Fifty Houses

Cumberland, Maryland

Maryland may be the smallest state to show marked extremes of landscape and architecture from one end to the other. Some might even say Maryland's Eastern Shore is another place altogether, separated from America by the Chesapeake Bay. It shares with Delaware (and a bit of Virginia) a peninsula of flat farmland, salt marshes, and ocean beaches, inclusive of islands where Elizabethan English is still spoken. Western Maryland, on the other hand, shares West Virginia's mountains and rivers and the Midwest's architecture. If you look at a map of the state, there are two places where it narrows so drastically that it almost cuts itself off. Cumberland is at one of these bottlenecks.

I photographed this house in November of 1992, too early in the morning for rousing the inhabitants. Seven years later I was passing through Cumberland en route to Ohio and met the new owner. He was young and had recently returned home to Cumberland to buy this house, which he'd always liked. His graphic design firm takes up the second floor. When I came inside, he showed me an astonishing picture.

Now, the house is flanked and surrounded by a dense neighborhood of houses. But in the 1897 photograph, it stands startlingly alone in a cleared landscape. The only other building nearby is the Zihlman Glass Works. Anthony Zihlman had built the house a year before the picture was taken.

I am entranced by the widow's walk on a landlocked house. Maybe they wanted to keep an eye on the Glass Works, or maybe they longed for the sea, standing up there on windy days trying to gaze two hundred miles to the Eastern Shore.

Thibodaux, Louisiana

I reached New Orleans in the heat of the election for Governor pitting former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke against the incumbent. On TV one of the anti-Duke commercials showed an LSU supporter holding a football. He said, Do you really think we can recruit the top athletes in the country with David Duke as Governor? It's goodbye Tigers or goodbye David Duke. Duke was close in the polls; the election was in three days. A curator at the Contemporary Art Center told me, This election has us all immobilized! Five young black men hassled me on Bourbon Street, saying it was a good thing I wasn't voting for Duke, or they'd have to bash my head.

I stayed for two days, then drove out of there as far south as it's possible to go, eighty miles out a narrow causeway into the Gulf to the town of Grande Isle, where I simply turned around and drove back. Old houseboats, skiffs, and tugs lined Bayou LaFourche; kingfishers perched alertly on power lines.

Nearing Thibodaux, I saw handmade signs on every telephone pole for 20 or 25 poles, nicely lettered cards each placed evenly about twelve feet off the ground. The first one said: Fried Catfish. Next: Blackened Catfish. Next: Softshell Crab. Next: Crawfish Etouffee...Fried Crawfish...Crawfish Pie...Crawfish File Gumbo... Seafood Gumbo... Finally the signs stopped and an arrow pointed to a tiny roadhouse: Boudreau's Restaurant. If it hadn't been nine o'clock in the morning, I would have pulled right in.

This house was built in 1987, its double-curving staircase modeled after that of the nearby antebellum estate, Evergreen. The owner told me I should have been there two weeks before, when the bayou had flooded the entire property. Her son had to paddle a little boat out to get the school bus, and her husband caught gar fish off the porch.

Mackinac Island, Michigan

Three hundred miles north of Detroit, I passed over the 45th meridian, exactly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. In late November, it felt a lot closer to the Pole. At the tree line (where the fir trees start; south of that, the land has been farmed), the snow cover began.

I crossed the five-mile bridge to the U. P. (Upper Peninsula, Unending Precipitation) and headed for the boat to Mackinac. One ferry terminal in St. Ignace displayed this sign: Closed. Reason Freezen. Hopen Open April 30. Luckily, Arnold's ferry service was still running, for the benefit of the few year-round residents of the six-square-mile island. Early the next morning, I boarded with my bicycle, the only vehicle you are allowed to bring. Mackinac Island is heaven for houses. Not only is the place sprinkled with gorgeous Gothic and Victorian summer cottages, but there are no cars or power lines to get between them and the camera. Residents and tourists alike walk or ride bikes; there are horse-drawn wagons to carry baggage. According to AAA, the road circling the island, SR 185, may be the only state highway in the nation on which a motor vehicle accident has never occurred. In summer the town and bike paths are swarming with tourists, but on this cold, drizzly day before Thanksgiving, I seemed to be the only visitor out there. To my disappointment, all the fudge shops were closed.

When I saw this cottage I was so sure it was going to be the Michigan house, I shot more than forty frames of the same composition. That's Lake Huron and the Straits of Mackinac visible through the opening where the road comes through.

Later I waited on Main Street for the last ferry and watched as all the day workers, big men in construction gear among them, tore into town on their dinky little bikes and left them in a massive pile outside the bar. One quick drink for the road; a six-pack for the boat. It's a holiday weekend.

Eureka, Kansas

In Marysville, about as far as you can get from the ocean in America, the Best Western is called The Surf Motel. The clerk couldn't tell me why. I should have known myself --- the Honda had taken every rolling rise of windswept US Highway 36 like a dory in the swells off Cape Cod. Off the road, I'd walked in the Sandhills of Nebraska and the Flint Hills of Kansas (not far from this house) and had seen patterns whipping through the grasslands as changeable as any waves. Here, the horse looks out from his pasture unaware of his role (minor as it is compared to the plow and the steer) as a destroyer of prairie, the tallgrass and mixed-grass meadows that once covered the West from Pennsylvania to the Rockies. Now it's like the Atlantic was pumped out and left as shallow and tame as the Great Salt Lake.

As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

- Willa Cather, My Antonia (1918)

Craig, Colorado

It was my fortieth birthday and as I crossed Colorado heading east, mile after mile the signs kept flashing 40 --- 40 --- 40 --- all right already! I happened to be on US 40, the first "interstate," the two-lane National Road, as it was first known. There were few cars on the plains east of the Divide; then I saw one coming up fast in my rear-view mirror. It passed, slowed down, and settled in front of me. There were two men in the car. I passed, left them behind, then it happened again.

If it came to that, I had the means to defend myself, a jumbo canister of pepper spray, purchased a week before to stun grizzlies in Glacier Park. The mere fact that this weapon was on the seat beside me made me jumpy. The threatening car pulled in to the same gas station I did, but since it was the only station for fifty miles that may not have been significant. I left before they did and never saw them again.

Knocking on the door of a strange house with wagon-wheel fencing seemed much less threatening, I don't know why. A man drove up in his pickup just as I got there and his enormous English sheepdog raced across the field and knocked me over with glee. The rancher and I stood in the field talking pleasantly for a few minutes as the light waned. That night I threw the pepper spray away.

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©2006 Sandy Sorlien.