Eastern State Penitentiary/Newport RI – Road Trip 2017

The drive through Pennsylvania is beautiful and relaxing. I love the vast open areas and being surrounded by hills. (I also kind of feel like a child when I get excited to drive through the tunnels!) Aside from the toll charges (wow) Pennsylvania was probably my favorite part of the drive.

My brother and I set out early Friday morning, April 7, around 6 am. We grabbed some coffee and hit the road. I had my brother go through a list of podcasts I’d compiled in the past few days before leaving. I did a basic google search on best podcasts of 2017 and sifted through tons of lists.

We decided to listen to a podcast I’d listened to a few months back and really enjoyed called “Lifeafter.” I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good, relatively brief story podcast. The sound design is wonderful and really immerses you in the world. It is about a poor guy who loses his wife and is struggling with living without her. Like someone listening to a loved one’s voicemails over and over, Ross listens to the recordings his wife had made on a social media platform called Voicetree. It’s kind of like a voice blog. But one day, while listening to one of thousands of recordings he’d now completely memorized, he hears something a little strange…

The third podcast we listened to a bit of is called “Alice Isn’t Dead,” by the same guy that writes “Welcome to Night Vale.” Super creepy and a good background kind of podcast, it’s good for ambiance and road trips, as the narrator spends a lot of time driving around the country in a delivery truck…

My plan was to stop on the way to Newport in Philadelphia to tour Eastern State Penitentiary. We got there relatively early as there were very few people in the parking lot. The outside of this place is menacing, and a little jarring as it is set against cramped, bustling streets I’ve never seen before. It seems very out of place, throwing off your sense of time and place.

Inside, you walk down a long corridor by a gift shop and restrooms to the entrance. You put on a headset and walk out to the first area that opens out into a court-yard outside the cells. (The audio tour is narrated by Steve Buscemi, which is awesome.) It was a little cold and gray out, which was picture perfect for the backdrop of the penitentiary walls.

Inside the long corridors of cells, you can look into each one filled with random pieces of old wooden furniture encased in streaks of light coming from narrow slit windows in the ceilings. The walls are falling apart, layer by layer, with one layer green and brown, the next an old crusty beige-ish paint.

One of the cells was open for people to walk in to. I took a brief video of the tiny space, fascinated with the crumbling walls. I felt the fact that the ceilings were high instead of forming a closed box was something of a mercy compared to the isolation cells from modern prisons.

Back on the road, we get caught up in Philadelphia rush hour traffic right around 4 pm. Eventually we get back on the highway and make our way to Newport, Rhode Island.

Newport is one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever seen. The Newport Preservation Society has done an incredible job of maintaining the old mansion houses and buildings that create an awesome effect; while driving down Bellevue between these crazy giant houses you feel like you are in a Secret Garden-like neighborhood, hidden away somewhere that seems apart from the rest of the world. But then you walk to the back of the Breakers and suddenly you have the giant expanse of water opening out onto the world. You feel a pristine antique-ness, like being encased behind glass, and the view of the water stresses the reality that this view has remained unchanged for many, many years.

I took about 250 pictures that weekend, which is a lot for me. I’m putting a few of my favorites here, the rest I will put on the photos page.

The houses were altogether over the top, I’d say, haha! The Breakers especially was almost sickening with how much was going on in there. The Chateau was different; very tasteful and elegant and beautiful with a little more authenticity as a living space. Altogether an amazing experience, and I’ve never seen anything like these houses.

We finished off the trip with a stroll down the Cliff Walk. Daffodils were blooming alongside the trail in a wave-like pattern across the lawn of an ancient-looking red brick building. I’ve never been on a cliff side like this before, with the waves crashing against the rocks straight below me. The small platform at the base of the “Forty Steps” offered an incredible close-up of the sounds of crashing waves.


Blog Changes

This weekend I will be traveling up to Newport, Rhode Island. But on the way, I will be stopping in Philadelphia to tour Eastern State Penitentiary. In Newport, my brother and I will tour the incredible mansion houses mostly built during New England’s “Golden Age,” when wealthy new business owners were keen to build the most lavish living quarters money could possibly buy in the late 1800’s. The architecture and decoration are borrowed from extravagant European design, including French Beaux-Arts and Italian Renaissance.

My interest in both Eastern State Penitentiary and Newport’s mansions are connected to writing. Recently I decided that I wanted to adjust this blog to include music, photography and writing on other subjects, in addition to an occasional movie essay. I decided I would like to have all of my “stuff” in one tidy place from which I can share what I want.

Anyway, quite a while ago I published my first short story in an Australian press called “The Penance of Mr. Shepherd.” I wrote it after reading about Eastern State Penitentiary, though the story has little to do with it. What I was interested in was the idea that absolute isolation and deprivation could “cleanse” a person’s soul and lead him out of sin into salvation through prayer and quiet reflection. The reality is that many men went insane in the harsh conditions of the penitentiary with no light, and deprived even of sound. For those who managed to break the jail’s rules or offend the guards in some way there was an even smaller cell, dug into the floor, where a person could sit for hours, days, or weeks at a time with barely enough room to turn around. This may seem like a distant bad memory, but the realty is that prisoners still spend a large amount of time in “solitary,” even today, despite evidence that the form of punishment can and does cause mental illness. In recent years, attention has been brought to this problem, though we still see skyrocketing rates of incarceration in the U.S. and continue to see men and women thrown into solitary confinement, I believe, because we simply don’t know what else to do. An article published by NPR in 2013 states that “As prisoners testify about suicidal depression, self-mutilation, lethargy, hallucinations and other ills, more attention is being paid to inmates who have lived through the extreme, often uncertain isolation.” (Read full article here.)

I’m interested in what happens to the mind when it has to endure under these conditions. Where does your mind go without outward stimulation? It seems there are only two choices: either make it up or shut down…perhaps a combination of both. If I try to put myself there, I begin to move around, directionless, touching the space I have around me, touching the walls, the floor, reaching high and low. You move just to feel the empty space around you. The subtle movement of air around your limbs becomes a soothing, self-regulating gesture that you repeat over and over again. Maybe it would be similar to how an autistic brain, overwhelmed with stimuli, repeats a movement over and over to brace him/herself against the chaos, only opposite; in the absence of stimuli, you start to move chaotically, without intent or mindfulness, just to feel the space that assures that you are still occupying it in real time. Keep this going and suddenly you are in the chaotic realm of dreams, where things happen and appear in your mind and manifest into the blackness surrounding you where everything can be. Now it has to be, because the alternative is unbearable. Those lucky enough to make this as a decision may be able to switch between realities, but I’m sure many minds go there because they are forced, like the mind comes to a fork in the road and must choose or shut completely off, which does not become possible until death.

Concerning Newport mansions, I want to see the area because of the story I am currently writing, which is set in Newport some years in the future. I intend to take a lot of pictures and these will be posted in the photos section as well as another feature post highlighting the trip. It’s a grueling 12-hour drive…the hunt for awesome podcasts to listen to is on. I’ve found a couple, but if you have some to suggest please let me know in the comments section!