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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Hospital 04, June 2011


Equipped with my red-lensed Maglite and wearing a brand new ninja hood (sometimes called a “woolen ski mask”), we left the hotel at 4:30AM and headed for the site. Our driver slowed the car slightly as we passed a break in the fence, and two of us tumbled out onto the gravel (directly across the street from the Sheriff’s office, I noticed later). As our driver pulled away, we leaped like caffeinated rabbits through the fence and into the wetlands surrounding the hospital. With the limited visibility, lack of anything that could reasonably be called a “trail,” swampy muck that threatened to pull off our shoes, and dense patches of clingy thorn bushes, making it from the road to the hospital campus was the first challenge of the day. When we got our bearings (thank you, Google Maps) and began hacking a path in the right direction, we soon found ourselves at the edge of a deep ravine, with no clear way across. Determined not to let the landscape foil our plans, we found the least-suicidal slope and jumped/ran down to the bottom, thorns tearing at our arms and face. That was probably where I lost my ninja mask. After the ravine was the treeline, less undergrowth, and easier going. Later, I wiped a spot of what looked like dirt from my shoulder, and just about fainted when I realized it was a tick.

After crossing a stream and navigating around some rusting barbed wire, we crouched in silence for several minutes at the edge of the parking lot. No security cars were visible, and we couldn’t hear any approaching, so we dashed across the road and up the hill to the southernmost wing of the imposing building. We had hoped to find a broken window or unlocked door in a little courtyard, screened off behind a row of trees, but we found nothing and had no choice but to make our way around to the back of the building, where foliage was sparse. Every floor-level door seemed to be locked; every window boarded up. Several minutes had passed, and we knew that it couldn’t be much longer before a security guard or police officer appeared, and we would have to explain why we were skulking around at dawn with backpacks full of camera equipment. We knelt behind a small bush and assessed the situation from a distance. Do you think we could climb up that tree and jump across to the third-floor window? we asked each other. Isn’t there supposed to be a caved-in roof over the machine shop somewhere over to our left?

And then we saw it: A door with its window knocked out. From our vantage point, it was difficult to tell if the glass was completely removed, or even if the hole was big enough to accommodate my man-size hip bones. More distressingly, the door opened onto a staff parking area with no coverage at all, and that parking area faced the access road. We would be clearly visible as we ran across the parking lot and as we awkwardly clambered through the small window (carrying backpacks, natch).

Our pre-dawn advantage was speedily dissipating, so we went for it, startling a sleepy deer in the process. My companion passed his bag to me as we ran. He vaulted through the window head-first, scraping his belly and his knees across the bottom of the window frame. I passed his bag through to him, followed by my bag, then climbed up on a nearby railing, grasped the top of the door frame, and swung myself through the window. During the run across the parking lot, I had envisioned this parkour-esque move with great clarity and increasing confidence, but my execution was much less graceful than I had imagined, and I found myself tumbling ass-over-teakettle into the building, landing in a heap at the feet of my friend. We put on our backpacks, poked our heads above the windowsill, then ducked back down as a black-and-white police cruiser slowly passed by on the access road. It was 5:15AM.

After parking the car at the hotel and pedaling back to the location on a disposable mountain bike, our driver friend eventually returned, after which he regaled us with tales of a “much easier path” through the woods. “Didn’t you guys know about the walking trail?” he asked. Grrr. In any case, we were inside, and spent the next 12 hours exploring the hospital while security vans lazily circled the building like basking sharks.

Highlights included: A central building with the lights still on, a maze of cavernous and bible-black sub-basements, a beautiful and relatively intact chapel, and a weirdly undulating brick-lined tunnel that led away from the hospital to (we assumed) an outlying building located somewhere in the woods. We followed it, crouching, for what seemed like a quarter of a mile before being stopped by a recently-constructed cinderblock wall.

I have removed the photos that would have clearly identified the hospital, but there is at least one clue to be found, if you know your folk music.

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  1. What amazing images! I’m struck by how beautiful the place must have been – or at least certain rooms. It’s haunting. And creepy. Next time you should film your explorations. I’d love to go with you on a narrated tour.

  2. That A/V room was filled with heaps of 16mm films, filmstrips (with accompanying soundtracks on LP or cassette), and VHS tapes. The training films were labeled with titles like “Bowel and Bladder Training,” “Urinary Care” and “This is Diabetes!”

  3. Stunning photos. The chapel is beautiful and I’m dying to know what was on those 16mm films. I assume “instructional” films. Great urban exploration, Jason.

  4. Love the “basking sharks” imagery. I don’t want to do it but I am glad you do so I can “experience” it without the ticks, mildew, and asbestos. Definitely seems like an East Coast thing (abandoned and rotting mental hospitals – can’t quite see it in California…), and adds to the charm of our new environs.

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