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.

Into the Driftless | Great River Road, WI

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The Great River Road begins in Minnesota, at the headwaters of the Mississippi, and zig-zags slowly south to where the river empties out below New Orleans. It is not one road, but many roads, cobbled together into a route the length of America. It is sometimes called a “National Route,” as if the rest of them aren’t, as if we’re not all irrevocably stuck together.

I am driving the stretch that belongs to Wisconsin, through 33 river towns – some so small they are less towns than forgotten clusters of buildings – and into a region called the Driftless Area.

I start in the north, in Prescott. It’s not the most dramatic of jumping-off points; it could be any small town anywhere in America. But there is a mural of a steamboat, marking this as a river town and serving as the first clue that it is one stop of many along a greater journey. Next to the boat are painted two people, a bearded man in a blue uniform and a woman in a grey dress. She holds a straw hat and looks away from him through a pair of binoculars, searching perhaps for another vessel, for adventure, for escape.

I drive on through farmland, into one of those swaths of America that are so wide open, so hastily and sparsely settled, that the roads have no names, just letters, like placeholders waiting for later populations who never materialized. I pass County Road QQ, followed inexplicably by County Road E. There are numbered roads here too, forming intersections that sound like addresses from some vast, densely packed city. But if you drove to the corner of, say, 620th Avenue and 1090th Street, you would only find more green fields.

Then the succession of river towns begins. In Diamond Bluff, railroad tracks run close beside the road, and I listen for the whistle of one of those trains that seem to last forever, those endless configurations of containers that stay beside you for miles and miles.

In Bay City, I write in my notes:

nothing, wayside, historical marker, speed limit 55

In Maiden Rock, population 119 (do they change the sign when someone has a baby, or just wait, vaguely annoyed by the inaccuracy, until someone dies?) the Driftless begins. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, when massive glaciers shaped the topography as they drifted across the landscape, this region was spared. It’s a striking place, if you’re used to lands that the glaciers have sculpted, with craggy bluffs that tower 500 feet or more above the wide Mississippi.

In Stockholm, population 66, Swedish flags fly outside tiny storefronts. Businesses have names like Stockholm Pie & General Store, and everything is casually adorned with pots of flowers.

In Pepin, boats float in the harbor between a wine bar called the Breakwater and an actual breakwater, which encircles them protectively. Here, the Mississippi River and Lake Pepin are one in the same, a conflation I don’t quite understand. It’s all extremely pleasant, but I feel like I’m struggling for the proper vocabulary to describe it, and thereby understand it – these towns are so different from the small Southern towns on the same river, and more like those on the shores of the Great Lakes or even the New England coast. Yet they’re not exactly like anything, they exist in their own, Wisconsin-y dimension, impenetrable to outsiders passing through.

Further south, the route takes a turn, and the rugged bluffs rise above the road. Towns here are carved into the narrow space between the bluffs and the river, with impossibly long main streets and few parallel roads. In Alma, the few roads that fit alongside Main Street are practically stacked on top of it, accessible on foot via concrete stairways that serve as cross-streets.

You can also drive up, higher than the step-streets go, high above the town, up and up and up through the lingering stench of a dairy farm, to the top of the bluff and a park called Buena Vista. Here, a rocky overlook offers a view of the wild river – tamed, for now, by the Army Corps of Engineers’ Lock and Dam #4. In the months when the river isn’t frozen, visitors can climb to an observation deck above the lock to watch the barges travel though.

I descend again to Main Street, an architectural blend of hardscrabble and adorable, where Swiss flags fly outside the little shops. A sign in front of the American Legion post brags, jokingly: The Best Town By a Dam Site.

Then I drive on to Fountain City, another nearly vertical town, eye-catching not just for its situation on the bluff but for its dainty buildings. The brick post office is tiny, with intricate arches and columns, and a colorful, curious-looking pub in the center of town claims to be the oldest operating tavern in Wisconsin.

I reach the village of Trempealeau, and I text my mom, I’m in Trempealeau, and she texts back, You made that up. I didn’t, but it’s true that this throwback of a town, with a wide main street that slopes down to the riverfront, doesn’t feel entirely real. It is so quiet here that it seems like all the inhabitants have moved on, abandoning the disproportionately grand commercial buildings and the picturesque little law office, leaving the sidewalks clean and the 19th century hotel with 1950s signage empty.

I reenter the modern world on the congested streets at the outskirts of La Crosse, the biggest city on Wisconsin’s stretch of the Great River Road. I don’t expect much from a town named for a sport synonymous with high school, evocative of interchangeable preppy girls who derided me almost as relentlessly as I despised them. But La Crosse is a surprise. The Mississippi here is a placid ribbon of grey-blue beneath a brightly-painted bridge, and I sit beside it on a bench in the sun as riverboats line up for sightseeing tours. Downtown, ghost signs decorate venerable brick walls and quirky Italianate facades hint at a former La Crosse, built on the fur trade and boosted by the railroad, hiding beneath today’s comfortable college town.

La Crosse feels like it should be the end of the road, but it’s only the halfway point, so I keep going. I pass Stoddard, Victory, and Genoa, about which I write nothing, then Ferryville, about which I record:

little strip of a village thrown together with old scraps of wood

and Lynxville, where one of those endless trains appears and stays beside me as I drive.

The river is closer now, and it has turned from blue to an amazing pale silver. Little misty wisps stand on end, rising up from the water, partly obscuring densely wooded islands. The bluffs loom above.

In Prairie du Chien, I wander along a main street lined with businesses – an appliance store, a liquor store, and other small-town essentials – that appear to have been unchanged for 70 years.

In Potosi, I walk around a tiny downtown that seems to have emptied itself of people and get lost driving on roads that cut strange angles through cornfields. With no cell signal and just a water tower for a landmark, I start to wonder if I’ll ever emerge from the maze. When I eventually do, I return to the Great River Road, but all of a sudden it becomes a highway, and all too soon I’m crossing the state line into Iowa.

I leave the road here, but I think of it continuing like this, in stops and starts through tiny specs of towns, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. I remember standing by the waterfront in New Orleans, not too far from where the river dissolves beyond those last wisps of Louisiana that are already more water than land. Somehow, looking at the Mississippi now as it stretches out below me in Dubuque, that doesn’t seem far away at all.

 

 

 

A Place That’s New | Minneapolis, MN

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If I’d given it any thought, I would have planned to travel to the states I’d never been to first. But I didn’t. I simply set out, haphazardly, where and when I could manage it, and so it’s well past the halfway point of the year before I fly over a perfect Midwest patchwork, neatly quilted in shades of green, and touch down in 2017’s first new-to-me state.

The airport terminal is named for one of the nation’s most glamorous white supremacists, America-Firsters, and Jew-haters. It’s just one more silent reminder, not that it is needed, of how many American cities barely bother to hide their history of hatred just below the surface, and of how changeable my status in my own country has always been.

The thought stays with me through the carpeted corridors but dissipates like fog when it meets the sun. Nothing can diminish the excitement of a place that’s new.

I find my way to downtown Minneapolis and end up on the west side of the Mississippi. My instant first impression is that a computer model of a generic North American city has been brought to life. I feel as if I’m standing in one of those images of proposed shopping centers or train stations, the kind that are projected onto screens at zoning meetings. It’s unnerving; had I been dropped here blindfolded and without warning, I couldn’t begin to guess where I might be or whether I’d been here before. I remind myself that I know exactly where I am, but I feel slightly disoriented, the way you feel just before you realize you are lost.

I walk, in desperate search of Minneapolis’s personality. At first, I see only hordes of very young corporate drones, overwhelmingly white, dressed in Madewell or Everlane. They walk to lunch in tight groups, like kindergartners tethered together on an outing, or stand alone on sidewalks, absorbed in their phones. Clean light-rail trains approach their stations, and tall, inoffensive buildings stretch towards the perfectly blue sky. Bars proliferate, and beer, especially, is everywhere. One would not want to live here if one did not like beer.

Slowly, the city’s individuality is revealed. Overhead, pedestrian walkways connect buildings at their second story – I spot one, then two, then I lose count. Most are sleek, like glass elevator shafts turned sideways, but each is slightly different, with its own little stylistic flair. These are the Skyways, which link together 69 blocks across seven miles, the longest such network in the world. It is brilliantly sunny and hot out, but I try to imagine the inviting warmth and light of the Skyways in the long months of cold and darkness, when icy streets are piled with snow.

Minneapolis, I read somewhere, comes from mni, the Dakota Sioux word for water, plus the Greek polis, city. Like most places, its true identity emerges at its waterfront, where I wander instinctively in search of peculiarities older than the Skyways.

I walk beneath a stone bridge, arched and pale like a structure from antiquity. It spans the Mississippi, as it has since 1883, but where it used to carry passenger trains, it is now reserved for pedestrians and cyclists.

I find myself nearly alone in Mill Ruins Park, a sunken garden of partially crumbled stone walls in the shadow of the shiny city. Most municipalities would have torn down and paved over what remains of this old flour mill, or simply put up barriers around it and let it crumble. But here its hollowed out rooms are allowed to stand, filled in with walkways over murky wetlands and patches of grass.

High above it all, the sign atop the old North Star Woolen Mill stands out. NORTH STAR BLANKETS, it says, the words encircling a star. The building is now full of lofts; the historic sign looks like it was designed five years ago to appeal to high-income hipsters.

Further along the river, I find the site of the earliest bridge built across the Mississippi – not the first in Minnesota, but anywhere, ever, all along the river’s 2,300 miles. Today there is a pleasant little space to sit by the water here, called First Bridge Park. A lineup of bronze frogs and turtles, arranged from small to large, is arrayed on a low wall beside a footpath. It’s meant for children, of course, not aimlessly wandering adults who happen to look down. But as a child I would have taken it for granted; now I know how much care must have gone into it, how much thought and artistry, and how many people must pass by without noticing the effort. I pause to read a question carved into the sidewalk. It says: Can you find 13 worms?

I cross the river to the east side, where the surroundings start to feel more industrial, the atmosphere calmer. The gleaming office towers are gone, replaced by parkland and old stone mills reborn as apartment buildings. This was a separate town, called Saint Anthony, until it merged with Minneapolis in 1872. Its old main street remains, paved with red bricks, and where it stretches along the river, the pace of this already slow and polite city becomes even more leisurely. Later, I will investigate other neighborhoods, further out from the city’s center, where the ambiance will be different, and this feeling will be lost. But here, where bright umbrellas shade outdoor diners and tufts of greenery poke up between the cracks in the brick sidewalks, there is an almost European sense of contentment.

None of it is unfamiliar, yet there’s something unknown about it, as there is in any new place. I think there must be something important to know about America here, in the state where the Mississippi begins its long journey southward. But I have to leave soon, for another new-to-me state, and this city of flour and beer and bridges, of old mills and waterfalls, of Dakota words and Nordic names and unsettling history, will soon fade behind me as I follow the river south.

Hideaways | Mountain Towns, NC

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America is speeding towards the edge of some unprecedented cliff, but in the pointed wedge of western North Carolina, where forests color the map green and mountains give it the look of crumpled paper, you would never know it.

For two days I drive and walk around the small mountain towns near Asheville, and no one seems alarmed – or pleased, for that matter – by the state of current events. No one looks as if they feel the way I do: unable to comprehend how anyone is doing anything but endlessly screaming. Here, in the Blue Ridge Mountains – or the Great Smokies, or the Appalachians, or whatever name these hazy peaks go by in this corner of the world – there is no outward evidence that anyone cares about anything beyond this place or this moment.

As I drive, I feel I’m not going forward but upward, constantly struggling against the terrain. Towns that should be ten minutes apart by car take half an hour to reach on narrow winding roads, and I wonder whether inland mountains necessarily make for insular places. Though it’s more difficult than I’d anticipated, I try to get to as many towns as I can, just to see them, like the curious mountain-climbing bear in the song.

In Sylva, where a gleaming white courthouse towers over a nostalgic postcard of a main street, a boy raising money for his school football team tries to sell me coupons, and a toddler loitering adorably outside a store says hi.

In Black Mountain, a crowded, hippy-ish sort of place full of the kind of cutesy public art and cookie-cutter shops that would make a prettier town charming, a seasonal festival has taken over a section of downtown. A woman standing beside me at a crosswalk asks, “Are you going to the show?” and is genuinely shocked when I say no.

In tiny Chimney Rock, where rugged commercial buildings are crammed close together below the mountains, and neighboring Lake Lure, where the flat, yellow-tinted beach strikes me as a faded, reduced-size copy of what a beach vacation should be, I’m instantly transported to a bygone era of American tourism that I didn’t think existed anymore. I later realize that Dirty Dancing was filmed here, and it all makes sense. The Jews were restricted to their Catskills resorts due to discrimination, and the North Carolinians are confined to their hokey towns and man-made lakes because of mountains.

I quickly tire of the mountains. There is something vaguely menacing in their constant presence, something oppressive in the way they dictate every aspect of life. And they are relentless; at one point, I cross the Eastern Continental Divide, and it feels no more momentous than any of the other hills that become valleys that become hills and on and on. But some towns feel more open than others, like quiet Rutherfordton, where I find knowingly retro murals and a sweet little brick-paved pocket park off the main road.

Other towns seem more upscale, like Hendersonville, where the downtown resembles an outdoor shopping mall. On spotless sidewalks in front of bland restaurants and office buildings, a parade of colorful painted bears wait to be auctioned off for charity. The bears have themes; one wears a suit and tie, one holds an ice cream cone. Many are mothers with babies, who do not stand but sit, the larger bears enclosing the cubs protectively.

Before I leave, I decide at the last minute to go to Saluda, a one-block town of a city at the top of the “steepest, standard gauge, mainline railway grade in the U.S.,” per the sign beside the now-disused train tracks. Opposite the tracks, low brick buildings house the library, the oldest grocery store in North Carolina (opened in 1890), and the minuscule municipality’s offices. Here, in this spot I almost didn’t reach, it all coalesces: the wooded peaks, the unpretentious but slightly sophisticated vibe, the gentle curve of the street along the tracks. Maybe, I think for a moment, if I lived here in this rustic hideaway, it would make perfect sense to ignore the real world. One could exist here, suspended like a reflection in a drop of mountain rain, and ignore the dangers lurking beyond.

And then I turn around and drive out the way I drove in, down the mountains and up the mountains and on and on until I’m far from North Carolina and my memories of its western towns, their idiosyncrasies and their isolation, are already fading.

Americana | Chattanooga, TN

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From the 1930s to the 1960s, barns across great swaths of America were covered with hand-painted letters that yelled out to passing motorists: SEE ROCK CITY. For hundreds of miles, dotted throughout nineteen states, the black-and-white advertisements blanketed 900 barns and lured countless drivers to Tennessee. Some of the painted barns still exist, though I have never seen one in the wild. If I had, I probably would have rolled my eyes, as I’ve done at billboards for Wall Drug and South of the Border, and kept driving. But suddenly I want to do something corny and all-American, something touristy and hokey and overpriced. So I am going to Rock City, at the top of Lookout Mountain high above Chattanooga.

Lookout Mountain is technically in Georgia, so as my rental car slogs up the winding road, I feel like I’m cheating on my Tennessee trip already. (I justify this with the thought that if any state is okay with being cheated on, it’s Tennessee; they’ve had decades to write the playlist.) I continue slowly up the mountain, crossing what has to be one of the weirdest state lines I’ve ever seen, the marker stuck in the woods halfway up the rugged slope. I finally reach the parking lot, across from what has to be one of the strangest places anyone ever thought to put a Starbucks.

Then I pay $19.95 and enter through a sort of turnstile into a bizarre yet familiar hybrid of natural wonder, theme park, and rich developer’s fantasy, with a dash of Christianity and European folklore thrown in. (America in miniature, if you will; there was even a Civil War battle here.)

Rock City is, in the simplest terms, a spectacular ancient rock formation “discovered” in 1823 by two missionaries who came to convert local Indians. One called it “a citadel of rocks,” naturally arranged in a manner “as to afford streets and lanes.” Long after the missionaries and the Indians were gone, Garnet Carter looked at Lookout Mountain and saw a business opportunity.  His wife Frieda had planted flowers, arranged rocks, and mapped out a path through the boulders on their property; Garnet thought people might pay to see it. Today, tourists follow a stone walkway that wends between towering cliffs and stretches high above caverns. Along the trail are various opportunities to spend more money, like restaurants and open-air shopping areas where vendors peddle local crafts. Birdhouses hanging from tree branches are painted red like barns, with SEE ROCK CITY on their roofs.

Numerous signs warn politely, “Please stay on the trail.” But it would be difficult not to without tumbling down the rocks to the valleys below. The trail loops and drops, widening like a garden path then contracting into tight spaces with names like Needle’s Eye and Fat Man Squeeze. It crosses pretty stone bridges to expansive views from atop the crags. These have names too, like Lover’s Leap, where everyone congregates to take pictures of the blue and green below. They claim you can see seven states from up here, but although this doesn’t seem impossible to verify, no one has ever confirmed it. Perhaps that’s because some larger barns were painted with SEE 7 STATES FROM ROCK CITY, and changing it to two or three would ruin a perfectly good slogan.

As the crowd shuffles its way along, the massive rock formations are damp from a recent rain shower, and the ground is still slightly wet. The rain is a jarring reminder that this attraction – apart from the lampposts and carefully labeled flower gardens, the rainbow lights that fill one corridor and the swinging bridge that spans a green abyss – is natural. The absurd, oversized “Mushroom Rock” is real; so is the tilted “Balanced Rock” suspended precariously above us. Parents take pictures of their children posing underneath it, perhaps forgetting that it’s not a photo-op, like a painted board you stick your face through at a fair, but an accident of geology, one which the slightest of tremors would instantly topple.

The gardens are inhabited by white-spotted fallow deer, who apparently live harmoniously beside a painstakingly constructed community of gnomes. Or maybe they are goblins, or fairies, or maybe these are all the same; in any case, the diminutive bearded figures might be less child-friendly than they seem; among other things, they brew moonshine in a tiny still. An enclosed area lined with garish dioramas of nursery rhyme characters is lit like a Christmas-themed horror movie and called Fairyland Caverns; this is a nod to Frieda Carter’s love of German fairy tales and her husband’s early, unsuccessful attempt to build a neighborhood called Fairyland up here. (One of the community’s perks was to have been a golf course; out of its failure came the invention of miniature golf.)

Fairyland Caverns is near the end of the trail, perhaps to keep visitors from bailing early due to creepiness. Shortly after exiting this dark land of unsettling pocket-sized beings, you reach the gift shop, where SEE ROCK CITY birdhouses and other branded clutter are sold.

You leave Rock City the same way you entered, feeling as if you have been dumped back too soon into the dullness of reality. Maybe, if Lookout Mountain had been located elsewhere, it would have become a state park, its stunning geology preserved with just the additions of the lighting and smooth walkway. But now, it is nearly impossible to picture it without restaurants and gnomes.

I decide I need some culture to balance out the kitsch, so I follow the curving road back down the mountain to downtown Chattanooga and find the Hunter Museum of American Art, a historic Classical Revival mansion with an awkward modern addition balanced on a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River.

Inside, I wander into a room full of the “word paintings” of Chattanooga native Wayne White. These juxtapose oversized, often brightly colored and cartoonish letters over bucolic scenes. They are captivating, the kind of thing you instantly want in your living room even if you typically can’t stand contemporary art. Later, I pore over images of them online, trying to decide which of them most perfectly encapsulate the personal and national uncertainty and pessimism I can’t escape from. Maybe the one with “All That Fake Laughin For Nothin” tucked into an autumnal scene in which a little girl and some geese stand in front of two houses by a stream. Or the one where rainbow letters spelling “But All Things Fell” swirl out of the trees. Or the one that blends the word “Clusterfuck” in hazy yellow letters with a matching, pastoral landscape and a tortured tree. Or the one that spells out “Eastern Fuckit” in minty blue and white over a what looks like an early promotional campaign for a cross country journey, a pale rendition of a path leading temptingly towards distant mountains.

The first of the word paintings, I later read, was inspired by the oversized letters of the SEE ROCK CITY barns, themselves an artistic feat led by Clark Byers, who, the New York Times noted in its obituary of him, “braved charging bulls, slippery roofs and lightning bolts to get the job done.”

I move on to another exhibit, titled “With Liberty And Justice For All: Art and Politics during the 1976 Bicentennial.” This begins with Union Mixer by Colleen Browning, a deconstruction of the American flag reassembled in quilt-like squares and blended with images of different faces, facing each other, all in shades of red white and blue. It, like several other works in the museum (including Robert Indiana’s Liberty ’76, which grabs me with its advertising-like pull and makes me want it in poster form every time I see it) were part of the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio, for which edgy, slick, independence-themed works were commissioned from various artists. That’s Kent as in the brand of cigarettes; the fine print beside the works notes that they were a gift from tobacco company Lorillard.

I drift through the rest of the museum in the wrong order and at the wrong pace, just absorbing, unfiltered, a rush of Americana, all of it seemingly urgently relevant and newly meaningful.

Edward Henry Potthast’s In the Far Northwest, Montana, which captures the foreboding mountains and dense fir trees and glimpse of clear water that once lured me, like so many others before me, along the Missouri into the cold.

George Luks’s Allen Street, a 1905 New York street scene where imprecise strokes muted tones with a dash of vivid brightness capture a life lived in tenements and on sidewalks, a world my own family could have lived in.

Thomas Hart Benton’s Wreck of the Ol’ 97, in which the occupants of a horse-drawn car confront a steaming locomotive in lurid colors.

Ralston Crawford’s Grey Street, a gloomy monochrome screenprint of an empty highway, created sometime between the two World Wars, an “uncertain time,” says the sign, when “people are scared and the world seems unsure.”

Charles F. Blauvelt’s The Immigrants, painted around 1850, of a weary, Scandinavian-looking woman with a baby and a toddler sitting amid bales and crates on a dock. Between 1830 and 1900, the sign says, President Andrew Jackson had inspired “great hope and optimism,” and the “promise of opportunity for all Americans led artists to paint well-established Americans and new immigrants, women and children, rich and poor.”

Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of George Washington.

Alfred Jacob Miller’s The Trapper’s Bride, in which a Native American girl in a gleaming dress is offered to a slightly perplexed-looking young white man in fringed over-the-knee boots.

Edward Moran’s The Burning of the Philadelphia, in which the captured American frigate, daringly set alight in Tripoli Harbor, seems to glow from within the canvas.

The works on paper by Edna Pennypacker Stauffer, a New York socialite in the era of early 20th Century luxury travel, who, while magazine photographers snapped pictures of the rich and famous in the hotspots of the moment, chose instead to record the places themselves, devoid of people, in black and white.

And then, James Hope’s Chattannoga From Lookout Mountain, an unspoiled, late 19th century version of almost the same view I had earlier at Rock City. There are no crowds in the scene, no gnomes or rainbow-hued lights. Hope, an artist and captain in the Union Army, sketched what he saw as he traveled through the South during the war. I wonder, when he returned to New York to transform his memories into paintings, whether he felt anything like I do now: overwhelmed by the sheer scope and contradiction of America, the hopelessness and exhilaration, not sure I can ever untangle it all in my mind and lay it out on paper in a way that anyone else will understand.

Falling | Rome, GA

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I fly into Atlanta and immediately drive out of Atlanta, through that mess of municipalities I can never categorize; are they suburbs? neighborhoods? cities? Does anyone know or care? A man stands begging in the traffic at a busy stoplight. He holds a little scrap of a sign that says something like, “A long way from home.” I roll down my window and hand him a few dollars and he says something “Thank you, beautiful, God bless you” and I say something like “Good luck” but I am thinking, “We’re all a long way from home.”

I am going to Rome, in what the Georgia Department of Economic Development calls the Historic High Country. There is a storm gathering, a warning breeze cutting through the Southern heat. I force my reluctant rental car up a hill in a district of quiet streets and pretty houses. I keep going, up and up, until I think the unfamiliar gear shift won’t let me drive any higher. But the car makes it, just barely, and I walk through a little park to the brick clocktower that looks out over the city.

Georgia’s Rome was named for ancient Rome; it has seven hills with three rivers winding between them. It also has a Forum (a concert and event venue), and a collection of ethnic restaurants (Thai, Italian, Mexican, “New York Style” pizza), that seem to nod at its namesake empire from the foothills of Appalachia. In front of City Hall there is a replica of the Capitoline Wolf, a gift from the governor of Rome in 1929, “by a signed order of the Italian Dictator, Benito Mussolini,” the city’s website explains. Close up, Romulus and Remus look surprisingly authentically babyish, with round cheeks and pudgy stubby legs. A plaque on the statue’s base says, “From Ancient Rome to New Rome.” When it was first unveiled here, many residents appreciated its artistry. But some were “offended by it and felt it was shocking and not something to be viewed by ladies and children.” Sometimes, when crowds of people came into town for an event, diapers were placed on the sculpted babies for propriety. In 1933, one of the babies was “kidnapped” and never found, but “another twin was sent from Italy to replace the missing one.” The statue was removed for its own safety when Italy declared war, but in 1952 it was returned. At the time, people must have imagined Fascism had been vanquished. The memory of Mussolini, with his ranting speeches punctuated by peculiar little hand movements, must have been fading into the past as America charged forward.

Downtown Rome looks much like every other historic downtown I have found myself in this year.  There is an 1920s movie theatre called the DeSoto, and block after block of small storefronts, no two alike. Children play in little fountains, couples sit on benches, and before I turn off the car radio, cheesy songs about Jesus seep through the speakers. It could be almost any year, and almost any place. In the pre-thunderstorm heat, I could be walking through a small town in the South, or the Midwest, or even the Northeast. It’s not till I see a few palm trees in a neatly landscaped parking lot that I remember I’m in Georgia, and not some charming but generic American Anywhere.

The city becomes more interesting, and more itself, when I turn to walk along the narrow streets that run behind the storefronts. Here, where painted brick walls are adorned only with gas meters, and garbage bins stand by back doors, I catch glimpses into the alleys between the restaurants. Here, by the river, where no one else is walking, I think of the first Rome and its network of pipes and aqueducts, the hidden infrastructure that connected an empire. I remember that the decagonal brick clocktower on the hill above this Rome, which looks like an iconic decoration, a folly, conceals the city’s old water supply tank.

I recall a theory my memory may have twisted over time. It went something like, “Optimists believe America is like Athens; pessimists believe America is like Rome.” As a would-be optimist who was once so obsessed with ancient Greece that I studied its elegant, frustrating, dead language, I sided with Athens. Now I can’t see how either city’s fate is one modern America would wish for. Georgia has an Athens too, a crowded college town I spent an hour in and instantly decided I didn’t care for. In Georgia terms, at least, I like Rome better. If America is falling – if we crumble, torn apart from within by incompetent leaders, cheapened by general corruption and cultural decline, breached by invaders, decimated by disease – I suppose there are worse fates than ending up like Georgia’s Rome. It’s quiet here, at least; it’s peaceful. There are little fountains and sidewalk tables. The people strolling around the clocktower don’t even seem to notice the coming storm.

Magic City Streets | Birmingham, AL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kentucky Fail | Bardstown, KY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The long version is unbelievable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A City Or a Dream | Cincinnati, OH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Country Road | US 50, West Virginia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golf Cart Utopia | New Harmony, IN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Detroit on Saturdays | Eastern Market, Detroit, MI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

First Light | Lubec, Maine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mermaids and Pirates | Amelia Island, FL

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Once upon a time, I had a reason for wanting to go to Amelia Island. But that was long ago, and the reason has been lost, and now I only have “Amelia Island” written on a list of someday destinations, like a forgotten address on a slip of paper tucked into an old book. But why not go anyway, I think, so I drive south, to the last of the Sea Islands, just past where Georgia and Florida meet in the Atlantic.

This strip of land, smooth on the ocean side and craggy where it’s separated from the mainland by the meandering Amelia River, has been conquered by so many different powers (some major, some fleeting and obscure) that it’s known as the Isle of Eight Flags.

Whatever it was I once expected to find here, it certainly wasn’t pirates and mermaids, depictions of which are everywhere, or low-slung houses on hushed streets named for a fantasy forest of mismatched trees: gum, date, jasmine, fir, cedar.

I wander around downtown Fernandina Beach, one of several hazily delineated communities on the island. It is the sort of place where all-American Main Street meets permanent vacation, where childhood blends into retirement. A life-sized pirate stands outside of Florida’s oldest bar, and a mermaid is painted on the exterior wall of an antique store. The post office flanked with palm trees. There is something detached about this place, timeless or removed from time. The eight flags of past regimes fly proudly over Florida’s oldest hotel, and I get the feeling nothing much would change here if a new one was raised. The tether to reality seems frayed, and only the smallest things, like a TRUMP sticker on a large, shiny car, bring me back to real life.

South of Fernandina Beach, down the coast, past a cavalcade of increasingly eclectic vacation homes, I turn off the main road toward the beach. I walk over a raised boardwalk, one of several that cross the dunes like tributaries, leading to the ocean. I cross the scorching sand, looking out for the four-wheel-drive vehicles that are allowed to drive beside the sunbathers relaxing on towels. I stand ankle-deep in the Atlantic, sandals in hand, and watch the waves come and go, and come and go, and come and go.

Soon enough, I think, I will be standing in the Pacific, if this mad, broken world survives long enough for me to get there. It seems impossible; but then, when I started this long drive south last week, it seemed equally impossible that I would soon be here.

I walk back to the parking lot and drive away, around a roundabout and down a road completely shaded by a canopy of moss-laden trees. I cross the low bridge back to the mainland. Over the next few days I will drive northward, past garish billboards, through violent bursts of rain, into and out of snarls of traffic, past colorful splashes of wildflowers planted in the median of the highway. When I get home it will be cold and damp, and I will scarcely believe that I was just standing in a turquoise ocean under a blue sky. Florida will start to seem almost imaginary, like an eye-patched pirate, or a mermaid rising from the foam.

 

Shadows | Charleston, SC

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I go to Charleston not because I desperately want to see it, but because of timing and weather, like a bird blown astray in a storm. After hastily reserving a hotel room, I sit reading the CVB website. It promises, “Everything you’ve heard is true.”

I have heard a lot about Charleston. Everyone has. It is one of those cities you hear about, and read about, and see carefully staged photos of, whether you have any interest in going there or not.

I hover my cursor over tours of Fort Sumter (“Travel back in time to the site where the Civil War began…comfortable, spacious boats boarding daily…”) and “adventure sightseeing plantation tours.” I click on one attraction that claims to be “America’s most photographed plantation,” drawn in by a photo of spectacular live oaks paired with the words “if these trees could talk.”

The CVB has a blog, called Charlestonly, an unwieldy word I spend a bit too long pondering. Is it a self-satisfied portmanteau of Charleston and only, as in, “Charleston is the only place worth visiting?” Or is it an adverb? “She wore her navy-and-white shift dress charlestonly, accessorized only with a tasteful gold bracelet and earring set and a small fluffy dog.” The blog proffers suggestions for different types of trips, including a “Gluten-Free Guide,” a “Guys’ Getaway,” and a “Family Playcation,” as well as one called “On a Whim,” which I suppose is a good description for my own trip. I don’t click on “On a Whim,” but I note its teasing line of text: “Charleston’s cocoon of gentility is a visual feast for anyone who enjoys curious details, secret alleyways, an unexpected pop of blue, and Instagram.” I do enjoy those things. I suddenly hate myself. But maybe it will be wonderful; maybe everything I’ve heard, every advertisement disguised as enthusiasm, is true.

The next morning, I join a parade of vehicles driving in slow circles around the cocoon of gentility, searching for a parking space. After my third turn around a particularly busy block dominated by the Confederate Museum, I realize that a typical trip to Charleston is not the life-changing charm immersion that social media influencers are paid to promote, but an exhausting slog through a nice-enough city packed with far more visitors than its venerable streets can handle.

Finally, I find a garage and abandon the vehicular gridlock to join the pedestrian gridlock, which thankfully dissipates as I turn off the main roads. It is gloriously hot out, and I am thrilled simply to be surrounded by sunshine and palm trees. The city is pretty enough, on certain blocks, as anyone with access to Instagram knows. But it is just that, pretty enough, the city equivalent of how my college dramaturgy professor described Phebe in As You Like It, “the prettiest girl in a town of seven girls.”

As I walk past cemeteries and boutiques, eavesdropping on the banter of the tour guides in the horse-drawn carriages, Charleston overlaps in my mind with other places I have been, like Savannah, a more complex and visually stunning take on Southern charm, and Miami, a more cosmopolitan celebration of color and warmth.

Some cities break free from these trite comparisons, but Charleston never manages to, for me. It is a shadow of other places I have been, and I suspect that without photos, my memory of it would fade into memories of those other places. It might have been different if I had been able to see it without the nonstop sales pitch, the preppy pastel hype. But that’s impossible now, and so, sadly, the real place falls short.

And yet, beneath the relentlessly marketed surface, there are moments that make this trip worth it, more than other check-mark travel experiences like Times Square on New Year’s Eve or the top of the Eiffel Tower.

I will probably forget the King Street shopping district, where historic Smarties-colored storefronts resemble a midscale outdoor mall. But I will remember the patterned bricks and tiles of the alleys that sneak between Charleston’s houses. I won’t recall much of the City Market, a sort of mix of New Orleans’s French Market without its seedy edge and Boston’s Faneuil Hall without its residual 18th century gravitas. But I will still think of the tired gait of the white horse driven by a silent guide, his carriage momentarily empty of tourists.

I will remember one cobblestone street, shaded and quiet, with pale houses and delicate trees, that is far prettier than all those photos that make Charleston look like a child’s birthday cake draped in Spanish moss.

I will remember wandering onto that street, and walking towards the largest building on it, an old slave market. It is a heavy, imposing building, like a fort, with black lettering spelling out MART above the gate on the arched entryway. It is a museum now, and I will remember standing on the cobblestones in the heat, thinking how the word “museum” safely sorts events into the past – as if they’re over, as if they can’t get out and bleed into the present – when in fact they’re not really past at all.

And as much as I love palm trees, their absurd exuberance and the way they bend but do not break in lashing rain and hurricane winds, in Charleston I will remember not the showy splash of the palm fronds but their shadows, black and grey, echoes splayed across the sidewalks.

A Blue Green World | Blue Ridge Parkway, VA

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At an unpromising jumble of highway ramps in Virginia, the Blue Ridge Parkway begins. From here it continues south into North Carolina, a 469-mile stripe of asphalt carving a meandering path through the Appalachian Mountains.

On the map, it is depicted as a green line, like someone with a highlighter has marked the most scenic route through the region’s rugged terrain. In real life, it looks just how you’d expect a road constructed as a self-guided tour of perfect vistas to look. It curves and dips, twisting and unspooling to reveal the best angles of layers of mountain peaks rising into blue mist. Frequent overlooks are positioned just above the most stunning scenes.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is the most visited unit of the National Park Service. It is often called “America’s Favorite Drive.” But that doesn’t mean it’s crowded when I begin my drive early on a weekday morning. In the absence of other humans to observe, I keep a mental count of wildlife: a red bird; a green bird like a flapping leaf; a chubby brown mammal I can’t identify, hovering hesitantly where the road meets the grass; a squirrel standing straight up on its back legs. As I drive on, the list expands: cows; white horses; a turkey in the brush; a tentative deer; a chipmunk that scurries, incredibly fast, across the road; a grey-brown bird that flies, at windshield level, in front of my car for a whole minute.

Later, as the Blue Ridge Parkway wakes up, my list expands to include people: a hiker holding a phone; a red truck; a white truck; a motorcycle; a bicycle; men fishing in a lake; a woman and man who have pulled over to take photographs of flowers.

But even before other travelers cross my path, there are signs of human life, past and present, all around: log cabins, cylindrical hay bales, tiny old graveyards surrounded by fences or stone walls. There is limited cell service here. The connection to the outside world comes and goes. Private roads and potential detours intersect with the Parkway; these routes and where they might lead are mysteries. There are towns down there, I know, and I’m sure they are little mountain jewels I would regret missing if I knew more about them. But the Parkway itself is like a river, with a current of its own, and I want to stay on it.

Although my temporary world consists of nothing but mountains and roadway, it is not monotonous. The ridges change from green to blue and back again; the trees along the road close into shadow-casting canopies then open up to let the sun stream in. Some sections of this road could be the stretches between houses in the suburb where I grew up, but others feel more isolated, and more spectacular. There is only one tunnel on Virginia’s half of the Blue Ridge Parkway – North Carolina has 25 – but there are several pretty little stone arch bridges.

Parts of the road have guardrails, rustic rock walls or low wood fences, but other parts have no safety measures at all, nothing preventing you from plummeting hundreds or thousands of feet down.

Little white flowers bloom beside the road; the wind has strewn their petals across it. Later, little yellow flowers replace them. At one point, formerly green trees explode with peach flowers. South of Roanoke, the roadside colors become brighter: pink flowers, then orange, then occasional bursts of purple.

I exit the Blue Ridge Parkway just before the North Carolina line, and just before a thunderstorm. I am going east again tomorrow, through the fog, out of the mountains, and back into the land of cell towers. But part of me wants to keep going as far as the Blue Ridge Parkway can take me, to follow the green highlighter squiggle further into the Black Mountains, and, in the words of the National Park Service, “through the Craggies, the Pisgahs, the Balsams, and…the Great Smokies.”

The Blue Ridge Parkway combines everything that was once good about America – it is impossible to imagine anything like it being built now, and almost impossible to believe it was done then. Conceived to benefit the nation by creating jobs in an economically depressed region, expertly planned by the most qualified and careful designers, built by a combination of private contractors and government-funded public works programs, this park within a park within a glorious system of parks celebrates the natural beauty and unique cultures of a distinctly American region.

The road is also typically American in its complications. Its construction, which began in 1935 and was not completed until 1987, didn’t please everyone. When the Parkway was first envisioned, the space it would occupy was not made up entirely of public lands or total wilderness; there were farms and towns here, and the states had to acquire some of them through eminent domain. There were controversies about the exact route the road would take, and worries over which cities would benefit, and how the lives of neighboring communities and individuals would change. Nor does the parkway provide an entirely pure glimpse of early life in the mountains; its designers chose to showcase certain elements, from certain eras, and to ignore others.

But despite all that complex history, it is, in a sense, the simplest of American attractions: the lure of a double golden line winding through a hazy blue green wonderland. It is everything that makes us great, and everything we have to lose.

On a Whim | Frederick, MD

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I pick a destination in Maryland by a method slightly less random than throwing a dart at a map. I see a photo, almost buried in the results that pop up as I search for something else, a little thumbnail square floating in a sea of other squares that for some reason catches my attention. The photo is of a linear park that’s more river than park, a shining ribbon of water gliding through a city. The city, I find out when I click, is Frederick.

And so I go to Frederick, just slightly south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s hardly an obscure place (Wikipedia tells me it’s “a part of the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV Metropolitan Statistical Area, which is part of a greater Washington-Baltimore-Arlington, DC-MD-VA-WV-PA Combined Statistical Area” and that it is the “second-largest incorporated city in Maryland, behind Baltimore”) but I have no preconceived notions of it, no idea of what it will be like, and no image of it in my head except for that shimmery, watery park.

This is why, when I walk out of the parking garage and into the streets of downtown Frederick, I am not expecting to find myself in a place that could have been designed based on a list of everything I love in a city. When I try to break down the individual elements that would be on this list, it sounds superficial. I like historic buildings, mostly dating from the 18th or 19th century, mostly small in scale, with facades of brick or rough wood shingles, painstakingly preserved but not so perfectly repaired that you can’t see their age and imperfections. I like colorful shutters with antique holdbacks, painted doors, and rusty metal stars adorning exterior walls. I like small storefronts with well-crafted signs and enticing window displays, and brick sidewalks punctuated by trees and historic markers. I like quiet alleys connecting busy roads, and displays of flowers, and parks that show up just when you want to sit down, and places where people can gather but also where they can feel comfortable all alone. I like Main Streets that go on for blocks and blocks, intersecting with equally promising streets at seemingly endless corners. I like the sorts of places about which an official local tourism website could say, as Frederick’s does, that this is “where hip meets historic every day” and it’s so true that I don’t even cringe. Much.

As I turn the corners of Frederic’s tree-shaded streets, invisible birds are singing. A tiny yellow ladybug alights on my jacket. People I pass seem to sort of smile, but not fully, and I slip into Yankee-in-the-South panic mode: am I in smile territory already?

I have certainly crossed the line where memories of the Revolution and the War of 1812 begin to be overtaken by those the Civil War. I pass the National Museum of Civil War Medicine; as promised, its historic horrors are enveloped in hipness. There are comfortable coffee shops, tattoo parlors adorned with vintage lettering, a store that sells only infinite varieties of soda, a cake bakery from which wafts an almost palpable cloud of sweetness, and one of those fancy olive oil tasting places that seem to have sprung up recently in every American town larger than two blocks long. It could easily be insufferable if it wasn’t tethered to reality by occasional patches of peeling paint, showing aged brick beneath, and those narrow alleys, the shortcuts only locals know, where the unpolished backs and sides of homes and businesses lie exposed.

Residential and commercial areas blend together, with one turn around a corner revealing another strip of niche boutiques and the next a row of houses, each one possessing some little detail that sets it apart from its neighbor. In the midst of this overdose of charm, there is an especially picturesque two-block shopping district, where the buildings seem to stand especially straight. This is Everedy Square, named for the Everyedy Company which once manufactured its eponymous bottle cappers here, and Shab Row, named for what was once an African American residential district, home to tinkers and artisans, that slid into disrepair and was derided as a slum. Or perhaps, as some say, the name came from Sharbro or Sherbro Island, located off Sierra Leone, the birthplace of the enslaved people who once lived here. I couldn’t find a definitive answer, and perhaps the exact truth is not known, because sometimes when hip meets historic, hip wins.

This, I guess, is why I’m really drawn to cities that look like this. Underneath all the pretty things, the painted doors and gaslights and brick sidewalks, there are stories that may be partially forgotten but can never be lost. And even though I don’t have enough time to spend here to even begin to think about them all, I can sense them in the street grid, in the architecture, in the layers of peeling paint.

I walk until my feet, newly re-introduced to sandals after being hidden away for New England’s long winter, start to blister. Then I decide I should probably go to the spot that inspired my impulsive stop in Frederick. The shining ribbon of water is called Carroll Creek Park. It extends for four or five long blocks. It looks like an expensive ornament, an outsize beautification project, but it was born as a flood control project in response to devastating flooding in the 1970s. The massive tunnels channeling water away from downtown are hidden beneath the streets; above ground, ducks bob happily beneath little pedestrian bridges that curve above the water’s surface. On either side of the water, there are brick walkways and benches, restaurants and public art. The quiet of the morning has fully evolved into afternoon bustle, and people are everywhere, eating at outdoor tables, sitting beside the pacified creek, or, like me, just wandering by on their way to somewhere else.

 

Drifting | Lewes, DE

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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.

Edges | New Castle, NH

 

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Looking at a map of New Hampshire, I happen to notice that there is a group of small islands just off Portsmouth, and that this splotch of an archipelago is not a private estate or a pile of rocks inhabited only by seabirds, but a town named New Castle.

I am always drawn to the edges of places – peninsulas, river-fronts, neighborhoods where rural towns abruptly yield to wilderness – and islands, of course, have more edges than any other sort of place. Edges are often beautiful, but not always; they invite strangers, and strangeness; they are usually areas you think you can predict, but soon discover you can’t. It’s a habit I’m trying to break, this tendency to escape the center for the outskirts, but that’s not going to happen just yet. First, I’m going to New Castle.

I drive to Great Island, the largest of the group, on a causeway over the Piscataqua River. (The smaller islands have names like Goat and Clampit.)

This is not the type of island that feels entirely cut off from the world, though I imagine it could quickly become so in a storm. Old wood houses, ornamented only with simple historic markers, stand straight beside the road. Shiny police SUVs idle at intersections. There are no sidewalks, and little room for parked cars.

The town center consists of a teensy white post office, a small white library-turned-museum, a medium-sized white municipal building, a large white Congregational Church with eye-catching rows of black shutters, and a little burial ground beside a market. It looks like the setting for one of those novels with hazy, watery covers that I always pick up in bookstores then put back when I realize they’re about three generations of women in a small coastal town.

As I wander around New Castle, I turn off the main road onto a narrow street, which leads to another, and another. Every turn reveals a perfectly lovely house or a water view, but I feel like an intruder in a private world, one full of petty rivalries and whispered accusations. In 1682, the Great Island was the site of a land dispute between tavern-owner George Walton and an elderly woman who lived next door to him – or, if you prefer, it was the site of a summer-long stretch of supernatural attacks on Walton, his household, and property; including the hurling, by unseen forces, of stones and other objects at and around the tavern and its inhabitants. Sixteen years later, Richard Chamberlain, the secretary of the colony of New Hampshire (or, as he called it, the Province of New-Hampshire in New-England), wrote about this in “an Exact and True Account (by way of Journal) of the various Actions of Infernal Spirits, or (Devils Incarnate) Witches, or both” titled Lithobolia: or, the Stone-Throwing Devil. There were other reported instances of diabolical showers of stones in other New England colonies, but this, probably due to Chamberlain’s vivid prose, is the best known.

Trying to get back to the main road, I pass a pretty white house tucked into a corner right on the shore. I notice it because it has little hearts cut out of the shutters, but the tiny plaque on the front says: George Walton, 1647.

I return to the main road and follow it to Great Island Common, where cool salt air hits me as soon as I open the car door. This was, I assume, a common grazing area in the 17th or 18th century, but now it is just a large park with views of distant lighthouses and signs warning against the possession of alcoholic beverages. I look up the park later, curious about its history, but find instead one of the best FAQ sections I have ever encountered:

Can I have a bouncy tent?
No.
Can I play horseshoes?
No.
Can I use golf clubs?
No.
Are there electrical outlets?
No.
What is the water temperature?
Varies.
Are there sharks in the water?
It is an ocean.
When is high tide?
Twice a day.
Is there an undertow?
Sometimes.

I follow the looping road one way, then the other way, then back again. I gawk at the massive Wentworth by the Sea, a grand 19th century resort hotel and spa. I pass the hovering police SUVs and the little post office so many times I start to get paranoid that the locals must be growing suspicious of me.

I find the ruins of the 1808 Fort Constitution, which was before that the colonial-era Fort William and Mary, which was originally a 17th century fortification called the Castle, which gave New Castle its name. A plaque commemorates “the first victory of the American revolution,” the capture of this fort in December 1774. To reach what’s left of the fort, visitors must walk through the paved lot of Coast Guard Station Portsmouth Harbor, following the guideline of a stripe of blue paint. A few people stray a foot or so away from the blue paint, but the Coast Guardsmen chatting nearby do not admonish them.

Within the fort’s gate, a grassy square contained by sturdy brick and stone walls overlooks the Piscataqua and the Atlantic Ocean. The Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, visible just over the walls, watches over the jagged coast. During World War II, a faded sign tells me, this shore was protected by underwater mines and an anti-submarine net. But before that, defenses were the opposite of stealthy. As a New Hampshire State Parks document about the site says, “forts were a symbol of possession: if you controlled the country, you built a fort; if you lost the fort, you were supposed to take that as a serious blow, and think about making peace.” After all, “seventeenth century war was still a kind of game.”

Unless you’re staring at a map, it’s difficult to imagine New Castle as a strategic location. But the Great Island is home to not one but two decommissioned forts. Unlike Fort Constitution, which retains some sense of that gallant, war-as-game era, there is nothing remotely romantic about the remains of Fort Stark, a collection of dilapidated buildings that look like they represent several unidentifiable time periods, none of which you’d want to live in. The abandoned batteries are fenced off and plastered with warning signs. But life goes on around them, as it usually does at the edges of places. As I take pictures, a few couples walk along the rocky beach, and two men haul traps up from the water.

Later, I read that in 2013, a body was discovered at Fort Stark, at the bottom of an elevator shaft. The death was determined to be a suicide. I come across a local news article about this event in which one observer is quoted as saying, “You don’t have things like this in New Castle at all.” Except, of course, you do, occasionally, just like you have the threat of German submarines, and stone-throwing devils.

The chill salt air of the morning has been replaced by a wonderfully sunny afternoon, and with it, an uneasy yet hopeful complacency seems to have descended on America. In the past few days I have heard countless expressions of the idea that, for the first time since January 20, we can now relax and consider that our nation might not be rushing towards its imminent demise. The people on the little beach below Fort Stark certainly seem relaxed, though I don’t ask them. I still feel numb and disbelieving, and afraid of a future that looks like the dystopian historic site behind me, like a ramshackle relic of a war that’s been lost.

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.