Mermaids and Pirates | Amelia Island, FL


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shadows | Charleston, SC


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Blue Green World | Blue Ridge Parkway, VA


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


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


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



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?
Can I play horseshoes?
Can I use golf clubs?
Are there electrical outlets?
What is the water temperature?
Are there sharks in the water?
It is an ocean.
When is high tide?
Twice a day.
Is there an undertow?

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


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.