Category Archives: HIstory

The Beaches and Their Stories

Now and then, you get glimpses of Old New England. Not the chic galleries and pride flags along Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Not the farm-to-table fine dining with views of the coast. Not Boston and its history of Irish immigration. You get it walking on the beach on a windy day when no one is around, those windswept sand dunes undulating like the sea before a storm, and you start to picture what the Pilgrims saw when they landed in Provincetown in 1620. This fact gets lost in our Thanksgiving story—we Americans are so gifted at myth-making—but on November 11, 1620, the Pilgrims came ashore on what is now one of the most LGBTQ-friendly, art-loving communities in America. They deemed the sandy shores too difficult for farming so they explored further inland, looking for a good spot to till and hoe. Five weeks later, they made their way to what is now called Plymouth, Massachusetts, naming the location after the port from which they had sailed.

We spent last weekend in Cape Cod. It had been two years since our last visit. Haunting seems like an appropriate, yet overused word to describe the area. Cape Cod—and New England—is a region, but also a mood. Every time I’m there, I think of hardship and resilience, isolation and community, beauty and danger. A trite phrase often used in travel writing is to describe a destination as a “place of contrasts,” which you could say about almost anywhere. Cape Cod—and, really all of New England—is a study in cyclical conflict, made all the more poignant by its four very distinct seasons. Winters are exceptionally cold, brutal and long. By April, the land and sky soften and you feel yourself willing to forgive. By August, you sit on the beach enjoying a lobster roll picnic, and you can’t remember winter’s fury. In October, when the leaves turn, when the pumpkins are everywhere, when the air shifts, you know you’re in the most beautiful place on Earth, yet you start to wonder what the darker months ahead will bring, and if you’ll be prepared.

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Cape Cod reaches about 65 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. On a map, it literally looks like a flexed arm putting its fist up to the Atlantic’s many storms, protecting the rest of Massachusetts. I walked out on part of that flexed arm last weekend; a sign warned me about sharks and to stay away from seals, which get eaten by sharks. Looking out to the sea, you felt Cape Cod protecting you from all that happens in the ocean. Go past that barrier at your own risk; for centuries, this stretch has been dubbed an “ocean graveyard.” The National Park Service reports there are one thousand shipwrecks between Wellfleet and Truro, which is less than five miles long. The first recorded shipwreck occurred six years after the Pilgrims landed. Winter months, not surprisingly, were the worst, with an estimated two wrecks every month during the early 1800s. The region gets pounded by storms, blizzards, hurricanes. A category 3 hurricane hit the area in 1635, a force of nature settlers born in Europe had never heard of or seen before. The beaches, no doubt, could tell us many, many stories, everything from who showed up and when, to the horror unspooling in the waves, to the objects fishermen accidentally reeled in, to children scampering about getting a sunburn. The beaches have seen it all.

When I think about leaving the Northeast, I think about escaping New York City, but when I think about leaving New England, I hesitate. Jobs brought and kept us here, in New York, but New England pulls us away from all that. I grew up vacationing in Mystic, Connecticut. As a child, I remember being fearful of all those oil paintings featuring angry sperm whales attacking sailors. I got married in Vermont on the coast of Lake Champlain. My first newspaper job was in Dover, New Hampshire, the Granite State’s “Seacoast,” a 40-mile stretch of oceanfront. On my days off, I used to sit and chill on the sand in York, Maine, another beach that has seen its own share of shipwrecks. In fact, in 2013, a storm washed away enough sand to reveal the bones of sloop dating between 1750 and 1850.

Today, back in suburban New Jersey, I miss coastal New England. The gray weather here doesn’t feel intriguing like the gray weather there. Last weekend, on an overcast rainy day, I visited the Provincetown Library, an impressive building given to the town in 1873. The first thing I saw walking in was its “Mysteries” section. New Englanders love their spooky yarns. Stephen King is a lifelong Maine resident. Before King, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was born in Salem, Massachusetts,—witch trial central—was writing about all the shit in the woods that could kill you, or, at the very least, emotionally scar you for life. Somehow, when you drive west and cross the Connecticut border back into New York and turn south to head into New Jersey, New England’s haunting beauty dissipates. It’s not going to compete with malls or the Manhattan skyline or traffic. You have to go there to feel it.

We rented a condo in Provincetown, just two blocks from Commercial Street and all its wonderful restaurants and galleries, and every morning as I poured myself a cup of coffee, I would look out from the kitchen and see the Provincetown Cemetery, a few of the taller headstones poking up from a hill. There are stones dating to the early 1800s, also worn by Cape Cod’s mercurial weather. If you read the dates on many of these graves, you realize a number of people barely made it to age 45. Many graves lack a birth date because the information wasn’t available.

And that’s Cape Cod, and much of New England right now: orange and brown leaves blowing past old headstones; people curling up indoors reading a good mystery; waves and winds hitting the beaches harder; fireplaces going strong inside restaurants serving chowder because it’s getting cold and warming up takes more effort. And it’s all beautiful, even when it feels creepy.

Reluctant Hibernation

I act like a bear in January. I cocoon on my sofa far too much and leave it reluctantly, unless, of course, I’ve got a salsa lesson, which is the best half-hour of the week. When not at salsa class (yes, some bears do dance), I skulk about our house looking for snacks—often, and I’m not joking here—smoked salmon. Fish is good for the brain and in the winter, my brain chemistry needs all the help it can get. January slays me every year (February, too, but I perk up knowing Daylight Savings and spring are just around the corner). If I could sleep away winter like bears do, I might, though I know no one would scoop the cat litter box while I hibernated. (I was disappointed to learn bears actually don’t hibernate as much as urban myth would have us believe. They’re out there in the woods, putting in the hours, which makes me think I need to get off the sofa more.)

What keeps me afloat this January is that starting in March and going into mid-May, I’ll be visiting some very gorgeous, warm places. I’ve been accepted to Sirenland, which still blows my mind, and despite a hatred (yes, hatred) of flying, I’m flying to Italy because no one has yet invented the technology to beam me there. Since I redeemed miles to make the trip, my journey is anything but direct. First I’ll be flying into Zurich, Switzerland, where I’ll spend a few days walking off a sedative hangover. Then I take a train through the Swiss Alps to Naples, Italy, which, honestly, I’m pretty stoked about. The distance is like training it from New York City to Buffalo; the idea of sitting on a train snaking through Europe will make me feel 25 again. I’m okay with this. Once in Naples, I join my fellow Sirenlanders and we pile into cars and make our way to Le Sirenuse in Positano, a jewel along Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Here, I’m expecting symptoms of Impostor Syndrome to strike—and to hit hard. Italian wine consumed in socially-acceptable doses will help.

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Then in April, a four-day family spring break to Exuma, the Bahamas, because last spring break, we skied in Vermont and froze our butts off, making it feel like a repeated winter break as opposed to a true spring break. There’s a place in Exuma where we can swim with wild pigs. The pigs in Vermont are either rolling in cold mud or are transformed into charcuterie. The pigs in the Bahamas are clearly having more fun. I decided on a house rental here instead of doing the classic Caribbean-style resort. I spent four days at a resort in Mexico this past October (more on that another time), and I’m resorted-out. If I have to forage for meals every day with a house rental, so be it.

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Which brings us to May, when I leave for Havana. Oh my gosh…people, I am giddy about this trip.

Thanks to President Obama relaxing some travel restrictions, among other factors, Havana is a city in flux right now. I’m going as part of the Cuba Writers Program. In November, I started salsa lessons because I decided I can’t go back to Cuba (I was there on assignment in 2003), and not dance. When I was there 12 years ago, music was everywhere; people danced in streets, in bars, along the Melacon. I’m not a keep-the-barstool-warm kind of gal anyway. I’ve had five lessons so far with a young Colombian-American guy who is sunshine in shoes. Salsa is a mood-lifter, better than Xanax, tequila, walking in sunlight or mocking bad poetry. It is the perfect antidote to January. What I’ve learned from signing up for dance lessons is that I need to keep dancing.

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I’ll be home May 19, and after that, not really going anywhere for a while. Yes, maybe back to California in August, and always back to the Adirondacks. We can’t really afford all this travel—it’s not cheap—but when you get accepted to prestigious writing conferences, you pull out the plastic and go. And then you get the bill and spend your summer living off library DVDs and eating spaghetti knowing it was all worth it.

While eating cheap and mooching off the local library, I’ll spend the rest of the summer thinking “Was I really there???” And that’s why you take photos when you travel. It’s not to show off or maintain your perfect life via social media. It’s because the Earth is an extraordinary mix of contradictions; it is beauty and struggle; it feels large and small at the same time; it has rhythms that we’ve learned to predict and behaviors that continue to confound; it is hot and cold, harsh yet serene. The places we visit and love change like people, so to remember these places, you need a camera. Photos thread who we were then with who we are now, allowing us to look back and see ourselves sunbathing on that beautiful beach, hiking that huge mountain, posing in front of that yellowing, historic building, so we can say “Really, I was there.”

(PS: I didn’t take these photos. They came from that fascinating Black Hole known as the Internet.)

Whales in the Mountains

My first clue was this goofy-looking, very dated, blue-and-white parking sign showing a smiling whale with wheels. We were figuring out where we could legally park and my initial thought was “What the hell is there a whale sign doing in the Catskills???”

Goes to show what I know. Turns out Hudson, New York, was an old whaling town. And I call myself a New Yorker.

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There are dozens of towns dotting the Hudson Valley, that fuzzy green space north of the Big Apple that has some of upstate New York’s rust beltness with a touch New Englandy pastoral independence. I’d never heard of Hudson, New York, until we wanted some custom-made furniture and after Googling “Hudson Valley cabinet makers” I found Jason, a tree-to-table artisan who maintains a shop called Fern Handcrafted on Warren Street in Hudson.

“What’s with the whale signs?” I asked him after drooling over all the beautiful stuff he makes from trees.

“This was an old whaling town,” he replied.

And I wondered, but didn’t want to say aloud, “Shouldn’t the Atlantic Ocean be involved?” Mystic, Connecticut, was an old whaling town. Nantucket was an old whaling town. But a riverside community a hundred miles from open ocean and just 30 miles from skiing? I had to know more.

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Long before Brooklyn hipsters moved north and the farm-to-fork scene became a scene, Hudson was the first Hudson Valley whaling town in the late 18th century, later followed by Poughkeepsie and Newburgh, all towns that hug the Hudson River and now siphon commuters south by train to offices in Manhattan. In 1774, when the Continental Congress decided to break off trade with Britain, Britain retaliated by taking over the colonies’ primary seaports, New York and Boston. That choked off whaling, which was in full swing after someone off the coast of Nantucket harpooned a sperm whale in 1712 and realized the commercial potential of what he just did.

Fast forward to 1783; two Nantucket brothers—one being an experienced whaler—went property-shopping around the Northeast for a place to keep the whale business afloat, perhaps not confident that the Revolutionary War would actually end that same year after eight long years. The two men, with the stout New England names Seth and Thomas Jenkins, went upriver about 120 miles from Manhattan, and stopped at what was then called Claverack Landing, a farming town of about 150 people. What caught the Brothers Jenkins’ eyes were two bays deep enough to accommodate whaling ships. Two years later, the brothers literally drew out a planned city that could support the whaling industry, and renamed Claverack Landing, Hudson. By 1790, Hudson boasted a population of about 2,500.

Around this time, Boston and New York were beginning to recover from the Revolutionary War and ports hummed with merchant ships again. Hudson continued to contribute, dragging dead whales upriver that had bled out along the way, and processing them in the valley refineries for oil, blubber, meat and bones for corsets. Whaling remained a vibrant industry for those first few decades of the nineteenth century and then kerosene began to take over in the 1840s, which is about when the Hudson Valley whaling companies stopped sending out ships. So now there was a town, and no industry, a story that would hit upstate New York farm towns over and over again for decades to come.

Two hundred thirty years after taking its current name, what is the city of Hudson doing now? It has a population of just under 7,000, which was its population at around 1850 when whaling was sputtering out. But its population is now more urban refugees with a fair share of Brooklyn hipster transplants, including my furniture guy, who decided he needed more space to carve sixteen-foot conference tables that he ships off to places like Miami and Japan, not to mention an easier time sourcing the trees that make the furniture that appears in Elle Decor and The New York Times.

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Guys like Jason restore my faith in small town America. And walking Hudson, I could see it. Outside, a thriving downtown lined with independent businesses, some painted a bright tangerine or a soft, buttery yellow or a deep hue of claret. Everything was old yet still full of purpose; one faded brick building in need of a paint job dated from 1805 and had served as a jail, a meeting house and a printing shop. Also outside: people not beeping at me to get the hell out of the way, which happens in suburban New Jersey, a vortex of patience and civility.

Inside these historic Hudson buildings, decorated tin ceilings, which were popular during the Victorian era, and countless shelves of fair trade goods or homemade goods or things designed to make you feel good, to reassure you that not everything was manufactured in China or assembled in the cheapest way possible. Hudson epitomized the shop local movement. There were tea shops, ice cream parlors, Jason, restaurants, books and tons of antiques—a word losing its shape. When I was a kid going on family vacations across New England, including Mystic, Conn., “antique” meant something fancy made in the 1800s; now it seems to mean anything not recently bought on Amazon. Hudson had several of these shops pushing “vintage” and “antique” wares, objects that too often looked like the same things your aunt wasn’t able to unload at a garage sale, such as a giant papier-mâché taxi. Yet even Hudson proprietors organized their junk in thoughtful, visually alluring ways, and Mike and I were both charmed.

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We didn’t have time to walk down to the river front or explore further because we had to get back on the road, but we’ll be back to pick up our bathroom vanity from Jason, and, likely place another order with him. And maybe I’ll snap a photo of that whale sign that sparked it all, an item that truly looked like it came from an “antique” store. Our relationship with Hudson is just beginning.

But what does all this mean? Ok, so I learned that a rustic town with urban flair had a brief, but colorful past in the whaling industry that came to be because of the Revolutionary War. So what? Well, this day trip got me thinking again about America, because America is a strange place, really several mini-nations recognizing the same flag. Before our drive to Hudson, what it means to be an American when America was pretty new had weighed on me, because it seems very different than what it means to be American now. The Northeast feels completely different from Texas. The West Coast feels completely from the Midwest. And then there’s Hawaii and Alaska. Different is good. National identities should evolve with the times, but there’s an undercurrent of anger and narcissism that’s palpable across America that troubles me. Racism, rampant obesity and sedentary living, the have-and-have-not socioeconomic subcultures, constant legal challenges against Obamacare, chronic political bipolarity, incessant consumerism, an inflammatory American media allowing no room for more nuanced points of view or discussions because it just doesn’t make for good TV (CNN and FOX are equally guilty here). All have me thinking what it would be like to perch somewhere else for a while.

I’ve been reading up about the Revolutionary War lately, and it wasn’t a picnic then either—obviously racism, poverty, starvation. Infections we consider innocuous today, such as flu and strep, sent families to their graves. I also read that George Washington had dysentery so frequently that he sat on a pillow when on horseback, something that freaked out his subordinates because it heightened their leader when he sat on the saddle—and he was already a tall guy—making him an easier target for anyone armed who disagreed with him.

But was there this anger and narcissism I sense now? Ambiguity, yes. History books teach American kids that everyone grabbed the flag and told Britain where to stick it, but we all know it’s more complicated than that, that people struggled with their choices, that many felt terrified of losing Britain, that many questioned colonial leadership. Yet, that entrepreneurial American attitude persisted even when choices remained unclear. You don’t get on a boat and strike out for the unknown unless you have an entrepreneurial spirit; it’s in America’s DNA. This can-do attitude has weathered wars and economic setbacks, and was on full display in Hudson this past weekend. What got lost along the way over the centuries, I could not say, but walking Hudson and reading about the formation of this community, I discovered that the best of what it meant to be American flourished there and still does. All that promise, not just capital potential in whaling, but in developing an identity, influenced the greater good and influenced a community and a culture. It was there in Hudson and remains there, though as I roadtrip the United States more and more, I question whether it’s everywhere.