Road to Eldorado

Fri, 01/12/2018 - 8:15am
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We are riding the roller coaster that is January, moving from deep, deep cold to seemingly mild upper twenties to ground-thawing, muck-threatening days of sunny, above freezing, temperatures. It is a time of staying oil deliveries, trying to dance around that seasonal trifecta of drifted snow, its frozen, icy aftermath and unforgiving mud. 

Every summer day when the beach traffic is annoying, or more accurately, some yahoo driving a car with out-of-state plates insists Mansion is a two way road (yes, there are places it is wide enough for most passenger vehicles to meet and pass, with care, but it is not a two lane road!), I remember all the times before the thirty some years ago when it was not owned and maintained by the town. 

We had a storm, one in which the news not only acknowledged us as some number on a map, but assigned us the singular, dubious, distinction of being the only reporting location in southern New England to meet all “blizzard” criteria.

When it began, I started looking at the temperatures elsewhere, noting with some annoyance that while we were in near white-out conditions, Nantucket, over the eastern horizon, was a rainy 41. My envy dissolved hours later when I saw footage of streets around the harbor badly flooded. I had heard parts of Boston proper and points north were experiencing a storm surge, one that would not recede before the brutal freezing returned.

Iconic images of the Blizzard of 1978 show miles of automobiles on Route 95 outside Providence, and anyone in Rhode Island at the time recalls the governor in the basement of the State House for days wearing what would become a symbol of the storm, a red plaid shirt. It was terrible here but there was no afternoon commute to get in the way of the plows, and while a few stretches of road were lost at the height of the white blow Block Island was up and running while the rest of the state remained in emergency. Our claim to fame then was not some classification but of having to secure special dispensation to reopen against declared State of Emergency closures. The days without mail were longer than the days without boats; our post office was open but there was nothing coming from the mainland because the roads were still not passable.

The conditions last week on Nantucket, in Boston and north did not surprise me. 1978, here, was a coastal storm and since then I have come to expect it of any truly terrible winter gale, blizzard by definition or not. All those years ago, the ocean roared, tearing into the little pond east of Settler's Rock, a marshy spot where swans built enormous nests, and sending driftwood and the general stuff that is churned up by high surf over the road.

The pavement had to be plowed of junk as well as snow.

Now, we may have had the designation, the tides were high, and the boats did not run but the most moved part of the beach seemed to be the black sand, carried up from the shore, dropped on white snow banked up against the scant dunes where the road runs closest to the water. In another time and place it might have been the soot of factories — or trains — piled upon snow dug from city streets. 

We had a storm, the wind blew, the snow drifted, the temperatures fell. The first day, the worst day, my windows were covered with icy snow and what little view I might have had was hidden. Worse, my kitchen was dark, without that warming low winter sun that brightens my little world. I reminded myself it meant the windows were good and snug, heat was not escaping to melt the frozen gray. 

By nightfall enough of it had fallen that I could see the dim blink of the red lights atop the towers in town, and knew, even with a another day of driving wind pending, the worst had passed. There would be no flooded streets frozen solid, the power did not dip and while I was unsure of the road I knew soon it would be passable, one way or another. 

It lasted only a couple of nights, that suspended state of no-one-is-going-anywhere storm that can be unnerving, of waking in the dark and being unable to go back to sleep until the distant rumble of the furnace engaging works its way up through the floor. 

The snow drifted, pure and white, in the way it can out here, in sharply peaked mountains and in crazy gravity defying sculptures, waves carved from pristine marble, gleaming, blindingly, in the sub-freezing sun.

It was colder, longer than it has been in some time, then the temperatures inched up and the morning pavement, free of packed snow, shone in the stunningly beautiful morning sun. It happens, as do rainbows, when everything is right, a particular combination of dissipating water and light fallen at a certain angle.

That road, lined by black drifts a few days earlier, could have sparked notions of Eldorado, the fabled city of gold, the myth that has taken different names over time and driven centuries of explorers around the next bend in the river deep in the forest, or over the next mountain pass. It began with the common search for unimaginable wealth, then morphed into an obsession of discovery.

There was a reference to Eldorado in a text in school, perhaps the Edgar Allen Poe poem, it seemed something confined to one page. We were New Englanders and it was glossed over, this city with streets of gold — how impractical!

Yet here it is, on a New England Island on a January morning, this golden road, with even the dark silhouette of the fabled city rising against the sky beyond it,  closer than Poe's knight ever came to a “spot of ground that looked like Eldorado.”