My walk begins a few years ago, on a foggy night. I’m going down Queen Street in Chestertown, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
An old colonial town on the Chester River, where I’m attending Washington College.
It’s pretty late, nearly midnight, on my nightly walk around town, down an all-too-familiar route; the town is small and only the historic district is worth seeing, so I know the path by heart.
I stop to admire #116 on the corner of Queen and High Streets, my favorite dream home, in a town full of stunningly gorgeous historic homes (when they change hands, it’s handled by Sotheby’s or Christie’s, to give you an idea). Along the tiny harbor, a row of brick Georgians, some on the National Register, from the days when this was a British port of entry.
Right by the water sits “Widehall”(owned in the past by governors, senators, and judges). A wonderful scent mixing with the salt water smells, from flowering shrubs in its walled garden.
Next door, is the old Custom House, home at times to British tax collectors and redcoats, and then to a leader of the Sons of Liberty, who traded in slaves.
I wind through the old streets, move quietly down the back alley by the courthouse, and past the old historical society building.
I walk quickly, by Eastern Shore standards. It is a foggy night, there is a moon up there somewhere in the clouds, and I reach my favorite street.
My footsteps echo against the pavement, I hear each step very clearly, and the dim hum of traffic on Washington Avenue heading toward the bridge fades away.
I vaguely recall checking my phone to see the time, just as it reached midnight.
I do not subscribe to a belief in ghosts or spirits, but at that particular witching hour, I am quite convinced that for the minute and a half it took me to reach the end of the street, I stepped back in time. Walking swiftly through a swirling fog, in the warm, humid, late-spring air of Maryland, the noise of the cars was silenced, and I heard what sounded like horse hooves clopping behind me.
I turned and looked, but there was nothing, just fog and the same old houses I’d been admiring each night for years. I continued walking, and mid-stride, I again heard the sound of horse hooves striking cobbles, and maybe a sound like a cane clacking against the brick pavers.
By the time I reached Queen Street where it becomes wider and busier, as it meets High Street, I returned to the present. I was aware suddenly of the steady stream of sound of cars going over the bridge across the river. But, I was sure that, only a moment ago, I had not heard any cars, nor did I recall that that the temperature had just been this humid and breezy. I had walked into a patch of warmth, silent of the sounds of the modern era, and, upon reflection, were the street lights really that dim, or did they just not appear a moment ago?
I’ve read about “marine inversion layers” and other weather phenomena, that refract sound waves, and all that. None of those meteorological books mention horse hooves.
Midnight in Paris may be a more romantic vision, but a late-night stroll in Chestertown is apparently magical. There is something in that town’s old district that lulls you into feeling at home, wanting to linger longer. You find yourself drawn to it, walking it’s streets every night, researching the old homes that you secretly wish you could step into, if only for a minute.
Walking back from this neighborhood, I realized how I was a bit sad to be walking around in what was clearly modern times, passing the seedy Royal Farms and the beat-up gas station, where girls always worried about getting hassled. This modern era wasn’t the town I loved.
As I reflect on it, that particular corner, Queen and High Street, really is “magical.” Never did I feel stressed once I walked down past it, and life seemed slower. The pace of the town was muted on that street at night. My favorite, familiar houses seemed so inviting. On another night, after a day filled with lectures and talking, walking late with a friend who appreciated silence and the old houses as much as I did, I think I was again aware of a shift in time, although this second time the shift felt less dramatic.
The old Imperial Hotel, ritzy, too pricey for me to pay too many visits, also seemed to slow down time, and its bar exudes the 1920’s, the perfect place for a Sidecar or Gin Rickey. Memorable for having my first and best Bloody Mary there. It felt like the Twenties: the music, spiffy clientele, seersucker suits, the whispered conversations. This may be partially due to the amount of vodka in the Bloody Mary (and I may have had more than one, because they were so good), but I distinctly remember feeling this way even before I took my first sip. It is of no great surprise that this copacetic joint sits on the corner of Queen and High.
I digress; before soaking up atmosphere and alcohol at the Imperial Hotel, I was walking.
Farther along High Street, near Philosopher’s Terrace, it’s not fun at night. Or ever. It smells of diesel. Local unwashed and resentful denizens hang out by the low-rent housing on the corner, shouting and gesticulating toward you, as you go by at night. Then you pass the frat boys, lounging about their dilapidated off-campus houses for a stretch, until you reach the college. That night, the night I heard horses, late though it was, the magic was starting to wear off as the noise of cars, the shouts of local hooligans, and the music and drunken sounds of a frat party drowned out my midnight reverie.
Turning down another street to escape back into the silent night. Walking up to my dorm, an old brick pile from the 1800’s, I once again felt the warm glow of walking through a quiet time, though I knew I was in my own era, as a Volvo slowly glided past, and the glow of an iPhone illuminated a silhouette smoking a cigarette. I looked down, and my magical encounter had ended, but it renewed my enthusiasm for that little town at the edge of the River Chester.