The best thing about good experiences is sharing them with others. People who are having them right alongside you, people who have had them and are provoked into the world of memory, people who have not had them but will, people who will never have them. The best thing about being an artist is having a multitude of ways in which to share these experiences. The best thing about being an artist who travels is the ever-present challenge: how to distill the essence of a place, time, or thing and how best to convey it while losing as little as possible. I’m fortunate in that I can draw both on words and images, photographs and paintings, and until now, I have not been defeated. From Manhattan to the mid-coast of Maine, from San Francisco Bay to Florence and the Tuscan Hills, I have not been defeated. I have managed, in every time and place, to find that moment, that image, that description, that sense, that means the time and place to me, and I have been able to capture it for myself and share it out. I don’t know what other people have felt or sensed or taken away from those, but I do know that when I have revisited those words, images, pictures at later periods, they have brought back the experience itself in an immediate, concrete, meaningful and complete sense.
Yet now, I must concede defeat. We have been on the Vineyard (Martha’s Vineyard) after a protracted absence. I had, from our earlier visits, a dusty, dry fact in my brain: The Vineyard is extraordinary. It sat there along with other facts like the number of feet in a mile, the conversion rate from Fahrenheit to Celsius, and the fact that there are many art museums in Manhattan. The Vineyard is extraordinary. It is cold in Canada in January. The Vineyard is extraordinary. Alpacas come from Peru. The Vineyard is extraordinary.
Even the trip down is mildly extraordinary. It involves a drive through scrubby trees and increasingly sandy soil until you cross the Bourne Bridge and enter the Cape Cod roundabout. The roundabout actually has “Cape Cod” written on it in bushes. This, alone, is pretty special. From there, you drive south through the kind of terrain with which anyone who has ever seen country lifestyle magazines is familiar. Thick tall trees. Clapboard houses, inns, and businesses drenched in nearly 400 years of history…virtually all of which are in excellent repair, with fresh paint in suitably antique colors.
Eventually, this drive lands you in the hamlet of Woods Hole, from which the Martha’s Vineyard Steamship Authority – no, really – launches a stream of ferries toward the island. I love Woods Hole. I know very little of it other than the name, the location, and the Steamship Authority. Oh, yes, and that there is a major oceanographic research institute there, in fact, I think they are the ones who found the Titanic for us. I would argue that the first of these is all one really needs. “Woods Hole”. Tell me that it doesn’t sound like hobbits should live here. Or elves, maybe. But definitely hobbits. Woods Hole. I can launch into a daydream just on that alone.
From there, the ferries depart. Taking one of these ferries is a complicated matter. If you want to walk on, it’s not a problem. But if you want to take a vehicle on board? Between Memorial Day and Labor Day? Get thee online and make a reservation – months in advance. Many months. Five or so.
The good news is that Roy, having “summered” – yes, I am using that word as a verb – on the Vineyard for years knows all about this and got us lined up and aboard, and at an extremely reasonable hour. The sun went over the yardarm right as we docked the car on the vehicle deck, and we adjourned to the upper reaches for the trip…heading into the extremely happy discovery that the snack bar has laid on a supply of John Harvard’s microbrew on tap for ferry-goers. Our trip over the ocean, therefore, featured plenty of warm sun, a breeze that was not too cool, a cold glass of excellent beer, and the warm and cheerful atmosphere that comes with traveling in the company of a thousand people who are headed off to vacations, on long-weekend parties, or to weddings.
This is because, as far as I can tell, every soul currently on this island who is not working a restaurant, manning a fishing boat or a retail opportunity, or engaged as a direct participant in the Hospitality Industry, is either having a wedding, shower, or related festivity; going to a wedding, shower, or related festivity; or working a wedding, shower, or related festivity. I’ve never seen this much wedding-related anything outside of a Bridal Expo. June truly is the Wedding Month, and the Vineyard is Wedding Heaven.
But back to the trip. Our happy steamship, laden with vehicles that were all laden with an assortment of dogs, kayaks, canoes, bicycles, or golf clubs, powered its way over the waves with a happy drinking, celebrating throng. The weddings were almost gravy to the experience, because a truly fine day is more rare than a zebra at this time of the year in this area. The stars lined up for us, no less. And I, with them, recalling what I knew of the Vineyard.
The Vineyard is extraordinary.
The coastline is charming, to be sure. A pair of lighthouses, positioned on the colorfully-named “East Chop” and “West Chop” mark the entrance into the Vineyard Haven harbor.
That’s the name of one of the towns on the island. Because, despite some popular beliefs, “Martha’s Vineyard” is not a town. It’s an island, upon which there are several towns. Vineyard Haven. Oak Bluffs. The less colorfully-named Edgartown. Aquinna. Tisbury and West Tisbury. Chappaquiddick (which the signs all term “Chappy” but I don’t know whether that’s the local term, or if that’s just because “Chappaquiddick” doesn’t fit neatly on the signs. Where would you put the hyphens? And it would be hyphens, with a word that long.) Chilmark. Menemsha.
Some of the ferries go into Vineyard Haven. Some go to Oak Bluffs. Ours went there, a town that arose up around a Methodist revival campground. If you want to know about Oak Bluffs, read Alice Hoffman’s “Illumination Night”, because I already know that I can’t do this justice. As we debarked the ferry into, and again, back out of Oak Bluffs on our way to Edgartown, the fact (The Vineyard is extraordinary) started to flesh out, fill out, become infused with color and meaning. When, later, we took a drive to some of Roy’s former stomping grounds, the fact became knowledge and understanding. And yet, it does not change, in substance.
The Vineyard is extraordinary.
I taxed myself, at first. How could I not have a huge portfolio of photographs of the island? Everywhere I look, there is sublime raw material. And yet, I do not possess such a thing. The “why” because apparent very rapidly: because it is impossible to distill this experience into anything that can be captured.
Any attempt that I make, whether written or visual, to capture and convey the experience of the Vineyard, is doomed to failure before it even begins.
I am defeated.
I was discussing this with an acquaintance who lives on the Vineyard year-round at a wedding-related festivity, and owning the frustration inherent in the desire to share this place with others while knowing that anything I can say will fall well short of the truth. He told me that he thought I’d made a good start, so I’ll try to remember what I told him there.
You’re driving down a classic New England rural road. It’s hilly, it’s twisty, it’s got limited line of sight. Nevertheless, it’s also populated with everything from bicycles to utility trucks to farm trucks to the odd Lamborghini. You’re driving through thick woods that occasionally open up unexpectedly to a wide grassy field scattered with tiny flowers. There are low stone walls everywhere that have been in those same places for hundreds of years, and are yet maintained in working order. Here, there is a farmhouse. There, an antique shop in a barn. Here, a sign marking a farm stand selling Island Eggs. There, a clapboard-covered coffee house and General Store. Here, a boatyard. There, a lumberyard. And everywhere, the bike path runs alongside, crosses, and recrosses the road.
This is typical for rural New England, all of it. Pastoral Beauty. So what makes the Vineyard extraordinary?
The things that one sees nowhere else. On the Vineyard, the road traverses the bike path, and on the curve, the stone walls fall away to a split rail fence, a pasture dotted with a flock of sheep, and the ocean striking blue fire on the other side. The road curves around again, and there is a four-hundred-year-old barn, currently in service as a winery. It curves again, and runs through a tiny settlement of perfectly maintained 1840s Greek Revival structures housing a post-office, a gas station, and a general store. It curves again, and you are in a bustling town populated with immaculate Greek Revival homes and shops, all in the brightest white with black trip, born of the profits of the whaling industry. At the next turn, a barn full of horses, then a cliff falling away to the ocean on the other side of the road, and beyond that? A tiny fishing village. You stand out at Aquinnah, formerly known as Gay Head, with the wind blowing through your hair, and one one side the head falls away to long stretches of strand for the four beaches of Aquinnah. To the other side, are the fabled clay cliffs and the Gay Head lighthouse rising out of the trees and flashing white and red. To your back is Menemsha and Squibnocket, and the end of Lobsterville Road which is nearly within spitting distance of the fishing town of Menemsha – a three minute boat ride across Menemsha Bight, and fifteen minutes by car. There is a Bike Ferry there, and the hills rising from the water’s edge.
You quite never know what you’re going to see, from one five minute stretch to the next. It could be an artisan chocolate shop. It could be a horse farm. It could be a sensationally beautiful saltwater pond. It could be the Field Gallery which – despite my prior beliefs – is not a building housing art and named after a “Field” family – but an art gallery in an actual field. Yes. Sandwiched in between Island Eggs, an equestrian center, a patch of tiny farms, the ancient stone walls, and the post office…is an actual field filled with phenomenal statuary.
At the Edgartown waterfront, you can take the Chappy Ferry.
It goes to Chappaquiddick. It appears to be just a little longer trip than across Menemsha Bight. The ferry will hold two vehicles. And, of course, assorted bicycles. It runs across the shipping lane where the fishermen (PARKING: COMMERCIAL FISHERMEN ONLY 2AM-2PM) track in and out, cheek by jowl with three-masted sailboats tacking through the harbor. And in the background, the grassy lawns run up from waters’ edge to fine, dramatic New England coastal mansions.
This is the “good start” on why the Vineyard is extraordinary.
And yet, having said this, I have told you almost nothing. Some places must be experienced personally, and this is one of them. I can no more adequately convey the essence of this place than I could convey what it is like to visit the Uffizi in Florence.
I have no large collection of photographs of the Vineyard because there is no place to start, no place to finish.
I’ll leave that, then, and move on to the weather.
Today featured a Highly Atmospheric Meteorological Event. A real old-school Nor’Easter, out on the Islands. Surf, rain, wind, and plenty of all of them. It kaiboshed Plan A: take the bikes over to Chappaquiddick, or Chappy, and ride around touring the properties that our pet conservation organization, The Trustees of Reservations, owns. Replacing this was Plan B: Shopping. And, since the rain fortuitously let up around lunch time, Plan C: takeout fish-and-chips from the Quarterdeck.
This last plan was Roy’s. I asked him where he thought we’d dine, since the skies looked to cut loose again at any minute and the temperatures were nothing summer-like. He directed me to a covered area next to the Chappy Ferry dock, where we adjourned with our food. I had taken advantage of the “Chowder and Clamcakes” special, while he had the basic fish-and-chips. We sat down with our faces into the 35 mph steady wind with gusts to 50mph. Our sacks and boxes of food began to blow away.
Note To Self: Anything under about 10 lbs blows away in a steady 40mph wind.
We realigned ourselves to put the wind at our backs, in the vain hope that our bodies would provide a sufficient windbreak that we would not have to hold onto every single thing – forks, napkins, spoons, knives, bags, bowls of chowder, boxes of fish and chips – all at once with our five hands each.
And we commenced to dine in this gale.
After five minutes or so of finding places to tuck various items in to keep them from blowing away while we tried to eat, I observed that we were having a Truly Nautical Experience. Unfortunately, the momentary distraction in my attention cost me the sack of clamcakes, which turned out to actually be big lumpy hush-puppies, each seeded with a single thread of clam meat. They went skittering away over the table. I rescued them in time, and lost control of the hood of my jacket. Roy began to lose control of his fish-and-chips. We battled through, and 98% of the things that needed to be in the trash made it there before blowing away to the mainland. As he returned from a journey to the trash can, Roy observed that the gale seemed to be slackening.
The wind blew his hat off.
What can I say? The weather has a fine sense of timing, and a better sense of humor. With any luck, the gale – because there is not a better word for it – will clear out in time for a bike trip to Chappaquiddick. Or Chappy.