and the way it managed to both fall apart and stay together, simultaneously, added up to a singular and wholly eerie, mysterious presence. There is something already lonely and dark about bridges over big rivers; Ward’s Landing raised the ante.
I never could understand this place’s relationship with time. Ward’s Landing weathered time. Ward’s Landing was devastated by time. Ward’s Landing battled time like a boxer, punch drunk but still on his feet, round after round, blow after blow, with an unlikely chance to win a decision, and the audience recoiling at the thud of every blow, just wishing the fight would end. It was hard to watch. One look told the whole story.
I remember when I was a kid, we’d hop barbed wire fences that lined the edges of the neighborhoods where we lived, and search the empty surrounding fields for old abandoned farmhouses. There was one, in particular, way out in the middle of a field. It took almost two hours to walk there. Now, a neighborhood full of houses, mailboxes, a pool, and a small park stands on the spot. But on that particular day in 1987, I remember a simple, white farm-house that sat on a hill. The sky was all bright blue and clearly defined snowfall-white clouds; it was one of those days when the pure thick white of cloud was distinctly separate from the sharp blue of the sky, like an artist had drawn a bold dark line between—to separate the two. A large pin oak tree—with its wide coarse barked brown-gray trunk—jutted up in front of the abandoned farmhouse, and threw shade onto its front porch and roof. It must have been summer because the day now seems surrounded by a whirl of non-responsibility. Me and my friend had walked a long way through tall grass fields to reach the abandoned house, and we went on and walked up on the covered porch. Tried the door. It opened. Inside, an oak table still sat in the kitchen. Old newspapers scattered the dust-covered floor boards. On the wall, behind the discarded table, hung a calendar. I had walked up close to get a good look.
We opened the doors to other rooms through the house. One opened to a mostly decayed staircase—three steps, then nothing—and a dark dirt basement floor below. As we turned back from looking down into the dark basement, the wind blew a door shut, and my friend ran out. He was terrified. I was too. I did not run. I walked down the dark hall—thinking of the dark rooms, broken stairs, and damp basement floor behind me—past the kitchen, back to the front door, and then outside onto the porch, down the steps, carrying my fear carefully with me.
I can still see that calendar hanging on the wall. January 1978. One year after the girl disappeared. There was a bright sharp cartoon drawing of a snow-covered field, a green pine tree, and a red sled. There was nothing written on the calendar: each blank square-shaped day remained empty white space.
What are the causes that lead people to abandon a place forever? What is left behind in the floorboards, walls, broken stairs, calendars, kitchen tables, and dirt basement floors? The limestone rock shelf at the muddy river bottom? The sealed off caves and hidden rooms? How much of the people and the things that happen do places absorb? Is it like a kitchen that holds onto the warm scent of simmering chili on the stove in winter long after it’s gone?