Islands are always a world apart from the mainland. They have a strange serenity that is not found on most parts of the continental world. Somehow, the fact that islands are physically separated from the bigger land masses makes them seem as though they are equally separated from the everyday hustle and bustle that such areas harbor. One island that made a lasting impression on me, a visitor from mainland Massachusetts, is Martha’s Vineyard.
Martha’s Vineyard — or, “the Vineyard,” as it is often called by locals — is a small island located off the coast of Massachusetts. Although it functions as part of the state, it also seems to operate on much of its own terms.
During one summer weekend, I visited a couple of friends who were living on the Vineyard long-term, and was able to see what “island life” was truly like. In short, it was blissful, yet eye-opening. The island is home to 16,535 permanent residents, with a swell of over 100,000 people during the summer months. I was lucky enough to spend a weekend with a few of the 16,535, and it definitely gave me a different view of the island from that of the summer tourists.
When a typical New Englander thinks of Martha’s Vineyard, they tend to think of old-fashioned, gingerbread-house cottages and town centers that are lined with mom-and-pop shops. And that’s what the tourists see. During the summer months, visitors fill the centers of Edgartown, Vineyard Haven, West Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs to the brim. There is nowhere to park, no empty sidewalk to be seen, and no storefront left empty.
But once you get a few hundred yards outside of the town centers, the character of the island quickly changes. Suddenly, gingerbread-house cottages give way to old, isolated, and monochrome homes, and the constant hum of crowds concedes to the serene silence of scrubby woods.
At first, I was unnerved by the apparent desertion of the rest of the island. We drove long distances between houses, and most of the surrounding landscape that we passed along the way was comprised of short trees. I couldn’t believe that there’d be much activity on such a sparsely populated expanse of land. But I was wrong.
What at first appeared to be an island with nothing but a facade meant to attract summer tourists ended up being a place that made me question the importance of the mainland’s distractions. All it took was experiencing the land alongside a few of the Vineyard’s residents.
The citizens of Martha’s Vineyard who I had the pleasure of meeting make their livings by trade, and define their leisure through backyard barbecues, bowling nights, and tourist-friendly bars and restaurants that are only open during the summer — that is, when they can get enough business to make a profit. During the winter, most tourist destinations shut town for this very reason, and the locals are left with each other for entertainment. Unlike the mainlanders who come to visit, Vineyard locals don’t have summer homes. They don’t get to travel to and from the mainland any time they choose. Cost of living on the Vineyard is high, and those who live there work hard for what they have. They make their lives on the island, and they enjoy the polarity between on- and off- seasons.
I was amazed by that. All of the advertisements that I had ever seen relating to the island were filled with symbols of excess and carefree living. But the reality is that the citizens of Martha’s Vineyard live ordinary lives, just like the rest of us. What’s more, I think the advertisements miss the actual beauty of the island. The reality of the people who call the island their home is equally beautiful as the cottages owned by its summer visitors. It’s interesting to think that most people don’t know that.
The truth is, a weekend away from the highways, towers, and retail chains of mainland America will make anyone rethink what is important in life. On the shores of the Vineyard, it was easy to forget that the rest of the world even existed — it is a feeling that I covet to this day, even now, as I look out the window of my mainland suburban home.
Of course, the Vineyard’s tourist attractions do not disappoint in the slightest. In the southwestern corner of the island, far from the four major town centers, lie wonders such as the Gay Head Light, an 18th-century lighthouse that sits atop an open expanse of land near the shoreline, located just outside the reach of its inland forests. Making the drive down to the lighthouse is worth anyone’s time, and allows visitors the chance to get lost in the endlessness of the ocean beyond.
By the time I had to leave the island, I was ready to make a new home there and never return to the buzz of mainland living. As I rode the ferry back to Wood’s Hole, I made a commitment to learn from my experience beyond the coast. I vowed never to forget the importance of simplicity and appreciating the little things in life. I’d like to think I’ve kept that vow, at least, to some extent.
Photos by Amy Walker and Tyler Schavemaker