Fresh Snow Prints: Cathay, North Dakota

Erik Jonasson II | THE SPECTRUM
Cathay, North Dakota once had a population of 250, but now lays mostly abandoned.

A green F-150 pickup truck rode up to City Hall after I had appeared, making the rocks under the snow make the unmistakable crunch sound of a rural road. Assuming my presence had attracted this city dweller’s attention, I waited outside for them to approach me.

Perhaps they were going to tell me to move along, that there wasn’t anything there for me. Maybe they were going to tell me off, some scumbag who wanted to look at the poor remains of someone else’s life. How dare I? Maybe it was inappropriate for me to be here.

Off in the distance, I hear a dog bark, and I hear the dweller say the only thing I would hear this camo wearing, curly short haired women say, “Oh, shut up Hunter.”

Cathay, North Dakota, located roughly 50 miles outside of Jamestown, is home to a lot of things, abandoned cars, wind-swept homes and a dog named Hunter apparently. It isn’t home to a lot of people though.

Cathay according to the 2010 census had 43 people residing within its 0.18 square miles. I would estimate that that number is much smaller, perhaps a couple handfuls now almost a decade removed.

As we move on from Hunter’s barks, we walk down the plowed roads. The roads, plowed for the few who still call Cathay home, offered no resistance to my car’s presence and I can report that Cathay is a very pedestrian friendly town. Walking down the town we pass Cathay City Park, where we can only assume play has not happened for a while.

The town had a bunch of “Slow Children at Play” signs, which seemed almost like an insult to a town whose school lies rundown and closed.

Erik Jonasson II | THE SPECTRUM
The doors to one of the abandoned churches; through the windows, remnants remain.

As we rounded the next block after passing a group of abandoned homes, we see our first church. It is assumed that this church has seen its last service. The inside had been left to rot as the past’s trash lain inside to collect age. A percolator, a large number of discarded boxes filled with books, old clothing, blankets and church books laid forgotten.

This house of God was no longer open. After going to church we went along looking for anything else we could find. Cathay once was the home to over 250 people, a pretty large amount considering the city’s size.

This amount warranted a post office, a city hall, two churches, a school and, of course, a gun club.

Walking in the back corner of the town we happened upon a home, which seemed to have been vacant for a while. I wanted to see if I could see inside; perhaps there was something important left behind whenever this family had picked everything valuable up and moved out.

I lifted my boot over the snow bank and made fresh snow prints in the ankle-deep snow perhaps for the entirety of this winter. As I approached, my heart dropped.

Fur. I saw fur. The gray fur made my stomach jump as I was anticipating perhaps Hunter’s friend having walked off to die on this porch in front of me.

Erik Jonasson II | THE SPECTRUM
A furry Cathay resident left behind.

As I stepped closer, I made a discovery that seemed to make me happier: it was instead a giant, furry child’s toy. Disturbing, creepy perhaps, but not as sad as a recently dead animal having walked away to die alone. Looking inside, it seemed this house hadn’t been a home to anyone for a while. Perhaps, its only furry resident was on its porch laying ignored.

We walked toward the school next, having visited, what I am for sure, was an old alum’s home. The school is perhaps the most impressive abandoned structure in the town. A small school by modern standards, but still a large structure to see completely abandoned.

This split-level school lies undisturbed, with only animal tracks near it. Making our fresh footprints, we traveled up to the front door. Peering inside, it was obvious that this school was not serving any kids now or anytime recently.

We walked around the perimeter and looked inside at what was left behind. Tables, a bunch of insulation hanging off the ceiling making large stalactite structures. Bottles, can openers, abandoned and discarded mechanical equipment that seemed to have aided a boiler of the heating system at some point in time, now laid collecting rust.

Amazed at every chance I had to look inside at what was now nothing more than a brick structure with only aging memories inside, we made our way to the gym connected to the school. No windows offered any glimpses inside, besides one small window on a door.

Erik Jonasson II | THE SPECTRUM
Cathay’s old public school now sits abandoned.

Looking at the gym it was obvious what type of state this school was in, run down. A lone basketball lies next to the hoop; I am sure it hadn’t seen a decent shot attempt in years.

Part of the roof lies on the ground and snow blew inside like a snow globe. The only light other than the roof’s absence came from the windowed hallway across the way. All of this laid, locked and forgotten.

That is the story for most of the town of Cathay. Locked off from modern life and forgotten. Although, I can report I had full service there, which struck me as odd and convenient.

After visiting the second church, it was starting to get dark outside and it seemed like we had worn out our welcome. As we had traveled amongst the forgotten, it became apparent that those who chose to live in Cathay still had pride. All the roads were plowed. Everything locked up and no vandals appeared to have descended on the town.

We left Cathay behind, as did most of her inhabitants. I have never seen anything quite like Cathay. The silence mixed with the sound of the wind off the prairie made for a suspenseful feeling. It felt as though we could touch the history of Cathay clearly now. Soon though, that possibility may end, with weathering and the last of her inhabitants leaving, it is a wonder what will happen to little old Cathay, North Dakota besides the obvious, fading into obscurity.

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