Abandoned houses and the art of exploring them
By Ed Ghost, Staff Writer
Picture this: it’s the weekend, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, you have a full tank of gas, a playlist full of killer tunes just begging to be blasted at full volume and no plans. Where do you go? If you’re me, the answer is almost always an enthusiastic “nowhere!” which often leads me to one of my favourite places—an abandoned home nestled on the side of a random rural highway in “anywhere,” Alberta (or beyond!).
When I was growing up, my grandpa had a vast overgrown farm in Rawdon, Quebec. It had various buildings of every age and state of decay. Each one came with a wild story, and even wilder things inside.
There was one building, the machinery shed. It was like Willy Wonka’s candy emporium – except the candy parts were various farm tools, strange pop culture items/housewares from the ‘50s, and two massive ‘60s-era fibreglass legs from my great grandfather, who stood 6’4 even into his 70s. It also had a floor and roof that was actively collapsing, and there were bees – so many bees.
Being able to run completely amuck and untamed on that farm had a huge impact on who I am today. I have always been nosy, I have always loved antiques, I have always loved architecture, and I have always loved the unknown.
Urban exploration is nothing new, nor is it a unique hobby. Plenty of people seek these places out for plenty of reasons. Sometimes, it’s a destructive purpose. They break and take without consequence. Shame on you, if you’re one of these people.
Other folks are just passing by, leaving their graffiti tags and little notes for the others that might find themselves in the same place. Some people chase ghosts and spirits.
Then there are those like me, who only want to take photos without touching or taking anything. We simply immerse ourselves and marvel at a life that once was.
These modest representations of the past might be crumbling now, but they’re still here. The passage of time only tests their resiliency.
Abandoned houses, specifically farmhouses, are my happy place. It’s hard to explain. But every house is new and exciting and oftentimes a learning experience. Sometimes, it’s walking into a time machine and surveying history and sometimes you learn about the people who explored there before you.
If it’s a house you’ve gone to multiple times, sometimes you get to watch how nature slowly and methodically takes back what’s rightfully hers in the form of twisting vines, relentless tree branches or unbothered spiderwebs.
For me, there’s a twinge of nostalgia, and there’s a hint of danger—but there’s always a story, and it’s always beautiful.
“But Ed, isn’t that trespassing?”
Kinda! I only go to places where there are no – at least to my knowledge – no trespassing signs, and where the property is actively not being taken care of. This can include snow removal, fresh tracks, cleaning of hazards or debris etc.
There are plenty of abandoned houses I’ve skipped because it was clear that someone was maintaining it, active in it, or there were signs. My goal when visiting these places is to take my photos, find my peace, and not disturb anything. If there isn’t an already open area in which I may enter the house, I stay outside.
During the pandemic, my need for exploring these places has only grown, because what’s more socially distant than going to a place in the middle of nowhere, that no one has lived in for decades, where no one is going to bother you?
It’s good to get out of the house and it’s cool to check out the unknown. I think I’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t get excited every time they pass an abandoned house, but if you do ever find yourself deciding to explore one of these places, and it’s not something you’re experienced in, allow me to give you some advice:
Obey all no trespassing signs.
This is true especially on farms and especially in places where you’re not a local. Farms tend to cover big surface areas. It’s not uncommon for a working farm to have old unused buildings on it, even a few acres down.
Ignoring those signs is a great way to get chased by scary guard dogs who relish in their jobs (trust me) or have the police called on you. And if you’re exploring in a different country, the house might not actually be abandoned at all.
When I was in Florida — a stand your ground state, which means if you trespass, they can legally shoot you — there were plenty of dilapidated houses that got me all excited, only for me to realize upon closer inspection that they were not abandoned at all. People did indeed live in them. It was best for me to mind my business and not go anywhere I wasn’t directly invited.
Don’t go alone.
Abandoned houses aren’t safe. I don’t care who built them. There’s a good chance you don’t know why the house was abandoned and it could very well be because of structural issues, a flood, vampires or who knows what. If you go alone, and you fall through a floor and get seriously hurt, there’s a chance that no one will find you in time and that’s the worst.
Pay attention to your surroundings.
Not all abandoned houses are unoccupied, be it by a very angry wild animal or a squatter. If you see signs of fresh life, or that people may be staying there, leave.
You don’t want any trouble. Oftentimes, if you scare someone who also shouldn’t be there and they don’t know who you are, it could lead to some unsavoury interactions.
Also, abandoned houses tend to have mould or exposed asbestos, depending on the era of the house. If you recognize either and don’t have the proper tools to protect yourself, leave. It’s not worth getting sick over.
Don’t wreck the integrity of the property.
If you’re there to loot, break, smash, party, or graffiti, maybe just don’t. Graffiti is a legitimate art form, and it has its place in society. But I don’t think that old houses are one of those places.
I must admit that every time I find a beautiful mid-century modern home, my excitement wanes a bit when I see the inevitable spray painted genitalia surrounded by profanity scrawled over everything. If you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a hundred times and it really takes away from the “picture perfect” setting.
And of course, there are some forms of graffiti out there that are so much more eloquently designed than the aforementioned genitalia, but regardless, there is no place for it on the walls of these places.
Moreover, never forget, someone might buy the property, or decide to fix it up. The more broken it is, the more likely they’re going to bulldoze over it and no one will have that piece of history ever again. Modernization is an unforgiving mistress.
Last but not least, have fun with it.
A little bit of “what if” is good for the soul. Abandoned houses aren’t for everyone, but adventure sure is. Go out, explore, take photos, and see something new.