Category Archives: Travel
Snapshots from a few ‘Experiences of a Lifetime’ I’ve already had, as determined by others.
Here I find myself about to embark on what many people would describe as an ‘experience of a lifetime.’
And, true, canoeing 700-miles down a wild, western river is an experience. Perhaps an experience of a lifetime for many.
But by my estimates, in my one lifetime, I’ve already had at least five ‘experiences of a lifetime’ as determined by other folks. Most of those experiences have been trips I’ve taken. Some of them have even been paying jobs.
There is a typical conversation I’ll have with strangers who ask what I’m up to. This conversation goes like this:
Stranger: “What kind of trip are you doing?”
Me: “I’m canoeing the length of the Green River, through Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. It’ll be about 700 miles and take 35 days.”
Stranger: “Wow…that sounds like an experience of a lifetime.”
When people learn about another person’s epic trip, it does seem to warrant a response of an appropriate scale. But often confounded about relevant things to say, these people will frequently fall back upon the old ‘experiences of a lifetime’ cliché. They mean well in saying it, though, as a way to be simultaneously wowed and encouraging.
But every time I get the old ‘experience of a lifetime’ line, I think privately to myself ‘but I don’t want this to the experience of my lifetime!’ After all, I just want this trip to be an experience, not the experience.
When I think about past trips that I have been on, it would be disappointing for me to look forward and to know that I have already had my singular experience of a lifetime. And, if I’ve already had my one experience, then what more do I have to look forward to in life? None of my future endeavors could ever be as good. All I would be able to do is look back at my experience of a lifetime instead of looking forward to more adventures to come.
Fortunately enough, I have found it possible to have more than one ‘experience of a lifetime.’ And I’ve even got more in the works. Why do we so often limit ourselves to the thinking that we can only have a few adventures in life? Why not be able to make it a lifestyle? Why not collect ‘experiences of a lifetime?’
So that’s what I’m up to right now. Making a few experiences of a lifetime for myself…first by canoeing the Green River in September and October, and then by working as a dogsled musher in northern Minnesota afterward in the winter (and although mushing will be a way to pay the bills, people would still often consider that an ‘experience of a lifetime’ as well).
So I’m happy to have you join along on one of my (hopefully many) experiences of a lifetime, a scenic adventure paddle down the magnificent Green River. And I’m happy to live vicariously through your experiences of a lifetime too. Who says you can only have just one? And by sharing our adventures, we can experience so many more journeys—some in person, some vicariously.
I will (ideally) post pictures and updates of the journey as I progress along the river. But, as you know, digital technology and wilderness are often not found in the same place.
Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Where are you? Do you feel connected to the place you find yourself in this current moment? Do you feel an encompassing sense of belonging here?
There are some places that give you that special feeling. Places that feel qualitatively different to the individual. Places that feel alive and electric, a kind of synchronicity between person and place. Places that are energy-giving. Magical, almost.
I like to refer to these locations as ‘deep places.’ The adjective deep is used to describe the immensity of the feeling the individual has towards the place. It is something felt on a higher level, different from one’s experience of everyday locales. These deep places may be spots you already know, or the feelings may arise the first time you step foot into a new environment. If you’ve ever experienced these magical feelings, then you have discovered a deep place for you.
The North Shore of Minnesota, along the edge of Lake Superior, has been one of those deep places for me. Starting in Duluth and heading northeast towards Thunder Bay, the north shore follows a rocky, rugged, forested line for more than one hundred and fifty miles. Along the coast it is a vast forestland wilderness, punctuated only by small settlements and scattered tourist outposts. It is a place where land meets water, where human meets wild. It is a deep place for me.
My first real venture to the North Shore came in May of 2016, entering Duluth from the south just past sundown, being greeted to the sweeping vistas of the big lake in the fading daylight. The northern drive to Grand Marais that night was illuminated by the blood-red full moon rising to its own reflection on the calm surface of Superior. That night was crisp and cool. The moon was out. The stars were shining brightly. The scent of the boreal forests and the water encompassed my nostrils. It was an entirely magical entrance to the place known as the North Shore.
Could the magic of my first experience on the North Shore ever be repeated? I have since returned to the North Shore many times, and have found that the magic was not a one-off experience. The feelings I have towards the region have not been diminished through growing familiarity. Every time I return to the North Shore, I am still astonishingly impressed by the astounding physical beauty of the environment. Jutting rusty-color basalt outcroppings, small rivers torrenting their way through deep overlooked canyons, pocket beaches cobbled with a mélange of surf-smoothed rocks. The cultural resources too—lighthouses, cabin complexes, mining history. There is so much to do here—and to keep coming back for more. Every time I would grow claustrophobic from my land-locked residence in inland Minnesota, even a short visit to the shore—to the great lake vistas—would always be the cure I didn’t even realize I needed. My deep place has also served as a restorative space.
The North Shore, for me, is one of those places where I always find more to discover—and upon discovering, find it imperative to come back and revisit again later. Even before I began to explore the region, I had this convincing sentiment that the North Shore would be a special area to me. It is a psychological wonder, how, even upon a first glance at a place, one can feel the initial intimations of inherent belonging and connection to that place. The newly entered deep place is a landscape ever so tantalizingly unknown and discoverable, yet undeniably comfortably welcoming. It’s a place that beckons you to linger on in its space. This sense of fitting into the place is preordained, not earned. You don’t grow to love deep places through familiarity, though they will become increasingly familiar with time. Instead, there is an instinctual, primitive gut feeling that you are part of the place; that you already know and love the area though you have recently arrived.
Everyone has, or should have, a deep place of their own. Maybe you know where it is. Maybe you have one but don’t know that you know it yet. Maybe you’ve revisited your place multiple times, or have even come to live there. Maybe you’ve only ever visited once. Even if physical visits are infrequent, even just thinking about those deep places can still conjure those magical feelings inside of you.
It is possible to have multiple deep places too. How many places exist out there in the world where you would feel this distinct connection if only you could visit? Though the North Shore of Minnesota is perhaps my most apparent deep place and the one I’ve revisited the most, I have others places where I have experienced similar sentiments—the Owens Valley of California, or the island of Tasmania, Australia, for example.
The remarkable thing is that while some deep places are shared with others, a deep place isn’t universal. Everyone will find a different space or landscape that speaks to them so clearly. These spaces are simultaneously yours alone and are shared by a community of others. But no matter how many people claim the same deep space, it always feels unique, as if the area were speaking directly to you.
Find your deep place.
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”
You cannot stay on the summit forever. You cannot live in the wilderness eternally. So why even venture off into wild places to begin with? Why put forth the effort, go through the hassle, and willingly subject yourself to hardships, privations, and lack of modern amenities? The reason is simple—what is gained from the experience changes you. The wilderness, though it physically surrounds you only for a fleeting moment, influences your character persistently.
This summer has been one of wilderness travel for me. From the canoe country of the Boundary Waters and the Quetico, to the backpackers’ paradise of the Rocky Mountains, I have spent countless hours leading others through wild places. Each trip I led, though some of them were lengthy, had to come back eventually. We couldn’t stay out there forever. Food, shelter, medicine, modern conveniences, human connections, and societal obligations all dictated that we must ultimately return. We live lives incontrovertibly connected to the civilized world. We are now dependent on technology and society to meet our daily needs. Though wild places may sustain us spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, few of us are truly prepared to have the wilderness provide all our physical needs.
But it is the non-physical lessons we learn in the wilderness that might be the most powerful. Wilderness travel lies in contrast to our otherwise ordinary lives in the front-country. The wilderness is a place to break out of our comfort zones, a setting where we are forced by necessity to be different, more capable human beings. Out in the wild, you survive on your own wits, or with the companionship of traveling partners. You learn to make do with what you have, or you learn to do without. You begin to realize that small things can lead to big consequences—and, instead of procrastinating, you learn to check problems before they become too big to handle. You become more organized in your daily life, more resourceful with what you have on hand, and you become adept at recognizing cause and effect. You become better at planning ahead. You are forced to live in the moment; foul weather can either foil your prior plans or fine weather can just as much beckon you to linger on. You learn to embrace and deal with the uncertainty of changing plans. And the people you travel with—whether you chose them or not, you will learn to entrust your life with those people, and you will take risks and grow close to them too.
All of these things are lessons we can learn and take away from experiences in the wilderness; because, we cannot take the wilderness itself with us—we can only take the memories of our time spent in the wilds. And all of these lessons transfer quite readily to life in civilization, because, you don’t necessarily even need the wilderness to learn these lessons in the first place. But in venturing out into the wilderness, you learn these lessons quickly, and you learn these lessons more thoroughly. Every time you venture out again into the wilds, you are reminding yourself of what you’ve already learned. Though you cannot bring the summit with you, the knowledge and skill of being the person the wilderness made you out to be is something you can carry with you indefinitely. This is the art of living that Daumal was referring to. But you needed that summit first to get there.
And what better place to learn these important life lessons than the wilderness. In wild lands, where nature lies stark and beautiful, “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain (1).” Beauty in the wilderness is intrinsic, and the feeling of remoteness is simultaneously intimidating and enlivening. Endless summit vistas and labyrinth-like waterways have an inherent value of their own. It is worth visiting these wild places regardless of any life lessons gained there. But critically important is the knowledge of who we can be that we take away from wilderness experiences. It took the summit to get there, and once there we could not stay forever. But we can keep the memory of the summit, and we are better people for having gone.
(1) Wilderness Act of 1964
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” —Traditional Proverb
It used to be that when I read this old adage, I would favor and emphasize the going fast part of it. Though it may appear otherwise, the proverb doesn’t really offer up going fast and going far as two equal options to be chosen from; in the context it is most often used, there is an open bias towards uplifting as correct the latter as opposed to the former. But the choice is included in the proverb nonetheless, and fair being fair, one could, like me, focus on the benefits of going fast alone versus going far with others.
Most often I think of this proverb in its relation to travel. More specifically, recreational travel. My travel history is one of mostly solo ventures. I used to prefer it this way. I valued the independence of making my own choices. I valued the efficiency of being the only person to coordinate. I didn’t like having other people around to be forced to compromise with, as that might have infringed upon my personal travel desires. In that old perspective, traveling with other people either slowed me down unnecessarily, or forced me to participate in things which I didn’t really care about.
Even though I did favor the ‘fast’ side of the adage, I was never really a fast traveler on my own accord. At least in regards to speed. On my own personal trips, I usually, and predictably, fell further and further behind schedule. I like to take my time, though out of thoroughness and not out of leisure. Thus, I realized that I am a bit slower taking in the places I travel to, but I prefer the relaxed pace nonetheless. When traveling alone, I had the freedom to take all the time in the world to visit a place and not feel pressured to leave earlier because the people I was with got bored and wanted to move on (very true for visiting museums with me). Maybe the proverb should be changed to “if you want to go thoroughly, go alone.”
As a result of these preferences, I took many long trips by myself attempting to see it all, and to see it all thoroughly. I wanted the freedom and independence of travel to be able to follow my own whims instead of making compromises with the desires of other people. My little solo travels gradually got longer and longer until they culminated in my six months spent dirtbagging down under. Australia was a solo venture, and even though in Australian backpacking culture solo travelers frequently coalesce together, the longest time I ever traveled with someone was four days. And I was glad to be rid of him by the time we parted.
But during that time in Australia, my outlook on long solo travels began to change. On the whole, because I was traveling primarily by myself, I don’t think I got as much out of the entire Australian experience as I could, or even should, have. Sure, I did end up seeing more places than the average Aussie backpacker. But in reality, that additional travel looked similar to this: drive alone to a cool place on the map; get out of the van; walk around said cool place; think about all the cool stuff you could be doing in said cool place; do nothing because you have no one to do cool stuff with; repeat. In addition, I just eventually reached a mental space where I began to feel a little bored of keeping myself company all the time.
I began to realize that my preferred style of travel—solo—may have been leaving me short of the deeper gains of journeying. The going ‘far’ part. Reflecting on the most memorable trips I’ve ever taken, I realize that all of them were with people. And on my solo travels, encounters with other people—you know, those really-inefficient, freedom-compromising, dissimilar-interest kind of other people—were usually the most memorable moments.
But it is still hard to deny the benefits of traveling alone—speed and efficiency. I mean, much of my solo travels have been done simply because making solo travel plans is so quick and easy. On solo travels, you only have to consult with yourself. And you don’t have to see if your schedules align with other peoples’, or check in about travel styles or activity preferences. For solo travel you don’t have to wait to find other people to join you either. Seriously, I feel like half the stuff I’ve done in my life I wouldn’t have gotten to do if I had been waiting for people to join me. So, in some respects I have done a great amount of solo traveling and exploring simply because it is so efficient. But, the most memorable trips have always been with people when the inefficiencies and mishaps abound.
Traveling with others, as I’ve found, is a much richer experience. Since other people are just different from you, naturally, they will bring you to unexpected places and force you to do things that you wouldn’t have otherwise chosen for yourself. And, surprisingly, you will appreciate it. For the diversity. For the different perspective. For the opportunity to try something new. Because, traveling with other people is a surefire way to get exposed to a lot more cool stuff than you would have found on your own. Not to mention, you’ll have those memories and experiences to process and reflect on together.
With my increasing value on group travel, I’ve got a whole slew of upcoming adventures planned, all with people. A 300-mile bike trip along Lake Superior’s North Shore with a friend from college. A 700-mile canoe trip on the Green River with a spattering of friends and family along the way. And not to mention a whole summer of guiding canoe and backpack trips for summer campers.
When I think about my change in perspective concerning the different modes of travel, what often comes to mind is the scene near the culmination of the film Into the Wild, where Christopher McCandless sits emaciated and alone in his bus in the Alaskan bush, reflecting on his solo venture of surviving in the Alaskan wilds while coming to the sad realization that happiness is only real when shared, and that he will (SPOILER ALERT!) slowly starve to death by himself in an abandoned bus. It’s a true story with a heartbreaking ending about an idealistic young man who valued extreme independence in adventure a little too highly. And all at once but much too late young McCandless realized that real happiness lay with sharing the journey with others. Fortunately I’m not as extreme as McCandless. Some lessons I can learn second-hand.
So perhaps we should change the proverb. “If you want to see a lot of stuff thoroughly, travel alone. If you want to create a memorable and fulfilling experience, travel together.” But, that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily.
On a recent spring break journey, I drove 3,200 miles across the top the US and Canada—and all I did was take pictures of barns! But the rural country landscape does fascinate me, and I find it particularly compelling to photograph. As I drove across the land, the aesthetics of the structures changed with the landscape. Here is a photographic escapade of the rural journey and what I saw: barns, grain elevators, abandoned homesteads, and more.
And here was the route:
There is nothing like stepping away from the road and heading into a new part of the watershed…. “Off the trail” is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild…. But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.
—Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild
The explorer sets foot into deeply drifted snow. His foot sinks in drastically. Step after strenuous step, disappearing into the piled white drift. He has been breaking ground for miles. No human traffic has ever plodded this course before, it appears to him. No tracks lead the way, no trail is to be found. He is a pioneer, a trailblazer. The explorer pauses and glances behind him. A meandering line of post-hole marks reveal the way he has traveled. He has broken new ground, leaving tracks for future others to follow. But at this moment he is profoundly isolated, deeply embossed in the awareness of his lonesome situation. No human has trod here before. It is a spiritually awakening experience.
Except that this is not the real story of our explorer. The deep snow covers over the facts of the situation. Our intrepid voyager is not actually far from civilization, nor is he navigating somewhere no one else has been before. In reality, he is on a well-used path, a popular trail. His feelings of solitude and accomplishment are the result of the recent snowfall across the landscape, which has erased all marks of this path being a well-traveled route. Though he may not be as much of a trailblazer as he imagines himself to be, the sentiment which the situation has produced is what’s truly significant. He mythologizes his status as an explorer in his psyche.
Perceiving oneself as a trailblazer is an elevating experience, giving a sense of one’s own agency and accomplishment in navigating this world. Wilderness travel frequently produces this mentality in individuals. The wilderness, or even merely unmanicured nature, is a setting where the marks of modern civilization are absent, or at the very least harder to notice. To spend time out in the wilds is to put yourself into a situation where you are disjoined from your routine life, a place where the tracks of any forbearer’s presence goes unobserved. You go there to be pushed out of your normal element, to challenge yourself and come back a different person. You go there to break new ground.
The wildlands of America have tracks and trails abounding. Our wilderness is a well-traveled place. Yet millions of users visit these lands every year, and still leave them without revealing a trace as to their passing. Sharing a responsible use ethic of wild lands is what preserves the illusion of isolation and pioneering for future travelers. It is near impossible to say that you have encountered a place where no human has ever stepped foot before, and quite debatable if there remains any place on earth untouched by human presence. But whether you are the first to visit or the millionth, these wild places leave you with the feeling that you are perhaps the first. The wilderness setting invokes a sort of primeval satisfaction deep within you that you alone are independent, that you are indeed a trailblazer.
This is one of the feelings that keeps bringing me back to wild places. I am not the first to pass this way. I know that. But out in the backcountry, out in the forests, out on the rivers, out in the mountains, out in the deep snow it sure seems like I am the first.
To an American, the term Acadia (or in French, Acadie) will likely conjure up notions of an extraordinary national park in eastern Maine, but will prompt little more significance otherwise. However, the term Acadia is much greater than that, referring to a vast and rich cultural region beginning in the south with Maine and extending northeast to the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. But Acadia is more than just a region—it is its own strongly identified culture. From the earliest French colonists in Port Royal on Nova Scotia in 1604, a distinct culture began to develop that is undeniable to the modern traveler today. The Acadians are a people hewn from their landscape of gentle agricultural valleys isolated by rough coastal waters. Their way of life is largely pastoral, tied to the land. Their self-reliance has also produced a culture of folk artists and craftspeople who produced goods for their communities. Indeed, Acadia is a region with its own distinct identity, and traveling around the region one will not fail to notice the abundance of Acadian Flags or hear the French language being spoken.
The name ‘Acadia’ derives from the Greek word Arcadia which was applied as a place name to maps of the Atlantic coastline by early European explorers. The early French settlers adopted the name Arcadia for themselves, as in Greek it meant “refuge” or “idyllic place.” As they were far from their native lands and seeking a better life in the New World, these French settlers were able to turn the Atlantic coastline into both their refuge and an idyllic agrarian society for themselves. The letter ‘r’ was gradually lost from the name Arcadia to become what we now refer to as Acadia. The French, relying strongly on the traditional knowledge of the native Mi’kmaq peoples likely adjusted the name of their region to align with the Mi’kmaq suffix -akadie, meaning ‘place of abundance.’ Indeed, the pastoral villages soon became prosperous.
Many of the original settlers to Acadia had been peasants in Europe, seeking a better life in the New World. In the absence of the rigid European social hierarchy, these settlers were able to use to own skills and talents to determine their rank in society. With little material support coming from France, the Acadians had to produce most of their own goods, and the skills and talents of the settlers became the basis of their culture of craftsmanship. Imperial France also showed negligible interest in governing their North American colonies. As a result, Acadian government was a system of village self-rule, where the communities were governed as a society of equals. The isolation of the Acadian villages, along with their essential independence from Imperial France, contributed to an independent spirit and a wariness about outsiders. However, the Acadians relied strongly on the native Mi’kmaq peoples to survive and prosper, using their traditional knowledge, intermarrying, and adopting many of their customs. In time, the population of the Acadians grew rapidly through high fertility rates and agricultural prosperity. Outside travelers to the Acadia region remarked on how tall, strong, and robust the Acadians were, with darker complexions and longer hair symbolizing their biological and cultural inter-connections with the native peoples.
The prosperity and independent spirit of the Acadians, along with their population explosion, soon was viewed as a threat by Imperial Britain. Territorial conflicts marked most of the history of Acadia, and the roots of this conflict stemmed from the long-held rivalry between the French and English, as it was played out in the New World. As early as 1613, a mere nine years after the founding of Acadia’s first permanent settlement, the British sacked and burned Port Royal in a territorial conquest. Decades of conflict would ensue, with the British militarily taking territory and the Acadians attempting to reclaim their lands. The last debate in the matter was the French and Indian war, which ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763; that resolution ceded the last French strongholds in Acadia and French Canada to British control. As the British gained control of more and more Acadian territory, they began a program of expelling the Acadians to neutralize any military threat. The Acadians knew this era as Le Grand Dérangement, or the great expulsion. Acadians, who had long since been settled and identified with their landscape, were forcibly deported to places like French Louisiana, the 13 colonies, Britain, or France. However, with their knowledge of the land, many Acadians evaded deportation by seeking refuge in the wilderness. When the culture war on the Acadians gradually faded, the Acadians came out from hiding and some eventually returned to Acadia, creating their own small Acadian communities. Their cultural identity and ties to their land could not be abolished.
Today, Acadia is a peaceful land once again, returning more in-line with its idyllic agrarian beginnings. Acadians still live fruitfully and independently off the land, cultivating their crops and producing their crafts. The region is a mix of cultures—Acadian, English, Native, and others. So too is the Acadian landscape one of contrasts. From the rough rugged shores of Nova Scotia where hardy fisherman eke out a living, to the gentle pastoral landscape of Prince Edward Island where the soils are fertile and the climate is mild. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a few weeks touring around Acadia taking in the sites. Though my focus was on the landscape and not the people, they are a people intricately connected to their land.
Hover Over Image for Caption, or Click to Enlarge:
I biked across the country this past summer.
No, I didn’t actually bike across the country this summer. But it felt like I was there. A friend of mine, a close pen-pal, was the one doing the biking. Every once in a while I would receive updates from a letter describing the places my friend had biked to and her thoughts on the adventure. If I was on the biking journey this summer, it was only vicariously, through her letters.
It wasn’t necessary to receive these letters in order to learn updates about my friend’s biking adventure. After all, she openly posted photos and statuses about her journey regularly through the democratic medium of Facebook. I followed along closely the progress of her and her partner’s trek. Add in electronic communication through email and text messaging, and I had all the modes of contact I could possibly need to stay in touch right at my fingertips. Why then go through the archaic effort of writing letters, especially when I’d be mailing them to a moving target?
In defense of the waning art of letter-writing, there is something incredibly personal and amicable about receiving a hand-written letter. There is something transcendent about it that quick and easy electronic communication can never replicate. A letter is a physical token, something tangible that puts weight in your hand. Even though far apart, the letter is something that both friends have touched and felt and handled; it’s an object that you both have shared in, that bonds you together. The scrawled handwriting on the pages is unique—artistic forms that can never be duplicated, stemming from the very hand of your friend themselves. Though the physical letter has little extrinsic value in itself, the intrinsic value it delivers is priceless.
Each letter received is a gift. Though you can anticipate a letter’s coming, you can never know exactly when it will arrive. Daily you may check the mail, waiting for the surprise delivered by the postman which brings with it a kind of fraternal pleasure. This hand-written letter, addressed exclusively to you, is a conversation between you and your friend alone. Unlike social media posts which have an extensive audience and beg for viewership, the personal letter has become subversive in our culture. It pronounces that some correspondences are meant to be kept private; some conversations are not meant to be laid out open for the wide world to see. And there is something incredibly special about a friend choosing words to write just to you, personally. Even though the content of my letters is nothing incriminating, nothing risqué, it nevertheless feels like they must be kept private to save the mysterious allure of the written conversation. The bulk of my mail correspondences are of absolutely no interest to the general public. But I like that. I like having people write to me and include in their curation of all the possible topics to write about, those things that they thought would interest me. It is their selection—for me.
I have a handful of pen-pals with whom I keep a semi-regular correspondence. Not all of them bike across the country. In fact, most of the time they are doing quite unimpressive stuff—the ins-and-outs of daily life: discussions of work duties, of visiting friends and of making food, of trifling hopes and dreams, of random thoughts. Though their correspondences may not regularly tell of events on the impressive scale of a cross-country bicycle journey, the content they write is nonetheless the fodder of an impressive life-journey lived by every one of my friends. No matter how quotidian the content of the letters may be, I still live vicariously through those words. My friends may benefit from hearing about my own journey which has taken me to many different places and through many different jobs (and I get a lot of feedback that people wish they were doing the things I’m doing). Still, the reverse is also true: my friends who are more settled, though they may not travel as much as me, are nevertheless leading lives that are incredibly interesting to me. They write about things that I too would love to be doing, if only I had the benefit of a stable household: beer-brewing, wine-making, gardening, home improvement projects, community formation. There are many different lives to lead, but not enough time to live them all. My friends are out living some of those lives, and I am out living others. With each letter I receive from my friends, I feel a bit more like I’m there alongside them sharing in the experience of all those different lifestyles, lifestyles that I too wish I could participate in.
Because I travel around as a transient, I don’t get to see a lot of my closest friends in person. Sending and receiving letters through the mail is one small way that we can physically interact via a shared object, something more physically expressive than mere words alone. And since my postal address changes every few months, those who put forth the effort into tracking me down and sending me a piece of mail are truly great friends. The thought and time put forth into writing each letter, despite the inconveniences, makes me value them all the more greatly.
So this summer, I got to experience a cross-country bicycle trip. I was there for the high hopes and growing pains at the start on the Olympic Peninsula. I felt the anguish and the subsequent relief after climbing up and over those grueling snow-covered mountain passes in the northern Rockies. I met good-hearted and welcoming families in our nation’s plains states. I was there through the forests and lakes and mosquitos of the Midwest. I felt the pressure of the trip through the monotonous crossing of flat Ontario, and then knew the relief at seeing mountains once again in the Adirondacks. Eventually, I got to experience the joy of reaching Maine and seeing the bicycle trip to completion. And I did all this without ever leaving Massachusetts.
You see, I value my friendships and still seek to deepen them even when we are apart. Perhaps I may never get to bike across the United States, or perhaps I never will live permanently in a place of my own. That’s OK. Through my friends, and our letter-writing experiences, I feel like a part of me has been along for the experience of it all.
A short distance off the coast of mainland Massachusetts lies a vineyard. It’s not just any vineyard, however—this vineyard is Martha’s Vineyard. And though the name doesn’t imply it, Martha’s Vineyard is an island. The peculiar name, as custom has it, dates from 1602 when English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold first sighted the island. Seeing wild grapevines dotting the island, he bestowed upon it the moniker ‘vineyard’; wanting to confer an honor to his family members as well, he also gave it the name ‘Martha’ after either his daughter or his mother-in-law. The Wampanoag peoples, however, the original inhabitants of the island, referred to the land as Noepe, meaning “land amid the streams”. And while it has never had many vineyards (and perhaps not many Marthas either) the island still has an abundance of offerings for the curious traveler. Though Martha’s Vineyard is most famous as an island retreat for the rich and famous (most notably the Kennedy clan), the Vineyard, as it is colloquially called, is neither a remote nor an inaccessible place. In fact, the proximity and ease of transport to Martha’s Vineyard makes this high-status resort island an open destination to even the common tourist.
From mainland Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard is blatantly obvious in all but the foggiest weather. Just over three miles offshore from the nearest ferry port in Woods Hole, the ferry ride to the Vineyard clocks in at a rapid 45 minutes. Ferries come and go on a sub-hourly basis in the summers, and for just a few dollars you can secure your passage to the island. For a few dollars extra, you can even bring your own bicycle and take with you the finest mode of transportation for exploring the gems that Martha’s Vineyard has to offer. As I have visited the Vineyard three times by bicycle over the course of the past summer, I’d say I’m fairly familiar with the island. But at 88 square miles, the Vineyard will continue to surprise any frequent visitor.
Your trip to Martha’s Vineyard will most likely start in the port village of Vineyard Haven, as it occupies the most protected and accessible deep anchorage on the Vineyard. Vineyard Haven offers an excellent jumping off point for exploring the rest of the island. As the ferry is docking in the harbor, you will find yourself transported amidst a milieu of sailboats. Well known ships, like the Black Dog’s Shenandoah and Alabama tall ships make their anchorages here. Though Vineyard Haven is one of the three major population centers on the island, it is by far the smallest. Main Street is populated with bric-a-brac shops and fine eateries, but the commercial district of the town does not extend far from the harbor. Starting in Vineyard Haven provides a digestible foretaste of what’s to come on your next two city stops on the Vineyard.
It’s time now to hop on your bike and head east along the bridged road that separates Vineyard Haven Harbor from Lagoon Pond. After a few miles of pedaling you will start to see massive Victorian houses appear; you are reaching the outskirts of Oak Bluffs, the Vineyard’s largest town. Oak Bluffs is distinct among Vineyard towns with its unique built environment and its lively culture as well. Formerly known as Cottage City, biking into Oak Bluffs is like riding into a storybook. The ornate ‘Gingerbread Houses’ are cladded with cookie-cutter ornamentation all painted in vibrant pastel shades. These grand old houses line an expansive ocean-side park laden with fountains, flowers, and park benches. Ocean Park, as it is known, is always comfortably busy with families strolling about and children flying kites. It gives off the whimsical aroma of an all-American town.
Before the Cottage City was built, groups of Methodists would flock to the Oak grove on the bluff to hold annual summer revival meetings in the early 1800’s. At first their camp colony consisted of a series of tents surrounding a larger meeting tent on the top of the hill. As the years went by, the Methodists gradually upgraded from simple tents to more and more elaborate buildings. Eventually, a large open-air tabernacle replaced the original meeting tent, and a village of Victorian cottages replaced the tents. The Gingerbread cottages then became a tourist attraction in their own right.
Methodists weren’t the only people attracted to Oak Bluffs. The island town has a long history of a community of color. The first blacks in Oak Bluffs were brought to America as slaves. By the 1700’s, freed blacks began moving to the town to seek work in the local fishing industry. The growing African-American population of the town then attracted black business owners to set up shop, adding to the growing community. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, middle and upper-class African-American families sought out Oak Bluffs as a vacation destination. Unfortunately they didn’t have much other choice in their holiday destinations, as discriminatory laws in all other towns on the Vineyard prevented blacks from renting hotel rooms. Oak Bluffs was the only town that welcomed the presence of black vacationers, and to this day Oak Bluffs remains a destination for prominent families of African-American descent.
Beyond the sheer visual stimuli that is the gingerbread cottages of Oak Bluffs, the main commercial streets are always bustling with tourist traffic. Oak Bluffs was the only town on Martha’s Vineyard consciously planned for tourism, and the businesses on the main drags show it. Walking the streets of Oak Bluffs, one will encounter an unfathomable smattering of ice cream stores, candy shops, souvenir shops, and even a flashy arcade full of jazzy amusements and a carousel. In sharp contrast to the more tactfully hidden tourist nature of the other Vineyard towns, Oak Bluffs pretends to be nothing less than a destination for the masses.
After getting overstimulated in in Oak Bluffs, it is time to stretch the bicycling legs again and take the scenic bike route six miles southeast into the Vineyard’s other most populous town, Edgartown. The trail to Edgartown rides smack between the open ocean and Sengekontacket Pond. This stretch of sand and water is perhaps the most scenic ride on all the Vineyard. Along the path you will cross the American Legion Memorial Bridge, made famous from the movie set of Jaws. Take a quick breather and re-create the shark attack scene. It is also a popular pastime at the bridge to jump into the water. Just when you thought it was safe…
Continuing on into Edgartown, you will see more familiar Jaws scenery. The fictional town center of Amity Island was filmed here. The brick sidewalks and wooden buildings provide an olden-day feel to the town. Edgartown has a much more relaxed ambiance than Oak Bluffs. Its maze of streets are lined with shops and eateries which cater to the more refined traveler. Also in Edgartown, you can catch one of the world’s shortest car ferries. At a distance of 527 feet, the ‘Chappy Ferry’ to Chappaquiddick Island is nothing short of endearing. Endearing too is the island itself, lightly trafficked and abounding with beaches, forests, and the Mytoi Japanese Gardens. Continuing south out of Edgartown is another way to escape the bustle of the large towns; some of the Vineyard’s most popular beaches, South Beach and Katama Beach, lie just a short cycle south.
After completing the trifecta of the major Martha’s Vineyard towns, it is time to get your bicycling legs in gear and make the long trek to the far western side of the island where the landscape becomes increasingly rural. Out of Edgartown, follow the bike path west. Soon enough, after passing through the outskirts of the town and a few boutique farms as well, you will reach the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, a sizable patch of pitch pines and other scrubby trees that occupies the heart of the Vineyard. The bike path is far enough off the road and is adequately shaded by the trees so that it starts to feel rather isolated. After a good stretch of smooth riding, the bike path ends. To continue further west, it is time to venture onto the roads. Not to worry, though. Western Martha’s Vineyard takes on quite a different character than the populous tourist towns in the east, and not much vehicle traffic abounds on this side of the otherwise congested island.
To continue west at the end of the paved bike path, take your pick of either North, Middle, or South Roads. As you could probably infer from their names, these roads refer to their geographical location on the island. Once in the west, the hills on the Vineyard begin to get more pronounced. The forest, too, encroaches on the road; the continuous tree canopy is punctuated only by the occasional pastoral meadow. Old stone walls line the road and heirloom cattle graze in the pastures. After riding for a number of miles, you’ll eventually reach the small isolated village of Chilmark, whose claim to fame was a once-thriving deaf community with its own system of signing even before the advent of American Sign Language.
The village of Chilmark is a one-horse town, occupying little more than a road intersection with a few boutique shops and community buildings. Take a quick break on your bicycle to look around, but then head north again towards the ocean. A few miles later you’ll reach the quaint fishing village of Menemsha, an aged relic from the days when fishing was still a mainstay of the Vineyard. Take a stroll along the docks and watch the fishing boats offload their catch. Small weathered clapboard shacks line the Menemsha basin and fishermen peddle their wares to off-the-beaten-path tourists. It was this village that served as the home of the salty shark hunter Quint from Jaws. As a special bonus for cyclists only, Menemsha offers the special treat of a bike-only ferry to traverse the stones-throw distance across the entrance of Memensha Pond. After seeing enough fish in the village, take the bike ferry and enjoy the short water transit.
On the other side of the bike ferry, you’ll find yourself in a land of sand and hills directly lining the ocean. Pause for a moment and think about the eastern end of the Vineyard just fifteen miles back—this has become a vastly different world. Rather than opulent vacation compounds, the houses here are beaten and weathered, laying spattered in the woods like an organic outgrowth of trees. It is here where you will enter into the Wampanoag Aquinnah lands, lands that are still held by the original peoples of the Vineyard. Also, at this point you should notice that you are biking uphill; this means that the spectacular Gay Head Cliffs are quickly approaching.
Once you spot the Gay Head Lighthouse in the distance you will know that you are near the end of the island. At its westernmost point, known as Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard abruptly drops into the ocean at the Gay Head Cliffs. These cliffs are made up of clay, a dissimilar material to the glacially deposited till that composes the rest of the Vineyard. As a geological phenomenon, layers and layers of the Gay Head clay—former seafloor sediment—were pushed upwards by the weight of the glacial moraine formed during the last ice age. Over time, the ocean has been reclaiming this above-water material and has formed the cliffs via erosion. Wampanoag legend holds that the god Moshup, a benevolent provider, lives in the cliffs. The red stains on the cliffs are from the blood of the whales that Moshup eats, and the black is the soot from the fires that Moshup cooks over. The Wampanoag peoples hold these cliffs and their mud sacred, and as a visitor it is easy to see why. This secluded end of the island is a special place, worthy of admiration. From the overlook of the cliffs, it is an easy enough walk down to Moshup Beach, where one can stroll along the sandy beaches under the towering cliffs. After such a whirlwind tour of the Vineyard, there really is no better ending.
Thirty miles off the Northeastern seaboard of America lies a distant land, one that is removed to both time and mainstream American culture. On a clear day you can squint your eyes and barely make out the remote island over the horizon. The Wampanoag people, the ones who first inhabited these lands, named it ‘natockete’—the Faraway Land. Today, the island of Nantucket is easily accessible yet remains isolated by distance and culture; it remains the proverbial faraway land.
To get to Nantucket requires intention; no one ends up there on accident. The ferry ride from the mainland itself promotes the isolation, requiring over two hours to traverse the expansive Nantucket Sound. This distance and isolation has produced the distinct identity of the Nantucketer; native Nantucketers, when they seldom do go to the mainland, feel so removed from it that they refer to it as ‘going to America’. The island’s 48 square miles makes it insignificant in area, but the island makes up for its lack of size with its depth of character. Charming and quaint with its cobblestoned streets and rows of simple clapboard shanties, the Nantucket of today appears as an island forgotten in time. Yet, underneath this unassuming appearance lies a cosmopolitan society fueled by a multi-billion dollar tourism and real estate industry. Retreatants from all across the globe call this island a home, either permanently or seasonally. Yet, the island has resisted the global corporate commercialization seen on the mainland. There are no fast food restaurants here, and no superstores. The businesses and development on the island are unique and independent as the island and her inhabitants themselves.
In terms of natural resources, Nantucket itself has little to offer. The island is a relic of the last ice age, merely a pile of sand in the ocean dumped by a glacier some 20,000 years ago and continually sculpted away by the sea. Incessantly battered by the ocean, the natural environment of the island remains fragile and the blanket of ocean fog that often shrouds Nantucket has earned her the nickname ‘Grey Lady of the Sea’. Nevertheless, the cryptic island still supported much life, including a complex human culture. For thousands of years, the Wampanoag people lived sustainably on the island in small groups called sachems. Five to six thousand years ago, rising tides from glacial meltwater cut off Nantucket from Cape Cod for good, creating the isolation needed for the distinct cultural identity of the original Nantucketers to develop.
European settlers to the Massachusetts Colony, off-put by the island’s isolation and lack of resources, initially passed over the Grey Lady. Eventually, however, the island’s isolation proved an allure as well, and the earliest English settlers came in 1641 to seek a reprieve from economic and social oppression on the mainland. Those early settlers tried subsistence farming and grazing like they had known in their home country, but agriculture and livestock grazing proved unsustainable and dramatically changed Nantucket forever. The native vegetation was stripped from the landscape, and the already poor soil was lost. Looking to maintain their fragile existence, these early Nantucketers turned to the sea for their salvation.
And the sea, though violent as it may be to the island itself, provided generously for the settlers of Nantucket. The coastal waters of the Atlantic were rich in fish resources, in turn supporting an abundance of whales. The ongoing industrial revolution created an insatiable demand for whale oil products, and Nantucket capitalized on its nautical location. Nantucket’s proximity to the sea, instead of the isolation due to it, provided an advantage as Nantucket reinvented itself as a whaling port. With the seas as the roads and the primary mode of transportation being sailing vessel in those days, even isolated settlements on the mainland were effectively islands at that time; being a physical island was not much more of a barrier. Though poor in natural resources, Nantucket could easily ship in whatever supplies they needed from the mainland—lumber, food, labor—all financed by the profits of the whale industry. By the mid-1700’s, Nantucket was a booming city with a population surpassing 8,000, as well as being the nationwide leader in whaling. Though awash in wealth from the whaling industry, the Quaker values of the Nantucket settlers shunned displays of opulence and prosperity. Instead, Nantucketers lived simply and constructed economical dwellings for themselves in a society subservient to both God and the whales. Astute businessmen, earnings from whaling were re-invested directly into the industry.
Eventually, Nantucket’s isolation began to lead to the demise of the island community. The success and monopoly of whaling for Nantucketers meant that whaling was the only industry in town. Serving as a whaler was a rite of passage for the islanders, and an insular culture around whaling practices developed. Nantucket whalers were distrustful of technological advances and nautical knowledge from others off the island, even as the traditional whaling industry as they knew began to decline. The overhunting of whales in Nantucket’s backyard, the Atlantic, led to the development of the Pacific whale fishery. To accommodate for longer voyages, the whaleships grew larger and more technologically advanced, and the shallow sandbar at the entrance of Nantucket Harbor eventually prevented these larger boats from docking in the Harbor. As a symbolic tragedy of the demise of Nantucket whaling, in 1820 the Nantucket whaleship Essex was sunk in the Pacific by a sperm whale—the gruesome tragedy that would inspire the novel Moby Dick. By the mid-1800’s, the whaling industry in Nantucket was in its death throes. Nantucketers stubbornly continued whaling with diminishing returns while the deeper mainland harbor in New Bedford, Massachusetts, with access to rail transportation became deeply profitable. Nantucket’s status as an island had once again become a liability. The last whaleship sailed out of Nantucket in 1845. Then, in 1846, a fire on Nantucket destroyed 40 acres of the town. A great depression fell over the island. With little economic opportunity left, the people of Nantucket began a mass exodus. The island’s population plummeted to under a third of its whaling peak.
Nantucket Island would spend the next many decades unadorned and steeping in its isolation. Not until the turn of the 20th century did it see signs of revival as an island. In the roaring decades of the early 1900’s, artists and actors from the mainland began to turn to Nantucket for summer retreats. Lured by its quaint charm and rustic beauty, celebrities and wealthy businessmen alike sought refuge on the island. By the 1950’s Nantucket had become a popular enough retreat that developers saw the economic potential of a resort community. However, fearing the loss of the town’s character, great efforts were made to preserve the historic architecture and rustic charm of the island that had attracted vacationers there in the first place. Nantucketers, ever resistant of trends on the mainland, fought for the preservation of their island’s history and culture, resisting the post-WWII re-development and commercialization that was ongoing on the mainland and neighboring rival Martha’s Vineyard as well. Their efforts preserved the downtown core of Nantucket town and its outskirts, making it today the best-preserved pre-civil war era town in America.
Nantucket town today remains a maze of narrow streets densely populated with simple clapboard houses and sheltered by street trees. Main Street—the main commercial drag—is wide and cobblestoned, lined by old brick buildings, and leads straight down to Straight Wharf—one of the town’s many links to the sea. The sea is still the lifeblood of this island community, only today the harbor is frequented more by pleasure craft than by whaleboats. Outside of Nantucket town, the island is rural and rustic. Scraggly forests, instead of cookie-cutter suburbs, fill the isolated interior. On the fringes of the island, quaint shanty villages like ‘Sconset give off the forgotten seaside town aura. Today, more than 10,000 people call Nantucket home year-round, a number surpassing even the zenith of the whaling-era population. Though the island’s residents swell to over 50,000 in the brief summer months, the pace of life feels relaxed nonetheless.
I recently spent four days on Nantucket Island, exploring the island’s corners by bike. On a small island, there is nothing quite like exploration by bicycle, taking the slow route to the island’s fringes. Being on Nantucket, something inexpressible grips you. It’s a place you’ve been that’s like no other. Something on the island beckons you, drawing you in. Is it the salty air, the foggy mornings? Is it the predominance of the ocean, with the waves and the surf? Is it that the pace of life seems slower here? Unlike its rival island Martha’s Vineyard, there is not much human entertainment found on the island. Yet, in my time ashore, I found the days to be packed full of sights and sounds. The ocean beaches, the stars at night, they are the things that filled the time in all their gloriousness. Those four days seemed to stretch into an eternity yet flew by all too quickly.
Many people visit Nantucket each year, from all corners of the globe. The island—its mystique and aura—seems to leave an irreversible impression. Something about time spent on the island seems of a different caliber. For some, decades may pass between visits, yet Nantucket remains as a place near the surface of memory. The island always beckons you back. When you return, the enchantment of the island overpowers you once again. Nantucket whispers “forget about the mainland. Relax. Enjoy yourself. Linger for a spell, if only for this short while.”