Magic City Streets | Birmingham, AL

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In Birmingham, the streets behave surprisingly, burrowing underground and then emerging again, or temporarily splitting around grassy medians. In places, they widen and empty out into a landscape that’s industrial and simultaneously feral. Sometimes a gate closes and a long, long freight train ambles by.

I stop beside a wide green strip, Railroad Park, a central gathering place that feels like it’s perched at the city’s edge. A grassy expanse climbs a hill past gardens and running trails, ending at a view of train tracks and viaducts below and gleaming skyscrapers beyond.

Not far from the park, I find the Sloss Furnaces, where iron was blasted into being from the 1880s to the 1970s. It has been preserved as a National Historic Landmark, free and open to anyone who happens to wander in. I am slightly amazed that visitors are allowed to stroll through this hazardous landscape unaccompanied. People (me, a few other wanderers, and a crew setting up for a photo shoot) are dwarfed by massive rusty blast stoves and boilers and staircases to nowhere, squat brick buildings with horror movie corridors, and oversized tools and equipment that look like they’ve been abandoned by giants.

Birmingham was not created for the hip urban park and the Neoclassical office towers beyond it. It was made for those endless freight trains, and for this vast, decrepit playground. Founded after the Civil War, a Reconstruction-era amalgamation of existing towns, Birmingham was named for the English manufacturing center and planned as an industrial powerhouse. Its fortunes lay beneath the southern part of the city, where modern Birmingham begins to blend into its suburbs and a massive statue of Vulcan rises startlingly above the road from a sandstone base atop a red mountain. From here, limestone, coal, and iron ore were extracted from the earth by miners -segregated above-ground but (mostly) thrown together in their dangerous work below – and hauled by train to the Sloss Furnaces. There, these materials were transformed into pig iron by men who toiled in a hot and noisy racial hierarchy: black laborers at the bottom, paid the least; skilled workers of different races in the middle, paid according to their color; and white managers at the top. (At the very top was Colonel James Withers Sloss; in a photograph on the Sloss Furnaces website, he looks like what would happen if your least intelligent high school bully somehow went back in time and grew up to be a Confederate officer turned railroad boss turned iron magnate.) In this maze of massive pipes and gears, the past hangs untouched in the air.

Two miles away, in downtown Birmingham, it seeps from the ground up through the concrete. Along the numbered streets and avenues, plaques, statues, words etched into stone, and printed paragraphs on sidewalk markers make every block a reminder. To walk here is to relearn the details of the slow-motion battle for equality, the struggle that moves forward then backward then heartbreakingly backward again. The story has its heroes elevated on plinths, from defiant children behind bars to Martin Luther King, Jr. (My mind catches up, in the way that one’s mind does when one travels without preparation to a place that deserves it, and I recall that yes, that Birmingham Jail was in this Birmingham.) But it also has its villains, and none of the words etched into stone attempt to gloss over their evil.

On a path called the Freedom Walk in Kelly Ingram Park, I slip between two dark slabs, from which snarling metal police dogs lunge inward.

Just off the path is a small, dainty tree, dedicated – says the plaque at its base – “to victims of intolerance and discrimination.” There is also a quote from Anne Frank: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Near the sidewalk, cast in steel and bronze, are those four little girls whose faces I have seen so many times but whose names I have to look up: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. They are posed beneath a flight of doves. You can look past the girls, beyond the birds’ silver wings, and see the brick Byzantine edifice of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where they were murdered by the Klan in September of 1963.

It was not very long ago; it was not long ago at all. I know this history in the hazy but internal way I remember old family stories I’ve heard a hundred times, the details lost but the essence injected in my bloodstream. Still, it is surreal to mentally overlay the stories I’ve read and the black and white photographs I’ve seen with this quiet square of park, this grid of streets and avenues, these storefronts with signage from a bolder and more stylish age, these delicately imposing architectural details on buildings that stretch towards the sky.

Alabama is (of course) a Republican state, the state that spawned Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. Its flag is pure white, with a red cross like a Do Not Enter warning. But in 2016, the county Birmingham is in stood out on the map as a blue island in a bloody ocean, isolated above the blue strip of the Black Belt that stretches from Georgia to Mississippi. Here, though I feel out of place as I always do in the South, I don’t feel conspicuous, or threatened. On the sidewalks, office workers wearing cardigans walk unperturbed through the humidity, Europeans wearing cowboy boots and fancy cameras ogle the landmarks of American tragedies, and I am invisible, not a productive member of air-conditioned society yet not quite a tourist. I walk unobserved through a streetscape where everything feels iconic, from the “It’s Nice to Have You” mural to the shimmering goddess on the top of the Alabama Power Building to the sign in front of the 1920s Alabama Theater to the smokestacks in the skyline. In a way, everything here looks familiar, yet this city is unlike any other city I’ve seen.  

Two days after I leave Alabama, white supremacists gather in Virginia, killing, injuring, and attempting to intimidate Americans who recoil at their hatred. In the days after that, the monster who is still, impossibly, running our country – the toxin I still can’t entirely believe managed to ooze through the checks of democracy and ascend to the presidency – repeatedly confirms that he is one of them. There is something new in this, a vulgar new way for old fears to come to life and old black and white photos to turn to color. But in a year of shock on top of horror, there is nothing surprising – except the power of a first visit to a new city, and the way its streets tell you stories you weren’t expecting to hear.

Kentucky Fail | Bardstown, KY

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I make a plan for Kentucky, a plan that feels exciting and slightly scary, if only to me. (I am afraid of everything.) The plan involves an activity I’ve never done in a corner of the state I’ve never seen. But late the night before, when I reevaluate timing and (lack of) money and the distances involved – Kentucky takes something like six hours to cross from west to east – my plan evaporates. So early in the morning, I fall back into familiar patterns, and return almost instinctually to a town I visited in 2010. At the time, I was doing research for a potential writing project, following a story that never went anywhere about a man who traveled everywhere, as fast as he could, but in the end got nowhere at all.

There are more highways than I remember on the way to Bardstown, with heavier traffic merging across more lanes onto longer bridges. But just as I start to worry that my GPS has led me astray, it directs me onto a local road through a green landscape that is soon replaced by neatly arranged small-town streets lined with orderly houses and straight sidewalks, and the approach to this pretty and melancholy place comes back to me.

Here’s what I wrote about Bardstown almost exactly seven years ago:

I was driving on a Kentucky road when a voice on the radio informed me that I was really in a place called Kentuckiana. Just when you think you have life figured out, when you know where you’re going and what you are going to find there, something comes along and throws it all, once again, into confusion. Somebody goes and invents a new state. Now, walking through a quiet residential neighborhood on a late August afternoon, I feel out of place and uncertain. The trees seem to dislike me. Their low-hanging branches swoop towards my head, as if they are trying to shoo me away. It occurs to me that I am trespassing on someone’s lawn. Perhaps I should be concerned that they might shoot me, but I’m not. I am only afraid that they will come out and politely inquire what I’m doing here.

The guy at the front desk of my hotel asked me that. He glanced at his computer screen and said, confused, “You’re from…Connect-i-cut?” He pronounced the “c” in the middle. “Connecticut,” I corrected, uselessly. He looked at me, eyelids lowered over wary eyes. “What brings you to this place?” he asked, like a suspicious immigration official in an unstable country. I suppose I don’t look like I’ve come for the My Old Kentucky Dinner Train. “Just passing through,” I said. It wasn’t a lie. Nor was it entirely true.

It’s not that I don’t know why I’m here, walking along West John Fitch Avenue. I am not completely aimless. I’m looking for a graveyard, where the man who gave his name to the street is not buried. I came to Bardstown, KY (population around 11,000, self-proclaimed Bourbon Capital of the World, and enthusiastic booster of all things Stephen Foster) because John Fitch died here in 1798, and I am slightly obsessed with John Fitch. He is one of those historical figures you come across by chance, probably in a footnote, while reading about someone else. If my history teachers had been aware of his existence, which I doubt they were, I could see why they never mentioned him. The moral of his life story is essentially that sometimes hard work gets you nowhere, and that if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps enough times, your bootstraps eventually rot through and disintegrate in your hands.

The short version goes something like this: John Fitch was born in Windsor, CT in 1743. Despite a life of almost continual misfortune, he managed to become, among other things, a self-taught geographer, watchmaker, silversmith, surveyor, and peripatetic jack-of-all-trades. Somewhere between serving in and selling beer to the Revolutionary army, getting captured by Indians, speculating in frontier real estate, and fleeing a domestic soap opera, he managed to invent and build America’s first steamboat. It attracted the attention of delegates to the Constitutional Convention as it ferried passengers up and down the Delaware at an astonishing seven (or possibly eight or even ten!) miles per hour. But ultimately, it brought Fitch no closer to the recognition and success he unceasingly toiled for. He vacillated repeatedly from failure to acclaim before finally descending into poverty and obscurity and depression. He eventually killed himself with a surfeit of whiskey and opium.

The long version is unbelievable.

What struck me most, when I first encountered this story (aside from the fact that the inventor of the steamboat was not Robert Fulton) is the surprising amount of physical ground Fitch covered in his lifetime. Sometimes he set out purposely, or defiantly; sometimes he wandered haphazardly, hardly knowing where or if he would stop. His Connecticut childhood and his Kentucky demise are short, sedentary brackets around a life of constant rambling. Where he is still remembered, on far-flung plaques and street names or lists of early American notables, it is as an inventor. But in my mind, he is primarily a traveler.

To history though, when it bothers to remember him, his only accomplishment of consequence was the steamboat. Once he conceived of the notion he could not let it go, though he seems to have almost wished he’d never thought of it in the first place. He wrote, “I was so unfortunate in the month of April, 1785, as to have an idea…” I don’t fully understand steamboats, their cylinders and boilers and pumps. But I understand the propelling force of an idea, as well as its potential for destruction. “I have pursued the Idea to this day, with unremitting assiduity, yet do frankly confess that it has been the most imprudent scheme that ever I engaged in,” Fitch wrote. “I am apt to charge myself with being deranged at the time of my engaging in it.” As I walk beneath the ornery Kentuckiana trees, on a self-funded research trip for a story I may never get to write, I understand what he meant.

The morning I left Connecticut, the air was blowing in cool off the water. The seagulls wailed as if they were telling each other that fall was coming, and all too soon winter would be here. In Bardstown, however, it is relentlessly summer still, the kind of Southern summer that is uncomfortable yet strangely redemptive, as if you are working even when you are standing still. I walk two blocks and my makeup begins to liquefy on my face. I walk two more and the bottoms of my feet are burning with each step as if my rubber flip-flops might melt into black bubbling pools on the sidewalk. I plod laboriously through the humidity, moving so slowly that I have time to respond when passing strangers say hello.

Searching for the graveyard, I pass a perfect house, where a group of people are gathered on the front porch. I can tell from their buoyant laughter, wafting above the heaviness of the air, that they are rich and happy and probably drinking mint juleps. They are ideally situated to watch me as I plod by, incongruously clad in a black skirt and tank top. In the North, everyone impatiently abandoned their summer clothes weeks ago, as if they could force a change in the weather by sheer determination and inappropriate footwear. But here in Bardstown the dress code is aggressively pastel, broken only by the occasional bright red t-shirt and jeans.

The cemetery, which I am expecting to be grand and gloomy, is neither. It is tiny, just a yard without a house, covering one square block and enclosed by a wooden fence. There are a few sarcophagi, randomly spaced out, but the majority of the graves have little tilting headstones. These congregate in groups, leaving large empty patches of seemingly undisturbed grass. There’s a historical marker planted in the lawn outside the fence, with text on both sides briefly summarizing Fitch’s life. Even here, the competition is inescapable: Robert Fulton developed his boat, the CLERMONT, In 1807. See Over. Fitch was buried here until 1927, when the U.S. Government decided he deserved a more distinguished resting place, and moved him downtown.

Downtown Bardstown is painfully adorable. Law offices and financial services buildings look like museums, and historic markers are everywhere; you can literally trip over history, all of which seems to have happened in the middle of the sidewalk. If you prefer to view the sites in a less rambling manner than I, you can take a ride around town on a horse-drawn carriage. They pick up passengers at a bench with a little shelter, a sort of faux 18th century bus stop. This kind of twee detail pops up wherever I turn; every shutter is painted in just the right unexpected color and every flower in every half-hidden back garden has just bloomed. There are countless towns like this in America, preserved at the height of their sweetness and lovingly polished ever since. But the discovery that Bardstown is one of these places surprises me. Perhaps it’s because before I came here, my image of the town came only from the story of Fitch in his boarding house, fighting over frontier land claims, saving up opium pills, waiting to die.

Modern Bardstown is almost breathtakingly pretty, and not really all that modern. Only the sight of a UPS drop box, or the sound of hip-hop playing through the open windows of a passing car, remind me what century it is. Fitch had a habit of unwittingly associating himself with places that became towns like this. Even the site where he was captured by Indians is now Marietta, Ohio, which looks as if it was designed for the purpose of one day being named Most Picturesque Small Town by some travel magazine. Perhaps, instead of speculating in land, John Fitch should have speculated in cute.

I find Fitch’s grave on Court Square, named for the old courthouse, now the Welcome Center, which looks like an elaborate gingerbread palace in the middle of a roundabout. A simple yet dignified monument stands atop stone steps. Fitch is depicted in bronze on its front. Next to it is a weathered wooden replica of his first steamboat, 1/25th of the original size, its primitive paddles hanging by its sides like oars. While looking at it, I notice a sign advertising an apartment available in a building across the street. That’s how easy it would be: rent a room in Kentucky, spend your days tinkering with a small model steamboat on a nearby stream, fade away.

I head back to my hotel room, avoiding the lobby in case my interrogation is not over. I don’t know why I’m reluctant to say what brings me here. I could just say I’m writing about John Fitch. But then I might have to explain about travel and restlessness and obsession, about ideas so strong they might as well be powered by vaporized water and a paddle wheel, and following them wherever they lead, even if they lead to failure.

In August 2017, Bardstown seems a little less special, a little less sweet. It still has the same historic buildings, and the same central roundabout anchoring the square. But this time I notice the town’s worn edges, and the ugly cars in front of the 18th century facades and postcard-worthy storefronts. I don’t know it it’s because I’ve seen more of America since then, or because the nation itself has shifted, become coarser and less trusting, turned itself into the unstable country I’d imagined in that hotel lobby years ago. Now, mundane modern life seems to have fully infiltrated the place that struck me back then as a memory of the past suspended in a bubble. No one is gathered on a porch, no one says hello on the sidewalk, and the languid tree branches seem to have been cut back.

But there are still white fences and Kentucky bourbon, and there is still plenty of Stephen Foster, but the song that becomes lodged in my head isn’t one of his: instead, I walk around town with the Squirrel Nut Zippers “Ghost of Stephen Foster” bouncing inside my brain: Camptown ladies never sang all the doo dah day no no no.

The downtown commercial buildings are adorned with tiny plaques, commemorating the businesses that have occupied them over the years. Most of the little shops have bright ribbon-festooned flags that say OPEN beside their doors. But other signs compete for attention and overpower them. Lawn signs, like those used for political campaigns, offer prayers and support for an area family that suffered double tragedies last year. But I have to look this up to understand it; something about the design and phrasing of the signs seems almost confrontational, more aggressive than usual for such expressions of love, so I assume at first that the people of Bardstown are taking a side in some local dispute. One otherwise adorable storefront is dominated by a sign that reads: Police Lives Matter. And then everything seems vaguely threatening, like the innocuous ‘80s country lyrics that blare from a restaurant patio: They call us country bumpkins for sticking to our roots. I walk past before Barbara Mandrell sings the next line: I’m just glad we’re in a country where we’re all free to choose.

On John Fitch Avenue, the perfect houses don’t seem all that impressive anymore. Nearby, Fitch’s monument and the steamboat replica still stand. I take a few pictures of the wooden boat and read the short biography under Fitch’s bronze image. It ends with, “He reaped neither profit nor glory from his inventions, which contributed toward the revolution of navigation.”

As Fitch tells it, his idea began not with a boat, but with a sort of car. “…I walked to meeting on foot,” he writes in his autobiography, “but on my return found it to seize me pretty severely in one of my knees. And in the Street Road a Gentleman passed me in a Chair with a Noble Horse. A thought struck me that it would be a noble thing if I could have a carriage without the expense of keeping a hors.” I have abandoned some of the dreams I had the last time I walked through the streets of Bardstown, and some of the optimism. But I am still naively driven by the power of ideas and the impulse to keep moving. I have learned over the years what Fitch knew: that it’s hard – nearly impossible – to succeed in America without good looks, connections, and money. But I do have a car, so at least I can drive out of Kentucky.

On the country roads leading out of Bardstown, I can drive away from my failed travel plan and from all the failures cluttering my mind, past and present, personal and national. On the highways, no matter how congested or crumbling, America is still what they promised us it would be, a place where despite knowing better I can agree with the sentence John Fitch wrote just after the one about the carriage without the horse: “A query then rose immediately in my mind Thus viz what cannot you do if you will get yourself about it.”

 

 

A City Or a Dream | Cincinnati, OH

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I came across a quote the other day, from author Lafcadio Hearn, who wrote of New Orleans in the 1870s, “Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under a lava flood of taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become only a study for archaeologists. Its condition is so bad that when I write about it, as I intend to do soon, nobody will believe I am telling the truth. But it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.” Well, I have been to New Orleans. And I would rather live in Cincinnati.

I remember vividly the first time I saw this city, daintily balanced on hilltops and divided into seemingly endless neighborhoods that felt like tiny self-contained municipalities. It wasn’t the first time I was struck with the realization that America is full of wonders unimagined by those who never leave its largest metropolises. But it was one of the most enjoyable. I walked along the riverfront, downtown office buildings gleaming to one side, Kentucky lazing on the other. I drove past downtown’s desolate sparse edges, and further into the city’s patchwork quilt of communities. It was hard to believe they were all Cincinnati, as were the vast green parks that I feared I’d get lost in, and the wide avenues that turned at steep angles and led to warrens of cozy streets lined with houses, no two the same.

I write as if I remember all of this clearly, but my strongest memory is of a place I’m not sure was real. I can conjure up the image: a short section of a street visible from a high ridge, tightly packed with little storefronts and apartment doors, small-scale and fanciful as an ancient European village. Part of me wants to track that street down, but another part doesn’t. What if it wasn’t all that magical after all, and what if I waste a day without finding it, and what if it never really existed the way I recall it? I don’t know if I am thinking of a city or a dream.

But I go back to Cincinnati, not sure what I’ll do or see or look for, but sure I’ll find something, because of all the places I am drawn to in Ohio, Cincinnati’s pull is strongest.

As I navigate a knot of highway suspended above the central business district, I make a snap decision to skip downtown this time. Instead, I follow twists and hairpin turns to Mount Adams, sedate and hilly, an enclave where a stone tower might come into view at any turn and a visitor feels like a trespasser in a perfectly manicured private estate.

Overlooking it all is Eden Park, where I wander beside a glassy manmade lake as the Star-Spangled Banner, played on some sort of invisible chimes, drifts past me in the air. It feels like part protest, part nostalgia: this was our nation; this could be our nation still. A dizzy bumblebee flies straight into my head, making a soft little “bonk” noise inside my skull.

I set out on a similarly patternless route, trying to take in as many other parts of the city as I can fit into the time I have here. I record them in notes that lose their order, memories that blend into a collage of shaded sidewalks, lush public spaces, tempting shops, and window boxes overflowing with flowers.

In Mount Lookout, around an old-fashioned oblong of a town square, winding roads climb towards pastel houses with Victorian details that look a touch too clean to be as old as their style suggests. Whether they are a reminder of history or an homage to it, I don’t know, but they are some kind of local icons; I later spot them painted into a mural on a nearby wall. On one such residential road, three small girls staff a lemonade stand. They spill into the street happily, seemingly unafraid of strangers, speeding cars, or anything else.

I find another of the city’s exquisite outdoor playgrounds, Alms Park, where Mount Lookout blends into Columbia-Tusculum. (Many of Cincinnati’s neighborhoods have similarly intriguing names: California, Carthage, Paddock Hills, English Woods.) In the park, I stop to sit by a pergola and look out over the muddy Ohio River. As I do whenever I encounter it, I think about how underappreciated it is. The Missouri and the Mississippi get the glory, but there are just as many stories of traveling across America lurking under the languid waters of the Ohio. A tiny lizard, delicate enough to be displayed in a gilded cage, flits across the stone floor and disappears, free.

In Over-the-Rhine, inhabited and named by mid-19th century German immigrants, Cincinnati explodes into color, and everything is bright: art is everywhere, walls are painted in improbable hues that end up working perfectly, and eye-catching little signs hang outside boutiques. It’s part shabby and part hipster-minimal, part sweetly old-fashioned and part modern city, full of potential and problems. I have walked too much already, but I want to walk every block of this visually overwhelming area, which is sometimes described as the largest urban historic district in America. I want to take pictures of all of it, from the pink pig sculptures in front of a matching pink façade, to the bold Cincinnati Reds mural covering the side of a restaurant.

In Hyde Park, crowds flock to a farmers’ market that blocks off the streets around the elongated central green. Everything looks just so, and all the people look thoroughly content to live here, like they’d never leave, perhaps not even for another perfect Cincinnati neighborhood just down the road.

In O’Bryonville, a sturdy and settled-looking little place, I think: this would count as a city in New England, or a complete small town in the more spread out reaches of the Midwest. And then I look it up and realize it’s not even a full neighborhood but a business district of another neighborhood, called Evanston.

In Clifton, the buildings are lower, less grand, and old gaslights punctuate the sidewalks. They are almost invisible in the colorful jumble of ethnic restaurants, small shops, and people. The people are mostly young, and the main road through the area has the familiar and slightly unsettling pace of college towns everywhere: slow and relaxed on the surface, with a buzzing undercurrent.

In East Walnut Hills, the main street curves invitingly away from the busy road I am driving on and then unfolds into a tiny grid of streets lined with old brick buildings, each with its own individual flair: a turret, a graceful cornice, a bay window.

There are more places, but I stop scribbling notes at one point. It feels absurd to try to take in and comprehend it all, to do in one short visit what a lifetime of urban exploration couldn’t accomplish.

Out beyond the Ohio, on the other side of Cincinnati’s hills, the whole nation seems to be crumbling into ashes, devolving into a hellscape no one can quite believe, as in Hearn’s lament for his beloved New Orleans. But you’d hardly know it here; I only remember we are living in a waking nightmare when I periodically stop to glance at my phone.

That’s not to say I ever find the quasi-mythical Cincinnati from my first visit, the one I might have dreamed. This time, I find a realer side to what is, after all, a real city. I see the listless teenagers, homeless or high, slumped on sidewalks and benches. I notice the grim blocks behind the vibrant ones, and recognize the heavy concrete footprints of the highway ramps that split this city, like so many others, into awkward disjointed sections.

But I also spot sets of narrow stone steps, leading into leafy parkland, beckoning walkers up and down the hills. I feel the energy of the summer sun beating down on brick walled neighborhoods and sprawling expanses of green space. I sense the shadows of the time when Cincinnati was one of America’s largest and most spectacular cities, and they are not sad ghostly shadows, but dappled light, showing how a place can fade, but stay remarkable, remaining a gift for anyone who feels the pull of an underrated city on an underrated river and stops to look.

Country Road | US 50, West Virginia

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Route 50 begins in West Sacramento, CA, and extends over 3,000 miles to Ocean City, MD, tracing a jagged line across the continent. I plan to follow it east across West Virginia, from Parkersburg to the Virginia line. I have done this drive before, but I don’t remember much of it, except for its hills and curves. Maybe I was less observant back then, or maybe it was just that in the past I didn’t feel the need to scan every bit of America as if my eyes were cameras, knowing that I might never see it again.

In Parkersburg, where sprawling Victorian houses coexist with densely packed office blocks, Route 50 crosses the Ohio River on an unpromising bridge above Blennerhassett Island. It was on this emerald serpent of land that Aaron Burr met with co-conspirators at Harman Blennerhassett’s opulent mansion to plot his treason, the details of which are still as murky as the opaque blue-brown water of the Ohio.

I start the day in a 24-hour Walmart Supercenter. The store contains a Subway and a hair salon. Customers are few at this early hour, but workers in blue polo shirts are numerous; Walmart appears to employ everyone in town who’s not laboring to extract some precious resource from the ground. A big sign outside the hotel I stay in south of Parkersburg reads “Oil and gas workers welcome.” As in every down-market West Virginia hotel I have ever stayed at, all the other guests in the breakfast room, the lobby, and, presumably, the bar – though I don’t stop in to check – are male.

I set out after sunrise but the sun is still suspended in an eerie mist. Here, in the western part of the state, Route 50 is a highway, with lush green hills on either side. Road aside, this seems a place not meant for humans – except, perhaps, the occasional nomad or traveler passing through the haze – and certainly not for Walmart Supercenters. As I drive, awake enough to concentrate on the road but little else, I drowsily wonder whether it is always where the earth is at its most stunning that we ravage it for what’s hidden underneath. The towns and streets on the exit signs, with names like Burning Springs and Mine Road, exist only because of these hidden riches, and it suddenly seems strange to me that we insist on holding on to what we’ve built above the ground long after they are gone. Here, though, the earth seems to be still giving.

Forty-five minutes further east, the mist has not lifted; it has thickened into a spooky grey fog that clings to the treetops and hovers above the road. The sun, shining but obscured, looks like a pale moon.

I take the exit for downtown Clarksburg, and the ramp deposits me in a small city that feels like it’s balancing on a teeter-totter between the nostalgia of lost beauty and the grind of survival. There are parking meters here, and a striking art deco courthouse surrounded by earlier buildings, all impressively detailed, all of which deserve to belong to a place people outside of the immediate region have heard of. It’s a sweetly old-fashioned little city; if it were magically picked up and dropped in another region, it would probably be gentrified instantly, with a few shabbier blocks preserved for their vintage charm.

I keep driving through Bridgeport, where a McDonald’s with a double drive-thru huddles with other fast food places, big box stores, and chain hotels, offering travelers a last look at the most anodyne expressions of American civilization before they venture into the land of unfamiliar brand names and open space. After that, green hills spread out on either side of the road as far as I can see. Houses, and named places – like Pruntytown and Belgium – come less and less frequently until I reach Grafton.

By now the mist has lifted and the day is becoming hot and muggy. Grafton is all steps and inclines, trains and train whistles. I park near the disused B&O Railroad Depot and Willard Hotel, the emptiness of which only reinforces how grand they must have been when they opened in 1912. An old woman sweeps the sidewalk in front of a shop; as I walk around her, trying not to disrupt her sweeping, she says “Sorry Ma’am.” A shirtless teenage boy mills around beside a truck. A man with a scraggly white beard and a hat passes on the sidewalk and doesn’t return my nod. A woman who I guess to be in her late 20s to early 40s walks parallel to me, on the opposite sidewalk. She is wearing a striped dress and wedge heels, with her hair twisted up, and carrying a large tote bag. There is something comfortingly current about her, some sense of belonging to the present day, that no one else here has. I watch her until our paths diverge, then I turn back. I pass a vacant storefront that’s decorated with little American flags. It looks like the quiet end of the world, when we finally forget entirely what the flag was supposed to stand for, and all that’s left are bits of colored cloth clinging to the window of an empty room.

East of Grafton, the towns are fewer and the speed limit seems to change arbitrarily. Sometimes on a fairly tame stretch, it will drop to 15; other times, on some whirl of a road that feels like a self-guided amusement park ride, it will rise to 45, like a dare.

As I always do on long drives, I note the mundane objects out my window. Hay bales in fields, a horse outside a barn, old cars and more old cars and more old cars, parked in rows. Bored-looking cows, confederate flags, houses, trailers, trucks. More Confederate flags. More cows, glossy ones, two of which quite literally gambol through a field, though they look far too large and blocky for this little dance. I cross into Maryland for a moment, then back into West Virginia. It’s a reminder of how odd this state is, historically and physically, a preposterously-shaped blotch made up of pieces of elsewhere that feels like a disorienting cross between the northeast, the south, and something older than both. I cross rivers – the Cacapon, the Cheat – on pretty little bridges.

The road winds, climbs and falls, loops and circles its way through the mountains. I pass towns not quite big enough to justify being called towns, and an occasional antique store or church. I stop to take a photo in front of an apparently shuttered business with a sign over the door, the words crammed together as if to make several meat products into a single, regional foodstuff: CountryHamBaconSausage. I pass several bare-bones Dollar General stores that make this morning’s Walmart look like a luxury department store. Dollar Generals are everywhere, but they look notably, depressingly predatory here. Old Crow Medicine Show shuffles onto my iPhone:

When a man has got the blues and feels discouraged
And has nothing else but trouble all his life
But he’s just an honest man like any other
Living in a world that’s tearing at his mind
If he’s sick and tired of life and takes to drinking
Do not pass him by don’t greet him with a frown
Do not fail to lend your hand and try to help him
Always lift him up and never knock him down

Cell service comes and goes, and when I turn on the radio the stations fade in and out, overlapping. Something twangy and bluegrass-adjacent duels with the Grateful Dead:

I see you’ve got your fists out, say your piece and get out
Guess I get the gist of it but it’s alright
Sorry that you feel that way
The only thing there is to say
Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey
I will get by, I will get by, I will get by, I will survive

Many hours later, the foggy morning long left behind, I reach the state line. Though I’m expecting the landscape to change, having been here before, it’s nevertheless a little disconcerting to drive into the afternoon bustle of Winchester, Virginia. It’s not just that I’m in another state, or that I feel like I’ve suddenly lurched ahead in time, back into the now. It’s also that I’m already sensing West Virginia slipping from my mind, and fearing I’ll remember it all wrong. I have notes, and photos, and I was paying closer attention than the last time I drove this road. Still, there’s something impenetrable about the place I’ve just left, and I wonder whether no outsider will ever get it exactly right, and what I might have missed behind that strange grey fog.

Golf Cart Utopia | New Harmony, IN

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When you start in the east and drive west, Indiana is where lyrics from musicals begin to spontaneously bubble up in your brain. Most of them are set west of here, in Kansas or Iowa or Oklahoma, but it is in Indiana that you first find yourself driving through a field, gleaming cylindrical silos with pointed Tin Man hats in the distance, thinking to yourself, “Why, the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye!”

You also find yourself thinking about how a place like this, with its pin-straight roads that intersect at neat angles in towns with names like Correct, could produce a smiling dull-eyed automaton like Mike Pence. (He would probably fare badly as a character in a musical; the town’s children would defy his rulings and sneak out at night to dance.) But I try not to think about him too much as I zip through Indiana and a newly gifted hour of Central Time. I’m driving towards the home of a different type of zealot, the type who would envision and force into being a tiny Midwestern utopia with a name so saccharine you probably wouldn’t even write it into a musical: New Harmony.

Once, many years ago, I tried to drive the Ohio River Scenic Byway from eastern Ohio to the southern tip of Illinois. I misjudged the time it would take me to do this, and gave up somewhere south of Indianapolis. But New Harmony is the one destination from that abandoned itinerary that has lingered in my mind ever since. This tiny town on the Wabash River (current population: around 800) was the home of not one but two failed attempts at communal living. Zoom in, it seemed to whisper, then zoom in some more: even the smallest of specks on the map might prove there are infinite other ways to live.

The first group were German Lutheran Separatists called the Harmonists or Harmony Society, led by Johann Georg Rapp. In 1814 they bought 7,000 acres of Indiana Territory and journeyed west to the nascent town they called Harmony, after the place they’d just left, Harmony, PA. They were pietists, and Millenialists, but mostly they were laborers; as the settlement expanded in population and acreage, its men, women, and children manufactured a cornucopia of goods that read like the directory of a department store: cotton, flannel, wool, yarn, rope, flour, beef, pork, butter, beer, peach brandy, whiskey, wine, tin ware, wagons, carts, plows, leather goods – to name only some. When they moved away in 1824, to another new town in Pennsylvania which they called Economy, they put Harmony, IN up for sale.

The buyer was a Welsh immigrant named Robert Owen, who had gotten rich running cotton mills in Scotland. Owen intended to transform the tidy little town into an experiment in social reform, an enlightened center of academic and moral excellence where every aspect of life would be governed by an elaborate set of rules. He tacked a “New” on the front of Harmony and promptly left to recruit members and raise funds, leaving his 22-year-old son to manage the hundreds of idealists and “crackpots” who showed up. It didn’t work; it turns out most people didn’t want to live in a closely regimented Socialist commune any more than they’d wanted to live in a celibate Esoteric Christian one.

When you start to read about New Harmony, you quickly end up sandwiched between two perspectives, not entirely in conflict but with decidedly different spins. In one, two groups of unprepared ideologues ran into unforeseen difficulties and quickly abandoned their plans. In the other, two beautiful and improbable little communities flourished briefly beside the Wabash, leaving permanent contributions to American society as well as a peaceful sanctuary that still retains some glimmer of those early promises of renewal.

In a physical sense, at least, this last part is true. When I reach New Harmony on a still, hot afternoon, it’s as if I have passed through a gauzy curtain into a self-contained and perhaps illusory village: part River City, part Brigadoon, a hidden zone within the midday glow of Central Time.

Near the edge of this bubble is the Harmonist Labyrinth, a circular hedgerow maze surrounding a round stone hut. This is a copy of an earlier labyrinth, created by the Harmonists to symbolize “the difficulties of attaining true harmony and the choices one faces in life trying to reach that goal.” You can get to the little fairytale structure without winding through the greenery, by way of a series of low gates, but I forget which gate I have opened and nearly get lost anyway.

Thankfully, no one is around to see me extricate myself from the shrubbery and find my way to the center of New Harmony. Here I find a delightfully silly confection of a downtown, with storefronts that could have been made of fondant, molded into fanciful shapes, and dipped in pastel-colored sugar. These are surrounded by much simpler 19th century homes, reminiscent of early New England in their childlike austerity, and other buildings that seem to come from another time and place entirely, like the brick and stone Rapp-Owen Granary, bulky yet surprisingly graceful, now a popular wedding venue.

These days, New Harmony is one of those modern absurdities known as a golf cart community, which only adds to its unreal atmosphere. As I explore the silent streets, there is little motion, not even a breeze. There is only the occasional sprinkler, automatically ensuring the perfection of a garden, and the occasional retired lady motoring by at 10 mph in her pastel cart. Sometimes I see a small group of tourists, trudging on foot through the heat. They pause in front of historic sites like the stately brick Community House #2, where single adults lived during the Harmonist years, and the Romanesque Workingmen’s Institute, a library dedicated to “dissemination of useful knowledge to those who work with their hands” that was established by Robert Owen’s partner in experimental town-building, William Maclure.

There are other, newer architectural additions, like Philip Johnson’s oddly-named Roofless Church (which has a roof, a drapey sort of permanent netting with a skylight at the top, but no real walls, and no seating or anything else you’d expect from a church) and the Athenaeum, a sweeping deconstructed white rectangle designed by Richard Meier that serves as a visitor center. I stay in a sprawling hotel that feels like a cross between a Christian summer camp, a slick conference center, and a minimalist meditation retreat. On my wall is a framed document about the life of the room’s namesake. I take a photograph of a paragraph that reads: “An accidental soldier, my father’s best war stories were told without words. He never grew nostalgic for war or heroes, whispered one night in his Republican suburb while the nuclear clock ticked down that someday the people of the world would have to take to the streets to tell their governments, ‘We will not live in your terror anymore.’”

All of these elements should feel like an odd hodge-podge, as if someone had tilted Indiana to the side and all its incongruent pieces had slid to the southwest corner and gotten stuck at a bend in the river. But somehow, it all works, even if it makes no sense. The nuclear clock ticks down, so why shouldn’t we spend our days driving pastel carts through a pretty folly of a town built on visions and failures?

In the morning, New Harmony is just as still as it had been the afternoon before. The sun takes longer to rise in Indiana, it seems, and the humidity takes longer to evaporate from my windshield. When I was young, and awoke to this sort of damp misty morning, my parents would say, “It will burn off,” and it always did. But we never lived in a utopia. Here, maybe, the mist will stay. I drive away on those ruler-straight roads with their perfect right angles. There is, in fact, a bright golden haze on the meadow. The sun, I assume, will eventually fully rise.

 

Detroit on Saturdays | Eastern Market, Detroit, MI

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This is not the story of Detroit but this is a story that explains what Detroit looks like, for those who have never been there, for those who assume they know.

Imagine a city, vast and gleaming and packed with grand, intricate skyscrapers as well as humble storefronts, as serious as any city you’ve seen, as heavily chromed and beautifully adorned as anywhere you’ve been. Then imagine swaths of it destroyed, by some uncaring force of nature or cruel villain, and subsequently abandoned. Picture an uneven and incomplete sort of annihilation: sometimes half a neighborhood is gone, while the other half remains. Sometimes just a block or two is blighted, windows boarded up, as if a little attention could bring it all back to life. Sometimes there are long empty avenues, long enough that they would, in other places, constitute whole towns. Now imagine that some of the people who had fled or been driven out returned, because they saw something magical in the remaining beauty and also in the ruins – they saw both sides of the city like something from a mythical past ready to be transformed into something new. And other people saw what they were building  and came from elsewhere, and absent the formal strictures of more successful cities, all of them ran free in this half-ravaged metropolis. They painted out-sized colorful fantasies on the walls, they opened dark bars and creative little shops in old brick buildings, their entrances almost invisible from the street. They formed a nearly secret and exclusively hip world behind deceptively empty doorways, and all around them there were, as there always are, the people who had never left, who had kept the dim but necessary lights on in the city through its darkest hours. Together, all these people periodically filled the otherwise desolate streets with music and commerce and abundance, turned feral concrete corridors into grown-up playground wonderlands, and plastered everything with proof of their pride. From a crumbling urban wilderness that in some ways was never as bad as outsiders assumed, and in other ways was worse, a uniquely and distinctly American place reconstituted itself, and rose again. But it had never really fallen, not completely; it was only morphing into a new entity for a new age, less golden than the ones that had shaped it.

Last year, I took my first trip to Detroit. I skimmed the surface of Downtown and Greektown and Corktown, as well as the residential area where my dad grew up long ago. I didn’t know its name, but it was far from the bustle of the business district, a grid of solid brick houses and empty lots bordered by a grim commercial strip. As I walked and drove in different parts of the city, I noticed that almost every business was decorated with eye-catching lettering, retro-vintage cool spilling across the storefronts from the busy central city to the bleak outlying sprawl. I gazed up at the narrow circular track of the people-mover that automatically snakes above the city like an electric ghost. I walked along the waterfront, a cool breeze blowing off the Detroit River, Ontario in the distance. I waited in surprisingly heavy traffic and gazed out at elegant parks and monuments and roundabouts. I knew it was too much to take in on one visit, or five. I knew before I left that I was going back.

And so, on this trip, I decide to limit myself to Eastern Market. This is both a market – one of America’s oldest and biggest – and a neighborhood. It’s also a historic district, an outdoor art gallery, a shopping and dining destination, and, at least on the Saturday in summer when I drive north on the Interstate that curves along Lake Erie, a general celebration of life. Brick-roofed “sheds” that evoke the nation’s earliest market traditions shelter rows upon rows of vendors selling flowers, baked goods, meats, vegetables, coffee, clothing, plants, popcorn, fruit, jewelry, and on and on.

The market and its atmosphere spill out along the streets, into parking lots, across one of those fenced-in walkways above the highway. The large and small shops bordering the market sell groceries – specialties and essentials – as they have for many decades. There are also coffee shops, restaurants, and stores selling so many types of merchandise that I don’t even bother making a list of them, selling anything you might want and many things you wouldn’t even know to want unless you ventured inside. Many of these businesses promote themselves with exuberant murals, old-timey advertisements turned public art.

Colors are everywhere, painted on the sides of buildings in portraits and patterns and explosions of flowers. Words are everywhere, too: Nothing Stops Detroit. Detroit Hustles Harder. Detroit vs. Everyone.

The whole area is packed, in a calm and contented way. Drivers circle the multiple free parking lots and the spaces along the blocks that surround the sheds, scanning for an empty spot and not getting angry when they don’t find one after ten or twenty minutes. People on foot move in a slow mass through the aisles created by vendors’ tables and along the sidewalks, some determined to fill their wagons with their weekly groceries and others, like me, simply wandering, distracted by the people and goods in all directions.

It’s such a worn old cliché to write about how diverse a place is, how filled with “all sorts of people, from all walks of life.” But that is the only accurate description of the population in and around Eastern Market on this Saturday. There are people of every color and every age, dressed in every style or lack thereof. There are tour groups that file out of buses, kids on field trips from camp or school, and elderly travelers with practical hats and expensive cameras, stalking the streets on a mural safari. There are couples, families, individuals, trios of suburban women flipping their expensive hair, and at least one cluster of protestors, themselves a varied group. Several genres of live music drift from corners, and the smell of every type of food wafts from food trucks and restaurants and market stalls. A woman walking in front of me talks on her cellphone, attempting to locate a friend she’s meeting up with in the throng. “So many people come here now,” she says, half-complaining, half-not.

When I leave Eastern Market I am exhausted in the exhilarating way a big new city exhausts you when you’ve gone too long without spending time in a big new city. I am hot, sweaty, limping on feet blistered from trying to cross every street and round every corner. I should be tired but I’m fully awake, inspired, wishing I had more time to stay longer and keep exploring. I drive south on local roads through neighborhoods and suburbs and small towns, because my GPS has developed an aversion to highways that I can’t override. I am daydreaming of a world in which one could live in a different city every day; on Saturdays, I would live in Detroit.

 

First Light | Lubec, Maine

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I drive as far east as I have ever driven, and then I keep going. I drive until the highway no longer goes east, but continues north while I split off onto slower roads, paralleling the coast. I drive until my phone service drops off, and I keep driving until it pings back to life, sending me a text about the cost of data usage abroad. But I am not in another country. I’m in the easternmost town in the United States – the first town in America to see the sunrise – a wind-swept speck of a place called Lubec, from which you could take a wrong turn and drive to Canada by mistake. I am still in Eastern Time, but just beyond the shore lies the exotic-sounding Atlantic Time, an arbitrary, watery boundary represented by a line of little Ts on the map.

Jutting out towards this boundary is Quoddy Head State Park, where you pay (or don’t pay, I suppose) the $4 entry fee by stuffing bills into an unwatched can affixed to a pole. The main attraction here is the West Quoddy Head Light, a stout lighthouse painted like a peppermint stick. Trails branch out beside it, and I choose the one that winds above the coast. From the dirt path, I carefully descend to the beach, past a scrim of fir trees and down a set of wooden stairs spaced to reveal the jagged rocks beneath them. The entire beach is made of rocks, large ones, grey and brown, tumbled in piles and rising into peaks. Beyond these there is just the intensely blue water, a hazy glimpse of Canada, a fog horn sounding softly, and the sky.

Lubec’s town center, a short distance from Quoddy Head, looks as if the wind has carried everything unnecessary away, and some necessary things too. It feels less like a typical coastal New England village than an outpost of some kind, a frontier town after the frontier has moved past it. A cylindrical water tower with LUBEC printed across it, taller than even the white church spires, watches over a semi-grid of streets. In a little park, there is a memorial to lost fishermen, with names carved into granite slabs.

On the main road, most of the businesses appear closed, and not just closed for the day or the off-season but for good. Some restaurants are open, and young waitresses dash from parking lots to back doors. Signs advertising lodging are everywhere, as if people frequently find themselves in Lubec without warning and have to suddenly arrange a place to spend the night. A few men stand around on the sidewalks. A row of miniature American flags, the tiny plastic ones they sell near the cash register at drugstores for very small children to grasp in their fists at small-town parades, are stapled to the faded wall of a storefront. Wind, salt, and time have battered and folded them, but failed to rip them down.

I stay at a hotel where the rooms look out over the water, and a sliding glass door opens over a dock. On my phone, which may or may not be charging me for international roaming, I look up the time of the sunrise. It is 4:41, so I set my alarm for 4:00, having never attempted to await a sunrise. When I wake up and slide the door open I find I’m too late to see the darkness transformed into light; the sky is a dull pale blue and there’s a glowing strip of golden pink on the horizon. A little wooded island in the water outside my window is still shrouded in night, but behind it the low-lying glow is gradually rising higher, adding pastel layers of yellow and peach. Across the water, on the still-black landmass on the other side, a single bright white light blinks on and off.

The waves are quietly lapping against the dock, flowing past the balcony. A bird cries. The wind smells of fish and the sea. It seems like morning and night at the same time, and the air feels simultaneously cold and warm. For some reason I had imagined other people would be outside too, that the nation’s first sunrise would be enough of an attraction to draw a small crowd, even on a random Thursday. But it’s just me, standing on the edge of America, wondering if I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, silently observing the first light of day.