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Summit Café Motel

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Mile 392. The turquoise paint of the Summit Café Motel stood out among the weeds and gravel south of the highway. In the tinted yellow of my sunglasses lenses it was blue like the sky. I pulled off the road and walked towards the motel. The wall advertised Archie’s Towing available 24 hours daily. The windows that weren’t broken reflected the trees behind me.

Postcard: The Summit Motel and Cafe, c. 1963

The building was clearly abandoned, but it wasn’t derelict like other run-down gas stations and motels that I’d seen along the highway. I wondered how long it had really been since the owner had locked its doors for the last time, since the windows had been shattered instead. A season? Three?

You could still see what it once was. Abandoned buildings so often get destroyed—furniture strewn about, graffiti and trash littering the walls and floor—they get turned from a relic of the past into the ruins of the present. At the Summit Café, you could still feel the days gone by. The front panelling was undamaged. The kitchen appliances were still plugged in. The mirror in the central bathroom was intact. It leaned towards the light like a bartender looking for a good story. “Lost?”

Behind the motel was what I assumed to be the living quarters of the owners. Papers were littered all over the floor. Someone had painted a gold peace sign above a tattered couch. It was eerie. I’m not ashamed to admit that the pitch-black hallway lined with concrete walls scared me so much I didn’t explore it all the way.

The sun shone unabashedly outside. The wind raced past the broken eaves, through the unused satellite dish. Fireweed grew against the chipped-paint wall. The children’s swingset rocked softly.

If I had wanted to, I could have imagined ghosts.

I guess my purpose of sharing this is to say that one thing I’ve learned crossing the country is that there’s no place you can visit by highway that isn’t touched by a human story. The roads of Newfoundland can show you fishermen fighting the ice flows. The canola of Saskatchewan is held by a farmer’s soil-covered hands. Alberta’s pumpjacks sway with the livelihoods of their mechanics.

It seems easy to look at the Summit Café’s collection of buildings and see nothing but buildings. But between the broken glass and peeling ceilings were dreams and hard work, perhaps generations of ownership. The doors of the motel had heard the footsteps of countless travellers.

I don’t think I’ll ever know the story of the Summit Café. But in some places, the stories aren’t ghosts. In some places, you don’t have to imagine. All you have to do is listen.

Jonathon is a semi-professional adventurer with roots in education and activism.

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