Note: Because of my schedule this week my friend Allen Walker has allowed me to publish one of his articles. Walker is a professional journalist and regular feature writer for Catchall, the alt-weekly for Catalpa, Tennessee. His articles have also appeared in Matrix, Road Hogs, Elsewhere, and other publications.His essay Patagonia Dreamin’ is included in the anthology The Journey Of A Thousand Miles.
His work, previously uncredited, has also appeared here:
Katherine plans to keep working at Ellenton as a tour guide once it’s opened to the public. She’s been here for two years as a government inspector ensuring the safety of the remaining buildings and working as a diver. Removing as much hazardous material from the water as possible has been an arduous task. Luckily it was a small town, dying economically even before Hurricane Philip and before the underground aquifer broke permanently flooding the area. No geologic survey of the area had ever been done so no one realized how lucky it was that the town hadn’t already been permanently flooded.
“The biggest problem is security,” Katherine tells me as we stroll around the edges of what’s now known as Lake Ellenton. It’s only May but the air is still muggy, the temperature already soaring this early in the morning. The surrounding trees buzz with insects. I look down at the water and see water gliders skating across the surface. Looking up I can see the public library nearby. A Neoclassical building that must have cost the town a fortune its steps are now submerged. I can see the head of something, a carved bird, I think, poking up next to one of the columns. A real bird is perched atop it.
“There’s just so much area to cover. People have been trying to sneak in almost since day one. We’ve caught all kinds of daredevils, and just curious types.”
We stop and look down a broad street.
“The closest precedent for this is lakes made by dams, intentional flooding done by the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority]. Houses were submerged, but they were cleaned out first, and mostly burned. And there people had warning. They had plenty of time to leave. Here it was all over in a flash. Two days.”
It’s still called miraculous that the entire population of two-hundred and ninety-seven people survived. The heavy rain from the hurricane was expected to bring flooding so people were prepared, and many had already left ahead of it. The realization that no one would be able to go home again was a shock no one could have expected. The insurance debacles, the lawsuits, and the story of Henry Clovis, the last resident who had to be forcibly removed from the attic of his home, have all been written about. Now, two years later, Ellenton is about to experience a new economic boom. It’s going to be opened to tourists to join Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Alta Mira as a site for disaster tourism, famous as The Underwater Town.
“Most parts of it you could walk across without the water getting any higher than waist deep on you,” she goes on. “People who try to sneak in with scuba gear don’t realize how shallow most of it is. We even had one guy try to get in overnight with a mini-sub he brought in from a catalog. The only place it would be deep enough for that is over on the far side, just over where the train tracks used to be. Where the sinkhole formed, and where they’re still diving.”
“Do you still dive?”
She nods. “It’s mostly for the scientists now, but there’s still some cleanup that needs to be done.”
“How did you get started doing it?”
“I volunteered and, well, I was just perfect for the job. I was a certified scuba diver and had experience cave diving. That was the main thing they were looking for. This was all so unprecedented they wanted experienced people who knew how to handle themselves underwater. The big priority was cleanup. I monitored the crews that placed the gasoline hoses, getting as much of that as possible out of the two gas stations. And at the same time we had crews bringing up bags and bags of oil cans, antifreeze, wiper fluid. We didn’t even bother with all the car parts and machinery. Who knows what’s still leaching into the water around there? We keep testing it, but I’m still not sure they should let the tourists in yet.”
“The gas stations must have been the worst.”
Katherine laughs. “Oh, you’d think that, but the worst was the sewer system. We were kind of lucky it’s mostly septic tanks around here, but we still had to find a place to put all of it once we’d drained them, and figure out some way to process it.”
We continue walking around the water’s edge. Wind chimes ring from the partially submerged porch of a house. The house and the streets that disappear right into the water, the asphalt and concrete that’s cracked and buckled and covered with tresses of algae where the water touches it, are reminders that this isn’t just any lake.
We come to a cluster of houses above the lake, all single story buildings. Completely dry they’re all a uniform dull brown from the ground to about six feet up. They mark the last homes touched by the flood before the water peaked and began to recede.
“I’d love to live in one of these houses,” Katherine says, smiling. Then her smile disappears. As though on cue a breeze comes across the lake blowing duckweed onto part of a sidewalk. “I know what it must have been like.”
I ask her what she means. She tells me she grew up in La Pierre, Indiana. A vague memory comes to mind, but Katherine fills in the details. She was a teenager when a series of tornadoes devastated the town, destroying more than half the houses. As she describes it I remember hearing about the tragedy of La Pierre, the people displaced.
Katherine crouches next to the water.
I wait a few minutes, afraid of being indelicate, and focus my attention on a great blue heron striding through the water past a fire hydrant. Then I ask how a girl from Indiana became a scuba diver. She brightens up again and smiles at me.
“We lived just a couple of hours from Chicago. My parents would take me to Lake Michigan in the summer, to a sandy beach there. That’s where I learned to swim.” She chuckles. “It was freezing and full of slick rocks. I loved it.” The wind lifts her curly black hair as she stands up. “The first time I saw Lake Michigan was at night. I was four. My dad drove me up to the beach when he got home from work. He promised he would take me to the beach that day, and then he had to work. He picked me up out of bed and drove me there as soon as he got home. And that was it.”
“You decided to become a diver.”
“I know, right? It was all that darkness. I said, does it ever end? And Dad laughed and said there was a whole other country out there. Well, I thought he meant a whole other country under the water, and I wanted to see it.”
I start to say now she has a chance but stop. I think about how my parents would take me to a hotel in Florida every summer. One night when I was four the adults were sitting on one side of the pool and I was on the other. I had a little toy dolphin I was playing with on the steps. I dropped it. It sank to the bottom. I put my head under to go after it, and the only thing I remember after that was being wrapped in a fluffy towel, placed on a deck chair, and listening to the waves in the dark.
“You swim, don’t you?” Katherine asks me abruptly.
“Yes.” I’ve taken a few lessons in preparation for this, but only for insurance purposes. “Are you afraid I might fall out of one of the boats?”
She laughs huskily. “Well, you’re here as the first tourist. You do want the whole tourist experience, don’t you?”
“You’re going to let people swim in this?”
Katherine laughs again. “How long can you hold your breath?”
It’s really the nearby town of Jettersburg that’s benefited most from the drowning of Ellenton, thanks first to the influx of government inspectors and now in preparation for the tourists. I stand on the walkway outside my hotel room looking down at the strip of fast food places and beyond them the condos that have sprouted. Katherine’s is one of them, but I can’t tell which. In my room when I turn out the light I imagine I can see Ellenton in the dark. When I look into the mirror over the vanity at the back of the room I’m facing due east, in that direction. Light spills around the curtains, and I imagine Ellenton as it was before the flood, even before the decline. At night it must have been an active lace, lights shining in restaurants and houses, brighter than the stars now reflected in the dark water.
Katherine and I meet the next morning in a local coffee shop. Before she arrives I chat with Angela Lawson, former Ellenton businesswoman, now barista. She had just opened her own coffee shop in Ellenton in hopes of bringing something new to the local economy. It did a steady business for a year. Then the flood came. She seems happy about the turn of events. “It’s a mixed blessing, y’know? God closed a door and opened a window. We lost a lot, but it’s brought us something different.” She tangled with her insurance company for a year before finally reaching a settlement she calls “enough”. She’s now part owner of the Jettersburg Café, and is excited about what’s now Lake Ellenton being opened up to tourists. Our conversation takes place in snippets then is finally cut off entirely by the morning rush. She’s overwhelmed by customers, most of whom, I’ll later learn, are Ellenton residents who’ve found new lives here. Her story is common: her loss was also her gain.
Katherine arrives with the morning rush. I buy her a chai tea and we set off for the water. On the way I apply sunscreen thickly.
Today she directs me to a small fishing boat, a two-seater equipped with oars and lifejackets. I quickly snap mine on.
“These are what we’ll use for small tours,” she tells me as she pushes off with her oar. As we glide out I can see the cracked sidewalk, thinly coated with algae, just a few feet below us. She lowers the outboard motor and it begins chugging away. “These and canoes. We might even get some small sailboats, but the wind gets tricky around the buildings. Tomorrow we’ll go to the new dock and take the big boat out on our special trip.”
“What’s our special trip?”
She smiles slyly and doesn’t answer.
I’ve been to flooded areas before but never anything quite like this. Once where I live there was a flood that filled a parking lot. People paddled across in canoes and on inflatable rafts. Here it’s different. The sun is out, there are birds singing. In the distance I can hear construction. The finishing touches are being put on the new visitor’s center. We pass by the library. The carved bird’s head I saw yesterday turns out to belong to a gryphon. As we slip by a frog jumps from its back.
Part of a cornice falls off a red brick building and splashes into the water. “Will tourists be allowed to go everywhere?”
“The higher-ups are still working that out. Some places are just too dangerous.” We turn down what used to be a street. This could be a modern Venice, with mid-century architecture instead of Roman. A movie theater takes the place of a palace. Katherine will be a new world gondolier. “How brave are you feeling?”
I look back. The only equipment in the boat is a compass, bug spray, and a cooler of water. Nothing for diving.
“You’re not suggesting we go for a swim, are you?”
Katherine is smiling. “Not today.”
She steers the boat through more streets. In some places second story windows and the tops of porches are at eye level. A heron eyes us warily from a partly submerged mailbox. Katherine turns the chugging outboard motor toward a tall, flat building. “Arthur Fentress High School” is etched in stone over the double doors propped wide. She shuts off the motor, having expertly pointed the prow toward the entrance. She taps the gunwale behind me.
“Grab an oar. We’re going in.”
The front lobby of the school is eerily dark, a smooth walled cave. Shattered trophy cases stand on either side. A twinkle of brass winks at us here and there as we move in. Past the cases the hallway widens. A fair amount of light comes in through open classroom doors. Some windows are boarded. I hear the echoes of water dropping. Something splashes as we paddle along.
“Stop.” Katherine’s voice bounces eerily. I reach out and touch a clammy door frame. Inside the classroom I can see a blackboard and tracings of algebraic formulae.
“I’m not sure if we can do this, but I’m going to try and take us down to the gym.” At her direction I turn the prow of the boat to the right and we start to move down another hallway passing through shadow and light. I look ahead. There are places where the water is so still it could merely be exceptionally low ceilings.
“Do you ever put on boots and walk around through here?” The water over most of Lake Ellenton is no more than four feet deep and I want to be reassured that, if necessary, we could wade, rather than swim, out of here.
“No. The water here is just too contaminated. That’s why we’ll never let anyone come inside any building. We’re putting up screens over the door soon. We’ll let them boat around here, but you and I may be the last people to see this place.”
We duck as we pass into the gym. From the windows just below the ceiling light streams in. Reflected off the water it casts weird patterns on the lines of stacked bleachers against the walls. I reach up and touch the hanging threads of a basketball goal.
“There’s a basement right under this. We’re lucky the floor hasn’t collapsed.”
We paddle to the far end of the gym where thin sheets of water slip back and forth over a stage.
“What happens if the basement collapses while we’re in here?”
“We’ll probably be sucked down in it and be trapped if we’re not badly hurt or don’t drown. You know they were planning to turn this into a K through twelve school? There just weren’t that many kids left in the area.”
I’m supposed to be following Katherine’s lead, but I subtly try and turn us back to the door.
The sunlight is harsh but welcome as I slather on fresh sunscreen. Katherine pulls the outboard motor cord three times then revs the engine, sending us shooting down the street. Our wake goes up on either side as I look quickly at ranch style houses. A place called Angie’s This’s&That’s goes by, and we pass a two story plantation house with a blue roof. Ivy curls up over its balcony. The windows and door are boarded. It looks as though it must have been abandoned before the flood. We then turn left into an area sparse with dying trees. Katherine circles around a shagbark hickory still pushing out broad green leaves then cuts the motor. We bump up against a stump. Magenta buds from a redbud tree mingle with duckweed and water hyacinths. Katherine ties the boat to the tree. She opens the cooler and hands me a sandwich and a bottle of water. I consult the town map. This is, or was, Weldon Park. I look to where the trees come to the edge of the water. This could be a lake, any lake. Ripples appear in the water. Fish are feeding.
“Lovely spot,” I say.
“It’s my favorite. I found it when I was doing scout work for the cleanup crews. It was so peaceful. I love this place, you know? I want to live here forever.”
“Is it because it reminds you of La Pierre?”
“No!” Katherine laughs. “It’s just the opposite. I left La Pierre because nothing was ever going to change there. Here, this, all this, is so new, it’s so different, and there’s something different to do every day. There’s always a new challenge, you know? And that’s what it’s all about. Challenge yourself every day.”
Back in my hotel room my swim trunks are spread out on the bed. I hold the mask and snorkel. Of course I know how to swim or I wouldn’t have come here. And besides this isn’t supposed to be about me, about what happened when I was four, Mr. Hart, the friend of my parents holding me in that fluffy towel and say, “It’s okay, I gotcha” and my parents telling me I nearly drowned, and then listening to the waves crash and everything around the pool suffused with aqua light. I think it was because of that that my parents made sure I got swim lessons when I was ten, and I learned the strokes even if I never really did like it. Nothing, though, has prepared me for this. Katherine assures me the water in the sinkhole is as pure as it gets, that it’s pushing up and outward so anything toxic is kept at bay. It’s still nature at its most raw, not a pool where the only thing I’d be likely to encounter would be other swimmers.
The dock extends almost to the edge of the sinkhole. I stand at the end and look into the abyss. The water is clear, but the hole is wide and deep, and there’s nothing but blackness at its heart. Does the abyss look back into me?
I jump as someone pushes me from behind then grabs my arm. I turn around. It’s a dirty blonde guy with a scraggly beard. I can see myself reflected in his sunglasses.
“I’m Andy.” He puts out a hand and gives it a hard shake. “I know Katherine’s going down today, and I guess you’re just snorkeling.”
“I’m not scuba certified.”
“Cool. I can’t dive anymore either. Emphysema.” He pulls out a cigarette and lights it just as Katherine walks up.
“Put it out, Andy.” He pulls the cigarette out of his mouth. She grabs his arm. “Not in the water.” He licks his fingers and pinches out the cigarette then sticks it behind his ear before walking away from us. Katherine looks over at me.
“A challenge every day, you know? Some days my challenge is not drowning him.”
We’re joined by others. Katherine gives out instructions while Andy brings up equipment and drops it sulkily. I half listen to introductions, noticing she’s the only woman in the group.
“All right,” Katherine says. “Let’s dive!”
The others jump in. Katherine turns to me. “Ready?”
“A challenge every day,” I say, hoping I sound brave.
The cold water is a shock. Bubbles rise all around me. Liquid static is all I see for a few moments. I surface pumping the water with my fins and blow water out of my snorkel. Katherine comes up next to me and takes out her mouthpiece.
“You all right?”
I slip the snorkel back into my mouth and give her a thumbs up. I put my legs together and let my body sink. Ellenton under water is very different. The water is clear, but I can’t see the houses, only shadows. I turn downward into the sinkhole itself, feel the water bubbling up. My fins propel me downward. Cracks and sharp edges become clear. Bubbles rise around me as the other divers circle below, and I move to join them.