Making a last stand against the forces of nature and time, in the remote cornfields of Coles County in central Illinois, at a gravel crossroads identified only by impersonal numbers, is an edifice that once served as a housing for the misfortunate and later the mentally ill: Ashmore Estates.
As Chris and I made the turn onto CR-1050, after a 1 1/2 hour drive involving the uncertainty and excitement that can only come when one is heading to a place that houses only figments from the darker or more blurry depths of one's imaginings, we finally came into view of a red brick chimney and a red-tiled rooftop peeking from an overgrowth of surrounding trees and thick tufts of climbing ivy. Its windows were shattered, with jagged glass teeth left behind to illustrate the abuse the structure had taken on behalf of countless kids in the 20 years it's been abandoned. Peeking through the weathered, bent window frames were the illustrations of hundreds of graffiti artists who had attempted to leave their own personal imprint on the Coles County legend.
Chris parked the car about 100 feet down the road. Worries about encroaching traffic in such a cut-off location were distant in my mind as I crept slowly toward the hulking giant, and I was immediately enrapt in its looming, disused presence. The air was thick that day, so much so that one could almost wring it like a wet towel, and my intentions were just as hazy in my mind as the distant horizon; there were no foregone conclusions. Every step I took toward the building was a split-second decision to keep going. Before I knew it I was standing on the threshold and creeping inside.
Because I was only wearing flip-flops, my main concern was avoiding impaling my foot on one of the millions of pieces of broken glass strewn about, but I kept going, making sure to walk slowly, enveloped completely in the menagerie of visual stimuli. The place was literally falling apart. Pipes and conduits from the ceilings, tiles from the floors and walls, rusted metal doors kicked in, puddles of water standing on the floor in places where the roof had given way to the rain.
But the building was not empty. Every room had a story. In one bedroom, there was a rusty bed frame. How many sleeping and ailing people had it supported? There was a parlor with a rotting couch and chair. Another room with a bureau that once undoubtedly housed some lost soul's belongings.
I found my mind's eye clearing away the debris, the vandalism, imagining pale, downtrodden faces with no names trudging down the long cooridors. Perhaps there were also some happy moments. Maybe some laughter emanating through the halls, courtesy of a televison provided only by my imagination. The brighter times are only difficult to imagine because of the mind's tendency to associate such places with the pain of mental anguish that the former inhabitants must have undoubtedly felt.
As a person who claims no belief in the supernatural, the afterlife, or the ability for buildings to be haunted actual ghosts, I can certainly say that I was haunted by Ashmore Estates. Whatever energy human beings emit that can change the mood of an entire room without the need for spoken word seems to be what is left behind in these places, where the walls surround either a richness or a major deficiency of the human condition.
Where people who once led lives they felt would leave leave a mark on this world, as many of us still do, stands the shell of a former home that holds secrets that it will never tell. We can only imagine and try to capture a piece of once was before it becomes more and more permanently part of an unreclaimable past.
To read Chris's account, check out his blog entry.