Saturday in late January, 9 a.m., I’m standing on a freshly cleaned and pebbled ice sheet. Water droplets have been sprinkled across its surface, allowing me to walk on the ice without slipping. Wearing my thin sweater and thin gloves, I’m shivering. Above me, the white glow of the incandescent light is also shivering. Across from me, Jon stands in the house, holding his broom. In front of me, Peter and Christina stand on the sideline, holding their brooms. Behind me, a cheery voice says, “Good curling.”

“CENTER GUARD,” Jon commands. I step on the hack, squat down, push off, slide forward and release my stone. It glides ahead with a prolonged thump, showing no sign of deceleration. Peter and Christina chase the stone from behind.

One night ago, a stone hit the window of our car, waking me up from a nap. I opened my eyes — dark. Absolutely nothing. No moonlight. No car lights. Not even road lights. But I was being thrust forward. I extended my arm and grasped onto something — a limb wrapped in a down jacket. Jon was sleeping next to me. My eyes adapted to the darkness — Christina’s silhouette was steering the wheel in front of me. Next to her was Peter. The four of us were driving north to a curling tournament.

I looked through the window into the darkness. Leftover snow elevated the greyness on the sides of the highway. It was a cloudy night. Trees, animals and all signs of civilization had disappeared along with the stars. Not a house within our vicinity; not another car in this snow-road-snow valley. A hard-boiled wonderland. We were rolling uphill by ourselves, like a lonely whale swimming through the Arctic Ocean, laboriously moving forward, distance unknown. 

Until a road sign whooshed past us:

WELCOME TO

MAINE

THE WAY LIFE SHOULD BE

I had no idea what Maine looked like. I knew it was far north, bigger than Connecticut, and its shoreline looked like crumbs sprinkled along the broken edge of a ciabatta. Maine felt shattered and broken. Nobody lived in Maine or talked about Maine. Its sheer landmass brought down its population density even further. Growing up in a city with a population of roughly 20 million, I’d always pitied those who had to live in Maine, where nothing seemed to flourish. Who would want to confide their personal problems to only the thousand pine trees surrounding their house? But somehow, Maine’s brokenness and desolation had always fascinated me. I had been fantasizing about Maine for years—a pristine nothingness, in a lethal whiteness, snowflakes flying, wind howling.

 The newly-pebbled ice, as always, slows everything down. After passing the midline, my stone slows down and curls right. “SWEEP!” Jon screams, trying to bury my poorly-executed center guard into the house. Christina and Peter begin to thrust their arms, brooms pressing the ice hard. But it’s too late. My stone stops, sitting at corner guard. Terrible outcome.

“Just a little too narrow. The ice is acting weird,” Christina comments.

But still. I threw it narrow.

The road narrowed, and trees began to reappear. Now that I was actually in Maine, my mind immediately left the car and dove into this snow-blanketed wilderness. I dared not blink my eyes, trying to capture every small detail, comparing the actual scenery with my imagination of this sacred land I’d yet to explore. The elevation felt higher; the snow felt thicker and cleaner; the bare tree branches felt more naked than the equally leafless tree branches elsewhere. No trace of people. Everything felt stopped. And I was like a vagabond comet, only allowed to flit along its border. Something was deterring me from interrupting this forlornness. I would forever only be a spectator and never blend into this landscape. 

The road continued uphill. I suddenly realized that the road had been uphill since we’d entered Maine. As if the curvature of the land had increased, and we’d trespassed the end of the world, and were abandoned by the earth, and deported to another planet with a smaller radius, where color didn’t exist, and the entire world was made of rock, snow and dark bare branches. It was cold, there would never be sunlight, and I would be trapped there for the rest of my life.

As if I’d been launched to the moon and not allowed back.

The road suddenly turned downhill, and the familiar warm urban luminance reentered. We were in the city of Portland, built upon a bay opening towards the ocean. Glimmers of yellow sprinkled along the shoreline, crept uphill and vanished at the hilltops of the outskirts. Dispersed downtown were hundreds of wind-eroded houses: exterior walls peeled off, color faded, cracks and water stains crawling all over. Their lights turned off one-by-one. Along the coastline were scattered small, dark, uninhabited islands. In the center of Portland Harbor, a lighthouse overlooked the sleeping city.

An enclave of civilization in the wilderness, as if a group of outlaws were exiled here. They couldn’t creep into the wild, but the wild had crept into them.

To the Lighthouse! The lighthouse squinted to me.

But I was beyond the city limit already. I turned back and gazed at the lighthouse through the window, through the darkness, over the dark, placid water surface. It zoomed out, shrank smaller and smaller, its brightness dimmer and dimmer, until it was smaller than a pixel, and disappeared. Now Maine was deprived of signs of human life again. Dark night. Grey snow. Dark water.

 I stand on the left sideline waiting for my opponent to throw. The girl steps on the hack, bends down, pushes off — and slips. She falls on her belly, her body spreading along the hog line, stone flying off her hand. “You okay?” her teammates ask nervously.

The ventilation fans suddenly begin to hum, oblivious of the emotions on the ice. The girl stands back up and retreats to the sideline. Peter goes back onto the ice and sweeps away the mark the girl left. I walk back and find another stabilizer. The lights above are still shivering. Christina pulls out our next stone. “DRAW BEHIND,” Jon commands. Our turn to throw again.

We arrived at our inn in Belfast, somewhere along the single-lane US-1. Across from the inn were more mountains and a boundless expansion of pine forest. In front of the forest were more wind-eroded houses, windows covered by planks and newspapers. Some doors were missing. In front of them were broken cars without glass. 

The hard-boiled wonderland, it reminded me of somewhere I’d visited but immediately left and escaped back to the real world.

What I saw through the windows behind the inn was a completely different scene. Beyond a small lawn was another snowy expansion, across from a snow-covered hill — with nothing on top. No trees, no houses. No sound. The snow absorbed all the noise. I heard my own heartbeats. Between us and the snowy hill was a dendrite of the Atlantic Ocean; it would bring me to Europe if I sailed off.

This was the end of the world; had I been here before?

The sky was cloudy. But somehow, it wasn’t dark. The entire landscape glowed a gentle turquoise, illuminating the mounds on the snow, the veins of the mountain, and the cloud blanketing this hard-boiled wonderland.

The boundary separating brightness and darkness, day and night, was blurred.

Houses were wind-eroded. Glass was shattered. Human marks were annihilated. Everything was exposed colorless, in feral, uncontrollable form.

Standing on the balcony of the inn, staring at where the ocean disappeared, I was suddenly struck by an urge to jump off the wooden rail. In an alternate world, I allowed myself to dive into the wild, to roll in the snow, to climb a tree, to swim in the ocean, to climb a cliff, to build a fire, to fly above the cloud and to find the moon and stars. I wanted to be annihilated. I wanted to be feral. I wanted to be out of control.

Back in Connecticut, life was all about being under control. I controlled my schedule, my diet, my flow of time, my emotions — especially when things went wrong. I tried to control whatever went wrong and not worry about it. Occasionally, I got tired or overwhelmed. I tried to control that feeling, too. 

Life moved on fine, accompanied by a waxing desire to travel, to somewhere desolate, like Maine. People travel not just because they want to see the world — but also because they’re unhappy with their current state of life, and they need to escape and find a new possibility. In Maine, I discovered the new possibility of relinquishing control. Nothing is born to be “wrong” or overwhelming—we find things “wrong” or overwhelming because we try to resist their natural course of life. Nothing inherently has meaning—all meanings are defined by humans. 

Just as how curling was a game that requires me to get ready for the next shot before spilling my dissatisfaction over a bad throw, just as how its landscape remained unaffected however much I pitied its isolation, Maine offered me an opportunity to embrace things as they were, without feeling or controlling it. When I learned not to agonize over the bleakness of its untamed landscape, I experienced a mental offload I’d never experienced before, yet I desperately needed. I found an outlet to escape the human world and exile myself to an enclave of civilization, where I didn’t affect the landscape, but the landscape affected me deeply.

Haruki Murakami wrote a book named Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, in which the world is occupied by boundless forests, everlasting snow, bare mountains and a body of water connecting to the world far, far away. In this world, people relinquish their shadows, don’t experience emotions and don’t exercise free-will. When I first read it, my empathy and existential need made me feel sad. But somewhere deep in my heart, buried deep under the self I maintained control, a feral voice whispered to me, this is the way life should be.

Peter’s turn to throw. He bends down, pushes off, slides and releases the stone. It’s too light. “SWEEP!” Jon screams. Christina and I frantically sweep the ice. “HARD!” I thrust my arms faster. My throat tastes blood. “Get it past the line!” Jon comes out of the house and begins to sweep with Christina and me. I cramp and feel short of breath, my arms too sore to add power, but still moving back and forth mechanically, the rock stops. It hogs.

I walk back to the bench, my face expressionless. But Christina walks over to me and uses her finger to lift the corners of her mouth, “Smile!” 

I smile, mouth wide open. I stand up and join her to prepare for the next rock.

Tony Hao | tony.hao@yale.edu