Heyden Motel

Sep 14

These long runs have never kill me much. They always a little, but not much. I kick into a survival mode on the long drives. The hours pass in a haze of prog records and AM radio rock, off-copyright audio books and self-help podcasts. I eat little. I sleep less. The highway 17 runs the bafflingly long and shockingly beautiful span north of lake superior. Along this stretch there are many opportunities for swim stops, for tent-pitching and for secluded-forest-turn-off-nap-taking. Sometimes when it’s dark and you’re driving for endless hours through clouds of low-settled fog, you begin to wonder if you died somewhere along the way to continue indefinitely on this trans-canada purgatory. 


The 17 pocked with dank roadside abominations; there are many long-abandoned hotels, half-collapsed houses and derelict industrial spaces. Each ideal for a zero-budget zombie film; each begging to be explored by reckless city kids, bears and wayward grownups. I have developed a bad habit of stopping to explore such structures — usually gas stations and motels that have been decaying for years, overgrown with weeds, windows smashed, graffiti-tagged. I find these buildings enticing and repulsive; they hint at some past utility. They decline until identified by civic grumblings as a hazard — used for nefarious purposes until a section of roof collapses, injuring or killing. They are bulldozed and buried. Each one, a tantalizing universe, fueling my apocalyptic nightmares. They make a mockery of civilization. They are the real zombies. 


On my way north to the Trout Forest Music Festival, I stopped at one such abandoned motel — the Heyden Motel, about 20 kilometers beyond Sudbury. I photographed a few of the suites through the smashed, forward facing windows. I walked carefully around back along a trail edged with poison oak. I could see that a rear door was open. Two boards had been lain over a gap where the floor had collapsed into the disgusting, litter-strewn basement. It seemed safe enough. I stepped across the creaky, makeshift bridge and into the main hallway. I trod lightly on the scummy, paisley-patterned carpet through the Motel’s main foyer, photographing and catching short video clips. I crept towards the rooms that I had seen into from the outside. I avoided another section of the main floor that had collapsed into a nonsensical abyss of refuse and splintered wood. After photographing a few of the noxious suites from within, I decided to return to a staircase off of the main lobby in order to explore the second floor. As I approached, I noticed the creaking of the floor and walls; I became aware of my the risk. Sections of the second floor loomed low and mouldy above me, threatening to collapse at some point in the coming months or moments. 

As I turned to leave — to carefully make my way back to my rusty — I heard a frantic mewing. I followed the sound to its source and found, quite near the gaping hole to the refuse-filled cellar, a grey cat.  It’s paw was caught — pinched between the separated floorboards. Was it there when I first passed? How could I have missed it? As I knelt closer I saw that the creature’s paw had been somehow punctured by a bent, rusty nail protruding from one of the boards. The cat protested violently as I freed its bloodied foot. I tried to ignore the scratches my hands were receiving. Once free, the cat lept away only to tumble into the basement crevice. It scrambled frantically about the garbage and smashed appliances. Running back and forth, and around and around, trying futilely to find a way out of the pit.

I spent nearly an hour in that desolate place, trying to help to poor creature. I found a detached screen door and angled it  into the crevice, hoping to coax the animal up. The cat retreated to a doorless microwave oven and stared up at me, occasionally yowling or hissing.  I debated climbing into the pit to retrieve the animal. As I edged closer, the floorboards creaked. I felt the ground shift as a support beam beneath me bent and cracked. I lept back. I edged my way out of the Heyden Motel and back to my car, leaving the grey cat to its fate. 


It took me two and a half days to finally reach Ear Falls. Trout Fest is a long running, modest but loved yearly gathering of devoted folk music aficionados from around Northen Ontario and Manitoba.  It’s known for its musician hospitality, tasty home-cooked meals, keen ears and world-class traditional folk, roots and country music. It is safe here. There is nothing unconventional or unsettling about the Trout Forest Music Festival. 


I arrived in the early afternoon on Friday — the first of the three-day event — and pitched my enormous new 10-person Canadian tire tent on the artists’ grounds in a spot I gauged to be well-shaded from the morning sun. I bought this ten person tent because it was 70% off. Once erected, I saw it could have easily fit fourteen persons. I don’t have ten, let alone 14 friends. For this and all foreseeable festival weekends, the tent will be occupied by a lone, scatterbrained, hasty-decision maker. I made myself as comfortable as I could with some coloured scarves that I bought from a festival vendor. I hung them around my gigantic tent because I had seen nature-type people do that with their oversized tents at the big hippy festivals out west. I opened some gross strawberry wine and eased into the festival experience. 


Trout Forest was absolutely wonderful. But I felt like a stranger, as I always do at these things.  I get a lot of social anxiety. It’s not the convenient sort of social anxiety that forces one to hide from people. Instead, I’m compelled to seek out complex interactions until I do something unsettling or disruptive. 

For a while I can walk a wire-thin line, molding myself to nearly fit such situations — always almost but never quite. On stage I dress hobo stylish; I can play passable renditions of some of Woody Guthrie’s weirder songs and a Gordon Lightfoot tunes to endear myself to the folk ‘n roots set, but in time my nefarious motives are inevitably revealed.  My tangential interactions betray me — my confrontational on-stage shenanigans, mercurial musical phrasings and subtle polyrhythms seal the deal: I am a threat. I upset convention. The balloons come out. They burst. Something is burnt, broken or worse. By the end of my show, in spite of my sincerest conviviality, I push the psychological limits of unsuspecting folk crowds with my dank themes and spiritual trickery.


We all leave uncomfortable… but oddly soothed — as if released from shackles we didn’t know had bound us.  We can’t speak of what has happened because there aren’t appropriate descriptors. We carry a kind of joyous nausea with us for days — friendly,  swirling, parasites in our solar plexuses.


I have to believe that there are some greater purposes to what I do. I said once that when I perform I’m trying to make a very specific but inexpressible dint in the firmament. When I hit this, sometimes it makes everyone uncomfortable and silent; other times there is blistering, raucous joy. Both are celebrations. When a show goes well and one of these two outcomes occur, waves of pride, and terror wash over me and make me feel like a person again. I like to believe that I’m somehow speaking for those too anxious, too awkward and neurological divergent to be out among the discerning masses. If culture is a mind, I am giving voice to its dreams — the restless, free-associative meanderers who would be shunned or avoided at all costs by the waking, working state. 


At times I think  am an abomination, so oblivious to convention that I have constructed a catalogue of songs and mannerisms to unintentionally  blaspheme all over everyones’ sensitivities simply out of spite. I don’t speak a coherent social language, so I try to undermine all social languages, entertaining only myself and the few neurologically kindred in the crowd. My spewing, swaggering verbiage and my honed but childish sense of melody dissolve perfectly functional worldviews. I should be quarantined. I have no right to inflict my idiosyncrasies on these unsuspecting folksters. I compulsively assault the collective unconscious and corrupt our traditions just to satisfy some inverted narcisism. I bring good, earnest folks out of their comfort zones and set them adrift into a strange, invisible ether of senseless dream associations, destroying their  all-too-necessary illusion of comfortable middle-of-the-roadness.


These festivals are different when I am done with them. Festivals should offer a time away from time and our experiences here should rip us from everything — our comforts and our cares. We hit the reset button on the zeitgeist to way forward towards some wide and looming brightness. 


On the way home I stopped again at the dilapidated Heyden Motel. A transport truck was parked out front with the engine idling. The driver’s door was open. Something had happened while I was gone. The ground floor of the foyer had all but entirely collapsed. It was just a spindly skeleton of rotting, intersecting boards now. There was a washer/drier combo — all kinds of trash thrust into the hellish basement. The two-by-fours were still bridging the gap and leading to the main hallway. I think of the cat. I left it just down that hall. Only four days had passed. It’s possible that the critter was still alive. Thirsty and starving but alive, maybe.  


I slowly crossed the creaking, wooden bridge. I crept  along the hallway and heard — not the mewing of my neglected friend — but sort of a quiet snapping sound. Eating sounds. I approached the sunken floor I saw the opening widen before me.  I saw bodies. The bodies of eight men, face down, piled one upon the other. Each bearded. Each bald — like versions of myself. Eight lost lives, and mine the ninth.  

Perched atop this pillar of decay was the grey cat, gnawing and snapping as it chewed into the half-consumed neck of the topmost body. The cat then turned it’s head to look at me, mouth red and dripping with blood. I knelt and held out a hand. The kitten lightly lept over the void  and rubbed its bloodsoaked face against my hand, purring loudly. I grew up with cats, and though it has been years, one never forgets how to appease these aloof creatures — scratching under the chin, the scruff of the neck, then teasing one’s hand away, playing a bit hard to get. The cat protested half-heartedly as I wiped its face clean with a ripped bedsheet, moistened with rainwater. We communed for a few minutes like this until I turned and walked — my new companion at my heels — back over the wooden bridge and out of the Heyden Motel.