The End | Neon Museum, Las Vegas, NV

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I started the year in a particularly American sort of ruin, a set of neo-Classical columns discarded by the architects of the U.S. Capitol and reborn as a starkly beautiful attraction in a snowy, wind-swept D.C. park. I am ending it in another, on the other side of the country, beneath sunny skies and palm trees amid the glittering clutter of Las Vegas.

It’s called the Neon Boneyard, an outdoor lot where the flashy metal icons of the Vegas Strip come to die. But it is not exactly death – here, massive neon signs that once stood tall atop hotels and casinos are preserved, even refurbished. They are the lucky ones; so many others have not been salvaged, but destroyed in televised implosions or otherwise lost.

You cannot enter this part of the Neon Museum on your own, and so I join a tour and shuffle along a path between towering piles of signs with a group of people who are (I assume) far more interested in the history of this city, its personalities and proclivities, than I am. I have never had any interest in Vegas’s gambling or glitz, but I am drawn to these neon ghosts, because even without the information-packed narration from the guide, they tell you all you need to know.

We are a nation that wants to be lucky, we want quick money and instant love. We thrive on the transience of hotels and motels and highways, incorporating and appropriating whatever culture will entertain or enrich or distract us until we’re bored and move on. We are childlike, attracted to the brightest and the biggest things, but our vices are deadly and our potential for accomplishment is boundless. We build cities in deserts and swamps and the middles of nowheres, believing they’ll be great successes, and sometimes they are. We drive happily along two-lane roads for days and days, guided by promises on billboards, the flashier the better. We believe we will end up somewhere safe, that everything will be fine, that the future will be brighter than the stars – and when it’s not, we risk it all to start over.

It was there in the columns rising from the snowy meadow in January, and it’s there in the relics of the Golden Nugget and the Tropicana Mobil Park and the Stardust Resort and Casino, now lying humbled in the sand.

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I didn’t reach my goal of traveling to every state this year. I only got to 32. (There are now six U.S. states I’ve never been to at all, and that I now want to see more than ever.) Thankfully, what limited my travels was simply lack of money and lack of time. Some of what I feared might stop me, like travel bans on certain kinds of people or violent mobs of Nazis in the streets, did come to pass. But through luck and timing, they did not personally affect me; I should say, they have not personally affected me yet.

When I took my first trip twelve months ago, I was afraid, both for the fate of America and my own place in it. I am just as afraid now, perhaps more so, though in slightly different ways. I am still profoundly uneasy on a daily basis, but now I also fear for the long-term; it is difficult to imagine a future that isn’t terribly bleak. But my only moments of hope this year, and of happiness, have come from what I’ve seen on the back-roads and street corners and open expanses of America. I am grateful to have seen so much of my country, and I still hope that I will be able to see more of it in the future. I hope, too, that anyone else who wants to travel here will be free to do so as well.

I didn’t know what I would find when I started this project. I had driven around the country before, in what then seemed like politically and culturally dangerous moments. But this, as I sensed and many people older and more knowledgeable than I kept saying, was different. What would it be like to see America in an unprecedented type of crisis? I found, to my surprise, that I was seeing the same country I had always known. It was alternately comforting and disconcerting to see so few signs of disruption and so few people doing anything outside of the ordinary. It also shone a bright spotlight on how inadequate most media coverage of this country has been since the 2016 election. I am sure, in many towns I stopped in this year, that if I’d whipped out a notebook and asked random diner patrons how they felt about some trending issue, I could have recorded vile, ignorant, shocking quotes that would have gotten more clicks than these little posts about my lonely wanderings. If I had done that, written that, it might have been accurate. But it wouldn’t have been the truth. And the truth is what I want in this age of lies.

Here is one thing that’s true, that I saw this year. America is already great precisely for all the reasons our unthinkable president wants to destroy it: its grand and troubled history, its diversity of people and landscapes, its vast wild places, the promises it has made that so many of its people still hope to extend to all.

Here is another. America was built by people who believed impossible things. They looked at foreboding mountains and built roads across them. They forded the widest rivers and then spanned them with bridges. They constructed municipal buildings and hotels in backwaters and boomtowns that look like gilded masterpieces fit for great cities. They came from far away and learned to survive, whether they chose to or not; or they came from right here and fought for their right to remain. In every state in this nation you can see their improbable triumphs, just as you can see the scars of war and injustice and greed. You can see, in brief flashes in this time of darkness, the possibilities that America represented to so many of those who came before.

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I tour the Neon Museum during the day, when the giant lights are turned off. But they are also open at night, when, the guide says, some of the signs are lit up. They don’t turn them all on, though – they wouldn’t even if they could – because the lights are meant to be seen from far away. Close up, clustered together, they would be overwhelming; the glare of what America once was and once believed it could become would blind you.

 

Awe | Arches National Park, UT

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They say it will be crowded, but it isn’t, not this early, not on this cold day. My car is one of just a few slowly making their way up the road into a world of uncanny sandstone formations, red-brown against the sky.

The road winds up and around, and the rock sculptures grow and shrink and change form, clustering together or standing boldly alone. Some are majestically tall, others round or spiky, and they go on and on and on. We few off-season visitors, ensconced in our cars, drive past them in awe. Some look like they should topple over, if the laws of physics applied. Some are lumpen yet finely wrought, like ancient fertility statues. They populate a dry, dusty land, but they were made by water, and though it now returns only for brief flash floods, the ground undulates like a seabed. In some places, it is more spectacular than the famous arches we have come to see; it spreads out beyond the roads and trails into forbidden gentle hills, painted in the pale rainbow shades of the earth laid bare.

Past knobs and bobbles and needles rising from the uneven ground, past red cliffs and rock faces with improbable apertures, I stay mostly on the road, because this is a place that eats hours. But sometimes I wander on foot, following the worn pathways to those views deemed most amazing in a landscape that piles one amazement on another. I hike up a trail that is essentially a sand staircase on which a thousand sneaker tracks have laid down an inscrutable cuneiform in the pink dust. In about a half-mile, it climbs a few hundred feet, and I am reminded that I come from sea level and this is a strange, high land, where what should be a simple walk becomes a test of endurance. But I continue, breathless, to the top, where you can stand on a sort of platform and look out at Delicate Arch, the one from the Utah license plate and a trillion Instagram pictures. Off in the distance, it looks like a collectable miniature of itself, like you could balance it on your palm.

Arches deserves a constant state of awe, but it is impossible to remain steadily amazed for three or four or however many hours it takes to wind my way through the park. Perhaps the early explorers of this land managed it, but I am too easily distracted, my brain fragmented by a million intruding thoughts. And so the astonishment fades, just as anger and fear eventually do, even when you know there’s constant cause to be livid and afraid. Eventually, even in this red rock wonderland, even in this terrifying world, mundane observations and worries creep in.

But there is one thought that takes hold in a moment of clarity somewhere between the sheer strange beauty of it all and the little distractions. There is construction going on in Arches, one phase of a lengthy project to improve the roads. And as we sit in a tiny, absurd traffic jam in a vast and surreal landscape, waiting for workers to usher our vehicles past their trucks and orange cones, this strikes me as both ridiculous and encouraging. Even as nearby National Parks are facing destruction, even as the country’s institutions and value systems are fighting to survive, even as unforeseen calamities seem to await each time I glance at Twitter or a TV screen, some of us have come today to see how spectacular America can be, and others are working to make it more spectacular still.

 

 

As Promised | Durango, CO

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State borders are arbitrary; or more accurately, they usually follow the needs and whims of humans rather than the cues of the land. But for some reason, whether it’s an illusion or a place’s culture imprinting itself on the map, something changes when you cross those invisible lines.

When I cross the line into Colorado I know instantly that yes, Colorado will be as promised, it will do exactly what it says on the tin. (It’s a cute tin, with little fir trees on it, and it’s made of recycled materials.) There is no cell signal as I pull over onto a dirt turn-out beside a perfectly on-brand sign. It is rustic, hanging in a rough log frame. Welcome to Colorful Colorado, it says, though the colors here are pale and faded, the windswept browns and greens of the mountains. Colorado knows to put that turn-out there, they know that I will stop and snap a photo, do their marketing for them free of charge.

Off to my left as I drive, a mountain rises, narrowing towards the top as if it wants to be a tower. It is Chimney Rock National Monument, but I know it’s something of significance before I see the sign. In these deceptively empty spaces, you know when you see a notable thing, because when you say to yourself, what in the world is that thing, you know that ever since people have been here, way back in  the murkiest depths of pre-history, they have been asking the same.

Soon, arresting black and white birds with elegantly too-long tails, begin to swoop and flit low to the ground beside the highway. I see one and think it’s astonishing, and then I see another and think I’m lucky, but when I see three and four, and when I lose count of them, I realize they are something Coloradans must regard as commonplace, the way I see seagulls. They are black-billed magpies, Google will tell me later; they live in the West, their tails can be more than half the length of their bodies, and when persecuted, they become wary.

I am going to Durango, which the guidebook I read before leaving describes as “a place where visitors come to do stuff, not see stuff.” I’m a bad visitor, perhaps, because I do not want to want to mountain bike or river-raft or even ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad 3,000 feet up the San Juan Mountains. I only want to see a piece of Colorado, because it’s here and so am I, and who knows if that will ever happen again.

Durango forms itself around a lazy avenue of a main street that stretches out parallel to the Animas River. There is a lovely old hotel, a reminder of a grander age, and small storefronts with facades that look as if they were hastily assembled in a gold rush frenzy and then, having proved sturdier than expected, were kept around to house coffee shops and cute little stores. The pace is slow and  everyone looks content. The parking meters have little arrows on them that point helpfully towards their corresponding parking space and say “This Car.” If you stand on the sidewalk, in front of a sporting goods store or a cluster of food trucks, and turn in a slow circle, you’ll see mountains rising in the distance on every side.

Everyone I pass is noticeably and uniformly thin and attractive, in an outdoorsy, makeup-free kind of way. They’re sportily well dressed in jeans and boots and slim-cut puffy jackets. They are all, I assume, capable of effortlessly hiking up a 14,000-foot peak after consuming several pints of locally brewed craft beer.

I feel as if I could have seen all this without seeing it. I could have conjured up Durango – and by extension, all of Colorado – in my imagination, informed by years of passively consumed tidbits and stereotypes and photos, and it would have been at least 90% accurate. This is the sort of place they name cowboy boots and SUVs after. But there are some things you cannot know if you don’t see a place for yourself, no matter how well you think you can envision it. For example: most mountain towns feel claustrophobic, penned in by their geography. Either the streets and buildings themselves seem cramped, or the ruggedness of the region requires lengthy journey on difficult roads; or the whole town is dominated by the sheer magnificence of the mountains looming above. But Durango suffers from none of these limitations. It feels wide open, from its wide streets to its wide sky. Its distance from other cities feels deliberate, pleasant even. And the peaks above it don’t threaten, as if they have decided that of all the mountain towns, they are willing to give this one room to be free.

What May Exist | NM

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The yellow signs begin as soon as I cross into New Mexico on I-10. DUST STORMS MAY EXIST, they warn. Further signs explain, in installments, like a Burma-Shave ad of disaster, what to do in the event of a surprise haboob. The instructions repeat countless times, over many miles, and I try to memorize them just in case. New Mexico calls itself the Land of Enchantment, as if one should expect the casting of a happy spell, but maybe the other side of that is a curse, or the fear of one.

I should say that I am already afraid of everything: spiders, carbon monoxide poisoning, getting stuck in traffic on bridges, strange noises outside, phone calls, parties, the chance that I might one day select “self-clean” instead of “off” on my oven. But when you are afraid of everything, you are effectively afraid of nothing, and when you are afraid of nothing you forget that sometimes fear is called for, sometimes it is real.

New Mexico throws fearful things at you and wraps them in a stunning but comfortless form of beauty. It has no reference points; this strange desert, high in the mountains, is not quite like any other beautiful place.

I try to cover as much ground as I can in a sparse wilderness dotted with gas stations and trading posts advertising gems and blankets. This appears to be where nature stockpiled everything fantastically strange, and then humans followed suit. I traverse black rock mountains, like giant piles of onyx, on which small, solitary trees sometimes grow, their leaves flaming gold. I cross a bridge spanning the empty space high above the Rio Grande, its delicate steel forced into the rock walls of the gorge. I spot the hulking Earthships, a 1970s vision that looks like a cross between a past that’s gone stale and a future that never came. I drive through White Sands Missile Range and wonder if it ever ends; I later look it up and re-frame it in New England terms: this remote military instillation covers 3,200 square miles, or 2.6 times more land than Rhode Island.

The whole time, I am worrying about altitude. I’ve been this high once before, crossing the Continental Divide on a northern highway. But that was many years ago, and I was just passing over the mountaintops, on my way back down into a valley. Here, now, I am spending several nights in what feels like the sky: 5,300 feet, 6,900 feet, 7,200 feet. I research altitude sickness and what one might do to prevent it; also how one cannot predict if one will suffer from it: it is one of those ailments that can only strike when it’s too late. It affects the heart and lungs, which happen to be the two organs of my body that don’t quite work properly, and the things you least want to fail when you are completely alone in the high desert. I’d always thought that elevations were posted on roadside signs at town borders as a sort of affectation, but suddenly I see that they, like the dust storm signs, are alerts.

But it isn’t just the elevation, it’s the emptiness. At one point, I find myself in the Carson National Forest. It covers 2,100 square miles (or the size of a non-contiguous Rhode Island) and I may be the only human in it. Remnants of snow, or precursors to it, lie gleaming beneath the trees. On another day, I drive for an hour and count 60 other cars, not one per minute but five or six close together and then long, long stretches of time where I feel like the most isolated person in the world. I have been to parts of America less populous than this, but they never felt this empty; perhaps because in those places, the mountains were picture-book blue and snow-capped, rising above the plains, and not soft tan slopes that blend into rugged grey-green hills that transform into red and alien ridges. The terrain can’t pick a planet, and the weather can’t pick a season; from scorching summer one moment, the temperature dips to an autumnal chill the next. In the mornings my rental car beeps a mysterious warning as its dashboard thermometer flickers between numbers, flashing an ominous snowflake, adding to the general sense of strangeness and unease.

But within the fear is sheer wonder. There is White Sands National Monument, where I drive through fresh plowed snow that isn’t snow but gypsum, white and fine, that blows across the road and doesn’t turn slick beneath my tires. I get out of the car and follow a boardwalk over an undulating gypsum beach, but there is no water, only more pure white dunes not made of sand.

There are the golden trees, which become a motif, reappearing here and there. They stand along the highway from Socorro to Albuquerque, where they, or others that share their molten ocher color, are planted along multi-lane roads in the outlying neighborhoods. They peek over the adobe buildings in the Old Town, so that the whole quietly captivating city is bathed in fiery light. They continue into Santa Fe, where I wander around the historic town square and explore the adobe-lined alleys and hidden courtyards. The air smells like something wonderful but almost too intense, like incense made from a secret prescription of herbs.

Taos smells like something too, some other concoction of complex ingredients, but this potion is disorienting and strange. Maybe I am only sensing that same vague fear that’s been following me. Maybe it’s just that it’s my birthday, and I don’t want it to be, or that it’s been almost exactly twelve months since the election that made everything feel wrong. Or maybe it’s Taos itself, which strikes me as a cramped cliché the minute I arrive.

And then I drive to Taos Pueblo, a few minutes and a thousand years away. I am afraid of this too, unsure about paying a fee to, essentially, wander through the neighborhood of some other Americans and stare at them as if they are museum exhibits instead of people. But I go anyway, and find a place I want to photograph forever but can scarcely describe in words. First, there is open, dusty ground, with a clean ribbon of river rippling through it. The world’s sleepiest dogs lie, as if placed at random, in the dirt. Beyond, there are mountains, distant and pale, and in their shadow, mud-walled buildings cluster together, stacked atop one another and joined into rambling apartment blocks with turquoise doors. Wooden ladders lean against the exterior walls, connecting the first floor to the second, the highest floors to the sky. The Red Willow people who live here have been living here since long before America was even the faintest glimmer of an idea in anyone’s mind. Perhaps they will still be living here long after the idea of America has been forgotten. I feel no fear or strangeness here, just time standing still for a moment, and space opening wide, allowing this astounding place to remain, making room for anything you could imagine.

Dust storms may exist, but they may not; one can never really predict. Something terrible may exist, or something astonishing. Fear, yes, but also ancient adobe towns with ladders instead of stairs, cities with concealed corners and incense-scented skies, flame trees surviving on black mountains, white dunes that are neither beach nor winter snow.

I Just Want To See It | AZ

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A line in a guide to Saguaro National Park, written in the form of a Q and A: “Do I have to get out of my car? I just want to see it.”

I drive into the desert morning of Arizona from Las Vegas, where I’d landed in the glittering dark the evening before. I need something different, something entirely new, an environment I haven’t been to in a state whose a history I know only hazily. Before planning this trip, I’ve never given Arizona much thought. But once I started, I wanted to do everything, to go everywhere, to stand on the ground in places that looked, on Google Earth, like cracks in weathered wood and grey veins in brown skin, like ancient wrinkled paper spread flat again and pale marble with deep red streaks. I couldn’t see it all, of course, but any of it would be worth something.

As I drive, the November day gets hotter. The road signs warn of winds and dust storms. The towns are afterthoughts: Why; Surprise. The rivers are the absence of rivers, with names that recall early miseries. I later look up one called Calamity Wash, but can’t find whether anyone bothered to record how it got its name; there must have been so many calamities.

In Saguaro National Park, I follow a dirt loop through a cactus wonderland. They are preposterous and wonderful, like tall green tube people with irregular numbers of arms, some reaching out to others that have no arms at all. They are comical, natural cartoons, but then the whole state is like a cartoon, in the best way. I tend to fight against stereotypes and quick impressions of places, because they are so often false, but here they are real: the giant cacti, not just inside the borders of parks that have been drawn around them but anywhere and everywhere; the vast ranches with curving gates above their driveways; the impossibly slim man in jeans and cowboy boots crossing an empty street into a shadow.

I was not expecting downtown Tucson, a calm and surprisingly sophisticated city, dotted with palms and dappled with sunlight and shade. In the historic district called El Presidio, hidden within an area of more modern office buildings and wide avenues, adobe homes and inviting little businesses line quiet streets. It all feels very private, as if just walking here is a special privilege someone happened to grant me today, as if secret courtyards are hiding behind every corner. Greenery is everywhere, or maybe I just appreciate bursts of flowers more when they grow in the desert. A “You Are Welcome Here” sign in three languages is stuck in a potted cactus outside a stately front door. A RESIST bumper sticker decorates a parked car. A turquoise line on the sidewalk leads to landmarks, but they have underestimated my love of turquoise, because to me the line itself is notable enough.

In Tucson, threads of Southwestern history that I never studied in Northeastern schools braid together, or tangle: Mormons and Mexicans and Conquistadors, Pima and Apache, and a Civil War battle between Confederates and Californians. An elaborate turquoise dome, more Middle Eastern than Southwestern, stands atop an old courthouse, warm against the cool blue sky.

But despite the strangeness, there is a familiarity too. I remember that though I have adapted to the New England coast over the years, I am genetically built for dry lands with brown wrinkled mountains, covered by cacti and palms and heated by sunshine.

I drive through the welcome heat into the mountains; I never knew that parts of Arizona were so high. The narrow roads roll out straight ahead and then blur at the bases of impossibly steep and seemingly inhospitable peaks. Every time, I think, it must curve there and find another way around, but every time, it goes up. And I climb, feeling small and weak in my little rental car in all this space, rounding switchbacks as the air gets thinner. I never knew there was a range called the Mule Mountains. I never knew there were U.S. Border Control checkpoints not located at borders.

I end up in the Victorian mining town of Bisbee, where tightly packed houses perch alarmingly on the slope of a gorge like desert bighorn sheep. Downtown Bisbee is one of the oddest places I’ve ever been, though I can’t exactly pinpoint why. It’s not just the odd mix of tourists, grungy hipster musicians, and people who choose to live in houses stacked vertically above warrens of winding driveways. It’s not just the architecture, dainty and sturdy and quirky all at once, or the street names: OK, Ore, Commerce, and Main. It’s an intangible weirdness, a sense of not being what I anticipated, though I hadn’t particularly anticipated anything in the first place.

Just outside of town, a multi-colored gaping wound opens in the earth, a former copper mine. It is called the Lavender Pit, and like its name, it is both beautiful and ugly. Beyond that, a vintage ghost town called Lowell stands stopped in time, retro movie set and relic of departed industry, and perhaps if you distilled America down until it was small enough to fit into one block, this would be the result. I see no one, but a dog barks at me from deep inside a building as I pass by on the sidewalk. Arizona is like that, I decide prematurely, having seen only a sliver of the western and southern portions of the state, full of empty places that turn out to be anything but empty. And I wish I had the time to find them all.

Earlier – was it only yesterday, or the day before? – I drove south from Tucson, along bone-dry roads with signs warning of floods. I followed the markers to San Xavier del Bac, an imposing mission church that dwarfed everything around it, including the formidable dusty landscape. I joined dozens of other people congregating in front of the spectacular Spanish building, patiently waiting to stand in the best spot to take a picture. I didn’t know what made me decide to come here; I assumed all those other people had a better reason than I. But maybe not. Maybe we all just wanted to see it.

 

Trapped | Galena, IL

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Galena is a small town that looks like a present wrapped in red bricks, or a make-believe world where all that’s required for life is wine and cheese and popcorn, and all anybody could want for entertainment is a useless little gift from a gift shop with a clever name. Galena calls to you from the pages of magazines, with pictures of its 19th century Main Street and accompanying paragraphs that make it sound like the prettiest Midwestern river town of them all. And though I have seen dozens of Midwestern river towns, and found a handful to be so pretty that I couldn’t possibly imagine anything better, I still wondered: Did Galena really have something all of them lacked?

Almost as soon as I get there, I can see that it doesn’t; it just has way better PR. As I search for a parking lot that isn’t full, I realize I could write a list of similar-but-better places in my sleep. And those places, the other old-fashioned all-American towns with historic storefronts lining a lovely central street near a riverbank, would have free and ample parking.

At first glance, there is nothing here to remind me that I’m in Illinois.  Galena could be anywhere in the Midwest or the South, but it could also be a slick re-creation of a typical American river town created by some theme park in Florida or Sweden or China. What eventually reminds me that I’m in the Land of Lincoln is Galena’s obsession with being the Land of Grant. There is a museum dedicated to him here, and you can tour the house where he received the telegraph telling him he was president, or stay in the hotel that served as his campaign headquarters. At one point, he walks past me on the sidewalk, wearing his blue uniform, and I have to stop myself from asking some actor if he didn’t think attempting to expel the Jews from Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee was just a tad un-American, just a bit more to the tastes of the Confederacy he was attempting to defeat, rather than Union he was fighting for.

It is pretty here though, if you lift your eyes above Grant and the shop windows and the heads of the shuffling hordes, or concentrate on the sidewalk, where little crab apples have fallen in response to the season’s first cool air. While the clustered storefronts and church steeples of Galena are not particularly unique, they are conveniently confined to Main Street. Tourists too unimaginative to turn the corner – as they’d have to in order to reach as many shops in one of the similar-but-better towns like Madison, IN, Marietta, OH, or St. Charles, MO – can in Galena simply stroll mindlessly until the cute runs out.

But as I walk, looking for a store selling anything I couldn’t find in any other cleverly commercialized historic town, I know I’m the strange one. People want what’s easy; that’s why every hotel in Galena is booked, and every inch of sidewalk is occupied. I realize, too, that this is the first time on my travels this year that I’ve seen a large concentration of foreign visitors. They, perhaps more than my fellow Americans trudging unthinkingly from gift shop to bar to steakhouse, depress me. I can almost sense them concluding that America is attractive enough on the surface, with its flag-lined streets, good for a quick Instagram photo, but that ultimately it’s a silly, empty country, distracted by too many varieties of hot sauce and sweaters that say “But first, wine.”

I walk the length of Main Street several times, as well as the parallel streets, which function as a sort of backstage for the show that is Galena. I’m looking for something that feels real, and even when I climb a set of stairs that takes me up above the parking lots and back doors to look down on the Galena River, I don’t quite find it.

And then I walk around one more time, and a bearded man wearing a baseball cap and strumming a guitar is sitting on the sidewalk singing “Light One Candle.” He’s several months early for Hanukkah, and I doubt more than a tiny handful of the people strolling past him or stopping to listen have any idea what his song is about. But there he is, as random and surprising and coincidental as anything else I’ve seen this year, singing of a Jewish uprising in the home of Ulysses S. Grant.

On my way out of town I notice something my eyes had skipped over earlier, an integral feature of Galena hidden in plain sight. Just before the entrance to Main Street – where the ticket booth would be if the town was in fact a theme park attraction – stand heavy, utilitarian-looking flood gates. On this day they’re open, just waiting to swing shut and enclose the town center the next time the water rises. In other places, I’ve seen bright murals painted along flood walls, but not here. Maybe Galena doesn’t want its visitors to notice this bit of infrastructure, or maybe they just don’t feel the need to make light of a frightening reality. As soon as I see the flood gates, I realize that earlier, when I climbed to the top of the stairs and looked down on the river, I was standing on a defensive wall. And for the first time, I see Galena not just as a tourist trap but a place worth protecting, a vulnerable place that, should it be washed away, would represent something valuable lost. It suddenly feels real.

The City From Above | Dubuque, IA

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Dubuque on a Saturday morning is the kind of place where you stand on an empty sidewalk and needlessly push the button for the walk signal, asking permission to cross an empty street. It is one of those cities with a lovingly restored clock tower in the center of its downtown, and a golden-domed courthouse that seems entirely too grand and too elaborate for the humdrum business of local government employees in the present day.

A street fair or market is setting up as I wander, trying to quickly grab onto some small sense of this place in the few hours I have to spend here. The people on the streets aren’t much help; they consist of a few joggers and small gaggles of men hanging out, with no discernible purpose, outside of businesses that aren’t open yet.

The city seems to be trying, in an endearing way, to be cooler than it is. There is free public Wi-Fi, and would-be edgy murals are splashed across a few walls. I find a very crowded coffee shop  in an area called the Millwork District, a name that evokes a gentrification that hasn’t quite materialized yet. As I walk away with my coffee, I pass a man lying tucked politely in the stairway of a law office; he looks so unworried in his sleep, so lacking the practiced invisibility of someone who lives on the streets out of necessity, that I convince myself he’s a lawyer who forgot his key.

I make my way to the riverfront. The water has been almost severed from the rest of the city by highways, and by the railroad tracks that came before them. A yoga class is beginning, its members congregating on a small plaza in the shadow of a pale grey bridge. They could be in any town anywhere in America. I walk for a while along the water, but the Mississippi here has no distinct personality either; there is nothing that illuminates its influence on the city.

I turn back towards where the land rises sharply to a vantage point high above the riverbank. At the base of the bluff is a small neighborhood called Cable Car Square, where sturdy old brick homes have been converted into shops. Here, at the abrupt dead end of a street that can climb no higher, is a small structure that resembles an impossibly quaint bus shelter. This is the Fenelon Place Elevator.

It’s not really an elevator so much as a miniature train on an alarming incline. It was built in 1882 by a wealthy man who lived at the top of the bluff and worked at the bottom, and disliked wasting his lunch break on maneuvering his horse-drawn buggy up and down the rugged hill. Today the funicular – sometimes called the shortest, steepest scenic railway in the world – hauls tourists 189 feet up the hill to the next block.

I wait at the diminutive shelter where the cable cars stop. When a car descends, I climb in, and sit on a wooden bench. The car fills with the few people who can fit inside, then begins to move. The climb is slow and rickety, along tracks that seem to be made of old wood and worn rope. As we are hauled up, the counterbalancing car slides down, and I watch it through the window and door of the little cable car, which doesn’t quite close. It should be terrifying, but it’s not – for some reason, as you wobble upwards, you have complete faith that the ropes will hold and the little car won’t run off the tracks and tumble down the slope.

I am the odd person out in the car, stuck with a family group; or rather, they are stuck with me. As we ascend, they talk about other scenic trains and trams they’ve ridden around the country, and about how the Mississippi, now growing smaller below us as we climb, really is the artery of America.

When we reach the top we pay the operator, who sits in a small booth there, and stand around looking down at Dubuque and the Mississippi below us and more of Iowa (plus some of Illinois and Wisconsin too) stretching out green and lush in the distance.

A small girl in the group decides immediately upon exiting the car that she wants to go DOWN!! But she, and all of us, have to wait for the car at the bottom, which has discharged its passengers, to return to the top.

The little girl grows increasingly unhappy, but I am finally content. From a jumble of highways and railroad tracks and architectural oddities, full of stores that open late and inhabitants who don’t seem to all belong in the same place, downtown Dubuque has been transformed into a neat grid of streets with square red and white buildings, arranged at a bend in the river. I am sure there it more to it, because there always is. Every tidy river town has its own tragedies and enchantments, if you have the time to find them. But because I don’t, I am happy to simply have this image of the city from above, a Dubuque that suddenly makes sense.

Soon the cable car returns, and we get in, I and the little girl and the adult who has been chosen to accompany her to the ground while the rest of the family stays up above. Now we are the descending car, sliding down as our counterpart goes up. We pass each other momentarily in the middle, fellow tourists doing the most exciting thing there is to do in a tidy river town, and then go our separate ways.