“The lonely become either thoughtful or empty.”
— Mason Cooley
[Part 1 here]
The hiking group stood at the edge of the rocky labyrinth and gazed at the open desert.
The open desert currently being occupied by one ghost town.
After following Pig-pen and staring open-mouthed at what he had found for a few moments, Mona had retreated back to the fork in the “path” to retrieve everybody else. Sure, it was a bunch of old buildings standing on piles of sand, but it was something.
Something that Pig-pen had apparently already known about.
Mona hadn’t had time to give it much thought, beyond that the man had located a hidden town in the desert. It had only taken a slight bit of encouraging to get the guide and the group to follow her back. Everyone, it seemed, was desperate for a bit of adventure.
Now they slowly walked closer to the shimmery shadow in the distance, which still looked more like a mirage than anything. Pig-pen, despite his earlier enthusiasm, trailed behind, his round face quite blank. Mona, watching him as they walked, shook her head, feeling annoyed. He had dodged all questions involving the town, and seemed quite upset when he had seen the entire group appear from the rocks. He hadn’t looked at Mona once the entire time. Well, if he had wanted to keep the place a secret, that was his fault for failing. Besides, you could find most anything anywhere on Google Earth nowadays. It was only a matter of time before the place was swarming with curious tourists.
Though Mona retained her earlier assumption that the off-trail hike was entirely planned, it was pretty clear that their guide hadn’t known about the abandoned town. She had been shocked into silence at the discovery, and it was only when Toned Arms volunteered to check the place out that the guide regained her composure and insisted they all stay together as a group. “In case of ghosts,” she had said, smiling.
The heat waves vanished almost completely when they were about 100 feet away, and the size of the town could be more easily seen. It really was quite small, about two dozen storefronts on either side of a dusty central street, and a scattering of tiny houses circling the whole thing. Even though Mona was surrounded by eight adult people, she suddenly felt very small.
There was a brief pause as they peered down the street, searching for any signs of life. It was Pig-pen who suddenly moved from his position in the back and strode straight into the town. The rest of the group followed carefully behind.
Mona’s first thought was how stereotypical it looked. She wasn’t a history buff by any means, but she was sure there were certain aspects that differentiated Old West films from the real thing. But no, the largest building with wide double doors had a huge false front with the letters, “SALOON”, sprawled across it. Empty horse troughs and posts stood in front of every alternate building. The sidewalks were made out of wood and lifted high above the street. All the windows were streaked with grime, but Mona could make out a few hand-printed “Open” signs pressed onto the glass.
They had entered huddled as a group, but as their collective sense of wariness dissipated, they began to spread out, everyone exploring a different area. A tall man with hair like a lion’s mane ducked under a low overhanging to examine what looked to be an ancient fire extinguisher. Mona moved past him into a stable beyond, which had “BLACKSMITH” written on the back wall, faded and peeling.
One reassuring thing for the superstitious (which Mona definitely wasn’t) was that everything was properly empty: there was no furniture still left in the buildings or bleached skeletons lying around. Whoever lived in this town had left intentionally, probably for a good reason – like not having to live in the middle of a desert anymore.
Slow chatter had started up between the hikers, usually little exclamations: “Look at this!” “Wow, that’s amazing!” “How old do you think this is?” The guide was trying to interject some historical speculation into the discussion, but she was clearly as amazed by the place as everyone else.
A noise of exclamation came from down the street, and everyone turned to look. Lion Mane had found a sign that had fallen over. He lifted it up, and read aloud, “‘LOOKOUT CITY’. Was that the name of this place?”
“Not much of a city,” said someone.
“Back then, I bet it was.”
“Lookout City? That name actually sounds familiar…”
Mona stopped listening and wandered to the end of the street, where a large CANTINA stood. This building wasn’t made of out of wood like the others, but weathered adobe walls, in the Mexican style. She stepped inside, and the temperature dropped from blistering hot to an almost pleasant warm. Like the others, there was no furniture in this building, but there was a long bar against the wall and scratches on the wooden floor where stools had probably been.
It made her think of her own plans to go out clubbing tonight (which probably wasn’t going to happen now, as it didn’t seem likely they were going to make it back in time). Did people club back then, back when this town was alive? Did people gather together after work to eat, drink, and be merry?
Not the women, though, she thought ruefully. No, the cantina would’ve been full of sweaty, drunken men, intoxicated with alcohol and their own manliness. Mona let herself smile. The women back then had probably laughed at male foolishness just as she did now. They probably even had their way of celebrating and relaxing that their men knew nothing about.
Mona stepped back out into the street. Across the way, there was a small, discreet building that was mostly boarded up. There, she decided. The women would sneak out of their houses and meet in that building to talk about their lives without impunity. The barkeeper’s wife would bring stolen bottles of beer, and the grocer’s wife tasty treats. They would’ve laughed and teased each other about their husbands and children, and offer advice to those in need. Yes. And it would’ve been much more introspective and fun than the numerous social clubs Mona had tried over the years. Those women had been united in solidarity against the patriarchy! They wouldn’t’ve been filled with petty rivalry and consumed with doubt about their worth.
Maybe the whole town was full of women – and men, perhaps – like that. The first feminist town in the Old West? Why not? Mona suddenly realized she was letting her imagination get away from her. Again.
A few months ago, she had felt – well, not lonely, of course, but in need of more companionship than the few friends she had could offer. They were married with kids, or focused on climbing the career ladder. Mona was a social animal, but the bar scene usually left her feeling empty, drained, and hungover. So she had ventured into the online world, and found a group that met once or twice a week to do “exciting activities” together, stuff like bowling or minigolf or comedy shows. It had seemed a nice change of pace, with people who could offer Mona whatever it was she was craving. She had imagined making so many new friends, doing all kinds of awesome things, and maybe even meeting someone who could go beyond the dating stage.
But it had been a huge disappointment. The people were whiny and never wanted to do anything beyond sitting and talking about their problems. They had insisted it wasn’t a therapy class, but when everyone started offering hugs and soothing words of comfort for every little grievance, Mona was out. She went back to clubbing because at least it was mindless entertainment, and she could credibly say she had some semblance of a social life.
Hiking was something that filled a different kind of void, the need for solitude. The small desire of personal space that was otherwise consumed with a yearning for human interaction.
It was confusing, and trying to think about it all too much just made Mona angry. What did she want? Forever alone or miserable in company? The cons for both just canceled each other out, leaving nothing. She felt nothing.
Unlike the people of this town, probably. Mona had walked down the entire length of the street again without paying attention. The other hikers were still milling about the buildings, searching for any more clues about Lookout City. Those long-gone citizens hadn’t had to worry about being lonely. They lived in a tiny town and had all known each other. Sure, there were bound to have been jerks in the mix, but surviving in the desert must’ve required a certain amount of shared assistance and comradeship. Those women who met in the boarded up building – unlikely though that may have been – wouldn’t’ve let a fellow woman be alone in her house. They would’ve gathered around and brought her food, gossip, and their company.
Mona wanted something like that. The town may be long gone, but the ideas they had left weren’t. Why couldn’t society still be like that? Why couldn’t she recreate those ideals of friendship and community?
The sun was dipping low in the sky, and it cast a warm glow across the whole town. Mona stood at the first building, and looked the place over. She felt good, better than she had for a long time. She felt inspired, and full of cautious hope for the future. Maybe she didn’t have to be lonely, maybe –
A familiar odor met her nostrils, and she wasn’t surprised to see Pig-pen emerge from the doors beside her. He looked just as contemplative as Mona felt, and when he noticed her standing there, he gave her a small smile before moving on. The man still disgusted her, but if he hadn’t gone to this town in the first place, she wouldn’t’ve had her little epiphany.
Mona frowned. But how had he known about it? Was he a veteran hiker gone to seed? Some sort of desert archaeologist? One of those ghost hunters? She was considering going after him to demand answers, when a sharp cry rang out in the still air.
“Oh my god, look at this!”
Everyone glanced around at each other, and then the guide hurried over to the voice’s source, followed by Mona and the rest of the group.
“Over here, over here!” It was Toned Arms.
She was behind the very last building, the cantina Mona had explored earlier. The woman was standing next to…
…a chain link fence. It was a little rusty and falling apart, but there was no doubt that’s what it was.
They all stared at it.
“Impossible,” someone said finally.
“I thought this was like, an Old West ghostie town or something.”
“Then why is there a metal fence?”
“Weren’t those around in the 1800s?”
“Not like that.”
“Look!” Lion Mane had been examining the fence’s posts, and pointed to some writing on the bottom. “There’s a date here. 1955…”
A stunned silence fell across them. Mona felt as though she could barely breathe.
“It could be a manufacturing number,” said Lion Mane, but he didn’t look as though he believed it.
Another man shook his head. “It makes sense. I was looking at the horse troughs, and it looked like there were modern nails used in their construction. I thought maybe someone had tried to renovate the place awhile ago, but…”
“Lookout City!” exclaimed an older woman suddenly. They all looked round at her. Her face flushed darker than her sunburn, but she continued, “I remember why it sounds familiar now. Lookout City was a TV show! From the fifties.”
A dawning look of realization came across the faces of a few others, all of whom were considerably older than Mona.
“One of those TV westerns.”
“It was on with like, The Range Rider and Judge Roy Bean. I remember watching them all as a little kid!”
The horse trough man interjected, “So what, this is a television set?”
The older woman nodded. “They must’ve built this place for filming. There were so many westerns at that time, it was probably cheaper than trying to buy studio time. And it also looked more realistic.”
“Those little houses… They were probably the cast trailers!”
“Well, that explains why everything looks like it’s from Back to the Future III.”
“Hardly the epitome of Old West entertainment…”
“Hey, it was the best example I could think of!”
“Wait, so they just left everything here when the show ended?”
“Guess no one wanted to take it down. And it was so far from civilization, no one cared if they left it.”
“Was it even a good show?”
“Not really. Looked nice, though.”
The discussion went on, but Mona was looking at Pig-pen. He hadn’t seemed surprised at all by the revelation, and wasn’t joining in the conversation.
“You knew,” Mona said, her voice loud and harsh. Everyone stopped talking, and stared at her. She pointed an accusatory finger at the man. “He knew about this place. He knew where it was the whole time! He knew it was fake!”
She was trembling all over without quite knowing why. Pig-pen didn’t say anything. He just looked sad. Pathetic.
The guide, who seemed to sense some authority was needed, stepped up to the man. “Is this true, Philip? Did you know it was a TV set?”
Pig-pen – Philip – gazed up at the sky. “Yeah, I did. I…used to work on the show. Lookout City. As a teenager.”
Everyone looked shocked. The man continued, “It didn’t last long, but…it was one of the happiest times of my life. We did good work out here. I was sad when the show was canceled, and we all went our separate ways. It’s been decades, but I still remember everything about working on the set. So when I heard they were allowing civilians out here in the desert again, I just wanted to see it. Wanted to see if it was still here.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Lion Mane demanded, though without heat.
Philip shrugged. “I didn’t think anyone would believe me. Or that I’d be allowed to go off-trail to find it.” He glanced at the guide, who stammered something about the hike being completely off the path, there was no planning at all whatsoever –
“And I was so overcome when I saw the set again, I couldn’t explain what it was to anybody,” he went on. “Besides, you all seemed so excited to have found a ghost town, I didn’t want to shatter illusions.”
He tapped the fence, which gave a quivery rattle. “Probably should’ve realized it wouldn’t’ve stood up to scrutiny anyway, ” he smiled. “My apologies to you all.”
The atmosphere relaxed, and everyone exchanged sheepish grins with each other.
“Kinda figured it was too good to be true.”
“Heck of a story, though.”
“Yeah, we’re on a real TV set! That’s still pretty cool!”
Everyone started looking around with renewed interest, and peppered Philip with questions.
“Did you work directly with the cast? Were they nice?”
“Where did they put the cameras?”
“How did costuming work? Did they have modern underwear?”
He seemed rather pleased by the attention, and answered their questions as they followed him on a sort of impromptu tour back up the street, with him pointing out certain areas of interest to everyone.
Everyone except Mona. She remained by the rusted metal fence, standing quite still.
fake fake fake
It was all lies. No one had ever lived here, not really. There were no late-night drinking bouts in the cantina, no secret feminist meetings, no town camaraderie. Just a bunch of writers and actors and directors standing around playing let’s-pretend.
fake fake fake
She had been inspired by this place! She had felt a sense of hope, something that was going to give her drive. True, it had been ridiculous, but at least based in reality. But no, it was really nothing but picturesque lies. Nothing different than if she had just been dreaming while watching the stupid show itself.
There was no greater meaning to life. There was no hope for a better existence. Mona was stuck where she was in the modern world, a lonely woman forever searching for contentment. No one cared, or would ever care. No unity, no community, no friends.
Just like this (fake) town. There was nothing left. And nothing was all that would ever remain.
It was as empty as she was.