by Tim Gilmore, 1/20/2014
Past the World War Two-era warehouse hangars and Quonset hangars and the rusted railroad tracks in the tall dead winter broom sedge, the Ark rests on the expanse of old Naval Air Station Lee Field, built in 1940 and decommissioned in 1960.
My sister Wanda dubbed it the Ark. She imagined giraffes craning their magnificent necks out of its glassless windows.
In fact, it’s a 100-foot long hovercraft, waiting here abandoned and unfinished, as though before the sun comes up tomorrow, the Ancient Mariner might commandeer it across the runways and hover it over the pines.
My sister and I climb its big buoyant hull and step inside. Yellow waters pool through the body of the boat. Up a central staircase at the stern, the upper compartment opens up to us, its spacious windows separated by narrow mullions that offered spectacular post-apocalyptic views of the airstrip and the trees.
Standing three stories off the ground, I step out onto the exterior of the boat and look into the roiling dark clouds above. I walk the whole top exterior in a circle.
Though we’re wondering what war this ship serviced, trying to imagine how long it’s inhabited this incongruous location, the craft is much newer than it appears. It’s a ruins, but it looks so old partly because it was never finished.
This former Naval Air Station became Reynolds Industrial Park in 1984, and 20 years later, Atlas Hovercrafts, Inc. began operations in the old industrial warehouses.
The company vision was to mainstream hovercrafts on the St. Johns River and other local waterways. Hovercrafts could ferry commuters from one part of town to another, form adjunct ambulance links, and perform surveillance and counter-terrorism tasks.
In 2006, company president Kurt Peterson said he expected to build between four and six hovercrafts the following year. The crafts would run on a fuel part petroleum and part soybean. He said a hovercraft could drive right across the top of a manatee, without the manatee even knowing.
Though Peterson told The Palatka Daily News, “Our hovercrafts are the most expensive in the world,” as though the company had built even one ship, his website stated, “Atlas Hovercraft, Inc. is positioned to become the largest hovercraft design and manufacturing company in the world.”
Atlas didn’t complete its first vessel.
The hovercraft ruins on which I scurry beneath dark threatening clouds in the winter of 2014 was supposedly commissioned by an unidentified “Chicago businessman” who planned to use it for “diner cruises” in Chicago.
Now I’m standing on the bow at the top, looking out into the storm clouds, and I remember seeing the tombstone of the poet Conrad Aiken in Savannah, whose epitaph reads, “Cosmos Mariner, Destination Unknown.”
From the other side of rusted train cars on rusted tracks and stands of longleaf pines comes the roar of cars drag-racing on another arm of the Lee Field runways. Roads cut open with grasses tunnel through the trees in random directions.
On the other side of the races, we find a runway built into a ghost town of abandoned construction trailers. Some of them stand three stories high. The storage company that stacks them here has made a small corrugated metal city with dozens of doors hanging open over the broken runway or up in the air above lower trailers.
Burnt and rusted oil drums lean between pines. People live here, or have lived here recently. A plastic tub of women’s clothes fits into one corner of a trailer.
There’s a chair on the roof of another. An iron ladder depends from the side of a small rusted water tower. Fuel tanks on lorries wait in the woods, and an old boat decays on its trailer between frozen brown broom sedge and cedar.
For most of the length of this radial arm of airstrip, construction trailers stand in walls on all sides. On the outsides of these peripheries, vines and saplings and palmetto scrub reach up and pull trailers back into the earth.
Everything’s always earth. People have long built the world, but the earth always contains it, and the earth pulls the whole world back. When you know how to recognize this reclamation, the disintegration and collapse will always be ecstatically beautiful.
We’ve walked two thirds of the 5,000- foot runway, between towering walls of these strange metal rooms, when a loud jarring wrenching screeches from between stacks of trailers beneath the trees.
The doors are heavy metal. It couldn’t have been the wind. We’ve seen that people live back here, but we doubt they’d so purposefully give themselves away. It could’ve been an accident. They could’ve been trying to scare us off. It might have been some random lurch of metal off metal. A door hangs diagonally ajar off a trailer. Every now and then, that door must lunge.
Most of the continent’s still wild, despite “development” and suburbanization, which themselves don’t last long and often soon ascend into their own wildness. How many such strange, lost, self-contained landscapes abide hidden out in the North American continental expanses? Most life is wild. Maybe even most human life. We’ll never know of most of what lives around us.
Finally, walking through stacks of lumber and pipe and rusted junk, we come to these metal stairs that ascend into nothing. The rails are rusted. The steps are not. Dead weeds needle up from the last winter freeze. Palm trees rise crooked and jagged and post-apocalyptic to the side.
The stairs go nowhere.
Instead of “post-apocalyptic,” I want to use other pseudo-biblical adjectives like “prelapsarian” and “antediluvian,” but I want to wear those adjectives out, drag them through these swamps, fly them into these overcast skies.
I climb the steps up to the drop. This is the end of the road. Nothing’s here. There’s nothing here but all that’s come before. And the peripheral roads that head toward the decompositions of secrets in the woods and the hovercraft I captained and the constant compost, of everything we do, into the earth.
While I’m standing atop this lonely staircase, the rain finally falls. The bloated sky will soon deflate. The sun will shine diagonally through the glassless windows of the hovercraft and feed the thick carpets of fungus that creep across its inner quarters.