Off the Tracks

Hope to Hope Town: Part One

January 19, 2020

‘It seems the guest house we were going to stay in might be uninhabitable,’ my friend Brid said, calling me in early December.

I put him on speaker and opened the two pictures he sent me.

In what appeared to be the main living area, there was sand on the floor in varying depths, higher in the corners, up to 3 feet around the center beam, which was listing to the front side of the house. The door hung by one hinge, a chair was on its side, up against the wall.

‘Wait. I thought you said this cottage was on the ridge along the top of the island, near the center…’

It is.

The ocean came through the house??

There were a few seconds of silence as I took it in. I pictured the wind pushing the storm surge up from the Atlantic on one side, the harbor on the other. I could see the wind pushing sand and water against the doors and windows until it finally won, coming through and then receding, then surging through again, the winds ripping house parts loose, the water carrying them away.

‘You need to know exactly what we’re looking at,’ he continued, ‘before you decide to go.’

I opened the second picture, of the bedroom. It looked better than the living room, but everything must have gotten soaked. There were gaps in the corners as if it had shifted off the foundation.

‘There is also the issue of mold,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ I answered.

(Photo by: Constance Chatfield-Taylor)

‘So, I’m still going – I’m taking a tent, and an air mattress, a generator for charging devices an hour in the morning and an hour at night.’
But I wasn’t sure if you’d still want to join me.’


In March of 2019, we had taken a wonderful trip to Elbow Cay. It was one of those romantic, spring break getaways to a beautiful island with crystal clear water and white sand beaches. We had a golf cart to get around, a boat to visit nearby islands, there were 5 or 6 restaurants, several bars.


It was a tiny island brimming with color and vibrancy and beautiful breezes and nice people, the kind of place in which island kids stand with their backpacks and lunch boxes on one of the roads crisscrossing the island and tourists and residents alike offer them a ride to school in the center of town. They always said thank you at the long set of stairs leading up to the school, the sounds of the kids and teachers and tiny playground reaching the road below, lined with palm trees. The schoolhouse sits at the top of the steps across the road from the harbor, but from the playground at the top looking east, the ocean is directly on the other side, down a slope. This is the ridge that I remember that runs along the center of town, with cottages and the Hopetown Harbor lodge and a little further, Vernon’s market (Vernon makes fresh bread daily}, the basket shop and an ice cream store. Golf carts are allowed on the ridge, but not in the center of town, pedestrian traffic only.


It reminds me a bit of ‘Sconset in Nantucket, with little winding streets that connect cottages with names like ‘Southern Fancy’, but also intertwining islanders who have lived there for two and a half centuries, and whose families are boat makers, basket makers, carpenters, bakers. The essence of the community, of the island.


Six months after our Bahamian adventure, on September 1st, 2019, Hurricane Dorian struck, a category 5 storm that stalled over the Abacos for 48 hours, with winds of up to 220 miles an hour. So really, Hurricane Dorian made landfall on the 1st, but stayed into the early hours of the 3rd. In that time period, 22 tornadoes touched down, taking houses that had not been washed away by the storm surge, and ripping apart buildings and trees that had managed to survive the wind and water force of the hurricane.


And now, in December, we are ready to go to the Abacos, to Elbow Cay, to help in any way we could. Brid owned a construction company for 30 years, and has put together 30,000 nails, screws, an assortment of power tools, devices that I cannot even describe (a ‘come along’ to straighten posts?), a variety of battery operated tools, a generator, living supplies. We’ve both had tetanus, hepatitis, shingles and typhoid vaccines, flu shots. A friend who is a doctor put together a medical kit.


‘Why don’t you think about it,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what to expect but I’m going to charter a plane from Fort Lauderdale so I can get all this equipment down to Marsh Harbor. From there, I’ll take a ferry to Elbow Cay, and hopefully find help to get it to the house. I’ll clear the sand out to make space for the equipment. I’m pretty self-sufficient, I don’t want to burden the island by needing anything.’


‘Think about it and let me know.’

‘OK,’’ I said. ‘I’ve thought about it. When and where do I meet you?’

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My Christmas Story

December 29, 2019

I am a closet ‘I wish it was over’ Christmas person. As I was driving to the rehabilitation center yesterday, I longed for the radio stations to play normal music. I was waiting for the constant reminders of Christmas closeness I did not have – waiting for them to fade away into the new year.


Our family history of Christmas is difficult, and tense, full of stress from childhood through my own divorce, leading to more stress around the holidays and a fractured family structure. There is huge tension around our big family gatherings among my siblings. My brother and his wife go on an annual trip to an island, any island, to get away from Christmas. I secretly wish that they would take me with them every year.


Our mother, our anchor, is still here, and for that reason I have decorated, wrapped, cooked and danced my way through Christmas for many years. My sons have lives of their own and come and go. For our mother, however, it is a very important and traditional event.


So yesterday, one of my 5 siblings and I agreed to take a mid afternoon lunch to our mother in her room at a rehabilitation facility. She knows her house is decorated and waiting for her, and a party will welcome her home in about a week.


But it was still Christmas day.


As I parked and walked in the facility, the sun was streaming through the front doors. The halls were buzzing with families and gift bags and grandchildren spilling out of rooms. There were hospital beds, and oxygen and medical carts and nurses in the hallways, yes. But I could also see family gatherings full of Christmas colors, I could hear music, I could see people sitting on beds and in sunny windowsills.


As I approached our mother’s room, I paused and thanked her nurse for being there on Christmas day. She smiled and said, ‘this is my family here, my co-workers, my patients. There is no where else I’d rather be today.’


I opened the door quietly, and my mother was sound asleep, the sun streaming through the windows onto her bed. Another sister had been there that morning, our mother had on a beautiful red sweater, there were new books scattered around her.


I put my bags on the floor and settled quietly into a chair next to the bed, looking around the room. I saw that the paperwhites on the windowsill had burst into bloom this morning. I noticed that the flowers and Christmas arrangements and cards were suddenly overtaking every available surface. I heard the faint buzz of activity in the hallway.


And so our Christmas unfolded. My sister arrived, our mother was helped up and into a wheelchair, we cleared the magazines from her tray table and put a freshly ironed large linen napkin on it as a tablecloth. We had bright yellow lemon dinner napkins, white chicken chili in paper bowls, my sister’s famous hominy and fresh soft bib lettuce salad. We made toasts with chilled sparkling cider in paper cups and she opened a few presents - the perfect pair of low winter fur topped boots for the snow that is sure to come, a gift bag from a Georgetown friend with ‘the most beautiful’ chocolate covered cherries, and cat socks. She showed us a catalogue of horse paintings she had been given, she asked about the annual Christmas Eve party she had been unable to attend the night before, and we told her all about it and showed her pictures. Another sister called and they talked about the music the night before at her Christmas Eve service in New York, about the luncheon guests they had invited, about the menu, about her dogs.


We sat, relaxed and laughing and telling stories around her tray table in her rehab room and I thought that maybe this was what the closeness was, that feeling that was so elusive. It was, I thought, the perfect Christmas.


We packed up and as we were leaving my brother and his wife breezed in from the airport, full of sun and the healthy disheveled glow of a week at an island, bearing rum cake and coconut candy and pictures of the sea and beautiful views. They brought a beautiful pink conch shell they had found, and we all took turns holding the shell up to our ears to hear the sea; you could almost taste the salt in the air and feel the sea breeze. As I left, they were tucked in telling stories and talking about horses and the upcoming foaling season and the farm, eating coconut candy and laughing.

This was the moment that you grab and take with you. Not the storybook Christmas that I was always looking for, but one – this one - of sharing and closeness and hope, whatever shape it takes, wherever you might be.

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Is That a Barge on Constitution Avenue?

October 17, 2019

The Lockkeeper’s House is located at the corner of 17th and Constitution Avenue, and until two years ago, was inches away from the street - windows boarded up, roof in bad shape.  Through the efforts of the Trust for the National Mall and multiple donors, it was moved 30 feet from the street and renovated.

It’s an important place in terms of our history.  Built in 1837, the Lockkeeper’s house was located at the confluence of the Tiber Creek and the Potomac River.  Yes, Constitution Avenue was actually Tiber Creek, and was connected to the C&O canal for use in the distribution of goods and products in and out of the city. 

Nick Larson of TimeLooper with Maggie and Jeff (Photo by: Constance Chatfield-Taylor) Nick Larson of TimeLooper with Maggie and Jeff

Last week, at the Lockkeeper’s House, Jeffrey Nichols, Executive Director of Georgetown Heritage and Maggie Downing, Director of public programs and partnerships, met with executives of TimeLooper, an immersive content company out of Manhattan.  On display, or actually ‘in hand’ was the new experience that would throw visitors back a couple of hundred years, while looking through the window to Constitution avenue.

It’s actually VR, or Virtual Reality, combined with Augmented Reality and XR, or extended reality.  But instead of defining the technology, let’s take a look.  Andrew Feinberg, one of TimeLooper’s founders handed me a tablet and I walked to the window.  OK.  I see traffic on Constitution Avenue, the White House in the distance.  ‘Now hold it up to the ‘picture’ in the window’, Andrew tells me. ‘Move the tablet around.’  The picture is actually a QR code with ‘markers’. The camera recognizes the pattern and overlays the content, in this case the canal, barge, mules...

I pointed it straight ahead and watched the lock operation.  The first gates opened and the barge entered the lock area, the level of the lock area dropped through water release, the lower gates opened and the mules pulled the barge forward.  So that’s how it works!  I became immersed with the operation and forgot about the technology.  I studied the background, with the White House in the distance.  I heard the noises of the lock operation, the mules walking, the birds.  I moved the tablet and followed the barge as it headed downstream.  

TimeLooper has captured a number of monuments on the national mall, as well as  Pearl Harbor, the Tower of London, Angor Wat, etc.  Its an ingenious combination of rendering from old photographs, high end ‘green room’ production, and a melding of the virtual reality world, one in which you can ‘feel and hear’ the surroundings.  It’s not a game, but it uses some of the qualities of ‘gamification’.  It’s not a production, even as the original elements are shot in period perfection and integrated into historical renderings taken from old photographs. The final effect is an immersion into another time, another world, which brings with it an understanding, and a feel for history.  

(Photo by: Constance Chatfield-Taylor)

And what does this have to do with Georgetown?  Georgetown Heritage is working to revitalize, activate, and interpret the first mile of the C&O canal into an inviting, inclusive, and inspiring destination. It hopes to create learning spaces and provide restoration of the industrial canal that was essential to life in the 1800s, a gateway to our historical past.  History defines us.  It gives us a grounding, a reason to continue to preserve our houses, our streets, our ‘walkable’ way of life.    Designers now expose brick walls, steel girders, roughhewn beams – taking buildings back to basics, exposing history.  Why do we feel a certain way when we walk into those renovated spaces?   Perhaps we will better understand the Flour Mill, the warehouses, the furnace on the Ritz Carlton - some of the architectural treasures along the canal in Georgetown.

Andrew also showed me a recorded ‘immersive’ experience of George Washington’s inauguration in New York.  It literally gave me chills.  And isn’t that what its all about?  The FEEL of looking at the Wall Street location today, and then having it change to April 30th, 1789, to Washington’s inauguration.  The SOUNDS of industry on a busy street, the fife and drum corps (shot in a green screen environment), brought into the historical rendering background.  Being able to ‘look around’ 180 degrees, where I want to look, the way I want to experience it.  I’m there.  

It’s not old sepia toned photos pieced together with slow zooms.  YES, those photos are incredibly important to the overall historical accuracy.  But combined with studio shooting, green screen, virtual reality, rendering - those elements combine to create an augmented reality situation – and it works.  

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