As I’ve noted before, heterotopias — an idea first named as such by Michel Foucault in a 1967 essay — are spaces that disrupt the continuity and normality of common everyday places, places removed from ordinary time, from the evenly spaced movement of time. They are disjunctures and are felt as such. They are places that change how time is felt, experienced. They may juxtapose past with present, future with present, or overlap meaning and relationships, in a way that challenges or subverts our impression and experience of the prevailing social context.
When we chose the “Woods Walk at Highlands Center and EcoArts Dicovery Path” (2-pp PDF brochure) in Truro on Cape Cod for an afternoon’s walk, I wasn’t expecting to step into a heterotopia.
I thought it would be a civilised, proscribed, perhaps slightly boring walk — but bluffs overlooking the ocean were promised, so — near a professional and lively arts center. I knew, after a bit of reading online on the drive there, that the spot had been a U.S. Air Force base during the Cold War, active from 1951 to 1985, and that there remain remnants of that former use on the site. But I imagined it more like Odiorne State Park in Rye, NH, with now-graffitied-bunkers and gun mounts left over from its time serving as coastal defense during World War II. In other words, I thought the military use of the site would be, if even noticeable, now incidental. But it’s not.
The site is a frozen-in-time defunct military base. The arts buildings are what’s incidental, at least as far as I could see. Even the FAA radar dome, used now to track flights to Kennedy (NYC) and Logan (Boston) airports, is more obvious.
For over 30 years, the North Truro Air Force Station “housed one of the many radar facilities established across the country in response to Cold War fears of Soviet attack. Fairly remote, with no tall buildings or natural features to obstruct the range of radar technology, the coastal site was the perfect location for one of the Air Force’s first radar squadrons.”
Walking here thirty-three years after the base’s closure, I felt the eerie heterotopic sense of the layers of time co-existing, overlapping in a way that feels mysterious, significant, weighty, and dislocating. Alongside me, besides my spouse, were the not-quite literal ghosts accompanying me from the past, and perhaps the future, as I walked along on an ordinary May day in 2018. I have no personal memory of this place, ever, and certainly not during the Cold War, but there’s a cultural memory, and the place itself holds the physical scars.
The very first few steps on the asphalt “trail” (Snake Road) are reminders of another sort, a la the ending of Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map & The Territory*, that nature rather quickly, in terms of Earth age, recolonises anything abandoned by humans.
This was a two-lane road, presumably large enough for military equipment, not long ago:
There’s an overgrown baseball diamond,
an old well house,
and a former helipad, now a sort of asphalt and grass mosaic.
Then there is the neighbourhood of derelict military housing (“At one point, there were 500 civilian and military personnel stationed here. Not too long ago, these roads were busy with people defending our nation.”) The atmosphere of abandonment, neglect, and even loss within the little ghost town — two intersecting roads (Wilson Blvd and Thatcher Blvd) of about 25 houses and yards, with driveways and a few remaining lilacs — is stark and potent.
That whale art, above, so similar to the Vineyard Vines logo, sent my sense of time and function overlap into overdrive, even though VV’s logo doesn’t have the spout. (Vineyard Vines has been a preppy mainstay of the Cape and Islands clothing scene for 20 years.)
Part of the trail was on asphalt, around and through the constructed military base, and part was in woods or through grass, with plenty of interesting plants along the way.
Some of the trails were lovely.
My favourite part of the walk was encountering the very steep bluff overlooking the ocean and beach from a height of about 150 feet. It was transcendent, standing there looking out to the horizon and as far south and north as I could, seeing no one, no ship, no sign of human life.
But on the bluff, there is a small wave observation lab building, the Coastal Observation Station, operated by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, which takes observations of the angle of wave approach so that “wave height and wave frequency estimates can be made of how fast and in which direction sand moves along the shoreline at this location” (quoted here). A long-term coastal erosion survey was being done here as of 2013 with every-other-day observations from the Wave Observation Lab over the past six years.
Sandy trails to the bluffs:
Trail from the bluffs:
Pretty gorgeous, right? And also eerie, and oppressive; a place of palpable longing and loss; a disjuncture in time; an opening into the fraught past from the fraught present, a disquieting memory (or preview) of an alternate reality; a place to notice how, once again, nature survives, perhaps even vanquishes.
* As when Jed visits old steel factories in Ruhrgebiet, Germany, now [in the future] being used for ‘industrial tourism,’ based on recreating the working class way of life at beginning of 20th century. There are blast furnaces, slag heaps, abandoned railway tracks, rusting freight cars, and so on. Jed is impressed by the “menacing density of the forests that, after scarcely a century of inactivity, surrounded the factories.” Industrial colossi — once the bulk of German productive capacity — were “now rusted, half-collapsed, and plants colonized former workshops.”
Note: Post title, “Memory’s Landscape,” taken from a favourite Tumblr site.