I have been lucky in the past couple of years to do some traveling. In the five months just before the pandemic closed everything down, I made an international trip to nine different countries, from southeast Asia to South America. A month after I got home, COVID hit.
In the months since the pandemic began, I’ve traveled the northeast coast of the United States, and then I drove out to Texas and back during the last holiday season. I’ve been able to see some things I have never seen before with the sole purpose of being able to say I did. Some of the locations have been exotic, like; Katmandu, Bangkok, all of India, and the Atacama Desert. Some have been refined, like; San Sebastian, Spain and Buenos Aires.
But the two places I think of the most are both in the United States. They are a little hard to get to, and though they are both small, I’d like to go back. And, if it made sense, I wouldn’t mind splitting my time between the two on a full time basis. The first is an island off the coast of Maine, and the second is a desert town between El Paso and Austin, Texas. The two places are separated by about ten miles of ocean and 2,300 miles of American road.
The destinations of my curiosity and fantasy are Monhegan Island, Maine and Marfa, Texas. Wouldn’t it be cool to spend the warm months in the island sunshine and warm breezes of the Gulf of Maine, and then, as the winter sets in, drive out to west Texas, to spend the cold months, in the relative warmth of Marfa? I think so. The only problem might be the isolation, but we are all used to that by now.
Let me begin on Monhegan. It’s a place I had often heard about, but never traveled to until last summer. COVID restrictions did not limit my access, so I booked a room for two nights in a new bed and breakfast run by a charming woman from New Jersey, who recently decided to move to Monhegan. My room was perfect. The breakfasts were superb. On an island so small, I could see almost everything from my room, or the back porch.
Development was stopped on Monhegan in the 1950s by Ted Edison — son of Thomas. When Ted heard the plans to subdivide the entire island into building lots, he found his purpose, bought most of the vacant land and put it into a trust. Now the island is covered mostly by forest and hiking trails. There are two or three main roads, dozens of cottages that date back 100 years or more, a few small hotels, a handful of places to eat, and a number of shops supplying just the basic stuff you need to get through the week, and some souvenirs, if you insist.
Monhegan has long attracted artists. Mostly painters. It still does today. Because it is an island, the quality of light is special. It seems brighter than what we are used to on the main land. Though most paintings of Monhegan are set in day time, and capture the interplay of light and water, the nights are also spectacular, because there is no light pollution from artificial sources to compete with the moon and the stars.
There are boat loads of tourists that arrive everyday, but a trip to Monhegan is usually for one day only. If you needed to get away from it all, or wanted to, Monhegan would be a place where you could completely escape the world for an entire summer. It might be difficult to find inexpensive, long-term accommodations, but if you did, you could turn off all distractions with no problem at all.
It’s not easy to access the internet on Monhegan and the island has that in common with my other favorite place; Marfa. Perhaps that is part of the attraction. During the pandemic I have often suffered from screen overload. There’s the work I do on my desktop computer, the television for entertainment, and the phone. Screens are inescapable, and they fry my brain and my eyes by around 1p.m. each day. When clients ask me for something after noon, perhaps some have noticed my response is always, “first thing in the morning.” On Monhegan and in Marfa, weak signals are part of the allure.
Like the island, Marfa started out as a working man’s (person) town. Monhegan was for fishing. Marfa was a water stop on the railroad. Trains, both freight and passenger, are still part of the picture in Marfa. Their horns blast all night and the schedule is always different. In the 1970s, Marfa began to develop as a center for the arts, when a New York artist decided it was the perfect place to put his large, outdoor works, on permanent display. Now Marfa is quirk central in the Chihuahuan Desert.
If you decided to make either place home, you could find your new neighbors and begin to fit right in — in no time. The year round population of Monhegan is less than 100 and the population of Marfa is less than 2,000. When you walk the dirt roads of the island everyone says hello. When you walk or drive the streets of Marfa, people say hello if they recognize you, or give you a nod if they don’t, as if to say, “hope you enjoy your stay.”
When I began working after college, I was a news reporter for a radio station. While I was in Marfa, I happened on the website of the local public radio station and saw they were looking for an afternoon drive host of All Things Considered. I seriously considered, walking in — the old fashioned way — and announcing I was there to interview for the afternoon job. Based on where Marfa is and the town’s unique personality, I bet I would have had better than a fifty percent shot of landing the job. But since I’d only been in town a couple of days, I thought I better not make any drastic decisions that would tie me to the desert for longer than I could handle.
Similarly, it took less than seventy-hours for me to start trying to figure out how I could make spending this summer — the whole summer — on Monhegan Island. I would need a big project to keep me occupied. If it wasn’t really big, I could see my summer turning toward a predictable daily schedule. Awake at ten a.m. Coffee at Monhegan Coffee Roasters. A lobster roll for lunch with a small bag of Lay’s potato chips on the side. An afternoon nap. Dinner. An early evening swim. Followed by the sunset going down over neighboring Manana Island. Not very productive. Or is it?
We are more than a year into the pandemic, and though things seem to be heading back in the direction of normal, there have been many times over the last twelve months when I have felt this has been a lost year. I am planning for what’s next, but having experienced how life can turn quickly toward isolation, loneliness, and long days and nights waiting for better days, it is good to know that there are at least two places I can get to, where I’d be welcome, and where there would be nothing extraordinary about the slow pace. If you are going to live small, do it where it’s practiced with vigor. Maybe I will see you there.
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