New Life in the Ruins of Industry

Last week's post on the Chained Rock of Pineville ended on a rather grim note. The decay that I spoke about last week is the subject of this week's post on Urban Exploration, where I'm going to try and illuminate that decay into the beauty it deserves.

If you wiki the term, Urban Exploration is the exploration of man-made structures, usually abandoned ruins or not usually seen components of the man-made environment. A popular pastime for many adventure seekers, including myself, it often involves trespassing onto private property, getting an extra tetanus shot or two, and a morbid fascination with the world around you. There's an eerie attraction to abandoned places that I think most people have to some degree. Whether it's in the old house down the street with broken windows and tall grass, or a train trestle at the edge of town that began to rot when the trains stopped running, or in this case an abandoned coal plant, long since dead to any sort of upkeep.

Before we get to my more favorite aspects of this Exploration, it’d be a good idea to show the reverse. The night before we went to this amazing site, we stayed in a school. The perfect addition to an exploration of the dead and decaying, the school stood in stark contrast to so much of the town. The old Harlan high school had been taken over years back, and converted into a bed and breakfast. A neat place, it was lovely to stay in, and incredible to see a place, that probably by all rights should have been falling apart, brought up to become a valuable community asset, and new life breathed into it. So much life in fact, that when I left our room in the morning, hungry for at least coffee and a continental breakfast, I thought I was in a dream. From one moment, sheets, pillows, and a shower, through a doorway however and I was standing in the middle of a hallway full of lockers.

“Oh my G-d.” I thought, “I’m still dreaming and I didn’t get up at all.” Luckily I was mistaken and we ate our cold pastry and better than expected coffee. You don’t really feel that same level of grateful as when you put a cup of terrible, disgusting coffee to your lips and magically find it transformed in some form of barista communion. First it was tepid acidic sludge, now it has become caffeinated blessings. Drink this in need of energy.

The reason for this strange sideways detour is this: for every abandoned building given over to the strange adventures of urban explorers, playing in the dessicated and abandoned residue of society, there are just as many places that are given new life, and resume a new wonder. If urban exploration is all about the delights that can be taken in the decay of contemporary structures, then it just just how much we should realize the beauty in the buildings that we currently see that haven’t yet faded.

When I went to Harlan County with my papaw, we got the chance to take a tour of a mining facility and go into the mine itself. While interesting, with it's rickety tracks, almost broken sound system that kicked in once we'd gotten going through the dark stone, and animatronics that had fallen open so that the neck of one "miner" exposed a metal rod neck, we walked across the street to the old coal plant.

Devin, the guy on the tour told us before we walked across that it was easy to get into the building, as had several people in town. It seems like it's a pretty popular place to see around there. To spend an afternoon with a bb gun and a sandwich maybe, or just to sit in the quiet with the passing of trucks every once in a while.

We found a catwalk that went from the silo up to the second level and found our way. Inside the building was something both beautiful and in an odd way mythic. Walking the rusted creaking catwalks, looking down the many floors that were all collapsing to the ground, and the dull light from outside filtering through the particles of coal and rust, it felt like walking through the skeleton of an ancient creature. The last remains of a hulking creature built of smoke stacks and pickaxes, breathing smoke and walking to the deafening pounding of machinery.

Now, through the rusted rivets and piles of cobwebs there were a million and one fascinating moments: an abandoned pile of shovels, crisscrossing catwalks that extended into open air, the remains of a safety helmet almost crushed in half. On one of these catwalks, it was astonishing. From the ceiling, the minerals and residues had begun to drip down to form stalactite formations in the belly of this great beast. Just another sign of how this building no longer belonged to people and was fading back into the mountains. Through the cavelike building the air was thick with coal and age, and the spaces, sometimes quite tight, going up cramped and closing in, so that when I went through the final doorway into open air it was a welcome relief. Stepping out from the dim depths of the building, out into the open air and a strong breeze was almost the fitting final statement.

Standing on top of the roof, surrounded by the forests of the mountains, and watching the grey clouds bring in the storm that had been hanging over head in bits and pieces, I thought that maybe this was the logical conclusion to this story. While looking at this decrepit monument to man's industry in the dark depths that made the peaks of past knowledge, and after exploring the crumbling edifices of what used to be the pinnacle of technology, I felt that maybe it wasn't without a touch of irony that a bank of solar panels stood right beside the old building, like a new generation of workers, ready to continue the job for a new wave of industry.

There's something about urban exploration that makes a stroll through an abandoned coal plant on a stormy day, eerily similar to a fall stroll through a graveyard: Beauty and great sadness. Intertwined and inseparable, the places that I most love in urban exploration are those that bear with them their untold stories, and are living out the last of their twilight years in their quiet solitudes. But when you look so long to the past, you can't help but turn your eyes to the future, and when you do, do so with perspective. Because one day you'll be the dinosaur.

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