An Hour of Winter | Napatree Point, RI

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Before storms had human names, they were only remembered for the year of their birth and for their destruction. Before the Great Gale of 1815, Napatree Point was heavily wooded. That storm ripped the trees away, leaving a sandy, dune-spined spit. Before the Hurricane of 1938, a road extended to the end of the spit, and cars drove along the road, and houses stood beside it. That storm washed the road away, and the cars and houses too, and the people in them.

When you live in New England, what you hear most about the 1938 hurricane – aside from stories of city streets turned rivers and towns splintered by waves – is that it struck without warning. Everything seemed fine, and then you were stranded on the roof of your house, or on a crumbling road, far from your family, far from help. Everything was normal, and then it wasn’t, and no one was coming to save you.

I have been thinking a lot about these kinds of things when I decide to go to Rhode Island. Not storms, exactly, but the unpredictability of the world, and how alone I am in it. I am squeezing in this little trip to a nearby state while the whirl of late winter weather and work will allow me. Luckily, one of the few places in Rhode Island that I have somehow not yet seen, but long wanted to, is just a short drive away.

Napatree Point is in Watch Hill, a tastefully exclusive summer village in the livelier town of Westerly. The 1.5-mile strip of beach is tucked behind a 19th century carousel and a yacht club and a parking area, and concealed, as if to keep out all but the most determined visitors, by a fence and a high dune. I know to climb it because its smooth sand is blazed with footprints; if others have done it, I must be supposed to do it too.

From the top of the dune, you can see the Watch Hill Lighthouse and its attendant buildings, which look like a collection of small blocks, across the green-ish waters of Block Island Sound. If you look straight ahead, you can almost see where the sand narrows and the waters of the Sound and Little Narragansett Bay meet.

Today, Napatree is a protected wildlife preserve. But as I walk along, buffeted by a wind cold enough to burn my skin through layers of winter clothes, I see no piping plovers, no harbor seals, no animals at all aside from a few determined seagulls lined up along the water-line. One takes flight, wheels above my head and – I swear – laughs.

In this wilderness are a few human things. Metal traps, spaced out near the shore. A few scraps of litter, paper or plastic objects, that look as if they’ve been dropped here by gulls or gusts of wind. At the tip of the beach, where Fort Road once ended, are the stone remains of Fort Mansfield, abandoned by the military years before the hurricane took care of most of what they’d left behind.

But mostly there is sand, in overlapping shades of grey and tan; and sky; and waves that look gentle but sound immense. There are shells in a muted rainbow of colors, and rocks of various sizes, some of them glinting silver in the sun. The wind, whipping past pebbles, has shaped the sand into funny little spiky formations. I marvel at them even as the treads of my boots destroy them; if I don’t keep walking forward, I can’t admire them, but as I go I ruin what is behind me.

And then there are the dunes – shaggy, lumpen things that form an ever-shifting ridge at the center of the beach, and creep up the fences erected to stabilize them. Standing close to the dunes provides a slight respite from the wind.

This fragile coast, part of what’s called the Outer Lands, was formed by glacial moraine and shaped by a process known as longshore drift. I imagine that when travelers are walking in nature, in solitude, they are supposed to ponder this sort of thing, this intersection of science and poetry. But I am still thinking about how suddenly the world can change, and how far I can go before I get too cold to walk back. I am thinking about how the few people and dogs who were here before have suddenly disappeared, and that I am now alone with the seagulls. To my left, the lighthouse blinks. To the right, the sand narrows, and the land ends, and there is only the ocean.

It is beautiful here, of course, as almost all of the southern New England coast is – a pale, subtle beauty that visitors don’t always take the time to see. Though this is my first time here, the landscape is familiar to me: the gentle curve of the shoreline and the grasses blowing in the sand and the unforgiving cold.

After an hour, my fingers are too numb to slip them out of my gloves to work my camera. I head back past the seagulls, over the shells, and up the dune. It seems to have gotten steeper since I last climbed it. Then I walk through the empty parking lot and past the deserted winter village towards my car, pushed along like a human tumbleweed by the wind.

Until the Road Runs Out | Long Island, NY

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In mid-February, a Russian intelligence ship was spotted skulking 30 miles off the Connecticut coast, near the state’s eastern border, out past Long Island Sound where the open ocean and international waters traditionally ensure a tense politeness between nations. The story created a brief flurry of nervous amusement in my little coastal city, because although the presence of a Russian vessel wasn’t new, the specter of an American president possibly in collusion with Russia was. The ship wasn’t trying very hard to conceal itself; in fact, we knew its name, the Viktor Leonov, and its previous spying itineraries along America’s east coast, and the fact that it could carry what my local newspaper described as “a small complement of short-range surface-to-air missiles for defensive purposes only.” On the evening of the day the ship appeared, I walked along familiar downtown streets bathed in the pink light of sunset and thought how strange it was that everything was normal, yet they were out there, somewhere, and maybe they were here, too.

A few weeks later, I drive my car onto a ferry headed across Long Island Sound to Orient Point, N.Y. The route, dotted with small islands and eccentric lighthouses, seems designed to convince us there is nothing threatening nearby. I am irrationally, childishly happy, the kind of happy reserved for travel-haunted people who are on their way to places they have never been.

In Orient, originally called Oysterponds and later renamed to reflect its situation at the easternmost tip of the North Fork, I find an almost unspeakably pristine hamlet nearly abandoned for winter. Nothing this perfect is constructed on an unblemished foundation, though; I also find a little graveyard where twenty slaves lie buried along with their masters. The graves are surrounded by a neat stone wall with a white wooden gate, and a venerable tree leans protectively over one corner of the square plot. The enslaved people’s headstones are little stone nubs, while those of their owners – a husband and wife – are tall and flat, engraved with names and dates. Maybe some or all of the twenty approved of this arrangement; the story is that the masters, unable to find a local cemetery willing to bury blacks and whites together, chose to build their own instead. But I am unnerved by the feeling that the slaves may have been unwillingly held within this family arrangement even after death.

I drive west through Southold, stopping at a little parking area high above the shore. I stand at the top of the narrow wooden staircase for which the beach below, 67 Steps Beach, is named. From here, in Greenport West, I could look out past the narrow strip of sand, across the water that darkens from a pale turquoise to an opaque navy blue, and see Connecticut, after a lifetime of facing the other way.

Then I head to the contented-seeming waterfront village of Greenport. Here, along with the standard-issue graceful homes and eclectic businesses, is a surprising grab-bag of attractions, including a camera obscura and a 1920’s carousel tantalizingly wrapped in a modern-looking cylinder of glass. I am instantly enamored with the area’s many diminutive houses, which remind me of the simplest Federal, Greek Revival, or Cape Cod style homes of New England, but smaller. Searching online later, I find the terms “Greenport Vernacular” and “half houses” – with windows to one side of the front door – and “half capes.” They are tiny houses, before tiny houses got their own reality shows.

As I continue west through hamlets with names like Peconic, Cutchogue, and Mattituck, I make the first-time traveler’s instant, imperfect comparisons between my own coastline and this, its mirror image. This sliver of New York State belonged to Connecticut until 1676, and if you didn’t already know this, you could guess. There are differences, however: here, beaches drop dramatically from cliffs and dunes; there, they stretch flat beyond salt marshes. Here, vineyards are utilitarian and bunched together; there, they are less numerous and more spread out but more beautiful. Here, there is more empty space; there, parks and beaches excepted, almost every available bit of land has been built on. Preserved old schoolhouses, town greens, and farm stands and clam shacks shuttered for the off-season proliferate in both places.

When I reach Riverhead – the only town I’ve seen on this trip that doesn’t appear in permanent vacation mode and the place most like New York State and least like Connecticut so far – I make a sort of giant hairpin turn and point myself east again, towards Montauk, at the tine of the South Fork. There is a lighthouse there that I have seen in pictures and want to see in person.

But first I stop in Water Mill, where one of Long Island’s eleven extant windmills stands alone in the center of the town green. On the East End, you see wind mills everywhere, once you start to look. These simple weathered wood structures were called “smock mills” because their builders thought they looked like a person dressed in a smock; they are utterly charming. When I am standing right beside the one in Water Mill, though, I realize how large it is, and how much power it must have generated when it was allowed to spin.

Then I take a little detour and drive through a wide-open landscape to Sag Harbor, which I find I love instantly. Perhaps that’s because this village, like my own city, was once home to a whaling port more significant than its tiny size would suggest; perhaps it is the way the layers of history blend here, with retro neon signage hanging on the 19th century storefronts along Main Street.

The point of spending 2017 traveling around America is, in part, because I’m afraid I’ll never be able to do it again, and I want to see, if not everything, then as much as I can before that. But already, it is only making me want to travel more. I want to return to Sag Harbor, before I even leave.

Further east, I pass through the village of East Hampton, which strikes me as uncomfortably similar to the town where I grew up, dreaming every minute of escaping, and Amagansett, which looks like the kind of place I imagine no one would ever want to leave. From there, it’s on to Montauk, past the LIRR station and a cluster of commercial necessities, and onto a stretch of road that feels increasingly wild, anticipating Montauk Point State Park. When I stop there and get out of the car, the wind is whipping and I can finally see the lighthouse, red and white, high on a hill. A gate is blocking the path that leads up to it; the lighthouse is closed. I can only stand there, surrounded by seagulls and wind.

When I get back to Orient, towards the end of the day, the place seems even more deserted than it had been in the early morning. I ramble around a bit through empty streets. I know I can’t get lost on the way back to the ferry. All I have to do is drive until the road runs out.

The sun goes down as the ferry plods homewards. The Russians slunk away down the eastern seaboard days ago, and even in darkness, there is no sense that anything more threatening than a strong wind could ever touch us here. As we travel up the river towards the dock, we pass between the old forts built to protect this coast, invisible in the darkness, and the facilities where they make nuclear submarines, their buildings outlined against the night in glittering lights.

America When It’s Over | Centralia, PA

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In Pennsylvania, more than in most places, you can never ignore the ground beneath you. Despite what humans have done with asphalt and wood and mining equipment, the earth still asserts itself. Back roads twist awkwardly over rushing streams, and Interstates struggle up mountains or cleave through them. Rock formations rise up between north- and south-bound lanes like rugged, prehistoric flatiron buildings. In my life I have spent many hours – days, probably – driving across Pennsylvania, over the segment of the Appalachian Range known as the Alleghenies. But I have never understood this so clearly as I have here, in this former mining town that is not a town anymore.

Centralia, in the part of the state known as the Coal Region, was incorporated in 1866. Accounts of the borough’s demise like to note that it once had a population of over 1,000; that it had churches and businesses; and that aside from the abundance of anthracite coal beneath its streets, it was an entirely normal American place. Then the accounts begin their timeline of doom. In 1962, a garbage fire happened to ignite a coal seam. Underground, through a network of abandoned mine tunnels, the fire began to spread. Smoke and noxious gas wafted from the earth. Walls and sidewalks grew warm. Fissures appeared in the ground. In 1979, some gasoline in a subterranean tank was found to have reached an alarming 172 degrees Fahrenheit. In 1981, a young boy almost fell into a deep chasm created when the yard he was standing in split open in front of him. In 1984, Congress appropriated $42 million to evacuate the borough and relocate its residents. A few holdouts held out. In 1992, the town’s remaining buildings were seized through eminent domain and mostly condemned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In 2002, Centralia’s zip code, 17927, was discontinued. The accounts also like to point out that Centralia’s great fortune was also its downfall. The fire still burns.

Today, there is little to see here. A few buildings still stand, and some graveyards are neatly maintained. Also, there is a mile-long stretch of road known as the Graffiti Highway. The Graffiti Highway is listed as “#1 of 1 things to do in Centralia” on TripAdvisor. It is marked on Google Maps (as is a site called “Centralia Coal Mine Fire Ventilation Pipes.”) The “highway” itself, a section of the old Route 61 that was closed off when the fire’s heat had warped it beyond repair, can be seen on Google Maps too – a thin white phantom limb running parallel to the new Route 61, labeled “PA-61 (Destroyed).”

Before I reach the Graffiti Highway, I imagine myself walking alone down a deserted and crumbling strip of pavement as steam rises from the uneven ground, feeling like the last survivor of the apocalypse. But when I arrive, it’s not like that. It’s more like a cross between those creepy abandoned buildings where the cool photography kids go to take Instagram shots, and a wholesome tourist attraction. Even on a weekday afternoon there are six or eight cars here, parked along the shoulder near an almost invisible dirt trail that begins between a cemetery and a vandalized yellow arrow sign that warns of a curve in the road. There are a few couples, groups of friends, teens in twos, and younger children with adults.

I scramble up a little dirt-and-ice mountain and down into a muddy valley. Then I find myself on a road, which, lacking lanes and cars, feels more like an undefined empty lot. And then I walk. It seems flat, at first, until I look back and realize I am descending a slope. There is a median down the center, which at some point begins sprouting dead trees, like a slim island in a hellish river. Further on, the pavement has split open. It looks like footage of highways taken after earthquakes, when the camera lingers on their gaping wounds. Except these wounds, like the rest of this forsaken road, are covered in colors.

A fractured rainbow of spray-painted words and shapes extends the length of the roadway. There is one “Fuck Trump” in white answered by a “Hell Yes” in black. There is one “Hillary 4 Prison.” There is one swastika, but it’s turquoise, and I stand over it for several minutes wondering how to feel about a symbol that calls for my death, painted in my favorite color. But mostly there are layers and layers of initials, names, dates, doodles, expressions of love, alien faces, and a lot of hearts and penises. There is an American flag, and a goldfish, and an intricate Día de Muertos-style skull. It should be solemn and worrying, but it’s whimsical and almost fun, like the public art projects that punctuate drab neighborhoods of troubled cities. Girls in UGG boots are taking pictures of each other against the backdrop of ruin.

And I think, maybe this is what America looks like when it’s over. There will be few reminders of the heights we once attained or the ideals we strived to fulfill, but the land won’t be entirely deserted. There won’t be any obvious signs of the cause of our destruction. People will come, simultaneously curious and bored, in that ambling touristy way, to stare at what remains. Creativity will spring up from the toxic ground like scrappy foliage, and so will hatred, and indifference. Most will quickly forget how the landscape came to be so irrevocably altered, and will view what remains through the lens of self-centered jokes and memories. Those who truly understand what was lost will be ignored.

In front of me, one couple holding hands strolls towards the terminus of the road. Behind me, more sightseers have gathered. I stand still. The ground seems settled, but I know the fire is down there somewhere. Experts say it may burn for another 250 years. I don’t walk all the way to the end of the Graffiti Highway. Part of me doesn’t want to see how it ends. Another part of me already knows.

The First Trip | Washington, D.C.

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It is possible that my cab driver has never heard of the United States National Arboretum. It is also possible that I am describing its location incorrectly, or speaking unintelligibly. I have spent six hours on a train, rolling south into a snowstorm that is becoming increasingly ominous. An escaped bobcat is loose in the capital. A lunatic cartoon dictator is president. It is possible that nothing will ever make sense again.

I want to see the National Grove of State Trees, because there is a hopeless romance about the concept of a national grove of state trees in a nation that has possibly fragmented beyond repair. But I get distracted along the way.

I somehow direct the cab to the gate, in the northwest quadrant of the city, and on foot I enter a carefully planned and maintained space that feels half-wild. This is probably due to the weather. The sky is colorless, and delicate snowflakes swirl around me, sticking just slightly to the ground and creating an eerie white fog. I pull my hood around my face against the cold, like a 17th century lady setting out on a perilous journey.

I stay on the paved paths, as the snow has rendered the grassy areas too precarious, and too beautiful, to step on. Then my walkway curves and I see an expanse off to my left, stretching out in the snowy mist like a mythical land or an optical illusion. The Ellipse Meadow.

I know its name because later, I will look it up. But when I first see it, the words that spring to mind are “moor” and “heath.” On it, distant amid the whirling snowflakes, are the National Capitol Columns, built in 1828 to decorate the East Portico but abandoned in 1864 when the architects changed plans. I know they are a bit of trivia, a historic mistake happily salvaged for a public amusement. But I can only see them as the ruins of a prior, better civilization.

As I move towards them, I am the only person walking in the Arboretum. It can be disconcerting to be alone in a vast and unfamiliar space, but I am not afraid. Wrapped in my coat and my veil of snow, I imagine any danger lurking behind these trees could only be a make-believe danger – a centaur, perhaps, or an escaped bobcat that might blink at you with yellow eyes then vanish into dust. As I get closer, and the imposing rectangle of Corinthian columns recedes, a few vehicles circle slowly, almost furtively, on the Arboretum’s gently curving roads.

The columns stand, as they should, atop a slope, forming a silent sandstone acropolis. When I first saw a D.C.-area friend’s photo of them, taken not long after they were placed here, I thought they must be one of America’s secret wonders. These days, they are something of a fashionable spot; the Arboretum forbids commercial photography here without a permit, and in the days after I planned my trip, I coincidentally saw the columns at least three times on Instagram.

I pause in front of them, then climb the hill and wander between them, small beneath their useless grandeur. I stop to photograph a circular plaque that reads, in part, “These columns designed for the United States Capitol continue to reaffirm our nation’s commitment to fulfilling the dreams of a flourishing land and people.”

Finally, I walk on, away from the Ellipse Meadow. Ellipse, of course, means an oval shape, but it derives from the same word as an ellipsis, a space left in speech or writing when what could fill it is obvious, and does not need to be uttered to be understood. The snow, which had given way to a clear and almost sunny sky while I was absorbed by the grace of the columns, begins to fall once more.