Sea breezes wafting over my bare skin, the smell of salt air, warm sun, gentle waves lapping on the shore….
In complete contrast to my last post on the Lake Superior ice caves, I’m presently traveling to a warm weather spot, at least in my mind. I’m pondering plans for summer travel and looking fondly at my pix from last summer on Cape Ann, north of Boston, Mass.
Minnesota is beautiful in summer, but there’s just something captivating about New England that time of year and Cape Ann, known as Massachusetts’s “other cape” is a great place to experience it– in Gloucester, which is still a fishing town, and just to the north, the village of Rockport which has, for the most part, shifted from fishing to tourism. Rockport is so darned adorable that on visits there my husband requires a periodic dose of ESPN to counteract the charm overload.
Everything in this part of the country is really old, like 1600s old, hence the charm, and the ocean has been the focus of life here for hundreds of years. So before you go, you’ll want to break out a couple of classics of seafaring literature to enhance your appreciation of the area’s maritime traditon. They include Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, a story of cod fishermen who work between Gloucester and Newfoundland; Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Stormabout the ill-fated Gloucester fishermen of the Andrea Gail; and Mark Kurlansky’s The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America’s Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town. For more area literature, see my post about nearby Dogtown.
But put down your book. There’s plenty to do on the water such as kayaking, stand-up paddling, and whale watching. And, if you’re a seafood lover, stroll down Bearskin Neck in Rockport to Roy Moore’s lobster shack. Eat it on the deck in back or take it out for a beach picnic. Last year, there was a lobster surplus so we felt it our duty to help alleviate that problem. Also, the Red Skiff gets my vote for the world’s best fish chowder.
Like any resort community, Rockport has its share of art galleries. Some of the best are on Main Street where you’ll also find Toad Hall bookstore and another gem, The Shalin Liu Performance Center, where a giant window with a view of the harbor serves as a backdrop for the music. As you can imagine, the area abounds with charming inns, B&Bs and homes for rental.
Cape Ann is one of the destinations in my book, Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways where you’ll find many other ideas for getaways year-round.
I love the water, but as a Midwesterner, the ocean holds a special fascination because we don’t have one. Granted, the Great Lakes are big enough and fierce enough in bad weather to give the feeling of the ocean and the same waves of motion sickness wash over on me on rough water, salty or fresh. But there’s just something about the ocean that launches my imagination into overdrive.
First there are the tides. We visited friends one summer who live on a Pacific coast inlet. When we arrived we were oceanside. The next morning the water was gone and the boats all sat in the sand awaiting high tide to float them again. This was a freaky, Stephen King-like experience for a “lake person.”
The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald aside, the ocean simply carries a bigger cargo of tales, from Moby Dick to Captains Courageous to The Perfect Storm and about a zillion classic novels in between. Gloucester, Mass., a real fishing town north of Boston, offers one of the best places to hang out and absorb a heavy dose of the maritime atmosphere that makes those stories come to life. You’ll get a double dose if you attend the Gloucester Schooner Festival this weekend.
Finally, few things are more pleasurable than being sea-side, dozing intermittently, lulled by the warmth of the sun, a view of the ocean, the sound of the surf, and the coconutty smell of sunscreen on your skin. I just read a post from a blog I follow, Jenn’s Bookselves, in which she writes about how much the venue in which we read a novel, can affect our
feelings and reading experience. I nominate surfside as one of the best places to read, though it’s important to do so with books that give your brain a chance to relax along with the rest of your body. So raise your pina colada and your copy of anything by Carl Hiassen. Here’s to beach reading.
Bars and counters are my favorite places to sit in restaurants. There’s something about the combination of close proximity and food that fosters great conversations among complete strangers. And, if I see you sitting next to me with a book, you won’t have time to read it because I’ll won’t be able to stop myself from asking what you’re reading, what it’s about, and do you recommend it.
That happened a couple of springs ago when my husband, Scott, and I were in Rockport,
Mass., (on Cape Ann, about an hour north of Boston) while I was researching my book, Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways. There was still a chill in the the air and we were happily slurping down huge bowls of fish chowder at the Red Skiff, a tiny restaurant on Rockport’s aptly named Mt. Pleasant St. (The relaxed pace and the chance to hang out and chat with locals on both sides of the lunch counter without a line if diners behind you, and of course lower prices, are a few of the many charms of off-season travel.) I noticed that two of our lunch counter companions were discussing a book, so I had to barge into their discussion and ask about it, which led to questions about where we were from and what brought us to Rockport. Turned out the two gentlemen were members of the local sheriff’s department enjoying their day off. When one heard about my project, he grabbed the book from his friend’s hands and said, “You’ve got to read this book.” It was Elyssa East’s Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. He said with an air of mystery that Dogtown has had a very strange history. “Say no more,” I said.
That lunch counter encounter was enough to launch me into reading not only East’s non-
fiction book about a murder in Dogtown, but also Anita Diamant’s fictional work The Last Days of Dogtown (you may have read her best-seller, The Red Tent) and Thomas Dresser’s Dogtown: A Village Lost in Time. After reading those books, I had to go see the place for myself.
Dogtown is a 3,600-acre tract of juniper, bog, and granite with a beautiful reservoir at one end. Early settlers–really early, like the mid-1600s–put down roots in Dogtown, though it couldn’t have been easy among so much rock. A century later as many as 100 families lived in the Dogtown area. But after the Revolutionary War, people figured that fishing might be a better way to make a living than tilling around giant boulders. It’s surprising that it took them that long. By the early 1800s, Dogtown was deserted, but for a few impoverished widows who, like Tammy Younger, the “queen of the witches,” intimidated passersby enough to make them pay her to leave them alone. A few dogs remained, too, which according to some people is the reason for the area’s name.
One thing that’s unnerving about Dogtown is that’s it’s rather hard to find your way around, giving the feeling that at any turn you could become hopelessly lost and eventually end up like Tammy and her warty friends. To explore Dogtown Commons, buy a detailed trail map at Toad Hall Books in Rockport or bookstores in Gloucester and bring along your GPS. You can also take a tour with an expert Seania McCarthy at Walk the Words. With a bit of looking, you can still find the holes that were the cellars of the first Dogtown homes.
But my favorite hike is the Babson Boulder Trail. During the Depression, millionaire
philanthropist Roger Babson, the founder of Babson College, hired unemployed stonecutters to carve 24 inspirational words on Dogtown boulders, many on what is now the Babson Boulder Trail. It’s fun, but a tad eerie, to encounter giant boulders at various points on the trail with inscriptions such as “Industry,” “Kindness,” “Be On Time,” and “Keep Out of Debt.” My favorite: “Help Mother.”
All of this history and mystery made Dogtown a favorite source of inspiration for the painter Marsden Hartley who captured the place in powerful, primal paintings such as “Rock Doxology.” He said, “A sense of eeriness pervades all the place…. [It is] forsaken and majestically lovely, as if nature had at last formed one spot where she can live for herself alone.” Read the books and go see for yourself.
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.