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CLIFFS AND CRITICAL DECISIONS

Me standing on Ellison's Rocks, looking up at the sheer drop and the Forty Steps on the Cliff Walk in Newport, RI. Photo by Melissa Martin-Ellis, http://www.mellissart.com/.

A favorite short story is Jack Finney’s “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets.”[1] Plot: ambitious employee climbs out an eleventh-floor window to retrieve his career-boosting project notes.

It’s a fine study in story structure—character, conflict, crisis, change—and an even better examination of that second element, conflict. Specifically, inner conflict. Conflict that so often happens when, just as in a good short story, we are trying to make a crucial decision. When we are torn asunder and asking ourselves, ‘should I do this, or not?’

A couple of weekends ago I went to Newport, Rhode Island. I went to visit friends and to reconnect with a very special place: the famous Cliff Walk, which lately I’d been pining to see. I walked with Mark and Melissa and beheld the cerulean sky, the peacock ocean, the swirling aquamarine eddies, the jagged cliff sides composed mostly of metamorphic rock.[2]

We stopped at the head of Newport’s famous Forty Steps, which have been around for a couple of hundred years (although restored now—the originals were wood[3]) and was where servants from the Mansions met to hang out. The steps cut between Ellison’s Rocks and Conrad’s Cave[4]—places which, although a bit scary to reach, are navigable, and I’ve ventured to both in the past. It was high tide, though, so I couldn’t go to the cave (you can really only go to at low tide; during high, it’s like the pirate’s hole in Disney’s The Rescuers[5]). So I instead descended the steps and shimmied through a chasm in the outcropping to stand on Ellison’s Rocks. When I got to the bottom, I looked straight up.

Conrad's Cave. The entrance is toward the right of the photo. I wish I'd gotten a video of the water pouring in -- it's stunning. Photo by Melissa Martin-Ellis, http://www.mellissart.com/.

There were the steps, and the sheer cliff right beside it. The contrast struck me. I have some experience with rock climbing, and I remembered that when you’re going to rappel, it’s pretty intimidating to stand on that ledge and look down—it’ll be over quickly, but it induces vertigo. Even though the stairs take longer, the descent is less traumatic.

But either one will get a person to the same spot.

Melissa gave me a few older postcards of Newport; she told me when they were dated, but I forgot. Anyway, here's what the cliffs look like.

The Forty Steps. Photo by Melissa Martin-Ellis, http://www.mellissart.com/.

I put inner conflict over making a critical decision in this context. When we face that giant leap and contemplate a net-free plunge, it can be a long way down, baby. When we, however, break that conflict into smaller formations and conquer each one at a time, it may take longer, but it’s less overwhelming. And the outcome is the same.

One of the most interesting lines in “Contents” comes at a moment just after Tom has set his feet on the window ledge, when he’s “eleven stories above the street, staring into his own lighted apartment, odd and different-seeming now.”[6] It occurred to me that after the conflict has been resolved and we’ve lived with the decision for a little while, we often look back on it and realize we’ve made the right choice. That the alternate life we could have led somehow looks odd.

And we may even forget why we thought the decision was so difficult to make in the first place.

A view of the shoreline. Photo by Melissa Martin-Ellis, http://www.mellissart.com/.


[1] You can read Jack Finney’s “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets” here–it does have a couple of MINOR typos–nothing significant enough to mess up the piece (yes, I did a line-by-line check)–but it’s free : http://www.is.wayne.edu/mnissani/20302005/Deadman.htm

[2] This reference is from the Newport Comprehensive Land Use Plan, published by the City of Newport in–I’m making an assumption from the link–2005. Unfortunately, although there is a link to the PDF online, there really isn’t any publishing information. If you’d like to read the report—which is excellent in terms of wanting to know everything about Newport’s history, cultural, ecological, and geological resources—you can either click here (the PDF is posted directly on my site): comp_landuse_05 or visit this link: http://www.cityofnewport.com/departments/planning-zoning/maps-plans/pdf/comp_landuse_05.pdf

The information I’ve cited appears on page 1.

[3] Linda S. Manning, “An Amazing Stroll through Time…Walking the Walk…The Cliff Walk,” Rhode Island Roads: The Online Magazine of Travel, Life, Dining, and Entertainment for People Who Love Rhode Island, http://riroads.com/outdoors/cliff_walk.htm

[4] Ibid.

[5] For more information about The Rescuers, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rescuers

[6] Jack Finney, “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets,” in Adventures in Appreciation Annotated Teacher’s Edition, ed. Judy Allen-Newberry, Anthony J. Buckley and Richard Tuerk (Orlando, San Diego, Chicago and Dallas: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), 102.

Another old postcard, this of a common scene off the Cliff Walk or Ocean Drive.

About Melissa Martin-Ellis

Melissa Martin-Ellis is an illustrator, writer and photographer, and Vice President and Creative Director of Millennial Publications. Her artwork and writing have been featured in numerous New England exhibits and galleries, as well as in print media such as the Redwood Review, Newport This Week, Newport Life Magazine, The Boston Globe, Horseman’s Yankee Peddler, The Newport Round Table Anthology and Balancing The Tides.

She is the author of three nonfiction books, The Everything Guide to Writing Graphic Novels, The Everything Photography Book and The Everything Ghost Hunting Book for Adams Media. She the co-moderator of the Newport Round Table Writers’ Group in Newport, Rhode Island. She is currently working on a graphic novel project about the disappearance of the honeybee and collaborating with her husband, author Mark Ellis, on a paranormal thriller novel.

You can check out her stunning photos of Newport at http://www.mellissart.com/.

THE LAST PEOPLE ON EARTH

Riches in the Ruins

In writing, as with any kind of intense pursuit, it’s important to have a balance while you’re doing it. I came up here to the Colony with a lot of work to do, and I’ve certainly achieved that. I even managed to get out to a few things—an art gallery opening, a wonderful dinner party at the Mailer house, a poetry reading. Last weekend, however, after working intensely for three or four days and only attending these events in the evenings, I realized I was feeling a little caged in. I wasn’t getting out enough.

Enter my next-door neighbor, Peter, and his friend Duff. They live here year-round and I definitely hold them among the coolest people I’ve ever met. During the first week I was here, I’d discussed with them my passion for abandoned places and urban exploring (something I do, in reality, very little of—I mostly just look at other explorer’s photos). And they had a surprise for me: some abandoned jewels just down the road apiece. Would I like to go? Hell, yeah!

So this past Sunday, although it was a bit nippy, it was sunny and a beautiful day to be out—in many ways, there’s no better weather in which to visit an abandoned place. All that beauty (especially by the sea) is so incongruous with the empty places, the rotting places, the places where, if you listen closely enough, you can hear the echoes of the lives that happened in them. I came home inspired; a new short story is cooking in my brain as we speak. In an odd way, all that incongruity—and being away from my keyboard for a full day—restored my balance.

Here are photos and videos of our day–we visited a base, most of which is now nature preserve and open to the public; some of it is still in use by local organizations, but the base ceased operations in 1985. The other building was a biology lab, and I’m not sure when that closed–although its closing pre-dated the late 1990s judging from graffiti on the walls.

Apparently, there are a couple more places, but we ran out of daylight. Here’s to hoping I get an opportunity to go see the rest before I leave!

Organized tour? NOT.

Walking Tour #1: A bit of background.

“[There’s just] all kinds of stuff out here…”


Next few pix: Seriously? This place is reminiscent of the set of The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price, precursor to The Omega Man (Charlton Heston, 1971) and I Am Legend (Will Smith, 2007). [If you’ve never seen The Last Man on Earth, or don’t even have any clue what the hell I’m talking about, you owe it to yourself to rent it now.]

These are all single family homes.

There are four streets of them…

Peter on the Roof.

Home sweet home! Those trees’d be a pain in the ass if your dinner party guests had to get through them to find your front door. Yup, that’s me. Martini, anyone? May I bring your slippers?

Broken merry-go-round on the playground.

Many years ago, parents sat on this bench and watched their kids:

Here’s a shelter where people, most likely, waited for transportation:

We were pretty fascinated with this cover, which we could have probably pried open if we’d had a crowbar. Check out the design, the year, and the strange symbols. Drunken mischief? Or does somebody have, like, food and stuff socked away down there (I didn’t put the photo here, but beneath this cement platform there are what appear to be air vents).

Fallen electrical equipment. The storms out here do get pretty wild.

I’m not sure what caused this hole. It was in one of the front windows of a home–a window that would have most likely looked into the family room. Where a Christmas Tree probably would have been.


Interior. What’s with all the weird art?

Dormant dining room.

These trees reminded me of scenes in Sleepy Hollow.

Walking toward the sea.

Abandoned beach.

The Abandoned Beach Cliff Adventure. This is truly great!


Nathan shot this while we were chatting.

An abandoned cistern. This view struck me as reminiscent of the pool area from which the piranha escaped in Piranha (1978).

I was fascinated by this creepy picnic area.

THE ABANDONED LAB

Obviously, someone was here before us…whoever it was drank his beer, but left a near-full pack of Marlboros.

From this point forward, we’re going counter-clockwise through the place. This was a loading door of some kind — the opening was large enough to fit a small vehicle through.

This is the area to the left of the door.

Notice this spiral painted on the wall–it looks like the same spiral painted on the man-hole cover I pointed out earlier. Weird.

Ceiling damage in one of the back rooms.

I’m always fascinated by fuse boxes that no longer work. This one I particularly liked because I swear it’s the same model I had in my house growing up. Or maybe they’re all the same anyway? I don’t know.

Could you imagine working in this dark hole? I think it would depress me.


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