In May, I documented a visit to an abandoned motel in the small community of Still River on Highway 69 about three hours north of Toronto. I returned there earlier this month and the improbable happened. The owners caught me trespassing. To be honest, I don’t think I’d earn the right to call myself a photographer if things like this didn’t happen now and again.
We’d pulled onto the broad stretch of asphalt in front of the motel, weeds sprouting through the cracks. Tamiko was tired and stayed in the car to snooze. As I pulled my gear from the back seat, I heard car tires crunching behind me. I didn’t pay any attention. Cars pull in and out of these places all the time as people stop for a stretch or to run around back for bladder relief. The driver rolled down her window and asked what I was doing. I’m always puzzled by that question. There I stand with a tripod, a big camera bag, and a DSLR slung around my neck, yet people invariably ask what I’m doing. The woman who spoke was older, maybe retirement age, and a man sat beside her in the passenger seat. The man got out of the car and let a big dog out of the back.
In a brilliant flash of deductive reasoning, it occurred to me that the woman must be the owner of the establishment, so I asked and she nodded: she was indeed the owner of the Long Branch Hotel. The man grinned and asked if I’d be interested in buying. Or maybe I know somebody. In another brilliant flash, it occurred to me that all she really wanted was some assurance that I wasn’t about to smash windows and spraypaint the walls. I surmised (correctly) that if I chatted her up I’d be fine. Pretty soon, I had the story of the Long Branch Hotel.
At one point, it had been a going concern. You can still see the faded letters of the sign: “Truckers welcome” with the image of a cowboy in chaps. There was the motel, a place for truckers to park their rigs, and a restaurant, one of the few places to eat on the stretch of highway between Parry Sound and Sudbury. But then all the big chains set up in Parry Sound. Nowadays, it’s not good enough to have a room and a bite to eat. People want hot tubs and gyms, too. Their modest roadside motel couldn’t compete with the big chains so they gave up the business.
Until a year ago, they lived nearby, but then they moved to Elliot Lake. In fact, they were just driving down from Elliot Lake when they noticed us pulling in. Since they moved away, people had been sneaking onto the property and vandalizing it, though they’ve never been able to catch anyone in the act, notwithstanding the OPP station immediately to the south. I assured the woman that I wasn’t about to damage her property and politely asked if it was okay to photograph it. She asked what I meant to do with the photos. I told her and she said: feel free.
She and her husband watched me for a bit as I fiddled with my tripod, fiddled with my lenses, fiddled with my filters, fiddled with my settings. Fiddle fiddle fiddle. Watching a photographer capture an image is bloody boring. I guess they got bored of watching me and drove away. I’m just glad Tamiko didn’t drive away, too. It’s a long walk from Still River to anywhere else.