The United States of Ruin

The Kawasaki KLR650

Dave Dunn uses his motorbike a little differently than most, heading off on the weekend to explore the old abandoned buildings of America…

Over the last four years, I’ve spent most of my time living in the most populous urban centre in the United States – New York City.

New York can open your eyes to so much if you’re willing to see it. The culture, the art, the architecture, everything.

But at a certain point the novelty wears off, the veil is lifted, and the harsh reality of urban living reigns in.

The parking tickets add up, the violence arrives on your doorstep, and enough is enough. As a motorcyclist, living in New York City is especially tough.

Motorcycles get hit, stolen, and vandalized daily. My ‘enough is enough’ moment came first when my 1972 CB350 was stolen, again when my 1987 K100RT, 2008 R1200RT, and 1999 KLR650 were hit by cars, and finally when I had to start paying a small fortune to rent a parking space.

Graffiti

Since then I’ve made a point to spend as much time on the road as possible.

I spend roughly half my days, or about 30,000 miles a year, in the saddle exploring the forgotten corners of America.

I rarely plan a route and sometimes not even a final destination. I swing my leg over the motorcycle and give into every whim.

More often than not I find myself a thousand miles from home with panniers worth of stories to tell.

On these trips, I always stumble across abandoned structures- insane asylums, schools, resorts, and even whole towns.

American ruins have a unique sadness to them. A beautiful silence, really. There’s an ominous shroud over Nature’s reclamation of American infrastructure.

It’s hard not to get the feeling these buildings were forgotten for a reason, left to crumble into obscurity. Over the next eight pages, we hear three tales of adventure, with a Q&A at the end…

Letchworth Village Insane Asylum

Opening its doors in 1911, Letchworth Village was an institution providing care for the most physically and mentally challenged individuals in Upstate New York.

Although initially a success, the 2,362-acre facility soon began to harbour secrets unimaginable to the outside world.

Taking place behind closed doors in any one of the 130 buildings were reports of rape, torture, neglect, and murder.

In 1996 Letchworth Village closed its doors for good, ending an era of pain and heartbreak.

Eighteen years later, the decaying facility is now a satanic playground for those believing to be in tune with the occult.

Those are the circumstances under which I arrived at Letchworth. I departed New York City on my R1200RT knowing Letchworth Village existed but had no idea how to get there.

I knew the general area, but figured I’d spend the day riding around trying to find it. I motored down lanes in the hamlet I believed the facility to be in, Thiells.

Finally, lurking behind a wooded grove stood a three-story, perfectly symmetrical, stone building, all traits indicative of a 20th-century asylum.

Broken Windows

I parked the motorcycle and made my way into the woods. Littered throughout were wheelchairs and gurneys being swallowed up by the amber coloured leaves.

At the bottom of the slope was an enormous husk of a building with a towering smokestack caressing the clouds.

By the time I made it to the building I was having second thoughts about what I was doing there.

I took a deep breath and considered going home when two people, clad in black, rounded the corner. My heart sank. Fear enveloped. After a few tense moments, the pair turned and faded into the woods.

After I regained my composure I reluctantly crossed the threshold. Entering this building was a mistake I wish I could take back.

As I moved through the various rooms it was clear I was in a place ruled by another type of individual. Swastikas, ‘666,’ and ‘Satan’ were spray-painted everywhere – on walls, ceilings, gurneys, doors, desks. Everywhere.

I made my way deeper and deeper into the belly of this building. Eventually, I found myself in the basement.

I shuffled through the pitch dark, my flashlight dancing across the walls. Suddenly the beam illuminated a human face. Then another. And another. I screamed and stumbled backwards before realising what I had really seen.

Someone had found replacement faces for CPR dummies and placed hundreds of them throughout the bowels of this building.

Continuing around the compound I discovered offices with paperwork still on the desk and patient records scattered on the floor.

I entered one closet and was greeted with fifty or more three-ring binders piled high in the corner.

I flipped through one and found notes and drawings written by patients. In another closet across the hall were dozens of training tapes on how to deal with various conditions and situations.

Abandoned Room

Threats of death were scrawled across every other surface. My heartbeat quickened as I passed through an industrial kitchen, searching for a way out.

The building ached and moaned encouraging my departure. Around every corner, I was afraid of who I may encounter.

The sun had long disappeared behind the horizon when I made my way to the main hospital.

The odd-shaped building sits atop a hill and seems to keep watch over the patient dormitories.

As I approached from the rear the building began to vanish against the night sky. The long grass grasped at my ankles with every step.

The closer and closer I got the more I promised myself I wouldn’t enter the building. It felt as though the hospital was luring me in.

Moments later I stood in the threshold of the southwest wing. Night had fallen and before me stretched a long room piled with desks and gurneys.

Hanging from the ceiling were more rubber faces staring blankly at me. I took a step forward. And then another.

Before I knew it I was at the other end of the room. Darkness captured me. My mind began to play tricks. A shadow here, a flicker there.

A chill crept through my body and the hairs on my neck stood erect. I turned to leave when the most intrusive sensation struck me.

It felt as though something was approaching from out of the darkness. Fast. Before I had a chance to move, a crash erupted from the shadows sending me into a panic.

I ran from the hospital, horrified. I will never again step foot in Letchworth Village.

After a long ride home and laying in bed that night, a heavyweight rested on my chest. I felt like crying but the tears never came.

Paranoia kept me awake for most of the night. A part of me felt like I was still at Letchworth Village, or more appropriately a part of Letchworth Village followed me home.

Detroit Neighborhood

Like many trips before, I threw my leg over the BMW and headed out of New York City with no real destination. I knew I wanted to head west, but that was the extent of it.

Out of New York and into New Jersey I rode. Miles racked up while the hours flew by. The further I got from home the happier I became.

Scorched Remains of a store

Pine trees replaced skyscrapers and the late morning fog was a welcome substitute for city smog. I made it deep into Pennsylvania before I had an idea of where to go; Detroit, Michigan.

I had heard about the poor condition of the city but couldn’t really believe it. I found it difficult to understand how a city that helped shape the American Dream was being left to rot.

The next morning I crossed into Michigan for the very first time. I knew I was close when I passed a Ford plant.

A few miles down the highway I passed a sign reading, ‘Detroit City Limit.’ My first sight from the highway wasn’t a burning junkyard or a belching smokestack, but a playground being swallowed up by weeds and a schoolhouse pockmarked with graffiti.

Abandoned

I had arrived. I took the next exit and had to dodge washing machines and dishwashers as I rounded the curve.

On the surface streets, garbage rolled around like post-industrial tumbleweeds. I immediately pulled into what I believed to be an old service station.

A scorched boat rested where the fuel pumps once were. I peeked around for a minute only to realise a car full of men was stopped and watching me.

Their hoods were pulled up and their caps pulled down. The silent exchange was an intimate reminder that I was an outsider in their world.

I continued riding through the neighbourhood and happened upon what looked to be the remains of a general store.

More abandoned buildings

I stood in silence for a moment before the mechanical lullaby of an ice cream truck echoed from down the street.

As quickly as it arrived the yellow truck disappeared amongst the destruction. I made my way towards a cluster of factories along the Detroit River.

I rode along in silence down an empty street, darkened traffic signals dangled overhead.

I reached the end of the road and turned off the bike. I stood in the middle of the intersection listening to an ominous hum. I realised no matter where I was in the neighbourhood it was present.

Detroit is a city in a complete state of deline

Finally, after not seeing a soul for close to an hour, a fellow rider pulls over in the distance.

When I got closer it was evident he wasn’t anyone I wanted to befriend. The man was tearing the seat off a moped and violently rummaging through the contents. He looked up and our eyes locked.

Fear washed over me as I remembered the majority of murders in Detroit go unsolved. I downshifted into first gear and catapulted down the abandoned road.

I figured it best to hide out on the residential streets. I quickly noticed there aren’t many houses standing, just empty plots of land where homes once stood.

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The houses that do stand are either charred, abandoned, or barely inhabitable. It’s very ghostly. Every few blocks there is a well-maintained property sitting amongst the rubble. I pulled into the parking lot of a toppled recreation centre.

In the corner of the property was a playground. Frolicking around the brightly coloured playground was a couple of young girls. It broke my heart to think that this is the environment they have to grow up in.

As the day progressed I crept silently through abandoned buildings.

My exploration came to a halt when I discovered that one abandoned house wasn’t technically abandoned.

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I approached and saw a sign nailed to the front window alerting others (most importantly, arsonists) that someone had claimed the property and was in fact living inside.

I hopped back on my bike and meandered through the maze of decay. I continued through the neighbourhood before coming to an intersection with one house standing.

Sitting in front and drinking beer was a surly group of young men. Behind them burned a black, sooty tire fire.

I put my foot down at the stop sign when these men began to yell and point aggressively in my direction. I couldn’t make sense of what they were saying and figured it best to leave. I made it a few blocks before noticing a red pickup truck in the distance behind me.

There wasn’t much activity in the area so a single-vehicle really stood out. I turned right and continued to the next intersection.

I glanced to my right as the truck was turning towards me a block the way. Already being on edge, I turned back into the neighbourhood. I looked into my mirrors only to see the truck coming up behind me yet again.

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With no one else around it became obvious someone was following me. I zigzagged through the abandoned wasteland keeping my speed low since I had no idea where I was.

After every turn, I hoped I wouldn’t be met with a blockade of debris or even worse, their friends. After a tense while, I made my way back to the main drag, albeit a completely empty ribbon of asphalt.

I pulled out onto the road and blasted through the gears. The road curved and the truck disappeared from sight.

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I rolled up to the first operational stoplight in hours and sat impatiently in the right lane, my eyes glued to the mirror. Over the crest of the hill appeared the red truck.

I was not keen on the possibility of having a gun shoved in my face, so I made a right turn and shot down the boulevard. Towering over me was the Ambassador Bridge. I passed under her and made a quick turn onto a service road.

I slipped the BMW behind a Jersey barrier and various abandoned road equipment. I sat there for a few minutes looking towards Canada’s shore wondering if anyone ever bothered to look back.

Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel

Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel is located 106 miles northwest of New York City and nestled comfortably into the hills of Liberty, New York.

Liberty was once a bustling village in the Borscht Belt but has spent recent years fading into obscurity.

In its heyday, the region welcomed hundreds of thousands of vacationers looking to escape city life. Magnificent resorts popped up throughout the area.

Arguably, Grossinger’s set the standard for Catskill Mountain vacationing with amenities like a private airstrip, pools, spas, tennis courts, ice rink, ski slope, and its own post office.

By the time I made the ride to Grossinger’s I was unwilling to tackle any abandoned location alone.

The graphic graffiti, satanic altars, and the creepy history of many of these locations had finally got to me.

Thankfully my childhood friend, Beau, offered to meet me in Liberty so we could explore the ruins together.

Stretching high above the pines was the husk of a building, one last vestige of a now-defunct utopia.

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On the hill, located in the middle of the drive, was a guard shack. I tried my best to spot movement inside, but then I remembered, Grossinger’s closed its doors nearly thirty years ago, with nothing left to protect. We navigated up the hill, past the shack, and along the lane.

As we puttered further and further into the compound, evidence of Nature’s heavy hand enveloped us. Buildings crumbled not only to the ground but seemingly into it. Concrete structures melted into the mossy earth.

Nature wove her tentacles throughout the unnatural giants, guiding them to their final resting places.

After stepping foot inside these mouldy behemoths the level of opulence the property once projected was clear.

Standing motionless in the shallow end of the massive indoor pool, I drifted back to 1965. In my mind’s eye, laughter tickled the window panes, warm water lapped at my chest, and the faint smell of chlorine slithered up my nostrils.

Throughout the afternoon I caught myself gazing wistfully through shattered glass.

I was privy to the same views available fifty years ago, although enjoyed then from a uniquely different perspective.

I walked through the veranda while pockets of warm sunlight cascaded across the mossy floor.

I felt honoured to bask in the same welcoming glow other guests enjoyed years ago. It is impossible to experience Grossinger’s without noting the evidence of bizarre, satanic rituals taking place on the property.

At least four or five times we came across pentagrams etched into the concrete floor, burned candles at each point.

While exploring a dark crevasse in the hair salon, propped up in the corner, was a mannequin wrapped with a white rag stained blood red.

In other buildings, the bodies of dead animals rested in close proximity to these makeshift altars.

With so many markings referencing the devil or death, it is difficult to maintain your composure.

Having reached our tolerance, we exited the main complex and ventured up nine flights of stairs to the roof of the ‘Jennie G’ building; the husk we saw riding up the drive.

The walls of the stairwell were quite literally disintegrating right before my eyes. Thick drifts of plaster collected in every corner.

The upper-level hallways had a war-torn aesthetic. As we reached the rooftop the air of desperation quickly conceded to that of nostalgia.

No longer was I heartbroken by what the future held for the resort, but comforted by the memories created there.

It didn’t matter that no one would ever drift through the shallow end of the pool again because thousands of people already shared that memory.

Like those before me, I too was looking to escape city life and like them, I was able to find solace at Grossinger’s.

I’m not sure these locations would have resonated the same way if I hadn’t made the trip on a motorcycle.

The rides home after spending a day surrounded by destruction are incredibly moving.

I can never stop thinking about the people whose lives used to revolve around these abandoned places. I can’t help but think of the brighter days and the happier times.

A motorcycle provides its rider with an opportunity to more fully comprehend their experiences. Sitting in the saddle for hours on end allows the mind to wander, to imagine, to remember.

Blindly setting out on a motorcycle after uncovering long-forgotten locales allows me to evaluate what it really is I’m after. And to be honest, I’m still trying to figure it out.

Q&A

Dave Dunn

How old are you?

I’m 25 years old.

What do you do for a living?

I work in the film and entertainment industry while dabbling as a travel writer.

What bikes do you own?

I currently own four bikes. 2008 BMW R1200RT, 1987 BMW K100RT, 1999 Kawasaki KLR650, 1972 Honda CB350. The Honda was stolen and thankfully recovered. The KLR I just took on a month-long trip around the country… in the middle of winter. Why? I don’t know.

What’s the perfect bike for what you’re doing, and do you worry about your bike when you’re parked up?

The perfect bike is the KLR650. Its rugged can ride over anything, and it’s easily concealable. I’ve taken the R1200RT to a number of places and it just stands out too much. There were times where I had to shoot from the saddle for fear the bike would get stolen. The KLR blends into destructed environments a lot better. It’s just ugly.

What’s the most terrifying thing you’ve experienced on your exploratory trips?

Beyond the inherent danger of going into collapsing buildings, probably when I was in the pitch-black hospital at Letchworth Village. I was at Rockland County Psychiatric Center once, inside an abandoned staff house, when I heard footsteps above me.

I left that building and went into another across the street and heard shuffling in the room next to me. The windows were boarded up, so lighting was minimal. Very spooky.

Apparently when the facility was operating at full capacity patients were known to escape. Legend has it that the alarm warning of an escape went off so frequently, neighbours to the facility got upset.

Oddly enough, part of the facility is still operational and patients are allowed to roam the grounds. In 2012 one patient murdered another somewhere on the grounds. He’s now serving a 20-year prison sentence.

Are you going to carry on exploring these places?

I plan on doing this for quite a while. I love finding these places and trying to piece together what it was like before they were forgotten.

How do you find out about these abandoned places?

More often than not I find these locations by taking back roads. Finding them is part of the adventure. US13 through Maryland and Virginia has a trove of abandoned places. Sometimes I’ll hear about a place, do a little research online, and I’ll set off trying to locate it. Some research is best to do after I’ve come back. The histories of some of these places are a little too haunting.

How often do you go?

I venture out nearly every weekend. I try to take one longer trip once a month.

How far would you ride to see one?

I’d ride as far as it took. I have another big trip in the works for this fall. I’m hoping to cross the United States again, but maybe this time up north.

What do your friends make of it all, do they think it’s weird?

My friends all think it’s pretty cool. I know a few of them are happy I bring back pictures seeing as they would never step foot near these places themselves.

Do you tell anyone where you’re going?

If I know the final destination ahead of time I’ll let a core group of people know where I’m headed. If I’m unsure, I make phone calls every couple of hours.

Do you worry about your safety?

I worry about my safety to an extent. I won’t go into the building if I see a particular sag in the floor or if primary construction is made of wood. It all depends though. Walking into a wooden structure in Arizona is a lot different than in Vermont.

Each location presents its own unique set of challenges. I do however get a little nervous about who I may encounter. I was hunting around in New Orleans, LA and had some shifty characters lurking about. It’s difficult going into some locations with $1,000 worth of camera equipment so an iPhone sometimes has to suffice.

Who were the people that you saw at the asylum?

I never found out who the people were. There’s nothing scarier than running into people at these places. Their motivations may not be as innocent as mine. Unfortunately, that’s a mindset you have to go into these places with. You need to be ready for anything and have a plan for various situations.