One of my favorite novels of all time is Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Written in Soviet Russia, it’s the tale of a place called The Zone, which was the site of an alien visitation. After the aliens inexplicably left, The Zone became the place of strange anomalies: the laws of physics were altered, residents in areas surrounding the Zone would give birth to dead relatives, and the place itself never showed any signs of decay, seemingly frozen as it was, even though some decades passed since the visitation. A group of scavengers called “Stalkers” would venture illegally into the Zone to gather artifacts to sell to scientists, setting up a black market of sorts. The main character, Redrick Schuhart, was one such Stalker. A man with no real sense of belonging, he felt a strange attraction to the Zone, and did not care if the Zone would one day claim him. The novel is a fascinating, tragic read. It also inspired the movie “Stalker”, and the videogame “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl”. I highly recommend checking them out. But anyways….
Back in Puerto Rico there was an old, abandoned refinery in the southern coast of the island that you could see from the highway. A decayed monument of industry, it’s chimneys standing like rusted, ironclad golems, watching over the land for intruders. Many times I drove past with friends and they would comment how creeped out they were by the place. I admit I did not share the same feeling. The place had a certain sad loneliness to it. Forgotten, decaying, biding it’s time as the salty air and the desert winds battered it mercilessly over the decades.
One day I decided to check the place out. I packed my film camera, flashlight, cigarettes, some pot, and my hoodie. After an hour and a half drive, I took the exit that led me to this monolith. I parked my car in front of an old wooden shack that served as a bar to the few locals that lived in that dry, dusty area. There were a few shirtless, barefoot children playing and riding old, rusty bikes on wheels that were missing tires. I went into the bar, bought a beer, sat outside, lit a cigarette, and studied the area around the refinery. There was a rusted fence surrounding the perimeter, topped with barbed wire. Climbing it would be out of the question, unless I wanted to catch some gangrene should I cut myself attempting it. I had to find another way in.
I finished my beer and walked down the road to the area. After wandering around the fence for some time, I found a dark drainage pipe that led into the complex. Pulling my hood over my head, I mustered the courage to go in. The pipe was dry and dusty, water did not travel through it for some time. Crawling through the darkness, I managed to find my way to the other side, a dry, open canal in the refinery grounds. I was in, and already the refinery was greeting me. Chains clinked in the distance as the wind blew on them, the hollow pipes howled, metal clanged as it swayed. The place came to life as I walked inside.
Walking through the inner passages of this great, metal monstrosity, I noticed empty food tins, suggesting that the place was indeed populated from time to time. Oddly, no graffiti was found, but names were crudely scrawled on the walls in charcoal. Radiation signs adorned some of the areas. The lab doors were open and various instruments lay on it’s floors. I stopped and collected some test tubes and beakers. As I climbed the loose ladders, I realized that if I were to fall, not only would it be fatal, but my body would not be found for days, weeks, even months. There was no room for error.
I took some photos and made it all the way to the top, sitting on a railing overlooking the highway and mountains. Smoking my joint, I looked down on the cars passing in the distance, wondering if they could see me. A police car passed by and I gave it the finger, even though I was probably a tiny speck in the distance in a place no one bothered to even look at. As the sun began to set, I decided to make my way down before it got dark. Crawling through the drainage pipe once again, I was back in my car just as the cars in the distance turned on their headlights.
It was not the last time I visited the refinery. I made more trips during the next few months. The last time I went, the drainage pipe was blocked by a crude web of barbed wire. Someone was trying to keep intruders out, or they probably spotted me visiting the place. Luckily I found a hole in the fence that I managed to crawl through to continue my adventure. The sounds of this place no longer made me afraid, it was a sad, lonely melody, played for the few souls who dared to venture in and keep it company. Like Redrick Schuhart in Roadside Picnic, I had found my “Zone”.
It’s been nearly ten years since I last visited. Last I heard they were using the place as a makeshift storage facility of sorts and personnel were now stationed there. I felt a pang of sadness, yet I knew that even if it was still abandoned, I would probably not go back in. Even though I had discovered it’s secrets, I was once again a stranger to the place. But I would always remember the moments I spent all alone up in the walkways, the Zone singing it’s song to me.