The views at the top were certainly beautiful — the blue of Lake Michigan stretching out forever. However, nothing compared to what was at the bottom of the hill, which took my breath away. Windows shattered, paint peeling, roof caving in, doors flung open to rooms with mattresses torn apart and water dripping. I was looking at what used to be the most popular ski destination in the Midwest — Sugarloaf Mountain. When the resort was at its prime it attracted up to 4,000 skiers a day. This past Wednesday, 20 years after its closure, I was the only one there.
Within the resort, the atmosphere only became more apocalyptic. It felt like an ideal setting for a horror movie. There was one picture hanging on the wall that hadn’t been broken. The date on the bottom of the frame read 1972. The picture was of what looked like an après-ski party — the outdoor patio crowded with people in multicolored retro snowsuits, laughing and holding drinks. I then looked out at what was left of the back patio, all of the chairs broken and the wood deck rotting. It felt surreal to see the photo of how vibrant this place used to be and compare that to the lifeless scene in front of me.
The eeriness of this abandoned resort gave me the same chills I felt scrolling through photos by The New York Times of deserted places around the world during this pandemic. The photos included the Eiffel Tower, Times Square, the streets of Rome and the Sydney Opera House — emptiness spreading globally like the virus. This is a virus that does not recognize borders. Across the world, the most popular destinations are completely abandoned. There are public spaces, places built for humans, but no humans.
The desolation is evident on campus. On March 10, I was weaving around other students, trying to make it on time to my morning lecture. Two weeks later, the only signs of life on the Diag are the squirrels fighting over nuts, a sight all too reminiscent of the shoppers I witnessed at Meijer bickering over the last rolls of toilet paper. Our lives changed abruptly with no indication of when things will get better.
COVID-19 has rightfully been the only thing in the news recently. I’ve heard “stay six feet apart” and “wash your hands” hundreds of times. We are reshaping our lives around this virus. It feels as though this is only the beginning of a timeless, emotional, medical pandemic and financial recession.
We are currently a part of something that will be known as an infamous historical event. Twenty years from now, previously lively spaces like Sugarloaf in the 1970s, could look very different. As a result of the coronavirus, jobs will be lost, businesses will close, buildings will be boarded up and places will be abandoned.
The eeriness of abandonment is already evident in airports, national parks, subways, wedding venues, concert halls, schools, churches, travel destinations, stadiums, etc. What is the cost of these places being closed? The source of income that previously circulated through these places is all of a sudden inaccessible, cooped up in their homes under “shelter in place” orders.
Realistically, if businesses cannot innovate and reinvent themselves virtually many may not survive. Wuhan, China, where the virus first emerged, has been in lockdown for almost two months. Many businesses in the United States could have to endure two months without income. It is hard to believe that the economy is “going to all bounce back and it’s going to bounce back very big,” as President Donald Trump claims, when so many people are risking unemployment.
Within this pandemic we can still find hope. The emptiness around the world does not instill eeriness alone. There are hints of aspiration and realization. Aspirations for things we often took for granted, like social connection. When you are restricted to FaceTime, the value of in-person conversation becomes evident. There is also a realization that places are only worth the people in them. Many of the currently abandoned spaces around the world have beauty in themselves, but the actual beauty is the presence of others within these spaces.
For right now we can empathize, accept and look ahead. Empathize with those most vulnerable during this pandemic, accept that things are not going to be normal and look ahead to when places will be full of people, instead of abandoned.
Emily Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.