I shouldn’t write about this while I’m still here. It’s creepy enough in these hallways at night, but right now the sun is still up and I can pretend I won’t be a nervous nellie after dark.
We’ve driven out to the Hot Lake Hotel in La Grande, Oregon, former resort and when that didn’t pan out, sanitorium. Now former sanitorium, as that didn’t last, either. Three hundred plus windows in a blocky brick frame, at one point all blown out, the wind and rain assaulting the structure for decades, folks round these parts had given up on the building as part of a bygone era when the train stopped here and let off hundreds of passengers. La Grande, like Walla Walla, was a destination in the pioneering West, until the population centers crystallized along the coast and sucked the life out these inland cities. Portland and Seattle became economic black holes for the likes of places at the edge of smaller mountain ranges, and to this day, there is much grumbling about people here getting the short end of the stick.
Right about the time one of the resort-turned-medical center buildings fell down from disrepair, a couple–he from Walla Walla and she from Colorado–bought the property and began renovating it. The community congealed for the effort and now there is a functioning hotel once again, its history front and center in every inch of the building. Our suite proudly shows the brick and mortar behind the plaster wall; ceilings have been raised and the lifeblood of plumbing pipes is exposed, as if we’ll be more settled to know where the hot water that fuels the radiators is streaming, exactly.
For Hot Lake Hotel’s appeal, other than its mysterious and colorful past, is the sulfur lake at the front entrance. Wafts of pungent steam rise endlessly into the sky, creating a spooky aura around the property, as if it needed anything to add to its entertaining creepiness. For some time much of the hot spring has been funneled into soaking pools where guests can lounge for an hour at a time. I sat in an overgrown yurt last night, wondering if customers in years past tried to fend off tuberculosis in these waters. And when that failed to serve as a cure for what ailed them, they could head to the third floor surgery room, complete with viewing gallery. As it happens, this was the site of the first hospital in Oregon. A few rooms away from the operating theater, which is the first surgical room I’ve ever seen with wraparound views of mountains, is one of the first X-ray machines ever used. What was cutting edge medicine is now an artifact of horror, or at least film noir.
To enter the lobby means walking past a flock or two of peacocks and hens who appropriately enough, squawk like the muffled cries of babies, so much so that my partner kept waking up at night sure that the baby was not smothering himself to death in his portable crib. So much for the wisdom of buying a yard sale bassinet. A skittish cat roams the hallways, mewing for attention but staying well out of petting distance, so my overactive imagination conjectures that she’s some spirit embodied in a new form–maybe the ghost of the gardener who committed suicide, or a former sanitorium patient who can’t move on to the hereafter properly. Cargo trains rumble by on the tracks once built to bring patrons to this site, a low rumbling noise accompanies each of them that cuts through the shrill wind trapped between the hotel and the bluff behind it.
Laura Gibson, a wonderful indie singer and songwriter, featured the hotel in her latest album, which the folks at NPR just loved. My brother-in-law was on the set of the music video shoot, contributing a lot of the footage to the final cut of the video. And that’s how we find ourselves here on a mini-holiday. A creepy, fascinating holiday. Maybe I’m just unsettled by 1912-era fixtures and furniture, as if this structure too could sink to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, even given its landlockedness and lack of proximity to the East Coast. I’ve been in lots of older buildings that have watched their peak usage pass them by.
But it never gets any more comforting to inhabit them in their afterlife.