What Is Vermont? | Burlington, VT

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Vermont is the only New England state without a coastline. It is the second whitest state in America. It is also the second least populous state. Its most populous city is Burlington, which has about 42,000 residents and no train station. Burlington is the least populous most populous city in the country.

When I was 18, I attended a summer drama program in Burlington. It was essentially a continuation of the demanding courses I’d been taking as an Acting major in New York, designed to fit between Freshman and Sophomore year, and transported to a vacation-y, summer-camp-like setting. I have oddly specific memories from this time. I remember my friends who told me they’d give me a ride up to Burlington but didn’t tell me until the night before we were meant to leave that they wouldn’t. I remember wearing stiff denim and sheer florals and clunky canvas sneakers, and desperately trying too hard to fit myself into a 90s fantasy where girls were sassy free spirits and women were sleekly powerful and I was neither. I remember the dining hall offered a vast array of free desserts, like giant brownies and Rice Krispies Treats, that I would wrap in napkins to eat after dinner. (I may have been the only college student in history to gain 15 pounds immediately after Freshman year.) I remember having to do Sun Salutations each morning, and hating it. I remember exact feedback I got from acting teachers and minute details of complex exercises we did in class. But I remember almost nothing about Vermont.

I have virtually no memory of what Burlington looked like, or how it felt, physically, to be there. Visually, in my mind, there is a six- or eight- or who-knows-how-many-week blank. My brain has recorded the setting of a theoretically intense and formative experience, in which I was removed from the familiarity of New York City to a place more rural and insular than any I’d been before, as a featureless blank.

I now usually think of Vermont as a sort of sanctimonious bubble full of skiing, whiteness, and things that seem like good ideas for a minute but eventually make you feel ill, like maple syrup and Bernie Sanders. But though my perception of the Green Mountain State is admittedly one-dimensional, I realize that if I went back now, I might end up loving it. After all, though I was generally miserable that summer, I couldn’t have despised the place itself – if I had, I would have remembered it.

And so I decide to return to Burlington, like a movie character with amnesia who goes on a quest to find the one crucial detail that will bring everything back, and comes to some profound conclusion.

Since I don’t remember Vermont, driving here is like going someplace entirely new. The highway is a straight line with few cars on it. Driving students on their first lesson could easily manage it. Blindfolded people could, possibly, easily manage it. There are three road signs on the highway, which alternate. One is MOOSE STAY ALERT, which they spring on you as soon as you cross the border, as if to prove how Vermont-y it is here. Another is BEAR CROSSING. The last is BRIDGES FREEZE BEFORE ROAD, which of course happens everywhere, but Vermont really doesn’t want you to forget it.

I stop at the Vermont Welcome Center just over the state line. It is all wood, somehow rustic yet shiny at the same time, tastefully plain in a humblebrag-y way. It is superior to your state’s rest stops. It looks like the dream house Fitz builds for Olivia on Scandal.

The simplicity of the landscape is not without beauty. There is a comforting minimalist quality to is, as if all that is not necessary to signal “Northern New England” has been removed, and what remains is just a black horse standing in a field, a red barn, and the bare branches of spring trees.

Then everything becomes more dramatic. The smooth highway now cuts through rock formations shaped like prehistoric spines. A fourth road sign is introduced: a graphic of stone chunks tumbling down a cliff in a little avalanche. The air becomes clearer as blue layers of mountains rise into view in the distance.

To this day, my mom quotes 18-year-old me complaining that Vermont was “too green.” Now I realize what I meant. The state is not greener than any other place in New England, but the colors are warmer here. Elsewhere, leaves come in shades of mint and jade and emerald; here, they are closer to olive and lime. The browns are more copper than coffee. Even the sky is like a baby blue paint that has yellowed with age. It’s as if someone applied a red-tinged filter over a photo, and unless I focus on those distant mountains, the effect is unpleasant and strangely oppressive.

When I get to Burlington, I see why the highways were so empty: every car in Vermont is here. Nothing looks familiar. There must have been a drugstore I went to regularly, a grocery store, a Post Office, a bank, but I see nothing that jolts my mind into remembrance. I find a parking garage and walk to Church Street Marketplace, Burlington’s famed pedestrian-only street. It is one of the few places I have retained a hazy image of. It’s less bohemian and more shopping-mall-like than I was expecting; I spot a Lululemon, a Banana Republic, and many other stores you could find in any upper-middle-class American suburb.

Contented-looking white people amble down the brick street past a few tables staffed by advocates of vaguely political causes. Back in my mostly-forgotten summer, a Tarot card reader was stationed here. You could ask her about one of a set of topics. Being 18, I asked her about love, and was told that I would meet the one, eventually, but my dating life would get worse before it got better, and that my eventual boyfriend would be as unattractive as I was, only in a different way. She gave me a specific example of what his unfortunate feature might be; I think it was bad teeth.

Beyond Church Street, the street grid predictably arranges itself into a generic New England college town. Sturdy old commercial buildings with subtle architectural flourishes that hint at former grandeur coexist with newer, less pretty commercial buildings. A few shabby corners are devoted to necessities, like gas stations, and I see some homeless people seated on sidewalks, but for the most part, the grungier touches feel like aesthetic choices. I keep turning at right angles, trying to get lost, trying to find meaning in something. I stumble upon the bar we went to most nights, which I only notice because its name has stuck with me. I don’t remember it looking like it does, or being where it is. I can’t conjure up an image of the layout or decor. I do remember what the older girls drank: Cape Cods, which seemed terribly sophisticated.

Wandering farther, I see bookstores and coffee shops. Why did I never go to one? I see the stately City Hall building, set behind a little town green of a park, on which small groups of people are hanging out. Why did I never hang out there? I see a Ben & Jerry’s, but although we went there often, the brick storefront doesn’t look at all familiar. (Later, after I get home, I find a few photos from that summer. There is one of a different Ben & Jerry’s store, located in an old white house. In front of the house is a USA TODAY vending machine, as if the store is trying to pose with the daily paper to prove it was alive.)

As I wander, I see a lot of older men, dressed with the sloppy confidence of people who don’t have to care, and a few older women, dressed subtly in organic fabrics. The younger people wear either short, puffy jackets with fitted pants or workout clothes that strike me as insufficiently warm for this icy April day. The few people I talk to are friendly, in a glazed sort of way. “Hey, how’s it going?” says a barefoot hipster digging in a dirt patch on Main Street. A Bernie Sanders symbol, spray-painted on a wall, watches me stroll past through its eyeless glasses.

I head down the hill that slopes towards the lakefront. Here I find a park, one of those local gems that cities brag about. A paved biking path winds through a grassy strip. Along a boardwalk, adults coach children to venture out on the rocks that descend into the water. Lake Champlain stretches, blue and cold, toward those distant layered mountains. In a chill wind, I walk past people sitting on benches and gliding back and forth, alone or in pairs, on large swings that creak as they move. Was this park here then? Even if it wasn’t, there still must have been a lakefront, and a pristine view. Why did I not do what I would have done at home in Manhattan, find a city map and walk towards the solitude of the water?

I trudge up the hill again, past Church Street, then past the towering, classically collegiate buildings of the University of Vermont. The small college where my program was housed closed soon after my time there, and its campus was absorbed by UVM. I find the area thanks not to a sudden rush of memories, but to a directional sign. I stare at the walking paths, the emergency call boxes, the drab brick and glass buildings, the parking lots. I remember none of it. This is the scene in the movie where the audience wonders, impatiently, “Why doesn’t she recognize anything?” I feel as if I was never here.

I never find the one little detail that brings it all back. I remember being overdressed for weekend parties where people sipped wine coolers on lawns, and underdressed for warm weeknights when the other girls impressed the older guys who only noticed me when they needed someone sober to drive their cars home from the bar. I remember the teacher who told me I was the least athletic person she had ever met, and that someone said that teacher had claimed that she could levitate. I remember the other teacher who told me, in the nicest way possible, that I might not be pretty enough for this career, and that I later found out he was sleeping with a girl in the program, a girl who was confidently quiet in a way that I envied. I remember a conversation about how few truly normal people there were in the world, and another about philosophy that I hovered on the periphery of, trying repeatedly to get in, like a moth. But I still don’t remember Vermont.

Could it be, I asked myself as I drove home, that Vermont isn’t interesting enough to remember? Or that Vermont is a magical land of forgetting? That might explain why the people seem so glazed and contented, and why Fitz on Scandal thinks that ski lodge of a house will solve everyone’s problems, and why Bernie Sanders chose this state as the place to abandon his ethnicity and turn himself blissfully, ignorantly white. But probably, unsatisfactorily, my forgetting had to do with me, and not with Vermont at all.

Later, I Google the program I attended and find that it still exists. It’s shorter now, and the classes are different, and worth less credit. It is called “Vermont.” The FAQ section of the studio’s website asks, “What is Vermont?” It’s a fair question, I think. And I still don’t know the answer.

Dogtown | Gloucester, MA

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On Cape Ann in northeastern Massachusetts, between the solid little port city of Gloucester and the absurdly picturesque town of Rockport, there is a high and rocky plateau. Strewn with boulders left behind by retreating ancient glaciers, crossed with old stone walls and little footpaths worn into the flood-prone ground through tangled woods, this inland wilderness is vast (most accounts say 3,600 acres, but this, like everything here, is hard to pin down) and inhospitable.

It was not always like this. In the 17th and 18th centuries, when people left the populated coastal areas to live here, they saw not a desolate hinterland but a mostly deforested expanse of new ground, rocky but full of commercial potential, just waiting for roads and houses and farms. Several hundred people (“80 families,” they are usually called) lived here at the settlement’s zenith. It was known as the Commons or Commons Settlement. A narrative soon developed that its residents had decamped here to shield themselves from pirate attacks and conflicts with Native Americans, though this seems to have been more myth than reality. It is also said that the inland situation of the Commons offered protection from British bombardments and raids during the Revolution and the War of 1812, but the settlement was not inviolable – history records that some American sheep were seized and carted off by the enemy.

In the post-war years, as Gloucester’s livelihood became centered again around the waterfront, most residents of Cape Ann’s highlands trickled back to the coast, and the population of the Commons Settlement dwindled and shifted. Outcasts lived here, and the very poor, and drifters. Witches lived here, everyone said, and prostitutes. Widows lived here, with dogs for protection, the story goes, and although contemporary accounts of the place don’t mention an unusual number of these pets, they are often cited as the reason why the Commons became Dogtown.

If the Commons was respectable, Dogtown was the opposite. I encounter the word “embarrassment” a lot when reading about it, and the word “ghetto.” There were stories of men disappearing there, and tales of supernatural incidents. The once tamed land grew feral again, and though it never stopped attracting a devoted few who loved its wild nature, the place became a byword for inexplicable weirdness and occasional evil. As recently as the 1980s, it was still largely thought of as a mire of drug activity, rowdy parties, and the lurking danger of shadowy men – a fear magnified by several assaults and a gruesome and well-publicized murder. Dogtown is still said to be haunted.

Today, Dogtown is preserved open space, with hiking trails and reservoir views, but something of its ominous old reputation clings to it still. Before I go, I read the warnings: you will get lost; bring extra food and water; this place is confusing; do not go alone. I have done far riskier things than walk by myself through the Massachusetts woods, but I am sufficiently freaked out and I drag a friend with me. We have maps, which turn out to be better than blank sheets of paper but not by much, and a Dogtown app, which proves itself entirely useless when the trail we’re following ends abruptly on a steep hill at an impassable little river. For over two hours, which feel like four hours, we traipse through the woods, scrambling up boulder-littered inclines and crossing streams on narrow planks of wood. We carefully skirt the squishy edges of Dogtown’s old main roads, transformed into mud puddles by recent heavy rains; we soak our sneakers anyway. We try to decipher color-coded trails and the cryptic letters and numbers that mark small remnants of human habitation. When we find one, like the rock on a cramped little hillside that’s carved with D.T. SQ to denote the former location of Dogtown Square, we contemplate how very strange this place must have been, even in its heyday.

The decline of the Commons was quick. Most of the 80 numbered houses, which had stood on named roads, as in any proper little town, were torn down when their owners moved out. The ones that remained were deteriorating. Their inhabitants were former slaves, and healers, and spinsters or widows who lived alone. Among them was a mixed-race woman who dressed in men’s clothing and did men’s labor, and a boy raised as a girl. The people of Dogtown told fortunes, ate Johnny-cakes, and picked blueberries. They often shared houses, swapping addresses as their circumstances changed. When the houses became uninhabitable, they moved into the cellar holes.

By 1830, Dogtown was abandoned. That was the year its last inhabitant, a former slave named Cornelius Finson, a.k.a. Black Neil, was found nearly frozen in his cellar hole and brought to the poorhouse, where he died days later.

For a place so often called mysterious, Dogtown’s past is well-documented, and it has long been a favorite subject of writers, poets, and painters. A good deal is known about who lived in which house, and when, and how many children each man had, and who owned the most sheep. We know that Cellar Hole Number 17 (now, like the others, filled in but marked with a stone) belonged to Dorcas Foster, who was married three times, and that the boggy patch near the Square was called Granny Day’s Swamp.

And yet, as much information as there is, this place still feels unknowable. Standing in the woods, trying to mentally map an old New England town over this jumble of stones, hills, trails, and twisted trees, I find myself questioning everything I know about old New England towns.

I also find myself wanting to categorize this place as it was when it morphed from a village to a folk tale. Was it a wretched slum, home to desperate people? Or a brief utopia free from the constraints of New England society? As my friend and I stand in what our dodgy maps suggest may be Dogtown Common, a flat grassy circle around a lone tree that seems to be awaiting a pagan ceremony, I hope it was the latter. At the very least, I think, it would hardly be the first or the last place to count as both.

There is another layer to Dogtown’s strangeness, imposed on the landscape during the Great Depression. As the nation struggled, Roger W. Babson (the millionaire and eponymous college founder who had predicted of the market crash of 1929) hired unemployed immigrant stonemasons to carve words and phrases into 24 of the plateau’s massive boulders. These now make up a quasi-trail of judgy public art, confronting hikers with a combination of motivational tips, moral precepts, and vaguely inspirational nouns. We stumble on Truth, Courage, Loyalty, Kindness, Intelligence, Integrity, Initiative, Study, Be On Time, Keep Out of Debt, Spiritual Power, Industry, Ideas, Kindness, and Work. We do not find If Work Stops Values Decay, Help Mother, Be Clean, Be True, Use Your Head, Prosperity Follows Service, Never Try Never Win, Save, or Get a Job.

The boulders, removed from their 1930s context, resemble a pretentious, outdoorsy treasure hunt. (If they were in the Hudson Valley, they’d be sandwiched between lunch and dinner at twee restaurants in an itinerary in New York Magazine, and it would cost $20 per person to see them.) But their advice, offered kindly but so blithely, also uncomfortably recalls today’s debates about what to do when prosperity can no longer be a given, and whether initiative is enough anymore, and who is entitled to what. Do people who manage to keep out of debt, or who boast of their spiritual power, deserve something the rest of us don’t? Whose ideas count as Ideas? Exactly which values decay when work stops, anyway?

In the woods, my friend and I are never truly lost in the helpless, panicked, burning daylight sense. But we frequently find ourselves unsure of how to get from where we are to where we know we should be, or perplexed at how we arrived where we are. The trails and locations on the map don’t seem to match the distances and directions of the terrain, and we wander far enough from our starting point that the loud booms echoing from the nearby shooting range are not alarming but comforting, proof of normal human life continuing outside of Dogtown’s gates. We get just as lost as one should get in Dogtown, I suppose, just lost enough to take courage from the Courage boulder and to contemplate the attitudes of witches.

We finally emerge once again at the parking area and drive back to downtown Gloucester, abandoning the eerie inland rock formations as the early settlers of the Commons did. But we are just cold and hungry and bedraggled enough to bring a bit of Dogtown’s wild essence with us.

Victory or Death | Washington Crossing State Park, NJ

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I am going to Washington Crossing State Park, at the site where George Washington and his frozen troops landed after crossing the Delaware from Pennsylvania on that famously blizzardy Christmas night in 1776. To get there I drive south on New Jersey’s Delaware River Scenic Byway.

The Byway is marked by signs, posted along the route, that depict the landscape in a 1970’s color scheme. On the signs, the road, canal, towpath, and river unfold like alternating ribbons of brown, lime, and warm blue. In real life, the colors are less saturated but the view is much the same: beside the road is the narrow canal, then the raised towpath with its skinny paved walkway, then the rain-swollen Delaware.

I’d done the parallel drive on the Pennsylvania side, and in my memory it is fairy-tale lovely, dotted with ancient single-lane bridges and old houses standing inches from the road. The Jersey side feels wilder than that, sparser; between town centers there is just the river on one side and open space on the other. Occasionally a narrow house appears, constructed wholly or partially of heavy stone. Sometimes two or five of these cluster together, as if for defense, their upper stories or shutters painted in muted shades of mustard, red, purple, or green.

In Frenchtown, a row of shops in deep autumnal hues curves into a cozy corner, hinting at an older way of life in the early days of the New World. In Stockton, I feel like I’m wandering around a frontier town, past the little train depot and rustic, two-story inn overlooking the main road. But everything here has been subtly re-purposed to accommodate upscale, artisanal tastes. In Lambertville, visitors crowd the sidewalks in front of restaurants and boutiques, but I’m the only one who turns onto the quieter residential streets. These, with their slim brick sidewalks and neat rectangular houses with brightly-painted doors, throw me back to the Colonial era; I envision them populated by women in wide skirts and men in silk stockings. All these towns end where the Delaware begins, at blue-green bridges carrying slow-moving traffic and vista-seeking pedestrians over the river to Pennsylvania.

All these towns, too, make me feel, against all my better judgement, almost optimistic about America again, for a minute. I am only a momentary tourist, flitting across the surface of their reality like a badly-skipped stone. But they seem so tolerant, so solid, so balanced between successful and humble, so steeped in history but not bogged down by it.

When I reach the park, it is getting close to late afternoon, and the temperature is dropping. I follow a winding drive through serene wooded acres, past a few people walking dogs. I park beside the Johnson Ferry House, which a sign tells me is “the only existing structure within the park that witnessed the Crossing of the Continental troops on December 25-26, 1776.” The building, red and white with a gambrel roof and too many doors and windows for its modest size, looks like it was built for Strawberry Shortcake. But it was just a ferry house, like those found in river towns across the Colonies, where travelers would stop to eat and maybe stay the night before continuing on. The sign says: “The house was used briefly by Continental troops and officers and possibly by General Washington.”

From the Ferry House, I follow the path that leads to the bridge across the river. I walk to Pennsylvania above the grey Delaware so I can walk back, approaching New Jersey as they did on that icy night. Cars rattle slowly by as I hurry along the wooden walkway. The river here is not wide as rivers go, but it’s wider than I had pictured it; the walk along 877 feet of bridge is long enough for me to worry as I walk about the sturdiness of the boards beneath me, to marvel at the coldly majestic river, to notice my socks slipping down in my shoes, to wish I would reach the other side already.

Sometimes the distances of the Revolutionary War, like the houses, are charmingly small. It’s amusing to imagine world historical figures discussing strategy in a tavern that resembles a dollhouse, or to realize that battles that decided the fate of nations took place on a patch of ground you could cover in a quick stroll. But then, in your amusement, you find yourself confronted with the width of a river or the way a road elongated in your mind as you imagine walking it, in a storm, with no boots.

The walk back to the Jersey side feels even longer; I cross the bridge, then the elevated walkway back into the park, and then I follow the path back to the Johnson Ferry House.

We all know the story, or the vague outline of it, even if we never really learned it in school. They struggled across the ice-choked river, all those men, horses, and guns, in boats they collected on the Pennsylvania side. They assembled in New Jersey in darkness, in columns, and trudged through snow and sleet on slippery roads towards Trenton. Their password was “Victory or Death.” Surprising the Hessian mercenaries holding the town, they found themselves, after a bloody morning battle, victorious. They were desperate before, dispirited; now they – we – had reason to hope. Maybe we could actually win this. Maybe this crazy, bold, problematic, and unprecedented idea might become a nation.

The easy lesson would be that when America feels in existential peril, it’s comforting to remember that in the moments we think of as most gloriously foretelling our future success, the people who were there were just as confused and afraid as we are.

Another lesson would be that the era of little white ferry houses and grand ideas is over, and our future is written not on the historical markers of our state parks but on the peeling paint and rusting metal of the tunnels and bridges we traverse to get to them, or sinking in the marshy industrial hinterlands of the great cities we pass along the way.

Or maybe there is no lesson.

I stay that night in one of those anodyne suburban mazes where chain hotels congregate and wide roads bend and loop around bland office parks. My hotel seems to have been designed by someone who has never had to stay in a hotel, and its parking lot can only be accessed from a truncated street that starts at a cul-de-sac and terminates at a dead end. But its address is Scotch Road. Scotch Road was here in December 1776; Continental troops marched on it, on their way from the ferry landing to Trenton.

I don’t think about this then, or the next morning, when I’m driving across the hulking and improbable and probably crumbling George Washington Bridge. (I only think, why do the trucks go on the top level?) But later I think, we are formed by this history, whether we learn from it or not, whether we care about it or not. We are bound by it, even in the places where it seems to have been erased. We are always, whether we know it or not, at that pivotal moment, crossing the river, blinded by the snow. We could die, or we could win.

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.