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« Blue Highways: Newport, Rhode Island | Main | Blue Highways: Taunton, Massachusetts »

Blue Highways: Fall River, Massachusetts

Unfolding the Map

Fall River, Massachusetts is where William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) tends to get lost.  As we're driving around with him in Ghost Dancing, trying to figure out our bearings, I'll write about how I usually have good directional sense, but how one city in New Mexico seems to confound my sense of place.  If you want to try to make sense of the maze of Fall River, get lost in the map.  The image at right, the black-capped chickadee, is the Massachusetts state bird.  It was drawn by Pearson Scott Foresman and is from Wikimedia Commons.

Book Quote

"Fall River, Massachusetts, is chiefly memorable for me as the factory city I have never driven through without losing the way.  Once there - predictably, inexplicably, and utterly - I am confounded by the knots of concrete.  So, that day, entangled again, it was like old times."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 5

Downtown Fall River, Massachusetts. Photo by Marc N. Belanger and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Fall River, Massachusetts

LHM's Fall River is my Santa Fe.

Let me explain that.  I agree with LHM.  There are certain places where the laws of chance do not seem to apply.  I have written about getting lost before, but usually when I've been a place once I don't forget it.  For example, my parents had a little phobia about driving down in the San Francisco Bay Area.  They were rural Northern Californians in a town with, at the time, one stoplight.  Yet every so often we would have to drive south to the Bay Area.  Freeways with multiple on- and offramps were difficult for them to negotiate.  They didn't have many familiar landmarks.  They needed directions to be spelled out for them very minutely.  If they strayed off the beaten path, even getting off the freeway one exit too soon, they were soon completely, hopelessly lost.  Tensions rose in the car when we drove to the Bay Area.  I think that my parents were convinced that if they made a mistake, we all might end up missing or dead.  Nobody breathed normally, or felt safe, until we reached our destination.

In other words, the Bay Area was a maze that they had to negotiate.  As in a maze, one step off the true path could be their undoing, leaving them wandering in an unfamiliar and terrifying terrain that at best would be purgatory, and at worst a horrible hell.  If that meant they had to drive 45 miles an hour to make sure that they didn't miss an exit, so be it.

Fortunately for them, I had a very good memory.  If I had driven the way once, I could remember how to get there again.  They doubted me at first and didn't listen to my suggestions, but eventually they saw I was right and would ask me if they didn't remember themselves.

That ability to remember the way has stood me in good stead over the years, especially when it came to the Bay Area and along the California coast.  I also seemed to have good map memory, so that if I looked at a map and memorized the route on the map, I could usually figure it out with a minimum of hassle on the road.  The road signs were key - if they were missing then all bets were off - but I could still usually figure out the route even if there was a bit of trouble like that.  Of course, it always helped that I had the ocean within sensing distance on the west side of me.

I remember the first time that I really found myself turned around and having trouble figuring out where I was and what direction I should go.  I was, ironically, in a city laid out upon a pretty well-defined grid.  I had just moved to Milwaukee, and I think that without the ocean to orient me I was confused.  Milwaukee's grid runs pretty predictably north-south and east-west.  The north-south streets are all numbered, and Lake Michigan lies on the east side of the city.  But as I stood in a section of the inner-city, looking at street signs, I was briefly lost.  My difficulty may have been attributable to the fact that it was the first time that I ever had lived anywhere outside of California up to that point in my life.  Or, it may have been due to the unease I experienced in living in what was considered a sketchy, if  not dangerous, neighborhood.  But for the first time in my life, I really felt lost, and it seemed that something that defined me, my unerring instinct for direction, had abandoned me.

I recovered, but I was shaken.  I wondered if that was what it felt like to be truly lost?  I think that being lost isn't necessarily a bad thing if one knows that one has resources to find oneself.  But to be hopelessly lost, where one has no resources - THAT is the loneliest feeling in the world.

Now, I'll come back to Santa Fe.  I'm never really lost in Santa Fe.  It's just that I have never understood the city.  It follows no comfortable grid.  There are a couple of main streets that lead into the city from the interstate, but once you get away from those streets, it becomes more difficult to orient yourself.  Roads and streets meander back and forth.  If I lived there, these meandering ways might be fun to explore, but usually I am driving up from Albuquerque and have to be at a place at a certain time.  It has taken me eight years and countless trips for me to be comfortable enough to know my way to the main plaza, to the museums on Museum Hill, and maybe one or two other places.

As LHM says, however, the chance for me to become "predictably, inexplicably and utterly" lost is high.  At least it's not "hopelessly" lost.  In this case, it's simply an annoying lost.  But annoying is bad enough, especially when you're in a very small city and therefore which should be easy to understand and easy to get around.  I've come to think of it as a mental block that I have, and that my self-talk, operating in the background, sabotages me.  Or maybe I just like to complain about Santa Fe and the universe conspiring against me and I doom my chances to know the city streets before I even begin.  All I know is that it's damn frustrating!

Musical Interlude

I found a song entitled Mazes that I liked by a group called Moon Duo.  The lyrics speak of the emotional mazes we often find ourselves in.

Oh, did you know that Fall River is where Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks, and when she saw what she had done she gave her father forty-one?

If you want to know more about Fall River

Battleship Cove
City of Fall River
Fall River Chamber of Commerce
Fall River Herald News (newspaper)
Fall River Historical Society

Next up: Newport, Rhode Island

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