Into the Driftless | Great River Road, WI


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.”