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

Washington_Crossing

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.