My favorite places are not cities or towns, or any other man-altered landscape; they are the mountains. Not any specific mountains, either, but any and all mountains I love, and the wilder the country the better. I have always felt ill at ease in civilization; the unceasing bombardment of the senses allows me no peace. Only when tramping through the mountains have I found peace and real happiness. There I’ve merely desired to live and let live, observing nature and other creatures along with myself. I can see and understand my place in the universe, as but one of the multitude of creatures roaming the earth’s crust. I’ve learned to love, not only my own kind, but all life within the mountains — the birds and animals, the trees and flowers, the land itself. In the wilderness my love is shared and returned, without question, without greed. Life in our fast-paced society seems so distant from living the way God designed. Most people are so self-centered; they think they are above the rest of the earth. This is far from the truth. Only when you walk through the mountains alone, communing with nature, observing other insignificant creatures, coming and going as you please, do you awaken to your own short-lived presence on earth.
In recent years a landscape architect I’ve helped clients buy land, design their homes and plan neighborhoods, playgrounds and day care centers based on their favorite spaces. I’ve tested the use of favorite places as a key to aesthetic values, as a tool in architectural education and psychotherapy, and I’ve pleasured myself with fantasy trips to my own special niches.
My favorite places are charged with my emotions. They never lose the charge. One reminder, and suddenly I’m flooded with joy or sorrow. Call it spatial nostalgia; call it topophilia. My symbolic, personally sacred places can bring tears of joy or sadness to my eyes through the flimsiest of associations. A roaring fire always comforts me with the warm memories of my family huddled around the fireplace that provided our only heat. We were poor, but I felt safe and loved.
Likely there are archetypal favorite places consistently favored by most people: tightly enclosed spaces, one with vegetation, bright sunlight, or water, and niches in large spaces. Yet everyone has idiosyncratic favorite spaces as well. For designers this can be dangerous if not acknowledged. Some architects spend years palming off their favorite spaces on clients, trying to re-create that wonderfully remembered scene in someone else’s domain. Often this is totally insensitive to the client’s needs. It is more appropriate to uncover the client’s favorite spaces and apply those to the design.
Favorite spaces are similarly useful in psychotherapy. Frequently a statement like “I hate my house” really means “I hate my husband.” Favorite spaces can open doors to suppressed feelings about others and self.
In the same vein, visualizing favorite spaces can unleash creative energies and enrich our lives. For me a mind’s-eye trip to my charged spaces stimulates right and left brain cooperation and often allows me a fresh look at a problem. There is also the joy of recalling my favorite spaces. My memories of those places are precious; they provide incredible journeys to inner and outer landscapes. All I have to do to visit the long gone butterfly bush in my grandmother’s yard near Roxboro, North Carolina is to close my eyes. I am transported 2,500 miles across the country and 25 years back in time. I suddenly re-experience the golden sunwarmth, feel a black swallowtail brush my hair as I concentrated on the fluttering mass of butterflies so hard that nothing else existed. We — the swallowtails, the lilac and I — were one for a moment. Then my grandmother called me for lunch. Sitting here now I can taste the cornbread in my buttermilk as I gulped down my dessert so I could quickly return to my butterfly haunt.
Ras owned the Nags Head Casino. He was a man who looked harder than any substance you could name, his face creased, eyes squinty, even in the dim yellow lights of his dance hall. Beneath the hugely flowered fake Hawaiian overshirt that flapped about his waist there was always a white v-necked undershirt and even in the sixties he kept the crewcut no longer than a quarter inch, which did nothing to disguise the angularity of his skull. Although he had all his teeth, there were so many sinks around the lips when his mouth was closed it appeared otherwise. We took that all-around mean, battered look to be a result of a prison education but no one who said so knew for sure. When he emerged from some dark back room, wanting to walk across an impenetrable dance floor at eleven o’clock on a Saturday night, however, a path formed even before his goon squad could get their kicks by clearing it for him.
There were about ten bouncers in his hire, all a good foot taller, but, like him, crewcut fanatics. Between ruckuses, they carried huge barrels on their hips and with their forearms swept the empty beer cans off the tables into them.
Sometime during the early mornings barrels and barrels of empties were dropped from the second floor windows into waiting dump trucks below. Sometimes it took as many as three full loads, or so rumor said. My parents swear that rowdy drunks made similar exits if the bouncers of their day were suddenly faced with more trouble than they could immediately handle. But that was before the sand parking lot had been covered over by concrete, before brutality had become such a limelight issue, before the place had tamed down a bit, before I was there.
You had to be sixteen to walk past the sign that forbad long hair, up the gray steps to the fluorescent-lighted booth where a woman stamped your hand dayglo purple. From sixteen through nineteen, during the summer months when you could get a bargain season’s pass, I always carried on my right hand a double print: a brighter declaration overlaying a fainter smear that would not wash off. During the school months if I missed a Friday, I was there on Saturday, accepting what everyone believed: a two-night absence was more than any reputation could survive.
Any male could without defaming his character eye the eligible females from the tiny aisle which ran between the tables bordering the dance floor and the booths shoved against the windows. From the bar, up one aisle and down the other made a convenient circuit. A female who wished to survey, strut, or manage some combination of the two had to appear less brazen whether or not she was; it was a social requirement of the times. But it could take as much as thirty minutes to meander to the bathroom. there were so many people to say hello to, conversations which had to take place in the center of the thronged aisle so that all who pushed past had to notice just who the obstacle was and how she looked that particular evening.
But after the band had taken its second break, around eleven, most of the seeing and being seen had been accomplished or given up; the cigarette smoke had dusted the room; the sweat had soaked through at least one layer of clothing; the beer could no longer be entirely peed out of your system; inhibitions were at their nightly low. The band was as wound up as it was going to get then, and after you had pushed and shoved to clear a prime spot, there was only the dancing and nothing else.
The music we danced to was beach music, always and only beach music, which meant not “Surfer Girl,” but “39-21-40 Shape,” “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy,” “My Girl.” The Showmen. The Tams. The Temptations’ brand of blue. The bands who played were always black and were all always white underneath our suntans, inclined (despite heritage) to consider ourselves very soulful; convinced, in fact, that there were no two like us or the place.
It was there a boy cried over me instead of me over him, a very nice guy who, after I’d danced a third dance with someone else, walked downstairs and sat in a booth next to the pool tables and told my cousin I expected to use people — then started to cry.
Between sets one night of my eighteenth summer, a bunch of us ran across the dunes to the ocean to get our feet wet and someone actually unbuttoned something I was wearing without receiving any protest.
At the top of the stairs, not far from the fluorescent-lighted booth, I watched someone get maced for the first time, a Willy from Staunton, Virginia, who had not grown up with the legends as most of us had, who did not take the bouncers’ threats seriously.
Coming home the night of my first drunk (a cheap one off three beers), I drove someone drunker and somehow managed in that long swerving hour to avoid killing either of us — not even a scratch on the car — although recalling the fright, I forget we actually made it and feel only the impossibility.
It is wrong to nurture such nostalgia for a particular place. Maybe because the Casino had withstood the quirks of my memory, I imagined it could withstand other quirks, natural and circumstantial. When the tale circulated that a winter storm had torn the second story from the first, leaving a gray stairway and nowhere to dance, I was not immediately taken in. It seemed the stuff of legends, not indisputable truth. But what the storm tossed off, the new owners have not replaced and the building stands, bleached out and shorn of yellow lights, more squat and ill-shaped than ever. I had not thought I was so attached to those yellow lights, but in 1967 I remember their glow seemed twice the size of the bulbs; in the sea air the yellow appeared diaphanous, dreamy, like nothing else.
Favorite places? Maybe. Maybe this list isn’t so big on nature, but sooner or later these places end up in more conversations than you’d ever believe.
Junction I-85 and I-95, Petersburg, Va.
Tennis courts — Upper Main Line YMCA, Paoli, Pa.
Hillbilly Ranch, Park Square, Boston (unfortunately it’s the “late” Hillbilly Ranch, torn down in 1980, urban renewal.)
Plough & Stars, Mass. Ave. between Harvard Square and Central Square, Cambridge, Mass.
Town Spa Pizza and Beer, Stoughton, Mass.
Eatmore Coffeeshop, Geary St., San Francisco.
Overflo Lounge, Bush St., San Francisco.
Arturo’s, Houston St., NYC.
Buster Holmes Restaurant, somewhere in the French Quarter, New Orleans.
International Foods Grocery Store, Hillsborough Rd., Durham, N.C.
Taos, New Mexico.
Sunset, the dock off of Duval St., Key West, Fla.
Route 202 between Wilmington, Delaware & West Chester, Pa.
In our backyard in Rose Valley there was a cave in a thicket of forsythia. My sisters and I crawled into it through a tunnel in the bushes and from the inside could hardly be seen but could see what the grownups were doing on the mossy brick patio by the house. We carried in a supply of seed balls from the sycamore tree, mashed them to fluff arid mixed in dust from the cave floor to make our food. We were inside but could see and hear as if we were outside. Dogs liked the cave too.
Later we moved to Cherry Hollow where we had an old house and a lot of land. We were pioneers in the lower pasture one summer when the grass stood high. We pulled a wagon through the tall yellow grass and made our camp in a flattened circle. The grass stood all around us. We huddled on the ground eating lunch we’d carried on our trip from the house. We thought we were invisible, but of course no one was looking for us.
In the woods at Cherry Hollow there was a village which had grown by itself, made of trees sagging under honeysuckle vines, some as thick as arms. The trees and vines made small tents or houses, walls and roofs sketched in, open to air, in summer more substantial but not excluding any element, any sight. A thick section of vine ran horizontally for several feet between two houses; we hung things to dry or tied each other up on it. When we first found the place, a pile of stones marked the center of the circle of houses. On top of the pile of stones was a clean bare skull, a possum, I think. What hand had put it there? Or was there merely the illusion of intention, the way the place suggested protection and gave none.
I’ve left the hollow and now I live in Hillsborough. I don’t have a home with a view yet, but I hope to some day. I would like to make a trip and live in a tent, carry my place with me.
Dana P. Reinhold