The Block Island Times

To Look for America

By Martha Ball | Sep 21, 2013

It is not so often I go Off, to the Other Side, to the mainland, that place people are too fond of saying we “all” call America when some of us most decidedly do not. There is Block Island and there is the rest of the world. We go down the Neck because we descend Bush Lot Hill to reach the North Light; we go up to the Southeast Lighthouse because it is a climb. The world ends where our feet get wet, never mind what the map makers decree.

On a beautiful September day why leave Block Island any sane person would ask. The chore of getting a new computer which I did not want to do on-line, it was the one thing I had to touch, even more than yarn.

The specifics are unimportant - except to those who insist there is in fact a new computer smell which I might notice had I any sense of smell, save for moped fumes and cigar smoke. Suffice it to say when informed of my purchase one response was “welcome to the family” a sure indicator I am now on the edge of some crazy cult, in this case not a redundancy.

This could all be accomplished in Wakefield, I was sure, leaving me time to spare and still get back before mid-afternoon in this time that by December, dark and drear and with a skeletal boat schedule, will already be one of halcyon days. As with most too-easy-to-be-true plans it did not unfold as anticipated. Go to a store in Warwick I was advised by one of those rare persons whose advice I do on occasion take. I had been there before, or so I thought, in my own car with old-fashioned paper maps including one of Rhode Island, the same annually produced DEM map my mother utilized to entertain me when I was little. I imagined then journeys on a train, crossing the green Great Swamp on that little cross-barred line until one day I realized it was the only train track and I had travelled that way several times going to Providence and Massachusetts to visit relatives. This day I was driving a friend’s car, empty of all that paper in lieu of a modern device that offers every detail of every trip, one wisely not left in the car, one I could not use/trust anyway.

So I called and got directions, from someone with recent and frequent experience in the surprisingly wide state of Rhode Island, someone who would not start with “you know where the Christmas Tree Store is” a landmark, it seems, of greater import than the State House or Jerimoth Hill. All was fine until I turned off the Interstate and saw the sign for “Apponaug.” What is a village in Warwick to most is to me the Bermuda Triangle. To date I have always gotten out but am never sure how it happens and never confident my escape will be as successful next time.

Still, it was not so difficult to reach my destination, I took only one wrong turn - where there were no east/west signs because, of course, everyone is supposed to know how to get where they are trying to go, the route number is more than adequate. It was an error easily undone, a relatively quiet street with a broken median, where it was possible to slow and swing over to the other lane. It was not far before I knew where I was — as provincial a Block Islander as I am even I have some familiarity with that quite extraordinary part of Warwick that once struck me as decades fallen into each other, a time capsule broken and spilling its contents across the landscape. Every few buildings there was a karate school and/or a nail salon, over it all a drive-in theatre, the screen tattered, the frame still intact, the sign remaining, all looming over a stretch of highway lined by bigger and bigger big box stores, sprinkled with fast food chains, America in miniature.

Some of it is gone, or was down — or up — the road from my narrow focus but it remains a strange, strange place of too much asphalt and too many automobiles and impossibly too many stores. Where I was, not where I had thought I was going after all, is barren, bereft of life. But, I accomplished my mission, made a couple of other stops, and headed back to South County. And there the curse of Apponaug struck.

What always amazes about mainland Rhode Island is its size, its tininess, that while it did not seem possible I had driven far enough to have entered the Interstate below the Route 4 exit something was amiss. The road did not look quite right and I told myself it was that I had been a passenger the last few times I’d been there, my perspective had been different. “Entering Exeter” was a good sign, then I went over the crest of a hill and there was before me a wide vista of green trees stretching to the skyline. I knew where I was and where I was headed. While there was plenty of time, there is never enough to get off the road and get truly lost so I stayed on the highway until the sign welcomed me and my fellow travelers to Richmond. The Route 138 exit was upcoming, and I knew 138 would take me home, across a very different America, one of cornstalks and farm stands, of a land-grant university and an old railroad station. It is only a two lane road but traffic always moves along, past a green golf course and greener fields being prepared for winter, feet from an old church beside a graveyard backed by acres of still tilled land.

The cool morning had turned warm and it may have been the only time I saw — or noticed - the shutters on the old church in Kingston Village open, green louvered panels pushed out like awnings. I was not at all sorry I had made the wrong turn.

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