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The Coast: A Son’s Journey Into Fatherhood

Walking with dad. Photo by Frances Thorndike. (Thanks, honey!)

Twenty-five years ago, my father published The Coast: A Journey Down the Atlantic Shore. One part travelogue and two parts environmental object lesson, it told a story about the Atlantic seaboard — its past, present, and likely future.

The book did not recount a single trip from Maine to Florida, although its chapters marched obediently from Quoddy Head to Key West. Rather, it described a composite journey, composed of countless short trips, some no longer than a single day.

A handful of chapters, however, drew on my father’s long, personal history on the Eastern seaboard. Sections on Maine, Cape Cod, Florida, and the Long Island Sound reflected months, years, and even decades of living on the Atlantic coast.

I was present for a lot of that first-hand research, especially in Connecticut, where I grew up, and on Cape Cod, where I visited my father frequently during the last 25 years of his life. I also managed to tag along for brief trips to Maine and Florida.

But for every trip I took, there were dozens that I skipped. Occasionally, my father would ask me — in his reserved, taciturn New England way — if I wanted to come along. But like many adult children of aging parents, I found reasons to say no.

Apparently I was busy, but in retrospect, I can’t imagine with what. My father has been dead for more than a decade, but I still regret, almost daily, the many trips I didn’t take. It wouldn’t have been hard, but at the time, I thought it would be.

So I joined Dad for a few trips, missed many more, and basically dialed myself out of his creative process. I remember thinking, when the book finally appeared in 1993, that I couldn’t remember him actually writing it. I was absent for most of the hard work. But I was also oblivious, too wrapped up in my own life to even ask about his.

Since my father died, I’ve been looking for ways to make up for some of those lost opportunities.

I can’t take those trips with him anymore, at least not directly. But I can still take them with his book, which is more comfort than you might think.

One reviewer of The Coast described its emotional tone as “conscientious, but never rapturous.” From my own reading, I’d say that’s accurate. More to the point, “conscientious, but never rapturous” is a pretty good description of my father. That gives the book a feeling of familiarity, at least for me: dad seems present on every page.

Which is why, when re-reading the book last year, I had an idea.

I miss my father terribly, but I also miss him on behalf of my children, who never had a chance to know him. My older daughter, 15, was not yet three when he died, and even if she could remember those years, they were hardly his best — Alzheimer’s robbed him of nearly everything near the end (as my brother John has recounted in his own book).

My younger daughter, now 12, was not yet born when my father died. She knows him from pictures scattered around our house, as well as my stories about him. But he barely rises to the level of an abstraction in her world.

I want my children to know my father, but Death has rudely made that impossible. (I can’t really complain, since my father was 92 when he died; long generations in my family). But I have a solution, of sorts: a new book. (Are you listening @StMartinsPress? A sequel!)

Specifically, I plan to retrace my father’s journey down the Atlantic seaboard, stopping at the same places he did, as well as various new ones. Unlike my father, I plan to start this trip while I can still compel the attendance of my children.

I’ve bought copies of The Coast for both girls. And because I am no fool, I plan to read it with them, rather than depending on their good-natured compliance. The task is more manageable than you might think, since the book is composed of 21 short chapters, each focused on a different location. If we read one chapter every time we visit a new place, the burden shouldn’t be too onerous, even for a couple of teenagers.

My naive hope? That after reading his chapters and visiting his places, my girls will come to know their grandfather a bit better. More to the point (and more likely), they’ll get to know me a bit better, including the “me” who is still my father’s son, not just my daughters’ father.

My version of The Coast, however, will not be simply a story of relationships. Like my father’s book, it will take the Eastern seaboard as its subject as well as its setting.

I inherited many things from my father, including that much-noted New England reserve. But I also inherited his love of the coast, my fascination with its history, and my concern about its future.

My father’s real passion wasn’t the ocean so much as the shore. He loved the liminal regions where land meets water — sandy beaches, to be sure, but muck-filled marshes, too.

On the other hand, he was never much of a sailor. Over the years, he owned any number of boats, but they were usually a means to an end (typically waterskiing). His real passion was walking the shoreline, not cruising the waves.

He walked beaches up and down the east coast, not literally from Maine to Florida but certainly in both Maine and Florida and every state in between. And we’re not talking casual walks of a few minutes or half an hour. He liked to walk for miles, covering a lot of ground and giving him ample material for his writing. (See, for instance, how his walks on Cape Cod yielded this article on Henry David Thoreau, which later appeared in his book.)

I, too, like a good beach walk.

But my new journey down the coast will involve more time on the water, as well as next to it. I’m not planning on any grand voyages, but I do expect to explore the coast from the far side of surf line. (In a later post, I’ll describe the boat I have in mind.)

My father once told me that he never felt truly at home in any house that wasn’t built directly on the water’s edge. Lucky for him, he managed to live in a series of such houses over the years, including one in Westport, Connecticut that was blown away by the great New England Hurricane of 1938.

My father never forgot that lesson in the pitfalls of oceanfront construction. And while it didn’t stop him from buying and living in a series of waterfront properties in the decades that followed, it did provide a theme for the last book he would ever write.

My father’s book was animated by an odd mix of simmering outrage and wistful envy. He disapproved of the way that Americans had developed (and overdeveloped) their eastern coastline. But he also loved that coastline, including its grand houses, cozy shacks, and countless beachfront hotels. My father found much to love in an undisturbed coastal marsh, but nearly as much in a decrepit boardwalk.

In the early 1990s, as my father was writing The Coast, the folly of oceanfront living had been obvious for decades, perhaps centuries. (There was a reason that colonial sea captains generally chose to avoid building their houses directly on the water; they understood the ocean’s dangers all too well.)

But shorebound Americans — including my father — were simply too smitten with the beach to forswear its residential charms. The resulting dissonance is obvious throughout The Coast, which manages to deplore oceanfront development even as it romanticizes it.

It’s no accident, I think, that my father’s jeremiad on the perils of coastal development took shape after he moved a few miles inland. At the risk of sounding churlish, I think the timing of his outrage was more than a little convenient.

Still, my father wasn’t wrong about the dangers — and folly — of coastal development. At the end of the day, the ocean will always have its way with the shoreline, and beachfront structures have a long history of falling into the water.

Today, a quarter-century after my father described the pitfalls of coastal construction, the prospect of disaster is much more immediate and severe. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, while he was writing The Coast, global climate change was not yet the widely understood phenomenon it is today, at least outside scientific circles.

But in 2018, rising sea levels are a matter of real urgency for communities around the world, including those on the east coast of the United States. As the writer Jeff Goodell warned in the title of his 2017 book, the water will come. It’s only a question of how soon and how much.

Which brings me back to my own book. Twenty-five years ago, my father set out to explain how Americans have enjoyed — and exploited — their Atlantic coastline. His goal for the book (besides providing an excuse for myriad trips to the shoreline he loved) was to warn against the perils of overdevelopment.

I have the similar goals for my own book. On a personal level, I want the book to introduce my children to my father — and to enrich my own relationship with both of my bracketing generations.

But because I love the coast as much as my father did, I also want to sound the alarm.

If the coast was in obvious danger 25 years ago, it’s in much greater peril today.

These two goals are not unrelated, of course; the story of the coast is inherently historical and generational. My father bore witness to the degradation of the Eastern coast from his childhood in the 1910s to his death in 2005. I’ve seen similar declines in my 52 years, including the piecemeal destruction of natural wonders (like Long Island Sound) and the commodification of unique waterfront communities (like the Disney attraction formerly known as Key West).

My children will probably live to see still worse tragedies. But at this point, given the reality of global climate change and rapidly rising sea levels, what they’re most likely to witness is the wholesale destruction of long-established shoreline communities — and the creation of an entirely new, dramatically reshaped Atlantic coast.