“Everywhere you see a sign that says ‘Public Footpath,’” our highly engaged neighbor on the east side of the street in Rockport, Massachusetts informs me, “that means it is a…” “Public Footpath?” I say.
She seems surprised by my mental quickness.
“The ocean is that way,” she says, pointing to the gigantic blue mass on the horizon that could not be mistaken for anything else, except maybe a very, very large lake.
I do not know if it is the expression on my face or my mellifluous Georgia accent, but something in my bearing seems to say to New Englanders, “PLEASE HELP ME I AM AN IGNORANT SOUTHERNER.”
I’m not the only one.
“We are just going to walk down to the beach,” Meredith says.
“It’s that way,” our neighbor says, pointing redundantly in the direction of the big blue thing.
She helpfully informs us that there are two alternative approaches to the beach: one via the aforementioned Public Footpath, down a flight of wooden stairs, and over a stretch of slippery boulders. The other, via the road and then down a gentle concrete ramp which will deposit you directly onto the sand.
East Wind, as I am calling her, recommends the latter for its convenience, but she has not met my boys, who are chronically averse to convenience and happen to love boulders.
The boys are in the middle of the street, barefoot.
“They are going to need shoes,” she volunteers. “That pavement is going to be hot.”
“Oh,” Meredith says. “They’re homeschooled. They’re not familiar with ‘shoes.’”
The opening essay in the WPA Guide to Vermont is entitled “Vermonters,” by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. "We gather from what we read in books and newspapers and liberal magazines that life in intensively industrialized States is very different from ours," she writes. The essay is a cheerfully defiant self-defense of the apparently bass-ackwards ways of natives of the Green Mountain State. The effect of the essay is basically this: "The way you people do things in your big, fancy-pants states with plumbing and electricity is not the way we do things up here, OK, so don’t judge us, and while you're at it, just leave us alone. Our state bird is the hermit thrush for a reason, you know." It’s charming, even admirable, and not unhelpful as preparation for the response Meredith gets from the waitress at the one café in Rochester.
She is asking about pies.
“We have apple, watermelon something, and maple cream,” the waitress says.
“Well, we are heading to Massachusetts and were thinking of taking a pie down there to our family. Which one do you think would travel best?”
“They have bakeries in Massachusetts,” she says.
East Wind reappears later, on the beach that she knows how to get to. Beneath the fabled New England gruffness, she turns out to be lovely, kind, interested.
The WPA Guide to Massachusetts, like the one for Vermont, also has an opening chapter explaining the locals. It begins:
“To the seeker of a clue to the character of Massachusetts people, the rubric of the east wind may be useful. Time and again a salty breeze has blown through this most conservative of commonwealths.”
“Many symbols have been devised to explain the Bay Stater. He has been pictured as a kind of dormant volcano, the red-hot lava from one eruption hardening into a crater which impedes the next; as a river, with two main currents of transcendental metaphysics and catchpenny opportunism running side by side; as an asocial discord consisting mainly of overtones and undertones; as a petrified backbone, ‘that unblossoming stalk.’”
I don't know about all that.
But I am sure that the best way to know a people is not through books.