The snow crunched under my feet as I crested yet another ridge and paused for a break. The frigid temps made my lungs feel as though they were on fire and as I bent at the waist to catch my breath I looked back over what we had conquered. Before me stood an endless sea of peaks, each plummeting 500 ft. into icy valleys and I had silently cursed each one as we made our way through the dark and eerie forest. We had to be getting close to the location, and when I stood up straight to exhale one last chilling breath as my heart settled back in my chest, my partner looked enthusiastic as he pointed to the next ridge. “It’s close. Once we make it across, we follow the trees until they thin out and we should be right on it.” His report sounded good in theory but as I followed the path with my eyes I realized the task would require something close to olympic talent to achieve. Something I could accomplish on a regular day, but it was 20 degrees and after hiking almost two miles, the winter cold had seized my muscles’ ability to run at full capacity, making it hard to climb and take hold of things for leverage. But with the winter sun slowly fading, the thought of losing time on our explore was enough to get me moving and I fell in line behind my partner as he began to move.
The sound of rushing water grew louder as we descended the slope and with our first step onto the valley floor, our bodies falterd under the fracturing ice beneath our feet. Looking around, we saw there was no embankment to the glassy stream and the only thing offering a way across was a tree laying half submerged in its watery grave. Its dead branches reached for the sky as if trying to escape its fate and as I inched my way along the water-soaked wood, I kept my eyes to the ground and thought how horrible it would be to fall into the black water below. Being gifted with clumsiness, I was thrilled to have made it to the other side but my excitement only lasted as long as it took to look up and see my next task. Of course the last climb out of the forest would have to be the worst. We were standing at the base of an almost completely vertical climb through thick soggy mud with only the occasional dead branch to grab on to. My partner went first and I watched him scale the mountainside with ease and disappear over the top. I waited for what seemed like forever before he popped his head over the edge and, instantly, I did not like the look on his face. Deciding any more bad news would make me stay put, I refused to get briefed on the situation until I made it up there so I dug my feet in the muddy terrain and scaled my way to the top.
“Well?” I asked, brushing the snow covered mud from my knees. “We’re almost there.” He said, trying to be cheerful. “Almost?” He looked toward the direction of the cement plant. “Yeah, and it will be easy getting down,” He paused in anticipation of sharing the bad news. “But there’s going to be a half mile climb back up here when we’re ready to leave.” He watched my face, waiting for a bad reaction but as I stood there pondering my situation, I decided the only thing I could do was move forward. The only other option I had was to turn around and there was no way I had just hiked through the arctic tundra for nothing. I would press on. Besides, wasn’t there a saying promising we would laugh about all this one day? I was curious as to just when that day would come. As a reward for my efforts to continue, the trees soon dispersed and offered a spectacular view of the plant as we came into the clearing. It was quickly acknowledged that we were losing light fast so we grabbed a few shots and set off down the hillside with newly found energy for what waited for us below. Hitting level ground, we crossed a gravel road and then a set of abandoned train tracks. We were finally here.
A questionable suspension bridge swayed in the wind above a rushing river as it stood between us and the plant, and as I put one foot slowly in front of the other, I pushed the thought of its broken guide wire and distorted footpath from my mind as the sound of the rapids swirling beneath me filled my ears. As the light faded and the shadows grew, we came out into the center yard of the plant. Evidence of demolition surrounded us as we passed snow-covered debris piles and mangled machinery. Not much remained of the smaller buildings and as we climbed our way through them, over fractured concrete slabs and twisted rebar, it reminded me more of a war zone than industrial ruins. Coming back out into the open, I felt so small among the giant towers as they loomed over us in the growing darkness. We veered right and entered one through a huge hole blown into the side of the building and, trading the dwindling light of the outside for complete and utter darkness within, we brought out our flashlights for a look around. The beams revealed a thick coating of dust hanging visible in the air and the sinking sensation beneath my feet to be an ankle deep sludgy mess of weather-soaked soot which reaked of chemicals. The combination of the two made it incredibly hard to breathe and we paused for a moment to weigh our options.
There was some machinery off in the distance and a stairwell to our left. Though the equipment looked intriguing, neither one of us wanted to breathe in the chemical laiden dust to investigate so we opted for the stairs. Well ventilated with its blown out windows, we decided to make the climb to the roof for a look down on the plant from its highest point. Stepping lightly through the residue we climbed in the pitch dark, stopping on each level to take in some fresh air through the cavernous holes where the windows once were. We followed this pattern up, story after story, until we came out on top high above the site. In the short time that we were inside, the plant was fading into the shadows as nightfall slithered in and I smiled as I stepped out to the edge. The view from over a hundred feet up was breathtaking as I looked down upon the snow as it illuminated the landscape with a soft white glow. My eyes wandered to the rising ground on the horizon and I knew all to well the challenges which awaited us on the return trip through the forest beyond but my smile never wavered. For in this moment, where we were, nothing else mattered. The sun was slipping away and the night sky was beginning to glisten with the lights from the far off city. Nothing could take away from the beauty before us and as my partner joined me on the edge we stood in silence as darkness consumed us and we took in the stunning view from a standpoint not many ever get to see.
© Olivia Wolfe ~ 2013