American Culture

Nantucket: eclectic mix of wealth, wistfulness, history, and erosive weather

by Chip Ainsworth

We were somewhere near the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis when Susan looked at me and said, “This will be the most East you’ve ever been in your life. How cool is that?”

The high-speed ferry was a few seats shy of its 400-passenger capacity and was doing 40 miles per hour over smooth ocean waters. “There are no McDonald’s in Nantucket. No Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks, and only one Cumberland Farms.”

We were seated next to a young couple from New York. Brandon was taking a break from composing television jingles, and Veronica was an actress in search of a part. They were living together in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn that cost $2,000 a month.

Veronica, who was reading, pointed to her book and told Susan it was “girl erotica” called “Shades of Gray.”

“No wonder Amazon wants me to buy it,” Susan replied.

Veronica said she’d studied the Meisner technique at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts, where the cost for tuition and fees plus room and board this fall is $52,823. Then she whispered to Susan, “I had a boob job. It’s changed everything.”

Nantucket (Indian for “faraway land”) is 14 miles long, 3½ miles wide and shaped like an oversized boomerang. The year-round population is 12,000 and heavily Democratic. In 2008 voters chose Barack Obama over John McCain by a margin of 68 to 31 percent; two years later they went for Martha Coakley over Scott Brown, 51 to 48 percent.

During the four-month tourist season Nantucket’s population swells five-fold. The downtown sidewalks and cobblestone streets are gridlocked by tourists and traffic, and each offload of tourists from the nearby ferry creates a flash flood of congestion.

Motoring is a dubious luxury on the small island. Gas is just under $5 a gallon, the two-way ferry fee for vehicles is $400, and Hertz rentals average about $150 a day plus gas. There are no stoplights on the island, but plenty of one-way streets.

Susan’s father, Gene, met us at the dock and drove us to his home in Siasconset (commonly called Sconset), a village seven miles east of downtown. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichik has a place in Sconset. A white Volvo was parked in the yard of his two-story house the evening we drove past on our way to the Sconset Café. Joe Biden spent last Thanksgiving in Nantucket; Bill Clinton tees off at its exclusive Nantucket Golf Club. “Entry fee’s $350,000,” said Susan’s father. “Ordinary people are stopped at the guard house.”

Its cow pasture setting resembled Turnberry or Royal St. George’s in Scotland, and a stretch of flatlands between the ocean and Milestone Road is referred to as the Serengeti Plains, replete with wooden cutouts of lions and gazelles springing up from the landscape.

Like everywhere on Nantucket, the homes in Sconset are cedar-shingled and gray. The larger structures have roof walks and weathervanes with ornaments of whales and lobsters, and finely trimmed hedges high enough to keep nosey tourists from prying. Rabbits are everywhere, at least in the mornings, and are as gray as the ubiquitous fog and weathered shingles.

In Sconset visitors can stroll along a public footpath that meanders through the back yards of multi-million dollar homes that are perched above the coast. “It’s in the deed, a public right-of-way,” said Gene. “Nothing they can do about it.”

Someday within a decade or two, nature will have its way with these magnificent dwellings. One night Susan and I wandered to the edge of the bluff along Baxter Road where the footing can be particularly treacherous. Below us was a sandy cliff, perhaps 150 feet steep, with a stunning view of the ocean. The next morning I noticed a sign near our lookout. It warned, “If the poison ivy doesn’t get you, the drop will.”

There is indeed a Charles Dickens quality to Nantucket, bad times and good times, with the worst time perhaps yet to come. It was recently named the best island in the world according to National Geographic’s “The Ten Best of Everything,” yet has been designated as one of America’s most endangered places by The National Trust for Historic Preservation. In the words of one narrator, Mother Nature “bats last” on this wind-and-storm buffeted island that was formed by a glacier more than 20,000 years ago.

One morning during a jog in the fog I happened upon the Sankaty (Sank-a-tee) Head Lighthouse. Its plaque informed me that it was built in 1850 to warn seafarers of dangerous shoals and its light beamed with such a brightness to be called the “blazing star” by those who were dozens of miles out to sea. Where once it stood 280 feet from the bluff, it was recently only 68 feet from toppling and had to be moved back to a safer distance.

With an erosion rate of three feet a year, wealthy homeowners on the Sconset bluff have spent millions trying to save their seaside mansions but to no avail. Nor’easters and hurricanes that roll up the coast and hit the exposed east side with a relentless fury, taking a bite of the coastline one agonizing bite at a time.

“One guy who was near the lighthouse moved his whole very, very large house closer to the road,” said Susan’s father. “He told the paper, ‘I’ve got more money than I know what to do with, I’m 75, I’ve lived here all my life and I’m going to move my house 10 feet so I can stay here a few more years.”

Susan’s father was referring to “The Inquirer and Mirror” a bi-weekly broadsheet that began publishing in 1821 and has an in-season circulation of 30,000. Its content includes healthy doses of society news, high school sports and letters to the editor. The latest front-page news quoted an independent auditor about mismanagement at Nantucket Memorial Airport: “Boys will be boys. There’s a lot of testosterone that hangs around the airport and maybe they need to be reined in.”

Residents and island regulars are fond of attaching “ACK” decals to their vehicles. The oval shaped black-on-white stickers are the islanders’ secret in-house handshake. More precisely, they represent the code of the aforementioned airport.

There’s plenty of other island-related decals and bumper stickers, but the best I saw was plastered on an old pickup truck and regarded John Lennon. It said, “Still pissed at Yoko.”

For almost 100 years until kerosene was discovered in the mid-1800s, Nantucket was the busiest whaling port in the world. Virtually every lamp in England used oil derived from the giant heads of sperm whales, and during idle time the whale hunters carved artifacts from the bones and teeth of their quarry. Their delicate work is called scrimshaw that today can be obtained only through estate sales, auctions and antique dealers.

Inside the town’s whaling museum are harpoons, scrimshaw collections and the skeleton of a 43-foot sperm whale that dangles over a fully rigged whaling boat. Near the entrance is Herman Melville’s original “Moby Dick” manuscript, written in 1850 at his estate near Mt. Greylock. The great classic is based on an account given to him by a ship’s mate of an angry white whale that rammed the leeward side of a Nantucket-based ship called the “Essex.”

The miles of ocean separating Nantucket from the Cape Cod mainland serves as a natural moat that keeps the riff-raff out. It costs money to come to Nantucket. Nothing’s cheap here. Its trendy shops sell cashmere, jewelry and china. At the Four Winds Craft Guild on Main Street, a shopkeeper showed me a lightship basket designed by Jose Formoso Reyes that cost $6,200.

Not that the island isn’t without its share of inebriated fools. Last Saturday we were near downtown, returning from Sayle’s Seafood with a bag of $40-a-pound lobster meat when a cyclist darted between our Audi and a panel truck. One small, reflexive turn of the wheel by either Susan or the other driver and the cyclist would have been scrunched. He was college-aged with short hair and preppy attire. I watched him steer into the other lane while another cyclist came from the other direction. Surprised, he veered out of the way of the oncoming moron, glanced back and flashed a look of rage at Mr. Magoo.

For overnight tourists, a weekend at the White Elephant costs $675 a night, but residents like 22-year-old musician Jacob Butler say it’s worth it. “It’s 30 miles from the mainland and a thousand miles from the mindset, a real treasure.”

Others, like year-round resident Bob Slade aren’t so sure. A landscaper and handyman, Slade told me he’d moved to the island 20 years ago from Rochester. “There’s a lot of wealth here. Summer ends they leave, I stay, and it gets pretty damn depressing when the temperature’s 25 and the winds blowing straight from the north. It’s a different kind of cold. That, and it’s so damn tough to get on and off this island.”

It was foggy and chilly for much of our stay, though islanders reason such weather is good for the skin. “Nantucket weather is like no other,” said Vincent Grant, a house painter from Jamaica who was eating his lunch near the dock the day we departed. “It is sunny now. In 20 minutes it could be pouring.”

We returned to Hyannis on Sunday to avoid the six-mile backup on Route 6 during Memorial Day as we headed back to western Massachusetts. Our four-day visit reminded me of something Glen Caffery of Leyden, Mass., said after his cross-country jog from Oregon to Rhode Island: “I love the hills, the nooks and crannies of Franklin County.”

Others might prefer Nantucket, its ocean, wealth and restaurants, but I’m with Glenn. The fog off the Connecticut River is good enough for me.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning New England sports columnist.

2 replies »

  1. I enjoyed the story of your visit to Nantucket. You had a very busy stay and sounds like you covered a lot of Nantucket. Thanks for sharing your perspective in this very well written piece.

  2. Among the rich and the famous are the not so rich and the not rich at all and the barely making it, all of us drawn by the peace and beauty once you are away from the heart of town and then mostly on a few weekends and from mid-July until the schools reopen in Connecticut and New York and North Carolina.

    I live five minutes walk from the Pacific Bank and had a quiet and calm Memorial Day weekend. One 4th of July, we walked on the beach for an hour and met only one other couple. But I won’t tell you which beach.

    We love to see the visitors come, we love having most of them here, and we love to see them go. We pray every year that the Vice President will continue to come and the President won’t, whoever he happens to be!

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