Monday, November 17, 2014

The Girls on Block Island

Mama and I just got back from a long weekend in Block Island, Rhode Island, our first visit to the summer resort.  Yes, we went on a very wintry weekend when most of the island was closed--and it was wonderful!  In fact, I'm not sure I'd like it in summer with 10-15,000 extra people at all.

Instead of strictly chronologically, I'll break it down by topics.

The Ferry
I've been on ferries before, but never had to back onto one where they squeeze the cars in so tightly that you have trouble getting out of the car!  It was a good thing Mama had that rearview camera!  We grabbed all of our winter gear, plus our sandwiches, and headed upstairs to the top deck.  The ferry from Port Judith to Block Island is much smaller than the Bridgeport-Port Jefferson ferry and rocked much more in the open water.  Good thing neither of us are prone to seasickness!  And luckily we had our heavy coats, hats, mittens, and scarves, with that wind chill.  But we loved the ride.  Especially because I spotted a seal in the harbor on the way over!  (We saw two on the way back!)  I've never seen seals in the wild.

The Inn
Most of the places to stay on the island are closed this time of year.  We stayed at the 1661 House (which dates, instead, to the late 19th-century), which overlooks the marshes and the ocean.  And our room had a wraparound porch taking it all in!  It was a great room and we spent a lot of time watching the light and sea changes.

The marsh from our room
Same view, different light

Sunrise from our room

View from breakfast
And another, on a different day

The Food
One of the challenges of a mostly-closed island was procuring meals.  Our hotel had hot breakfast every morning, with eggs to order, and a delicious grainy bread.  We stopped at the only grocery store when we arrived and picked up various snacks, including a tasty French lime-coconut soda, some cheese sticks, and those yummy Tate's chipless cookies.  We came back a time or two to pick up bread, cheeses, and chips for lunch.    But there were a few restaurants open.  We had an amazing dinner at Eli's the first night.  Warm goat cheese and arugula salad, tuna nachos, bread with sundried tomato-garlic pesto, a homemade gnocchi with fontina cheese sauce and broccoli, stuffed duck breast on mushroom bread pudding, incredible warm bittersweet chocolate bread pudding and milk chocolate custard, and a maple sugar cheesecake with plum compote and pecan streusel.    One day for lunch we ate at the little municipal airport--clam chowder, crabcakes (shockingly made with those fake crab sticks!!  But still good, Mama said.), and homemade wild blueberry pie--all with pilots landing and taking off and coming in for food.  We also got food from Channel Marker--another cheesy pasta with broccoli and also chicken, a stuffed flounder, a great harvest salad with apples, cranberries, and provolone in a lemony poppyseed dressing. More bread and butter.  Can't imagine we could have eaten better if all of the restaurants had been open!

The Birds
There were so many birds!   Once, from the porch, we saw Mr. and Mrs. Mallard fly right past us at eye level.  And they quacked--just like all those duck calls my dad has practiced all my life (even playing 45s . . . and duck calls first thing in the morning!)  Lots of sparrows and seagulls and something called a junco.  There were many birds we couldn't recognize.  Once, driving past the dunes, we slowed to watch a raptor in flight.  It wasn't one we knew, though--not a red-tail hawk--brown with a single white stripe across its tail feathers.  I looked it up online--perhaps a young Blackhawk who hasn't changed colors yet or a Northern Harrier??  Who knows.

Our best bird experience was Saturday night's owl banding expedition with the locals of the Nature Conservancy.  We met in the pitch black--at 7 pm!--under a dense blanket of stars, more than I've ever seen.  I even saw two shooting stars!  Several of us on the walk saw them, someone yelling out, "Super shooter!"  Scott, the master bird bander with 100,000 bands and tens of thousands of net hours, was focusing on Saw Whet owls, for Project Owlnet.  He'd put up nets and had been banding owls for 3 weeks, drawn by a recording of the Saw Whet call.  (I should say it was also because of Pop that I knew about banding birds, though he was on the retrieving end of duck and goose bands when I was a child.)  In just an hour, he had two when we arrived and caught a third while he banded the first two.  The owls themselves are tiny, about 6" long and just around 100 grams (one child thought he said pounds!), with huge eyes and even bigger ears completely hidden by their feathers.  They have special wing feathers and feathers on their legs so that they are silent--we could see them as they were released but couldn't hear them fly away at all.  I guess the mice can't hear them either.  The owls were very quiet and subdued, not visibly upset--we even got to stroke them.

We were one of about 40 people, probably the only off-islanders.  In fact, people kept recognizing us as not being from around there.  There was also some island humor--with repeated, "I didn't know there were this many people still here" and "The island is going to tilt with all of us standing here."  Everyone knew everyone, but us--such a small community (and we though our CT town was small!  This one is smaller than our elementary school community!)

The Wildlife
We saw other wildlife, mainly deer.  Big huge deer.  Not our skinny, probably starving CT deer.  We were driving island-slow and so saw several of them before they bounded off.

And then there were the alpacas!  At the farm across the street, there were alpacas, llamas, a zedonk (zebra-donkey hybrid), small horses, furry cows, an emu, and a yak.  The hair of many of these were used for yarn sold at the lovely North Light Fibers.  More on that in a bit.  We also got a tour from our innkeeper to see the animals who had been put away for the winter--three kangaroos, three lemurs, some kind of crane, and three rabbits including a Flemish giant.  The kangaroos were smaller that I expected and so soft.  I must admit to some ambivalence about wild animals in a small New England barn.  It's perhaps one thing to keep domesticated animals for shearing their fleece, but kangaroos and lemurs aren't domesticated and serve no other purpose besides entertaining visitors for profit.

The Landscape
Block Island has no natural harbor, but two were created by settlers after decimating the native Naragansetts (who went from 3,000 in number in 1700 to only 51 people 70 years later.)  There are cliffs (where the Naragansetts threw their enemy Mohegans after a battle) and also marshes.  Originally it was all forested, according to Verrazano's 16th-century diary,  but the settlers deforested it.  Now there are scrubby plants and trees.  And so many rock walls, demarcations of the farms that once covered the island.  I loved those rock walls, outlining those bumpy hills, and the scrubby hedges.  In fact, in a few ways, it reminded me of the English countryside.

I imagine the island is bright green and blue during the summer, with flowers and such, but in fall it was all steely blues, grays, and white, both from the typical Rhode Island gray-shingled houses and the leafless brush, watery skies, and wintry seas beyond.   And when I bought some alpaca super soft chunky yarn from the North Lights fiber people, I got it in those Block Island colors.

Block Island crochet project

I liked the cliffs less, not being so fond of heights.  At first, I crocheted in the car while Mama went to the outlook, but I eventually got up my courage to join her.  And it was amazing, in its way, even if it was the murder site of the Mohegans.  I particularly liked the view of the lighthouse in the distance.

The walk to the cliffs

The cliffs with the Southeast Light in the distance.

Cliffs again

Despite it being a beach place, we only really went to the beach once, for Mama to fly her kite.  There certainly was no shortage of wind.  While she flew her kite, I searched for sea glass and did find a few "mermaid's tears," as I've also heard them called.

The Lighthouses
Before even getting on the ferry, we visited the Point Judith Light, with its black and white daymark.  See, we love lighthouses.  We've visited them around the Great Lakes and in parts of Florida.  And now, after a brief interval for babies, we're starting to take in those of New England.    So the two lighthouses of Block Island were a definite attraction.  In fact, we watched sunset at each of them.  First, the double-gabled, brick Southeast Light near those cliffs, where we watched a glorious pink and mauve sunset on our first night.  Secondly, from further away across a pond, the North Light (for which we didn't traverse the sand to see up close.)  Both lights are lit at night, which is a marvelous sight.  We especially liked seeing the green glow of the first order Fresnel of the Southeast light at night so up close (it's not far from the main road.)  Architecture, maritime history, sometimes even women's studies (there were women lighthouse keepers, though not on Block Island as far as I know.)   We love lighthouses.

Southeast light at sunset
Watching the sunset from the lighthouse

North Light
North Light at sunset

The Labyrinth

Probably my favorite spot on Block Island was the labyrinth.  It was on a hill overlooking the North Light, accessible by climbing a stile over one of those great rock walls.  Mama and I walked the labyrinth on Saturday morning.  And it was a very special affair.  I've read about and walked a temporary labyrinth before (see here and here) but this was my first turf labyrinth.  I tried to clear my mind of preconceived notions of labyrinths:  all the metaphors for life--every walker walks it alone, even if there are others there; how you can't see where you are going necessarily, or how long it will take; it's a circle, a cycle, of life, not a straight line; everyone walks the path differently--some start in the middle, some walk in and walk out in reverse, there are slow and fast walkers, some even dance.  But all of those ideas, and more, came quite naturally.  And because it was a turf labyrinth--cut into the sod--some parts were wider, some narrower, some deeper, some flatter, some easier to walk than others, all with a sense of having been walked before.  There was a Buddha placed outside one edge, where previous walkers left trinkets such as notes, bracelets, and even, oddly, a toothbrush; I passed him several times back and forth.

As I walked, I repeated my metta meditation, "May all beings be safe, be happy, be healthy, live with ease," as I heard the nearby windchimes on a house, wind, birds, and some animal in the hedge.  My thoughts drifted  . . .and it came to me as I walked:  the point of the labyrinth isn't getting to the end, it's the walk itself.  And for me, the same could be said for a spiritual path in life--it doesn't so much matter what the answer at the end is, meaning the afterlife, but the fact that I consider such big questions and try to live according to my answers.  And for me, compassion, such as metta or hospice, is the key, even if I don't always manage to walk the walk, so to speak.

In the center was a pile of stones, with some water, and a few tokens.  I didn't have anything to leave and so just stood.  Mama had passed me earlier--we touched hands on a few passes--and was waiting for me there; she started back before I did.  Thinking on it, I imagined that motherhood was the center of my own labyrinth--I didn't know I was walking towards it, but now everything centers around it.

I took a few photos as I walked, people have been recording spiritual experiences for time out of mind so I didn't think of it as interrupting it.  You can see my shadow in a few of them.

I departed the labyrinth with a thank you in my heart, filled with big thoughts and emotions, which seem smaller and perhaps cliche typed in a post, but I felt them all quite sincerely; it was beautiful.  I sat in a comfortable chair, perused the notebook in the mailbox with other people's musings, and left my own simple one. Mama even left a trinket in the Geocache box there.

Final Thoughts
The island is small. Everyone knows everyone.  By name.  They even know each other's pets--we said we saw a yellow dog wandering at sunrise and the innkeeper said, "Oh, that's so-and-so's dog."  The hotel people own the yarn mill.  The waitress works with the Nature Conservancy guy, too.  And everyone seemed to be at the owl walk! Though we were only there three days, we ran into the same people several times.  And they remembered us.  One waitress greeted us at the grocery store, "Hi Girls!  Hope you're having a good morning."  I can see if we lived on an island, we would be "the girls," just as lesbian couples in small towns often seem to be in books.

Small can be good--no traffic lights, no traffic (at least not the other three seasons), no commutes.  No chains, little commercialism.  Lots of nature, a very direct connection to nature.  We wouldn't need to send sixth graders to "Nature's classroom" camp for a week if we lived there.  But, as one staff member told us, many families with high schoolers leave the island or ship them to boarding school for a more academic education.

Things are expensive (and I'm not even talking about the average $1.5 mil houses)--there's even a sign in the grocery store that costs have to reflect freight prices on the ferry.  And apparently electricity is very pricey.  Everything comes over on the ferry--constructions supplies, gasoline, even those kangaroos and lemurs.  Going back and forth across the ferry requires lots of advanced planning, since there are only about 25+ spots.  Unless there is a secret residents'-only number of spaces.  There is an urgent care clinic on the island, but no doctors or dentists that we saw.  I imagine locals must plan days on the mainland.  But Peapod does deliver via ferry!

Despite being very small and quite isolated, it was very urban and urbane  You can tell that the islanders are not isolated, are quite sophisticated, quite the opposite of a stereotypical small-town--even the opposite of our own CT town in many ways.

I loved being there--we had a wonderful restorative weekend--but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to live there, though I can't completely pin down why (though I think lack of diversity--in class, race, sexual orientation, etc--might be a real factor.  Oh, and summer and tourists.)  But we can't wait to take the kids back.  And Gommie and Pop, who would love it.

No comments:

Post a Comment