The sea air is a drug that addles reason. How else to explain the amnesia that comes over me every summer on the first bike ride back to the Ram’s Head Inn on Shelter Island? I forget that its approach involves two short steep hills—the first brings you up to Little Ram’s Head Island, a tiny hamlet of traditional and modernist homes, each with its own snaking entry drive, all surrounded by miles of land. You pass through and find yourself on an identical strip of road with water on both sides. The second hill appears, and the brain scrambles to adjust as I fumble with inadequate bicycle gears, but it’s too late: what follows is a panting stint of exertion as you make the climb, one that ends in the graveled driveway of the inn. Sweaty, huffing, I tell myself you’ve made it again, happy to have it end as I dread the next day’s climb home.
Welcome to our annual vacation. My partner and me have been coming here (take the LIRR to Greenport, N.Y.—a five-minute ferry transports you to the island) since we began dating at the turn of the century. In all these years we’ve crowned it our paradise, or at least, an antidote to all our other summer trips. It’s a place to bike and loll on small, quiet beaches; to read in hammocks; to sleep in late without fear that the day got away from you.
Vacations like this are not part of my breeding. I doubt few families in the inner-city neighborhoods of my youth had the luxury of time or money to do so. The idea that you would go visit a town because you had a curiosity about it was anathema—for my parents at least, the only legitimate vacation was one where you visited relatives (who didn’t always live in tourist meccas).
This summer our getaways were mixed-use. Earlier we made it to the Southwest (Scottsdale, AZ) and the Midwest (Cincinnati, OH.) because my spouse had educator conferences in each city. Of the two, Scottsdale provided the best opportunities for leisure; between the hotel pool and its abundance of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, there was plenty to see and do.
In my hometown of Cincinnati we stole a few hours away from his conference to go meet my family. In that way, it replicated the vacations of childhood, and a return to the past, which is where all relatives and families live. Such returns are never easy for me (living in the here-and-now is handful enough) so a part of me grits my teeth as I sit on my mother’s porch and listen to stories about myself as a misbegotten kid, while dodging the entreaties of a middle sister whose brains have been fried by past substance abuse and a hardscrabble life; the other part takes pride in knowing that they find my spouse charming, that my fragile, elderly mother clings to life with a tenacity that puts my whining to shame, and that my nieces and nephews (the ones I saw, at least) are becoming their own people. But time is frozen there; each visit reveals a place that grows smaller and smaller in my imagination. Often I sense they’re intimidated by me—the flipside of that is, they exhibit little curiosity about my life, or interests, something I’ve learned to accept with difficulty.
Shelter Island is growing smaller too. There’s comfort in traveling the same roads, dining in familiar restaurants and having passing cars give you a wide berth. Still, a part of me mourns our first days there when you wanted to take a picture of everything: the farm stands, the bays, the piping plovers and egrets, the sweet cottages and surprising fields that revealed themselves around every turn, and the drivers who wave with smiles as they pass.
Perhaps the familiar has morphed in the old-hat. Or it’s become the equivalent of that which compelled my folks to jump into a car and head south to their home states of Georgia or Mississippi, or west toward Chicago, where other relatives settled during the Great Northern Migration. In seeking out family perhaps they too sought an antidote to their everyday wars with menial jobs and a house full of kids, just as I quest for that once-a-year getaway where I rediscover a me divorced from money, writing, or futurecast-woes. On vacation there’s no constant temperature taking, no measuring progress; the things that wear me out about the city I love are left behind. I know what you’re thinking—in the end, aren’t vacations are a construct, a state of mind? Maybe that sense of everything falling away is a fake-out like those short hills on Ram’s Head Island (why else do its effects disappear within days of arriving home?), but once a week every summer, I’m happy to buy into the illusion that I’m re-born in this place where the familiar becomes hauntingly new.