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Rural ghost towns: choice for urbanites in search of meaning

Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina principle states that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. When on the road in search of stories and adventure in a broader sense, we’ve both consciously sought and randomly stumbled upon ghost towns in Europe and North America. And, like Tolstoy’s principle, we’ve realized that all inhabited villages are alike, but each ghost town is particular in its own way.

Abandoned towns don’t belong to the world of relics and vestiges we perceive and study as “ruins.” Ghost towns are recent remnants of activity and sometimes prosperity in a past further enough in time to not bother anyone but close enough to reference events and memories of those who left or their descendants.

Sometimes, abandoned towns on both sides of the Atlantic had invisible communicating vessels, and entire hamlets across Europe emptied as their inhabitants left for the Americas or nearby industrial areas. But the boomtowns of the “frontiers” of the past became ghost towns in return, leaving in their remnants the traces of those who still carried memories from the previously depleted populations of the Old Country.

Seen as the prelude to World War II, the Spanish Civil War confronted different sorts of gregarious totalitarianism with a weak but legitimate liberal democracy that lost popular support when detractors learned to highlight its dysfunctionality. In some of the battlegrounds, like the mountains of the Aragon Front near Catalonia, already depopulated hamlets were abandoned after a bloody conflict that tested modern photo reporting and the solidarity volunteering of the International Brigades.

The promise of intentional “ecoaldeas”

Tens of such hamlets scattered along the Pyrenees and mountain slopes of the Ebro valley had lost their population due to the conflict, others because their last inhabitants moved to cities. But in 2011, on our return from some friends’ wedding in France, we set to visit two of such villages that had been repopulated by intentional communities. Both towns had remained abandoned for decades, and nobody had claimed any property rights over them or the surrounding fields reclaimed by the forest, becoming public land, yet this fact didn’t deter a group of self-perceived pioneers from settling in and restoring some of the abandoned structures.

In northern Navarre, not far from the centenarian forests along the Irati River, described by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, Lakabe, an abandoned Basque-style hamlet has been transformed into an “ecoaldea.” It all restarted in the early ’80s when the village had been noticed by people living nearby.

Lakabe’s new inhabitants were all urbanites with little to no knowledge of country life, a real handicap in the pre-Internet era, many years before of the arrival of affordable and powerful enough solar panels. No one expected them to stick to their utopian idea, but they managed to rebuild the homes and gardens despite the lack of a road up to the town, so they carried by horse the construction materials they could not find on site, relying on candles and oil lamps until they were able to set up their fist off-grid system.

Soon, paths and gardens shaped the links between the common lodge and kitchen and several houses, stables, and a windmill erected by hand. They learned to live with little money, managing to earn some income working odd jobs in the area and selling organic sourdough bread from their bakery. Decades after their regeneration, Lakabe is a self-reliant society that learned to function with little money capable of generating their own food and energy thanks to the windmill, solar arrays, and a water turbine.

Abandoned villages and ski resorts

Days after our visit to Lakabe, we had an appointment with Ricardo, a resident of another medieval ghost town in the mountains Less than one hour away from Lakabe, though this time deep in Huesca province, in the Aragonese Pyrenees. After being abandoned due to the ferocious combats in the area during the Spanish Civil War, the picturesque hamlet of Ibort, a cluster of stone houses around a little church overseeing an evergreen meadow, was noticed in the ’80s. In 1986, a group of friends, all urban inhabitants, decided to begin a slower life in the country.

“When they came here, it was to try to return to a type of life closer to nature, closer to certain values that were disappearing from this urban world,” Ricardo explained to us. To Ricardo, rebuilding the little town was a long-term project; like the intentional village’s other inhabitants, he learned masonry and gardening by necessity and soon realized how difficult it is to restore an old house.

Now the abandoned church has become a meeting place for Ibort’s inhabitants, and Ibort has set the goal to follow its initial repopulation purpose of relearning the cycles of nature, building the home one wants to live in or growing most of the food consumed all year round.

Lakabe and Ibort seemed to have eluded their previous destiny of erasure from living memory, yet their inhabitants explained the concern of being also “discovered” by weekend visitors and passers-by, whose intentions of spending a weekend or a few days of authenticity risked opening the door of the dynamics between urban centers and picturesque rural areas close enough to locate a weekend home for urbanites. Such had been the destiny, they explained, of mountain valleys with the blessing—and the curse—of becoming ski resort locations, like the nearby valley of Aran.

Can the rural be revolutionary?

In an interview conceded in Spain, Portuguese writer José Luis Peixoto stated that “now, the rural is the revolutionary.” Peixoto was referring to the irreplaceable link between the narrative of progress and cities as drivers of change and modernity, from the golden eras of Athens, Rome, or Renaissance city-states to the periurban world we inhabit today.

In contrast, rurality transitioned from being considered the breadbasket and spiritual backbone of orderly societies to a stronghold of the negligible remnants of Ancien Regime decadentism —among them the secular, uneven feudal relations of power between land owners and peasants and the hardly utilitarian lifestyles of the countryside, where ignorance and poverty prevented people from reaching their full potential. Hence nostalgia for tradition has been instrumentalized by reactionary ideologies since the first uprisings against machines in early nineteenth century Britain.

But to people like Peixoto, rurality also shows more possibilities of personal emancipation and intellectual nurturing than bland versions of urban or suburban life. As factory jobs flew overseas and salaries stopped keeping up with salaries and housing prices, those interested in starting over again in rural settings that have been depopulated since the industrial era’s golden years have it easier than before with teleworking thanks to ubiquitous Internet, affordable machines and tools, and growing demand for high-quality experiences and small-batch, healthy products.

The self-reliant ecoaldeas across Spain such as Lakabe and Ibort have their counterparts in other places. The mountains of central Portugal have experienced virulent fires in the last decades after the expansion in the area of the highly combustible eucalyptus monocrop. The area has been losing population for decades, and some inhabited hamlets such as a cluster schist villages (Aldeias do Xisto), now attract urbanites willing to change buzzing Lisbon for a slower life in dilapidated stone hamlets.

Local materials, appropriate technology

Pedro and Sofia Pedrosa left the city over a decade ago for Ferraria de São João, a schist village that had seen the transformation of the surrounding nature as the eucalyptus became the main cultivation in the area, so Pedro Pedrosa set to begin a life project aligned with the restoration of the rural ecosystem at Ferraria de São João. After restoring several stone outbuildings that would become their home, the Pedrosas transformed three stone storage sheds into modern homes built with local materials: cork, pine, lime, and slate.

To keep future fires away from the village, Pedrosa and other residents planted local cork oaks (more resistant to fire) around the population’s perimeter. But there’s still so much to do: Pedro and Sofia walked us around town, pointing at tens of derelict little stone houses, barns, and sheds. Those who travel to the area and show interest in buying property, Pedro explained, soon learn how difficult it is to locate the owners, whose families left a long time ago for places such as Brazil and other former Portuguese colonies, as well as the rest of Latin America, North America and other places in Europe.

The diaspora in rural Central Portugal has its counterparts in other areas. In the Alpine area of Piedmont bordering the lake Maggiore, Maurizio Cesprini and Paola Gardin created a laboratory of rural regeneration around the hamlet of Ghesio (Ghesc). The village cannot be accessed by car, but this fact didn’t prevent them from restoring one of the hamlet’s houses, as well as creating The Village Laboratory, a series of workshops for students worldwide to come and experience stone construction techniques. Despite having just three permanent inhabitants, the couple and their son Emil, other houses are being rebuilt, pioneering a movement that aims at blending remote work with hyperlocality.

Some believe that the combinatory effects of the transformation of work, a pandemic, or the disruption of global supply chains are the perfect storm for the conception of a new type of ruralism, often led by urbanites and professionals who don’t settle for a cookie-cutter conventional second residence anymore, especially in an era when essential goods, food, and energy, experience price spikes or even temporary shortages due to the vulnerability of supply chains to disasters and geopolitics.

Society models then and now

Before the acceleration of modernity that led to the current interconnectedness, Thomas Jefferson’s had the idea of building a country of wealthy, suburban farmers with a house on a self-reliant, thriving lot. This social contract based on property ownership could expand from ocean to ocean and relied on an idea of rural prosperity that seemed compatible with the very foundation of progress. But a more centralized, technocratic and urban society relying on the economies of scale of the industrial revolution, as Hamilton proposed, soon changed cities in Europe and North America.

Soon, injustice would not be counted on how much land wealthy owners were amassing, as British economist David Ricardo would theorize, but how much value industrialists would get from workers as surplus value, which became the new equivalent of Ricardo’s land concentration and rent. Jefferson’s idea of a society of wealthy and educated semi-rural citizens, some of whom would remain local farmers, did not materialize but in scattered experiments across intentional communities in the US and beyond.

As modern society’s relationship with farming and food sources became more detached, rural populations adapted to the new situation without losing the character defining them; in a world marked by automatized production and global commodities, some found ways to restore farm to market local circuits with uneven success. Recent phenomena such as the customs mismatch due to Brexit, the pandemic shortages, global trade temporary dysfunction, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, highlight the importance of local food production and a diversified productive economy capable of surviving supply shortages and reviving abandoned villages is now not only viable but appealing to disappointed professionals and urbanites.

This trend is not new. To wealthy Roman patricians, the country house was the epitome of meaningful, active leisure, to be done “with dignity:” otium cum dignitate. Otium diverged from negotium in the city, the rat race of the time. But rural leisure among the wealthy, replicated by the Victorian society, diverged from the secular, miserable peasantry epitomized by servant laborers who would become migrants to the city or the Americas.

Remote desert outposts

Inspired by Internet resources and helped remote work, DIY enthusiasts have turned to rural, often picturesque areas that suffered depopulation and dereliction to bring old barn houses and hamlets back to life, using a tight budget and learning by doing.

A case in point in West Texas is Terlingua, a dusty ghost town near the border with Mexico and the Big Bend National Park, a display of desert wildlife that brings the visitor back to cinema classics directed by John Ford and starred by John Wayne, as well as the cross-border migrant drama around the limestone cliffs of the Santa Elena Canyon, carved by the Rio Grande.

Terlingua was once a mining boomtown, supplying the US with 40% of its quicksilver needs for gunpowder in 1922. When the mine closed in the 1940s, the mismatch of semi-temporary wooden houses and saloons, as well as dry stone constructions, emptied out and soon faced dereliction. A few people bothered to visit the town’s desolate graveyard, which seemed out of the movie set of a spaghetti western when we visited, only we weren’t in Cinecittà studios or the Almeria desert in Spain, but in the most remote and sparsely populated area of Texas.

But the town had its second opportunity as well when in the ‘1980s, somebody purchased the land where it sits. Now the town blends experimental construction that seems to belong to the Burning Man venue (neither traditional nor futuristic, just in another dimension), as well as a few RVs and modular structures, with more permanent stone homes such as Mimi Webb Miller’s, who greeted Kirsten when we walked around town in a scorching hot day. Miller knew the buyer, who told her she could pick a ruin to rebuild: “There was just one room. It wasn’t even a room; it was a doorway and a box sitting on some rocks. So the rocks were left, and the adobe was all gone. So I started building in ’96 and very quickly had a home.”

Sometime after our interview, we found out the young American girl in love with Pablo Acosta from the Guadalajara drug cartel, as shown in the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico, was our Terlingua interviewee. An article about her read: “Mimi Webb Miller dated Pablo Acosta, member of the Guadalajara cartel, in the ’80s. Today, she owns a hotel in a Texas ghost town.”

A defense tower south of Sparta

The American West keeps attracting outcasts, solitary characters, and those in want of a restart in life. We didn’t leave the area before visiting an enthusiast in appropriate technology (small scale, affordable, energy-conscious tools, and appliances) who had flown Gotham for more desertic pastures. Over a decade ago, John Wells sold his home in upstate New York and bought 40 acres in West Texas for $8,000. Wells settled a few miles from Terlingua because the area is so isolated there are no codes or zoning restrictions, which allowed Wells to build an experimental farmstead in the desert, the Field Lab, exploring off-grid solutions and low budget, desert-punk buildings.

In areas relying on tradition, such as the Cantabrian mountains in Northern Spain, picturesque towns in rural France and Italy, or the ruin-rich and partially undiscovered Mani, the middle peninsula near Sparta, south of the Peloponnese Region, derelict farmsteads and country houses can be legally rebuilt as long as the old building remainings have a cadastral record. Almost four decades ago, when vacationing in remote and desolate Mani, Kostas Zouvelos and Kassiani Theodorakakou stumbled upon a derelict 19th-century fortified tower. It was for sale and very affordable, so he bought it before deciding what would come from it.

They spent eight years converting their collapsing tower into a very particular three room guest house, whose 25 square meters per floor required imagination, so the couple installed a kitchen and lobby on one floor and three bedrooms on the remaining stages, connected via a trap door as some sort of ancient vertical shotgun design.

Our travels visiting revived ghost towns and abandoned houses made us wonder what makes a good shelter and which lifestyles new tools such as off-grid setups and ubiquitous Internet connection allow at a fraction of the price of more conventional dwellings in hypercompetitive suburban and urban housing markets. This story of potential regeneration—or integration of the “rural remote” in our cultural and physical proximity—has just begun.