Travel Log: Hunting Abandoned Buildings

**WRITER’S NOTE** My computer will be in the shop, so I’m publishing this today instead of on Thursday as usual. See you on the flip side!

(Silverdale, Washington; Oct. 22, 2020) – Abandoned buildings are way cool…especially in winter!

I’ve loved abandoned buildings and longed to explore them ever since I watched the Scooby Doo gang solve their creepy cases in many an old, abandoned structure.

Abandoned buildings represent mystery, adventure, ghosts, spooky fun, and maybe the discovery of lost treasure! There’s even an odd beauty in decrepit, decaying structures. I know that might be a surprising statement, what with it coming from a man living in a culture obsessed with youth and immortality. However, beauty, and even God, are in decay as much as in life (it’s a cycle, after all).

Wildflowers now live around this abandoned house in Dekalb County, Tennessee. (Nathanael Miller, 27 March 2018)

My favorite structures are the abandoned buildings found along the side of the road. With no historical plaques or documentation, I’m free to wonder about the stories that played out inside the crumbling walls and peeling wallpaper. Such mysteries are like candy to me; I just can’t resist poking into them!

I explored as many abandoned buildings as I could find during Grand Tour USA from 2017 – 2018. While I extol the virtues of such exploration, I find a lot of people take unnecessary risks. Safety is paramount if you want to explore abandoned buildings…and come back in one piece.

ABOVE: The very fact this house’s porch is settling at a more alarming angle than the Leaning Tower of Pisa kept me from approaching the structure. BELOW: What really caught my eye is that curtain still nicely tied and hanging in the front door What story happened here? What sequence of events led this house to be abandoned…while the front door’s curtain was left neatly tied and hung up? Whiting, Maine. (Nathanael Miller, 28 July 2018)

Some buildings feel creepy; others don’t. Sometimes the ‘creepy’ factor is generated simply by that day’s weather and the building’s layout. Other times the ‘creepy’ factor is generated by nothing you can pinpoint, but it’s there. Those are the buildings I’m most cautious about. Fear is a gift, and our amazing brains can process, interpolate, extrapolate, and come to conclusions that escape our conscious minds, but are real, nonetheless.

In order to encourage safe exploration, I developed the Miller Catechism for Exploring Abandoned Buildings. Following this ‘catechism’ has kept me alive and uninjured for a long time, allowing me to continue finding new old places to poke into.

Rule #1: Never trespass! This one’s kind of obvious. If you see ‘Private Property’ signs, or are unsure of a building’s ownership status, just take a photo from the road with a long lens. Don’t risk getting arrested for the sake a ‘perfect’ photo; that would be silly!

This lovely old barn sits on clearly marked private property, so I just got a photo of it from the road. Wisconsin Farm Land. Wisconsin. (Nathanael Miller, 07 Aug. 2018)

Rule #2: Listen to your instincts! Abandoned buildings can be inhabited by animals or transients. Both can be dangerous, especially if cornered in a space where they expected to be safely alone. Just because you aren’t consciously aware of a hazard, listen to you gut. Fear is a gift; your subconscious mind might be registering some very subtle warning signs.

Rule #3: Scout the interior by looking in the windows before entry! If you can’t get a solid, sweeping view of the building’s interior through the windows, do not enter! A number of my favorite shots came from shooting through the windows into a structure I refused to enter because the risk was too great. Don’t just walk in.

This principle is obviously problematic for multi-story structures. I strongly recommend you don’t climb up the structure’s exterior to scout out the upstairs through those windows. After all, you have no way of knowing if that drain pipe will support your weight. The only multi-story structures I actually entered were preserved ghost towns in state parks. The safety factor in such places is clearly very good. I found some beauties of old, multi-story buildings along the road, but I didn’t enter them. The risk was just too high.

ABOVE: One of my favorite abandoned houses was this ancient farm house in the middle of a wheat field in South Dakota. BELOW: I got a great view through one of the windows, but I never entered. Something about this place just didn’t ‘feel’ right, so I stayed a safe distance away and relied on my long lens. I might not have gotten to see the interior, but maintaining my safety means I get to remember this as one of my favorite old buildings, and not a location I was scared witless in! (Nathanael Miller, 14 Aug. 2018)

Rule #4: Try and explore with a companion! This is the rule I usually have no choice but to ignore. I’m single, so I have to make a more in-depth set of risk decisions when I go hiking, driving, or exploring. The reasons for having a companion are pretty obvious (such as someone to watch your back or help you during a medical emergency). I have to decide each time I go adventuring if I can legitimately judge the risk of going solo as acceptable.

Rule #5: Bring a staff or a cane! My solid hickory hiking staff is a good weapon for defense, and a great tool for testing the floor. Even if the building is built on the ground, I always assume a cellar is down there waiting to swallow me up in a pile of broken floor boards. I can literally sound out the floor’s structural integrity by using my hickory staff. Rotten wood doesn’t always sag, especially in a dry environment, but it does make a very loose, vague, ‘soft’ sound when struck. Intact solid wood, however old it might be, makes a very sharp, defined sound when struck. This will help you judge the floor’s integrity before potentially falling through rotten boards.

This ancient prairie home in North Dakota dates from the mid-19th century, based on my knowledge of architecture and history. (Nathanael Miller, 18 Aug. 2018)

Rule #6: Make sure someone knows your general location! I emailed my parents every day, and phoned them every other day or so, while I was on the Grand Tour. No matter how remote my destinations were, my folks (and several of my friends) always knew my general area and direction of travel. Constantly sending such data to your ‘home base’ might be tedious, but is an indispensable part of maintaining your safety. If something bad happened to me, the authorities would have a narrowly defined corridor within which to look for me, thereby increasing my chances of rescue.

Besides, such contact keeps Mom and Pop from worrying too much!

ABOVE: A very rare exception for me in regards to the “no entering multi-story structures” was this Old West house rotting in Elkhorn, Montana. Elkhorn is a real-live dead Old West mining ghost town. Established in 1872, the town boomed during the 1890s and died when the mine played out and the railroad left in the 20th century. Two structures, Gillian and Fraternity Halls, are maintained as part of Elkhorn State Park (both built in the 1890s). Although this is not one of the structures maintained by the park; I was able to fully scout it from the outside, and I was also able to determine the building was on the ground (not over a cellar). I judged the risk to be low, so I poked around. BELOW: I did NOT, however, climb up the decaying staircase. That risk was a bridge far too far! Elkhorn, Montana. (Nathanael Miller, 21 August 2018)

Hunting abandoned buildings is one of my favorite activities during a road trip. However, safety must always be considered. Don’t rush in where an angel might fear to tread. Feel free to borrow the Miller Catechism for Exploring Abandoned Buildings, or develop your own. Either way, ensure you take safety seriously; otherwise, you might become a permanent part of that abandon building’s story. Such an outcome would be mildly depressing, to say the least!

Grab your camera, a few memory cards, and hit the road! There are thousands of wonderful, evocative abandoned structures our there just waiting to be discovered. Be safe, have fun, go explore, and keep doing great things!

Elkhorn, Montana. (Nathanael Miller, 21 August 2018)

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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Myself with Gillian and Fraternity Halls, the two buildings maintained as part of Elkhorn State Park (both built in the 1890s). Elkhorn, Montana. (Nathanael Miller, 21 August 2018)

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