Searching for the Middle of Nowhere in Rhode Island

One writer attempts to get lost in the second most densely populated state in the nation.

The middle of nowhere diner lives up to its name by most Rhode Islanders’ standards. Located in an assuming red building along Nooseneck Hill Road in Exeter, it’s just down the road from Big River Management Area and a stone’s throw from Arcadia Management Area on the other side of Route 95, two of the state’s largest and most unspoiled stretches of nature.

The diner is the type of place where guys arrive in Super Duties and belly up to the counter in their blaze orange hats and camo pants to enjoy a hearty breakfast or lunch. It serves typical diner fare with a Rhode Island accent; you can get a plate of eggs, home fries and toast or a turkey club, but also a chicken parm sandwich or a cup of clear chowder. There’s a sign on the wall extolling the virtues of country life. It’s not exactly rural Appalachia, but compared to most of the state, it’s off the beaten path.

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Illustration by Vincent Zawada.

Despite that bucolic charm, “Middle of Nowhere” is perhaps a bit hyperbolic. It’s less than five minutes from 95. A handful of other businesses dot the relatively well-trafficked stretch of Route 3 between Victory Highway and Ten Rod Road, including its sister establishment, Next to Nowhere Creamery. Then there’s the ultimate mark of somewhere-ness, at least in Rhode Island: It’s less than a mile from the nearest Dunkin’. In fairness, “Slightly Out of the Way Diner” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

I arrive at the Middle of Nowhere in search of, well, nowhere — or more accurately, for a late-morning respite from my quest for nowhere. It seems like a logical stop along a journey that began with a question: Is there truly a middle of nowhere in Rhode Island, a corner of the state so far-flung that it’s defined by its proximity to no other place?

It’s a question that has long intrigued me. I’m a born-and-raised Rhode Islander. Other than a six-month stint in Boston, I’ve never lived anywhere else. Furthermore, I’m a city boy. All of my nearly forty years have been spent either in Providence or one of the towns directly bordering it. Thus, I’m prone to a Providence-centric, city-state mentality. It’s not that I don’t leave the city and venture into other parts of the state; I’m just always hyperaware of the gravitational pull from the urban center. How could the middle of nowhere exist in such close proximity to New England’s third-largest city? Even the Middle of Nowhere Diner is barely thirty minutes outside Providence. In light traffic, you could leave one at the start of “Wheel of Fortune” and arrive at the other in time for “Jeopardy!”

Data reinforce this perception of a place without frontier. We all know this is the smallest state, but less widely recognized is that Rhode Island is the second most densely populated (we see you, New Jersey), with more than 1,020 residents per square mile. It is also the second most urbanized (another tip of the hat to Jersey), according to the 2010 census. With just 1,200 square miles within its borders, more than 38 percent of which are covered by urban development (and, according to the website dunkin donuts locationsfinder.com, which of course exists, more than 180 Dunkin’ locations), Rhode Island is not exactly the Great Wide Open. I wanted to know: How far out into “nowhere” is it possible to go while still remaining within the state’s borders?

A Facebook query seeking possible “middle of nowhere” locations produces nearly fifty suggestions from friends. “Pulaski Park is out there,” says Steve from high school, a sentiment that is resoundingly endorsed by three others (and later, an employee of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Parks and Recreation). Eric, also from high school (and also my wife’s cousin — Rhode Island, am I right?), suggests Long and Ell Pond, which is seconded. Other destinations earning multiple nods are Arcadia, Big River, Buck Hill Management Area and the legendary “desert” in West Greenwich.

I decide to limit my explorations to the contiguous mainland of Rhode Island. Sure, sparsely populated Prudence Island or the outer reaches of Block Island might be remote and isolated, but they seem distinctly somewhere, destinations at which to arrive. I am in search of a place to wander endlessly without ever arriving anywhere. Plus, I don’t own a boat.

I also conclude that while I do not want this to become a Gee, Rhode Island sure is a beautiful place-style hiking story, hiking would have to be the primary mode of exploration. Though the fantasy of traveling downriver into the wilderness has a certain Huck Finn-esque charm to it, 1) I don’t own a canoe either and 2) I start this story in late November — hardly peak season for outdoor adventures, and certainly no time for a novice explorer to go all Lewis and Clark without a Sacagawea.

Driving is out of the question. We simply don’t have enough land area to hit the open road like a character in a Springsteen song and chase an endless horizon. I’d catch too many traffic lights and pass too many Dunkins.

So off on foot I go, with a thirst for adventure and a newly purchased blaze orange vest (“Doing some hunting?” one fellow hiker asks when he sees it. “Trying not to get hunted,” I reply), hot on the trail of the middle of nowhere.

The trouble is, how will I know when I find it? With so little space in which to wander, what differentiates an expedition into the nether reaches of the state from a run-of-the-mill walk in the woods?

After all, the North-South Trail, which stretches the entire length of Rhode Island from the Atlantic Ocean to the Massachusetts border, is only seventy-eight miles long. The distance across Death Valley National Park is nearly twice that. The entirety of both Rhode Island and Delaware combined would fit within Yellowstone National Park. It’s not as if I could just march off into the wilderness like some low-rent Christopher McCandless and disappear into the vast, unbroken nothingness. Even if I reach the edge of civilization and start on a path directly away from it, I’d also be walking inevitably toward somewhere or something else.

The basic criteria for nowhere-ness seems fairly self-evident: quiet, secluded, away from commercial development and residential neighborhoods, preferably away from roads altogether. But even this measure seems inconclusive. With most hikers and outdoor enthusiasts retreating indoors for the coming winter, most everywhere is quiet. And one needn’t travel great distances to reach seclusion. March a mile or two straight into the woods and sure, it’ll feel isolated — but is it really the middle of nowhere? A Providence high school student would need to live further than that from school to be eligible for the bus.

In the end, I decide to define the middle of nowhere by the same standard Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart applied to pornography: I know when I see it.

My first stop on the road to nowhere is the aforementioned “desert,” also known as the sand dunes in West Greenwich. This former quarry site is actually part of the Big River Management Area, but it stands alone amongst Rhode Island’s landscapes, a relatively barren stretch of sand in the otherwise heavily forested 8,300 acres that make up the preserve.

My guide is Greg, a Providence-based web designer and avid birdwatcher who frequents the dunes. He brings along an extra pair of binoculars so I can join him in scanning the trees for Eastern bluebirds and red-tailed hawks. Greg was one of the respondents to my Facebook post and offered to take me on a tour of some of his favorite spots. We are bundled heavily on an unseasonably cold November day, but the weather doesn’t seem to be keeping anyone indoors. The area is a popular spot year-round, with fitness groups running the dunes in the summer and children sledding down them on snowy winter days. On this day, there are hunters, dog walkers, what sounds like ATVs in the distance, and one guy flying a drone overhead.

After a short guided tour, Greg advises me to wander off on my own for a while. There is no place in Rhode Island like the dunes and the landscape seems alien compared to the rest of the state. For a moment you can look around and pretend you’re somewhere else. But the middle of nowhere it is not. It’s just off Division Street and Hopkins Hill Road, with Route 95 over the horizon, so the road noise always lingers in the background. The nearest Dunkin’ is a three-minute drive. It’s worth a trip, but not quite what I was seeking.

We decamp to the Middle of Nowhere Diner before our next stop, Tillinghast Pond Management Area, also in West Greenwich. This one is a whopping seven miles to the nearest Dunkin’ and roughly four miles to the Connecticut border, which definitely counts as remote. We appear to be the only visitors, other than a foursome of burly dudes gearing up for a trail run. Based on appearance, at least one of them has to be a bartender in Providence, which somewhat diminishes the sense of isolation. If you’re truly in the middle of nowhere, you’re not going to look up and say, “Hey, don’t I know that guy?”

We enjoy a tranquil stroll through the relatively serene acreage. There is no road noise, only the pop-pop-pop of some guns in the distance. It is lovely, but my appetite for nowhere is not yet sated.

“You should go somewhere alone,” Greg offers. “Sometimes when I’m out birding I’ll walk by myself for three, four hours at a time. It’s really a whole different experience.”

On his recommendation, I head north about fifteen minutes to Nicholas Farm Management Area in western Coventry, which abuts the Connecticut border. I don’t pass a single business of any kind along the way, which strikes me as a good sign. As the sun lowers over the trees, I set out alone along a wide trail that appears to be an old fire or timber road. Save for a truck parked near the entrance, I see no signs of anyone else. Over the course of roughly two hours, I don’t so much as glimpse another human. The only sounds are a light wind rustling the trees and the persistent buzz of a small plane circling overhead. I feel truly alone; I could strip naked and howl at the moon and no one would know. But still, a nagging dissatisfaction: I am alone, but am I nowhere? What was I really expecting to feel?

The quest continues. Over the ensuing weeks I hike state parks and nature preserves from Hopkinton to Pascoag. I run well-groomed trails, stumble over less carefully tended ones, clamber over boulders and march straight into dense forest. I experience bitter cold and freakishly warm days, and trudge through rain, snow and ice. I spend whole days wandering at a leisurely pace and other times race against the sun so as not to get caught in the dark. I explore unfamiliar areas and discover previously overlooked corners I pass every day.

I go to Buck Hill Management Area, in the far northwest corner of the state, driving for nearly a half-hour after getting off the highway. (What is this, Montana?) Setting out from the trailhead in Pascoag, roughly fifteen minutes from Dunkin’ locations in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut, it’s possible to walk to the exact point where the three states converge. I don’t have quite enough time before sunset to make that trek, but I do manage to wander for hours without encountering another soul.

The aforementioned wife’s cousin takes me on a guided tour of the Long and Ell Pond Trail in Hopkinton, his preferred place to get away from it all. We arrive to find the trail unusually well-trafficked, much to Eric’s chagrin. We pass a sporty young couple running the trails, the lady wearing only a sports bra from the waist up, which seemed a bit flip for early December. We encounter another young couple in Brown University sweatshirts, the man carrying a baby in a sling across his chest. Not a little kid, an infant. Eric seems visibly deflated by the glut of jaunty weekenders turning the rugged wilderness he loves into an Instagram Story.

We scramble up a rock face to reach the top of a cliff, Eric’s favorite stop along the trail. About a minute later, two guys and their pit bull walk up next to us. Though their mere presence disrupts an intended moment of serene reflection, they did bring along a backpack full of Fireball nips, which they generously share. They are friendly and chatty, but give off the distinct vibe of dudes whose evening plans include a bar fight, so after a polite interval Eric and I resume on our way.

By mid-December, I decide to seek advice from the experts. I speak first with Cynthia Elder, chief of business development for the state Department of Environmental Management. She gushes about Pulaski Park.

Located in Chepachet, its main entrance nearly at the Connecticut border (I cross the state line on foot mere steps from the parking lot), Pulaski is perhaps best known for its ten miles of cross-country ski trails. It’s located within the larger George Washington Management Area. (The closest Dunkin’ is actually in Connecticut, about six miles away.) As Cynthia promised, it is quiet and beautiful. I hike for nearly eight miles, winding through the George Washington Campground area, and enjoy a peaceful lunch on the bank of the Bowdish Reservoir.

Cynthia also refers me to her colleague, William Walker, the supervising forester for DEM. His general guidelines for the most remote areas in Rhode Island are west of 95, east of the Connecticut border and north of Route 165. That encompasses a pretty wide swath of the state, including parts of Arcadia, Beach Pond State Park and the Wickaboxet Management Area.

I make two trips to Arcadia, the state’s largest nature preserve at roughly 15,000 acres, one of which is probably my deepest foray into the woods.

From late November to early January, I cover many miles, walk many trails and enjoy much solitude, but I never arrive at a place that truly feels like the middle of nowhere. Maybe it doesn’t exist. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from a state that’s so small and so crowded. Or maybe it has more to do with a state of mind than a position on a map.

Despite the futility of my quest, it does have an impact on me. After weekends spent crisscrossing the western half of the state, forever in search of a point I can’t seem to find, I crave that same sense of solitude and discovery during the week. I develop an ability to sniff out opportunities for it and begin stealing moments of it any time and any place I can.

After an evening meeting in East Greenwich, I make a quick detour to Goddard Park. Though busy by day, even in winter, on a frozen December night it offers enough quiet and seclusion to feel completely alone (in a good way).

While killing time in western Cranston during my stepson’s basketball practice, I notice John L. Curran State Park on the map. I decide to check it out. There are scarcely any streetlights along the quiet street off Pippin Orchard Road that leads to the trailhead, marked by a tiny parking area and signs instructing hikers to wear orange. (You can hunt in Cranston — who knew?) I walk a ways into the inky darkness of the woods and could swear I am somewhere other than the state’s second-largest city.

My stepdaughter attends Girl Scouts biweekly at a church in Warwick Neck. They only meet for an hour, and it’s just far enough from our house to make it not worth driving home. I decide to use the time to squeeze in a run, making my way up Warwick Avenue and into Rocky Point. You want solitude? Try an abandoned amusement park at night in the middle of winter.

There is one moment that stands apart from all the others, however, and gives me a new perspective on what it means to be nowhere. I am running through a small park near my house, which I’m deliberately not identifying. There are only a couple of miles of trails surrounded on four sides by main roads, yet somehow I manage to get lost almost every time. I take a wrong turn toward a riverbank. As I approach I see what looks at first like a shed, and assume I have accidentally wandered into someone’s backyard abutting the park. On closer inspection, I notice two tents flanking not a shed, but a shanty and realize I have stumbled upon some sort of homeless encampment. No one is around, but it looks quite lived in, with a cluttered table and a dumbbell set giving the distinct impression that someone has been here a while. I’ve been living in the area for more than four years and pass through the park numerous times, but had never seen this encampment or heard anyone mention it. There it is, a secret life hidden just out of sight, proving that even the middle of somewhere can be a pretty remote place.

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