I’m about seven eighths of the way through the surprisingly long drive to Lewes when I start to wonder whether this whole visit-all-the-states thing is perhaps not a particularly sane idea. Delaware is the first on a list of East Coast states I’m hoping to get to on a hurried road trip, and though I’m currently speeding down Route 1 approaching my destination, I feel as if I’m aimlessly drifting.
There is nothing I can do, though, because here I am, and I’ve already spent $21.25 in tolls just to get here. $6.00 of that was in Delaware alone. Delaware has always struck me as having inordinately high self-esteem in this regard. There’s a lesson in this, maybe, something about convincing others of your own worth through sheer brazen confidence. If you believe people should pay $6.00 just to drive through your tiny state, then they will. If you believe you’re doing something worthwhile by rambling around America as its institutions crumble, then you are.
I drive south past farms and seafood shacks until I reach the downtown of the little city of Lewes, just north of the point of land where Cape Henlopen curves up and out into the Atlantic.
Lewes describes itself (in a list of its “core values”) as “a town of busy days and quiet nights.” It is a dreamier, quieter, sweeter place than I’d expected, one of those towns where it seems no building is without a historic marker and every brick is a carefully carved memorial brick. Though I’ve never been here before and have scarcely glanced at a map, the streets are familiar to me, as they would be to anyone who loves little waterfront places that have “a special and historic relationship with the sea.” (That’s another “core value.”) On this weekday afternoon, as I stroll the streets, sometimes the only sound is of a rope slapping against a flagpole in the wind.
Lewes, I start to think, is a sort of decorative basket for collecting neglected periods in American history. A post office still bearing its fallout shelter sign stands behind a pretty little canal-front park featuring pink floral arrangements and cannons dating from the War of 1812. A block away is the Cannonball House, named for the abuse it suffered during the Bombardment of Lewes in 1813. A striking Dutch Revival building, accented with red-and-white shutters, stands at a major intersection. This is the Zwaanendael Museum, built to resemble the old city hall of the Dutch town of Hoorn. Zwaanendael (Swan Dale or Valley of the Swans) was the name of the Dutch settlement founded here in 1631. (It was the first European colony in what is now Delaware.) It was soon destroyed, and its inhabitants killed, by local Lenape Indians after a series of rather tragic and perplexing events that the museum calls “a cultural misunderstanding.”
But in this odd patchwork of history, the most remarkable artifact I come across is the ship docked on the canal, which is not just a ship, but a lightship, a thing I somehow did not know existed until this moment. This one, the Overfalls, is painted a cheerful red and flying an American flag. It once protected vessels sailing Delaware’s shores with a foghorn, a radio beacon, and an electric lantern that shone with the power of 15,000 candles. To quote the Overfalls Foundation, because even the most mundane of writing about things nautical somehow manages to sound somewhat poetic, “It could be moored near shifting shoals where no fixed structure could be placed; stationed in deep water many miles from shore to serve as a landfall or point of departure for trans-oceanic traffic; and could be readily positioned to suit changing needs…the lightship served as a day beacon, a light platform by night, [and] a sound signal station in times of reduced visibility.” It is one of seventeen lightships that remain of the 179 built between 1820 and 1952, and one of seven that are open to the public. This is the off-season, though, so nothing is open, and I can wander around the waterfront alone.
The concept of the lightship stays in my mind after I leave Lewes. I like lighthouses, as I suppose most people do, but it occurs to me that there’s something cruel about a stationary beacon, winking at those in peril from the safety of the shore. A lighthouse that floats, however, is different. It is vulnerable itself. At any moment it, too, might be blown adrift.