I’ve always been attracted to ruins. Less so the ruins of antiquity—forget the Parthenon, the Sphinx, Stonehenge. I mean more like the ruins of recent civilizations, even our own. Crumbling WWI-era bunkers thick with ivy, hidden along Puget Sound. Still standing but completely abandoned malls in the Rust Belt. That party mansion here in Chattanooga, up on the ridge, the one with the swimming pool inlaid with the Playboy Bunny and the tunnels from the pool that lead to private makeout rooms.
It’s a little depressing, I guess, but I’m not the only one who finds this stuff fascinating. A general case in point: the recent rise in popularity of what has been termed “ruins porn,” pictures taken and posted by intrepid trespassers in places even as wild and dangerous as Pripyat, the town next door to Chernobyl. The beauty is haunting, and, though the people for whom the malls et al. used to have meaning have long moved on, the remnants linger. Imposing, intriguing, inviting.
This column is not about Chattanooga. I’ve been out of town on vacation, specifically on vacation to Holden Beach in the southern part of North Carolina. It’s a place my family and I have been visiting since I was a kid. And there’s a great local ruin.
Holden Beach is cut off from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway, and there in the waterway, a dilapidated, half-sunk fishing trawler languishes in the sandy mud on its port side. The trawler is still tied up to a pier, the planks of which are more warped and wavy than the actual ocean. The whole thing—pier and trawler—is completely fenced off.
But there’s a hole in the fence. So I concocted a cover story (“It’s OK; I’m a marine biology grad student at UNC-Wilmington, doing a survey of coastal Carolina marine life! For science!”) and ducked through the fence hole and out onto the pier. I did a tiptoe dash out to the trawler and stood there wondering, “Who just leaves a boat? Whose boat is this? What do the locals know about it?”
There were a couple of scraggly guys fishing next to the pier and I nearly approached them, but thought better of it when I noticed their pickup—a shiny, jacked-up ride with stickers like “100 percent rebel” and “panty dropper” on the back window. I figured they’d slice me up and use me for bait, so I went to Fish Headz instead, a seafood market on shore about 100 yards from the wreck. At Fish Headz, I talked to Linda, the woman behind the counter. She’d sliced some tuna steaks for me a couple of days before.
Linda told me the wreck has been there for a long time, and when I asked how long, she shrugged and said, “15 years.” She went on to describe how the side in the water is completely rotted out, eaten up by worms. (And now that I know there are worms in the water, I’m never going swimming anywhere near the ocean ever again. But I digress.) The owner of the boat couldn’t afford the docking fee but tied up to the pier anyway. Since he couldn’t afford the fee and couldn’t afford to store the boat, either, he just abandoned it and it’s been wasting away there ever since.
“It’s not safe,” Linda said. The trawler’s outriggers, she told me, are rusting and could collapse any time onto other boaters in the waterway. Which made sense to me. While I was poking around on the pier, several boats slid by right next to the wreck. The outriggers and mast already overhang the water at unnatural angles. I imagined one of them falling and instantly pinning a motorboat with all its pleasure cruisers on board to the bottom of the waterway.
I asked her if she knew why the owner couldn’t afford to do anything with it, why he’d just leave his fishing trawler in the water to decay, particularly since it was likely he used it to make a living. “I’d heard drugs were part of it,” she said, but then she said she couldn’t tell me that for sure. But she did go on to tell me that for people who do fish the area for a living, drugs are a big problem. The most common drug? “Crack,” she said, with zero hesitation.
I can’t be 100 percent positive about this, but I’d guess that most of our ruins—boats, malls, mansions, power plants—become ruins only after the people in charge of them ruin themselves in some way. Drugs in the case of a fishing boat in North Carolina. Systemic hubris in the case of Chernobyl. On and on. Stark realities. The ghosts of all kinds of plans for lives well-lived.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, “Animal Heart,” is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.