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We’ve all experienced it. Call it a return from idleness, or simply the end of vacation, an experience as brutal as any to occur in the course of a year. Some of us feel the letdown upon return to work, or when a cascade of held mail tumbles from our post boxes. I knew it was over once I boarded the Long Island Railroad. It began with the sticky floor, followed by cellphone conversations, intrusive music emanating from devices and the assault of loud, sweaty, pushy commuters. All of us were headed to Penn Station, bracing ourselves for the ride from hell.
“Welcome back,” I said to my partner as the man across the aisle broadcast his so-urgent-it-can’t-wait-so-I-must-bellow-into-my-cell-because-my-associate-is-apparently-deaf conversation so loudly I began to count the number of commuters who turned to look his way.
Maybe it was a recent birthday that brought out my sensitivity. An older me has less tolerance for many things. But that ride remembered what I cherish more than anything about vacations, and why I’ve come to put such stock in them, even with their mounting cost. More than a fancy destination, or a place chock full of things to do (using activity volume as a deciding factor feels ironic—will someone please inaugurate a sleeping vacation?), I want peace. I don’t mean absolute quiet (cellphones are here to stay; some degree of noise exists everywhere), though maybe it’s simply a matter of volume. Maybe that’s the trick: find a place that facilitates a lower decibel, one that encourages everyone to dial their screams to murmurs.
We’ve vacationed on Shelter Island every summer for close to eight years, which has as much to do with sentimentality (it was the first trip my partner and I took alone together some 15 years prior) as it does with what we continue to discover on our trips there. This verdant oasis (a ferry ride across the Peconic Bay from Greenport, NY) also serves up beaches and deep woods that shroud both public (a nature preserve that covers the bulk of the island) and private (lovely estates with houses both ancient and modern) enclaves.
Any vacation, I’ve determined, is about a departure from the norms of daily life. On the island, it’s the absence that soothes. I’m hard-pressed to remember hearing sirens or that other bane of city life, the middle-of-the-night car alarm. At the Rams Head Inn where we’ve stayed, there is nothing to shock your sleep unless you count the occasional door slam from another guest room down the hall. But then even a place like that isn’t perfectly peaceful: there are morning lawn mowers on the property’s Great Lawn. The groundskeepers get an early start, so their hoses and vacuums war with the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald during breakfast. One night loud guests returned from an evening outing and shook the Inn with buzzed conversations and carrying on in the hallways instead of their rooms.
As we bike from one end of the island to the next we hear little traffic. The dominant sound you hear is water, or on a breezy day (there are many) its welcome kin: the rush of wind through the trees, complimented by the caw of gulls or peep of birds. At night, the crickets rule, accompanied by another element you can’t find in the city: a spray of stars blankets a true night sky, its darkness a visual quiet few of us consider until we find ourselves wrapped in its inky spell.
This trip we asked ourselves whether it was still worth it. The cost of quiet rises every year, making peace a luxury. It stunned us to think that, in the small towns where we’re from, quiet is not only plentiful, but free (we laughed to think of the folks in those places who scraped and saved so they could spend time in the loud cities we sought to flee). Though we’ve tried to be smart about our expenses (we rent bikes instead of a car; the island was chosen initially because you didn’t need to book an expensive plane ticket to get there) we’ve had to acknowledge that the price of dinner for two is more expensive than many places we frequent in Manhattan. Rates at the Rams Head Inn have also increased (despite management tossing in a free night due to the length of our stay. These issues press depending on our fortunes. After a bout of unemployment, I now have a job, but I haven’t forgotten the challenge of those years, especially when it came to making this regular sojourn happen then. It felt important to be on the Island if only to indulge a vacation from sleepless nights, and the fear that I’d never work again.
I don’t ever confuse a vacation with visits to family, which for me always feels the opposite of peace. Not everyone agrees, and I get it; it’s true that the sound of my mother’s voice, the warm embrace of siblings (with one lone exception) or the clack of capering nieces and nephews bring a particular joy. But there are few new pictures-instead you get the noise of regression, that big throbbing bass we call the past. Current family dramas mute whatever pleasure comes from laying eyes on loved ones. In my youth I felt separate from my immediate kin; as an adult I’m reminded of how we continue to fracture, with no remedy in sight. I made the trip this summer, and built in buffers (I stayed at a hotel instead of with siblings and made lots of solitary trips to the city’s plentiful museums and galleries, using the alone time as a emotional shield). Still, I returned to Manhattan more anxious than rested.
That trip reminded me of another cost. My departure to Ohio on American Airlines was delayed 3 hours; on the return (after an hour delay that insured I’d miss my connection) the flight was…cancelled. None of this makes me want to travel back to my hometown any time soon. I loathe airports. Nothing bugs me more than going through security (they send such mixed signals—what may pass as an approved item at one point of departure will likely be designated a weapon upon your return). No one talks about the pieces of our souls we leave behind at airports, yet we willingly suffer such depletions, paying good money for the privilege of smaller seats and lost luggage.
I’m grateful that trip was followed by the vacation. Its cancelling effects—lounging by the water, tooling down a road en-route to a winery, sleeping late—reminded me of a vacation’s worth, and why we go to the trouble. The value to be had is actually priceless—did I mention how a new place puts new pictures in your head, how revisiting haunts refreshes the mind with familiar beauty that might’ve faded in the interval? Damned if I know how chipmunks and rabbits retain their ability to delight (and what a departure from the dull grays of city rats and pigeons), along with a new view of the bays, or stumbling upon some charming lane that invites some imagining of how others live.
Eventually you have to leave the garden. I’m back in New York, missing the island peace. Life—the noise, the anxieties and challenges of work, the joy of love and friends—is a duty, and I must heed the call until the next getaway. Hear the sound of pennies being saved?
August 21, 2016