A Weirdly Wonderful Place

I don’t know about you but I am infected with a near constant state of wanderlust. Anytime I go someplace new, I am excited at the prospect. I remember distinctly that, in 2006, I was absurdly excited to take a business trip to Columbia, South Carolina. I don’t know if there is a city that is less of a tourist attraction than this land-locked state capitol. Macon, Georgia maybe? It seems its biggest claim to fame is being burned to the ground by General Sherman in the waning days of the Civil War and even in that it is outdone by Atlanta.

It mattered none to me for I had never been to Columbia, South Carolina and I was going to fly there in a big ol’ jet airplane. Ultimately it completely lived up to its total lack of hype but I nonetheless enjoyed the trip.

This sort of desire to see and explore new places has led me to some truly wonderful places: Yosemite, Machu Picchu, and Pompeii to name a few. But I also believe that you needn’t travel to the home of ancient civilizations, whether they were glorious or buried under molten lava, to find adventure in exploration.

When I first came to Boston University in 1990, I quickly invested in a T pass and spent many a day travelling the rails (not quite hobo style) and got off at pretty much every stop of each of the four subway lines. My favorite, by the way, was none from the list including Chinatown, Fenway, nor, perish the thought, Harvard Square. Nope, it was Wonderland, the northern terminus of the Blue Line. Between its being nestled on sandy Revere Beach and located adjacent to an actual, honest-to-goodness ballroom, it was a great and particularly seedy stop. Plus with its great name, how could it get better than that?

Unfortunately, after literally a lifetime of travelling up and down the East Coast it becomes progressively more difficult to find somewhere new to go. Of course that doesn’t keep the eye and mind from wandering. Sometimes it catches something really quite surprising.

Take for instance what I came across yesterday.

That wandering eye of mine catches things in every day life that are curious. These take the form of a little patch of woods behind a store, an outcrop of rocks just off the shore, or, of immediate notice, a little dirt road to, seemingly, nowhere.

This road is in the middle of a marsh behind a gate with big “DO NOT ENTER, Authorized Vehicles Only” signs on either side. It starts out paved but turns to dirt before disappearing over a small rise. We drive through this marsh, Rumney Marsh as it is called, pretty much every single day for it stretches from Lynn to Revere and is, mostly, in the town of Saugus. Running right through the middle of it is a state highway – route 107 – a four-lane thoroughfare that Amy and I affectionately refer to as “the long straight road” or, simply, “the long straight.”

Given it size and razor-straight layout, it is not a road on which people travel at all slow. It is, in fact, a road that is apparently given over to street racers on occasion. Not very good street racers, mind you, as evidenced by the periodic flowers and cheap stuffed animal displays tied about telephone poles.

What this means is that every time I have passed by this mystery road to nowhere, it has been at a more rapid pace. I’ve nonetheless been intrigued by it but never stopped. Of course, I have also generally been on my way to somewhere, you know, like a job. Not so much the case at the moment.

So, yesterday, on the spur of the moment, I stopped.

It was a beautiful breezy day so the marsh was particularly pleasant. I found it shockingly devoid of any sort of trash as one might expect to find along a busy highway. Despite being on the other side of the big and seemingly impenetrable gate, there were plenty of tire tracks on the road. Clearly this wasn’t a road to nowhere. It was a road to somewhere. That somewhere lay just over the rise that was growing ever closer.

When I got to the top of that little hill, what lay before was, frankly, a bit on the confusing side.

It appeared to be an airport or, at least, an airstrip. What could land here, though, was a mystery to me in that this runway was shorter than a football field. I not sure even those Alaskan bush pilots who are used to landing on icebergs (or whatever) could safely put down here. Furthermore, I realized as I got closer, this “runway” (in quotes, at least for now) was actually compromised of what appeared to be old pieces of office carpeting. That’s not to say it wasn’t well made as these assorted remnants were bolted into the ground in such a way that indicated whoever took on this task didn’t do so lightly.

Off to the side of the “runway” were contrasting pieces of carpeting that seemed to be taxiways. Placed at intervals were some solidly built wooden table-like stands. It was the sight of those that gave me an inkling of what exactly I had found at the end of the road to nowhere.

What we had here, friends, was an airport for model airplanes.

And this was no small undertaking. The runway (quotes gone again, now that we know what it is) was beautifully laid out, straight as the road off which it is hidden. The taxiways to those various gates were built at perfect 90-degree angles and equally spaced one from another. The stands, which I will now think of as gates, were also all identically and, best as I can tell, very solidly built. There was even a terminal of sort – a covered bench attached to a shipping container.

I could imagine what this place would look like on, I suppose, a weekend when it is full of people. Each of the gates taken by a couple guys fawning over their little machine; eventually waiting for their turn to use the carpeted runway to take to the skies over the marsh. I’m guessing it’s the same people all the time and they all know each other.

These, though, are all guesses as I can find no information page or even nary a reference to this location anywhere on the internet save for one passing mention from a birdwatcher. Given the relative beauty and perfection of the location I would predict this is by design. I know not how many model airplane enthusiasts there are out there but probably more than enough to overwhelm what would have to be their nirvana. It’s enough of one that I will be keeping my eye out such that I can swing by again sometime when people are flying.  I may also now live in fear that the “model airplane mafia” that runs this place may come after me in the dead of night.

Aside from Rumney Marsh Airfield (I’ve named it for them) the rest of the area was a great surprise as well. Understanding that this plot of land is bordered by the aforementioned highway on one side and a BJ’s Wholesale Warehouse , an enormous garbage-burning power plant, a used car graveyard and a full-fledged freeway on others, it isn’t the sort of place you’d expect to find natural beauty.

But I did.

There were paths running off the airfield that I walked and, in doing so, found wonderful little treats. The rivers and streams running through the marsh led straight to the Atlantic Ocean less than a mile away and visible from the higher points. As such, I know from my decade of driving the Long Straight, they are prone to some huge tidal changes. I will say, with absolutely no scientific backing beyond my envisioning myself standing out in the water, that the difference between high tide and low tide is probably eight feet. There are times when the marshland is completely under water (but not this spit of land on which I was walking, home to the airfield) and times when there are nothing more than rivulets trickling through the sandy bottom.

It was somewhere near mid-tide during my visit and this allowed me to really enjoy the streams that were clearly flowing at quite a pace. It wasn’t quite rapids but enough that, if you decide to go for a nice dip, you’d need to be a good swimmer. Again I noted how little debris was around. I suppose it could be that our modeling enthusiasts did their part to keep the area clean, perhaps as part of the deal that allowed them to plop their hobby down on state land. It could also be that you can’t quite just pull over and throw the stuff out the window. It’s a bit of a hike to get out to.

Away from the water, the stands of Paper Birch stood out in stark relief against the blue sky. I would imagine these would be even more impressive during the autumn when their leaves turned red. The undergrowth wasn’t so much that you couldn’t step off the sandy trails to explore, literally, off the beaten path.

Eventually my circuitous route led me back to the airstrip and, regretfully, back to the car. I think I could have easily spent half a day there, walking the many different paths and just hanging out at the centrally located airport. Alas, there were kids that needed picking up.

As I got back into my car, I couldn’t help but think a few things. I knew, for one, that I would be back and probably more than once. There was an entire other side of the area that I hadn’t been able to walk. I also know that, as I said, I want to visit when the planes are flying. I also was pleasantly reminded that sometimes wonderful little gems likes this can be hidden right beneath our noses. Again, I have been driving by this place for more than ten years and never had come close to stopping. I had thought of doing so any number of times but never had. How many fields like this can there be in the world? Having been to the Wright Brothers site in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina (actually next to Kitty Hawk, not in it – how’s that for some trivia you didn’t know?) this little place was like a miniaturized version, right down to the tall grass all around and the little shack at the end of the runway. Who, though, would have the land, the wherewithal, and the desire to go about building something like this?

That, as I have said before, is part of the beauty of travel – the unexpected. We all know where the Statue of Liberty is. While, by all means, worthy of a visit there is no real discovery in going there. Discovery comes from exploring the unknown, even when that unknown no more than a handful of yards away from the very, very well known. You just have to take the time to go find it. It’s a lesson I have learned many times. I look forward to my next lesson and can’t help but wondering from where it will come.


5 thoughts on “A Weirdly Wonderful Place

  1. My father flies radio control airplanes, so he had met up with the group that uses this airstrip when he was out here last fall. I was kind of fascinated with the place too. Something else interesting about that location is that it sits right on top of the embankment that was intended to support the original I-95 project before it was cancelled in the early 70s. You can pretty clearly see this if you look at a satellite overhead: http://g.co/maps/2wrs7 Have you ever noticed that there are bridges that go off into nowhere (well… they actually go off onto the aforementioned embankment) on that intersection between US-1 and MA-60? Those are also remnants of that cancelled highway project. I’d have to imagine that cities like Revere and Lynn would be doing much better these days if that project had been allowed to go on (I’m sure there were some dirty politics involved… this is the land that gave birth to the term “Gerrymander”)!

  2. Searching for an “undiscovered” walk or hike near where I live, I happened upon the DCR page for Rumney Marsh Reservation and decided to go there. Upon arriving in the area I couldn’t find an entrance, so I did some googling on my phone and happened upon your post, which I read later, after leaving the marsh. There was a model airplane when I finally found the way in, buzzing around against a beautiful sunset. In reading your post, I appreciated your thoughts on the serendipity of travel, and the point that adventures into the unknown can often be had in one’s own neighborhood. Thanks for the pictures and great writing about an interesting place.

  3. I’m not sure how my sister found your blog titled “A wierdly wonderful place” but today she did. The residents of Saugus Rumney Marsh area are currently in a dispute with DCR. They are planning on removing this little piece of paradise that you refer to as weirdly wonderful. My name is Dawn Gaffney I am the creator of a FB page called Save Rumney Marsh Leave the Saugus I95 Sandpile Alone. Please feel free to visit our site, we shared a link to your post there. We welcome any photos or stories you are willing to share! We need all the support we can find!

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