Our little town is amazing. We’ve always known that. The past two weeks, though, showed just how amazing it is. And more surprising, how very big our little town truly is. The flood of kindness and generosity has been overwhelming, from near and far – across the street, across the country, across the world even – from friends and family, and people who don’t even know us.
We steel ourselves against all the bad we know will come one day, prepare to do the hard things just so we can get through them. But we never prepare for the unexpected good. The good has slayed us.
People are amazing. Really and truly amazing.
Thank you for being part of our town. Thank you all.
Back when I was building the Melonseeds, I frequently got lost down a rabbit hole of history, thinking about all the things going on in the world at the end of the 19th century, in 1888, when the plans from the boats were drawn. Was a fascinating time, undergoing rapid change as fast as today. The transitions from sail to steam, agriculture to industry, rural to urban, were as transformational to society in that era as the computer and internet have been in ours.
On this day in 1889, Nellie Bly – a single young woman, 24 years old – set off alone from New York by steamship to set a record for circling the world, by ship and train and any other convenient conveyance. With just two days notice. She took the dress she was wearing, a coat, some underwear and toiletries, and a bit of money tied in a pouch around her neck.
The goal was to best the fictional Phileas Fogg, protagonist in a popular book of the time, Around the World in Eighty Days, written by Jules Verne. She would meet the author along the way, pausing in Paris long enough to interview him.
She was a young journalist who had talked her way into a job at The World, working for Joseph Pulitzer. Her first assignment had been to convince people she was insane so she could be committed to a women’s lunatic asylum. This was after talking the paper into accepting the project in the first place, to get the actual job.
She spent 10 days in the asylum. The exposé she wrote about the experience made her famous, and the ensuing outrage prompted improvements at mental institutions.
This race around the world was just a different kind of crazy. She sent back dispatches on her progress from remote places around the world, all published in the paper, using what was then the first modern form of worldwide communication – by telegraph. She crossed Europe, passed through the new Suez Canal, was delayed by problems with the trains in Asia, visited a leper colony in China. In Singapore, she bought a monkey. In Hong Kong, she learned that another woman had set off just behind her in the US, and was traveling the opposite direction, trying to beat her time, making it a real race.
Bad weather slowed her Pacific crossing, threatening to make her miss the 80 day deadline. Pulitzer chartered a private one-time train run, dubbed the Miss Nellie Bly Special, to speed her from San Francisco to Chicago, traversing 2500 miles in less than three days – a the fastest train trip ever. To spur the crews along, she presented each railroad superintendent on the with way with a bottle of expensive champagne.
She arrived back in New York after only 72 days, setting a new record for circumnavigating the globe. Which, alas, would be broken over and over again as travel improved, but it was quite a feat at the time.
A few years later she married a 73 year old millionaire, who promptly died and left her all his money and his steel manufacturing plants, which she ran successfully until she died in 1922.
I’m going to tell you about the fine time had at MASCF this year, I swear. First you have to hear about the terrible time getting there.
On a good day, the drive would take four hours. On this day it took six.
Things were still going fine when I passed Dave Gentry in Fredericksburg. He had two of his skin-on-frame canoes on top of the car, so was easy to spot. A honk and a cheerful wave. Dave only lives a couple of miles up the road, but somehow we meet more often at boating events than around town. (Neither of us is sure this is a bad thing.) He was also enroute to St. Michaels.
We’re running a little late. Anyone who lives anywhere near Washington, DC, knows you don’t want to be within 50 miles of it during rush hour. Which is more like rush four hours – it starts at 3 and lasts to 7. But with a little luck we’d be on the far side of DC by the time the worst traffic ramped up. That luck went the other way, literally.
If you use mapping apps, you know software engineers keep trying to make them smarter. For years they’ve tracked the speed of cars moving slower than normal and warn you when there’s a problem ahead. Gives you the opportunity to plan your route differently. Very handy.
Then they started suggesting alternate routes while you’re underway. This was more intrusive, but still helpful. In Google Maps, the voice assistant would say “Tap if you want to accept this new route.” I rarely took these alternate routes, because the time saved was minimal, and it was dangerous to try to grab the phone while driving and find and tap the button before it disappeared. Just wasn’t worth it.
Well, apparently, that function changed with the last update. Now, regardless of what route you planned to take, Google will automatically reroute you. That’s the default. Now the message says, “Tap if you don’t want to accept the new route.” There are multiple problems with this. Let me innumerate them:
The option to reject the new route only lasts a few seconds. That means you MUST grab the phone, find the button, and reject it quickly. Every time it attempts to reroute you. Otherwise, within seconds it’s sending you off in some other unknown direction. This is dangerous, and contrary to the user’s wishes.
More and more people are using these apps, even when they already know where they’re going, specifically to get the traffic updates. That means Google is routing ALL those people onto the same alternate “faster” route at the same time. A side road designed to handle local traffic instantly becomes overwhelmed and gridlocked with cars, as though a big river were suddenly diverted into a creek. These apps are NOT managing traffic flow overall, they’re optimizing the route for each car as an isolated individual, irrespective of the cumulative effect that rerouting all those individuals will have when it happens in unison.
Problem #2 is amplified by the core issue, which is these apps are not basing their recommendations on a predictable future. They are not looking at the bigger picture, or even using basic statistical probability to make smart decisions. They are at best giving you directions based on reported conditions already in the past, conditions that change very quickly. Effectively they look at somewhat recent reports and take you off what may now be a perfectly acceptable highway ahead, to send you and ten thousand of your closest friends onto a tiny side road in a residential neighborhood. All at once. And this is now the default. You have to take immediate action to prevent it. Every time that it thinks it knows better.
I did not know these things as I blithely wended my way towards the gaping maw of our nation’s capitol. The app worked fine before.
So at 3:30 when the little voice assistant said, “There’s a slow down ahead. You can save 11 minutes by taking this alternate route,” I ignored her to reject it. Moments later, I suddenly found myself in an exit only lane on my way toward the Pentagon, which closes at 3pm precisely because the 23,000 people who work there swamp all of DC with traffic so badly, all by themselves, they have to close early.
I, as a human with a modicum of experience, knew this. Apparently, the app does not know this. And does not know that with excruciating predictability the traffic in DC is about to explode. Nor does it know that I am towing a boat on a trailer. I, however, do know this.
Within moments I’m penned in on all sides next to the Pentagon by angry aggressive drivers, caught like a stick in a current flowing right toward the center of DC and the National Mall.
Yes, I saw the 9/11 Monument.
Yes, I saw the Washington Monument.
The Jefferson Memorial.
Air and Space Museum
Museum of the American Indian
National Botanic Gardens
Library of Congress
The US Capitol Building
Well, I would have seen the Capitol, except Google didn’t know I was towing a boat on a trailer, and I didn’t know that since 9/11 trailers are not allowed on Independence Avenue within several blocks of it. I found out this little detail when, around 4pm with the roads jammed with cars, police suddenly swarmed off the sidewalk toward me waving their arms and blowing whistles, and a patrol car whipped out across six lanes of traffic to block my way with lights flashing and sirens whooping.
There, in the middle of an intersection, blocking a total of nine jammed up lanes of angry traffic, surrounded by armed police persons, it was explained to me that I could not move one foot further forward.
They cleared the intersection and made me do a 270 u-turn right there, with the trailer, heading off somewhere into south DC and into the narrow one lane neighborhoods of Capitol Hill. All the while Google kept saying “Rerouting, make a u-turn, return to the route,” trying to send me back to the armed police officers.
From the time Google Maps took me off the highway to save 11 minutes, it took me 2 hours to get out of DC and back to where I would have been if I’d just stayed on the route planned.
Around dark, as I was rolling into St. Michaels, Dave Gentry called to see where I was. He had just arrived. He, too, had been rerouted into DC along the same “faster” path.
Oh yes, I know that one. Leonardo da Vinci is buried in the chapel at Amboise. A chateau in the Loire.
How did you know that, without even reading a New Yorker?
I always remember, because it reminds me of the night I met that charming blind woman in the middle of a snow storm.
Was that when you were in France?
No, not in France. In Fluvanna County. I was house sitting for a friend at Christmas. A big snow storm came through. I let the dog out before bed, and it did not return. I got into her four wheel drive car to go looking for him. Down the road, I suddenly came upon a woman wading through the snow. She was wearing Long Johns and a sort of antique broach.
Excuse me, ma’am, but can I give you a ride?
Oh please, I hope you can help. (She looked a little sideways as she talked. I thought from the glare of the headlights, but realized she was blind.) My husband has rearranged the whole library, and we can’t find the one book to settle this argument. Do you happen to know where Leonardo da Vinci is buried?
Strangely enough, I knew the answer. When I studied painting in Paris, I was invited to visit the Loire Valley where a chapel was built around his tomb. A beautiful chapel.
Why yes, in fact I do. He’s buried at the Chateau d’Amboise, in the Loire Valley.
Oh thank god. Will you please take me back down the road and tell my husband? He will not sleep until we know. Oh, and we have your dog. He’s been quite well-behaved. Hasn’t peed or nothin.
It’s early, and T is sleeping in for the first time in months. After coffee, I leave by the screen door, wade fifty steps through soft sand to the Bay and turn left.
There is only one house on the island. There is no one else here.
The island is two miles long, most of that north of the house. But it is very, very narrow. For most of its length, so narrow you can stand in the marsh and throw a stone across to hit the Bay. More than a sandbar, but to call it a barrier island perhaps exaggerates. There are trees, many of them quite old, but dunes throughout are flattened by overwash from Bay to marsh. It’s clear that water often flows through the trees. No barrier; more like a split rail fence.
The place is raw and wild. Animal tracks everywhere – birds of all kinds, but also otter, fox, raccoon and muskrat. And terrapins. With no one to disturb them, the tracks persist between rains. We find many skeletons. Like the undisturbed tracks, bones remain in place, composed where each creature took a last step.
The island has no official name. It has not been an island long enough to get one. Perhaps a budget office calculates it isn’t worth updating maps and charts, that it may not be an island for long. Even for locals it has no name. They simply refer to it as “the island.”
Not quite here, not quite not.
While most islands in the Chesapeake are disappearing – Smith, Tangier, and Hoopers; others like Holland already gone – new islands do appear, created by the same forces. That’s how this island came to be, about 40 years ago.