It’s not nice. But it probably was inevitable. Earlier this summer, during a photo shoot on a weekend getaway to his beachside vacation home, a certain head of state stopped his bike but was unable to disengage his feet from the toe clamps in time. Having nothing to stabilize himself, he fell over. No serious injuries thankfully, but his constituents has been immortalizing this spot ever since. Or at least, the half of his electorate that apparently doesn’t have a very high opinion of him. So they ended up flagging it. Here is the fateful place.
Recognize it? Unless one is well attuned to meme culture, the answer is: probably not. It’s a stretch of multi-user path in a moderately wooded area. The head of state lost his footing while seated at his bike right at this location. He had been traveling down this portion of the path—
—when he encountered a throng of cameras and supporters right at this point along the crosswalk.
This final picture just might ring a bell, since this episode received a fair amount of coverage when it happened. But if it still yields a blank, suffice it to say that this flat grassy setting is at Cape Henlopen State Park in southern coastal Delaware. The smallish promontory serves a pivotal geographic function: its protuberance effectively demarcates the end of the Atlantic Ocean (to the east) and the beginning of Delaware Bay (westerly), a large feature separating Delaware from New Jersey, which, as it attenuates northward, eventually develops a current as the mighty Delaware River. Cape Henlopen State Park separates two municipalities I have featured multiple times in the past: to the west is the historic town of Lewes, whose Delaware Bay beachfront is good for the small kids (not a lot of tidal action, slightly warmer water). And to the east is the resort town of Rehoboth Beach, fronting the Atlantic Ocean with all its tidal turbulence. Ritzy vacation homes abound.
But the focal point here is the eight square miles that comprise Cape Henlopen State Park, crisscrossed with bicycle trails, campgrounds, fishing piers, two additional non-commercialized beaches (no boardwalks), and, much to my surprise, the eastern terminus of the American Discovery Trail, the only latitudinal coast-to-coast hiking trail—a west-to-east counterpart to the much better known Appalachian Trail. The rest is coastal plains and wetlands, lush and rife with mosquitoes in the late summer.
But, of course, the real focus at Cape Henlopen State Park that everyone keeps flagging is indeed a point—certainly not a line or plane—as far as maps are concerned. It’s the exact site of that fateful fall off the bike.
Delaware, head-of-state. By this point, it should be obvious which unfortunate episode I’m referring to. It represents my second example of memetic activity in the state of Delaware this year. I wrote about a purely analog example of memetics earlier, at a guardrail outside of Wilmington filled with bumper stickers. This one in Cape Henlopen is much more contemporary, more predicated on the sort of Internet activity that helped make elevate the word meme from social psychology to mainstream parlance. After the presidential fall, online trolls (presumably of a different political persuasion than the head of state) took to naming the exact point in the above photos “Brandon Falls” (to use the Brandon alias popularized last year). The already-popular “Brandon” meme achieved a bit of notoriety, with people flagging the exact spot on Google Maps. And this flagging is loosely the online equivalent to slapping a bumper sticker on that guardrail. People want to leave their own digital thumbprint.
The “Brandon Falls” site at Cape Henlopen didn’t survive for long, but over the course of at least two or three days, it kept surfacing like a whack-a-mole in slightly askew locations or under alternative names (e.g., Brandon Falling Bike Shop). Other trolls kept flagging it once one came down. It briefly earned a spot as a landmark on Google Earth as well. Finally Google squelched it permanently. But it lingered enough to generate viral buzz, and to prompt imitators who made it to this crosswalk at Cape Henlopen to pay tribute to the fall, many of them at this exact same site.
Whether such mockery is good-natured ribbing or fundamentally cruel will probably depend on one’s political persuasion; what no one can reasonably deny is that it’s achieved a memetic character through the digital age. Not just “pure social media” hashtags (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook), but the sharing of content through massive websites with a social media element like Youtube, or (most relevant to this article) Google Maps, which allowed people to insert mock reviews of “Brandon Falls” the landmark. By no means is it the first time the American public has lampooned the contretemps of its head of state: the test of a free country is the ability to criticize and/or ridicule its leadership, so obviously #45 earned he share of mockery as well, for stumbling along a ramp at the US Military Academy among many other instances. And anyone who has seen early episodes of Saturday Night Live knows of the notorious parodic barbs aimed at the otherwise athletic, virile Gerald Ford during his semi-term. Those people splayed out on this crosswalk at Cape Henlopen are fomenting a grassroots parody network, a practice formerly dominated by corporate networks with massive budgets. They flag it, share it, and disseminate it. It has even caught on in other countries—something I can’t imagine happening nearly as quickly or effectively in a pre-Internet era, even if everyone across the globe quickly learned about President Ford’s foibles thanks to television, which was ubiquitous in the 70s but far less interactive than what we have today.
I didn’t come across any chalk marks of a fallen man and his bike during my brief visit to Cape Henlopen a few days ago. No plaques, no ghost bikes. But it doesn’t matter: as much as a certain tech giant strives to wipe it clean from its own enormous online real estate, it cannot contend with the almost infinite scale of micro-engagement spread across other websites far outside Google’s gargantuan grasp. It remains to be seen if the act of falling off a bike will earn place as a permanent slang term (I doubt it), but the initial flagging ensures that the episode will always linger at least as a historic footnote, for as long as humankind continues biking along this Information Superhighway. Remove feet from toe clamps before dismounting.