A Not-So-Relaxing Getaway
I recently saw a Banana Republic ad of two young people walking down a road strangely reminiscent of the first scene from Breaking Bad, the woman staring out into the sky and the man gazing down at what are likely his very stylish boots. Chukkas are in, you know. In the background was a beautiful southwestern landscape. While I wondered what brought these two sartorial angels to the middle of an abandoned road, I never exactly wondered what it would be like to live in the ‘enchanted’ world of a Banana Republic ad.
During a recent family vacation to Cape Cod’s Chatham Bars Inn, I was thrust into that world.
I was moving to Boston for grad school with my family who (bless their heart) took time out of their busy, busy lives to help me lug a sofa sixteen floors up the thinnest damn staircase on the East Coast, only to have to break it in half to get it through my apartment’s even smaller entryway. We were tired. The stress of moving erupted through some venomous arguments (I’m sorry, Mom). We needed a vacation. We went to the Chatham Bars Inn, the Quintessential Cape Cod Experience.
We had been here once before — 13 years ago, on a family trip to Boston. The hotel had undergone millions of dollars in renovations, but I, who was admittedly not very conscious at the tender age of ten, noticed just one difference. An old red brick sign near the beach with the hotel logo had been painted white.
Oh yeah. There is a massive sand bar that protects Chatham Bars’ little inlet from the pounding waves of the Atlantic. It used to be home to a few dozen cottages, but most were wiped out after winter storms a couple years ago. One remains on stilts; the federal government’s annexing of the land guarantees that no more will be built again.
Our fellow guests mill about sporting their own variations on the theme ‘nautical.’ My brother whispers, “I’ve never seen so many hot white girls before.”
Dinner at the “clam bake” near the beach. It’s a buffet; clams are no longer actually baked on the sand here. The clam bake goes down every night at Chatham Bars. Two leathery men take turns playing the best of Jimmy Buffett and The Eagles. The seafood is as fresh and rich as you’d hope it to be. Unexpectedly, the two men bust out a rendition of “Redemption Song”. A man sits alone at a four-person table next to us, continuously on the phone while taking breaks to flirt with a young woman when she passes by. I discover that I like Swordfish.
Around eleven, we throw on our sweaters and hit the beach. The absence of light pollution opens up a brilliant tapestry of stars above us. My dad and I, cigars in hand, lay down in the sand just in time to observe the longest-lived shooting star I can remember. I didn’t even see stars like this at the Dark Sky Park in northern Michigan. We talk about life. It’s a beautiful night. Nobody else is out on the beach.
Suddenly, the screams of a hundred seagulls shatter silence that frames these million points of light. We were told there are sharks in the water. The birds wail for about 10 minutes, and then they stop. A pulse of commotion, bookended by peaceful twilight.
Hotel employees like to tell guests that the offshore topography was shaped by “The Perfect Storm” of 1991. Apparently it’s a movie?
We wake up to a commotion floating off the inlet. It’s a symphony of maniacally barking seals. They are clustered a couple hundred feet offshore, on a sand bar revealed by low tide. If I were a sea creature and survived a night without being mauled by a shark, I’d do the same.
Dad and I decide to go kayaking. We pass by an organized activity for children. About six of them sluggishly kick a ball back and forth. A thin kid wearing a De Gea jersey (and gloves!) stands off to the side with his little brother in a Messi kit. Two hotel employees, no older than I, struggle to put together a couple of soccer nets. All the kayaks are rented out for the morning.
We take the L and get breakfast on the hotel porch. The deck looks like the setting of a Cialis commercial. I’m wearing a red linen shirt and white linen shorts. Most of the men around me are wearing essentially the same thing. I feel like we’re in the waiting room at casting call.
I walk with my mom to the spa, where she has an appointment. We pass a number of Inn-owned cottages, one with its door open, revealing a dad and his son taking apart a bike. Judging from the father’s sweaty athletic wear, he just came back from a ride. He’s wearing a Bluetooth on his ear. His son struggles to remove a pedal and throws his hands up. “I want that pedal in my hand, Dylan. We never quit, Dylan.” A few minutes later, when I’m returning alone from the spa, the dad is standing alone over his bike. “I love it when Dylan decides to help me!”
My father and I decide to explore the massive offshore sandbar. The hotel employee (cool guy, studies Marine Affairs at University of Rhode Island) driving the boat tells us that the sandbar was created by “The Perfect Storm” of 1991. Barefoot (a bad, bad idea), we cross a bed of white-hot seashells, abandoned by low tide, to see the real ocean on the other side.
Seagulls man the highest points along the coast like forts, from which they launch themselves, just feet above the earth, in search of their lunch. The birds stand adjacent to the Atlantic, who throws countless assaults on their position; a ceaseless war. These waves will knock you down if you aren’t careful. We lie down safely away. I crack open my copy of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. We’re asleep within an hour. I awake to a wave crashing up my legs and nearly ruining my book. How the sea crawls with terrifying haste!
The next morning, Dad and I are able to snag a kayak. We ride out to get a close look at the sausage-shaped sea dogs whose barks we can hear from our room. They’re curious and adorable creatures. When they aren’t swimming, they huddle together on a sand bar to protect what appear to be the elder females of the pack. In the water, they like to poke their heads above the surface and leap to their sides when they want to dive. It turns out that I love seals.
A man in a motorboat holding some 40-odd tourists who want to see what we came to see tells us that we’re getting too close to the seals.
Before turning back, we see a figure on a mucky sand bar, bent over and clawing at the earth. We paddle over and ask him some questions. He’s a clam digger! He seems a little annoyed by our presence but kindly answers our questions. Why isn’t anyone rebuilding houses on the sand bar?
“Because the government doesn’t want you to walk anywhere these days.”
We paddle back to shore. A seal follows us home. He bobs up and down like he’s tied to a fishing pole. We lock eyes. He timidly flares his nostrils and snaps his head back into the water.
Afternoon. It’s hot. I’m reading a book in a broad wooden chair on the bluff. Four young men, each wearing a checkered button up shirt or a checkered blazer and three of them wearing socks with anchors on them sit down to my right. They aren’t much older than me. They’re drinking old fashioneds the same color as their Wayfarer sunglasses. I want an old fashioned. They joke about their lives in various east coast cities. One openly worries about the upcoming birth of his first child. “Man, I’m gonna need a line or two to stay up when this kid starts crying.” There is no irony in his voice. His friend sitting closest to me silently turns his gaze to his drink.
Downtown Chatham is two blocks long. Maybe three. For an area packed with tourists, it’s pretty quiet. We had a nice dinner there. There’s an awesome candy shop that makes dark chocolate fudge with sea salt.
Our last day. I go back to the spa to hang out with my mom. I’m going to miss her dearly. Everyone working at this resort is either a kid whose family “summers” in the Cape or an immigrant from another country. Many come from Serbia. They’re all very cordial. I speak to one employee, from Brazil, and eventually ask about the impeachment of Dilma Rouseff. “I don’t get involved in that,” he sighs.
I know that different people want different things out of their vacation. I, like many, want an escape. An escape from the anxiety of my own life. The resort aims to remove you from that reality, sometimes by painting your surroundings in a specific theme. At Chatham, that same theme also happens to paper everyone else’s wardrobe, including my own. The noise around me was cleared away (save that of the seals and surf), but it turns out the noise wasn’t my problem.
I felt this wherever I went. In the faces of each parent whose kids refuse to try the lobster, and in the faces of those very same kids who stand, bored, accompanied by other bored kids, on one of the most beautiful strips of coastline in America. Chatham Bars and similarly-designed resorts offer no relief from my consumption and observation. They offer no relief from the everyday anxiety of being myself.
I realized why that magazine ad made me feel so disoriented. I get away from ordinary life by connecting with something entirely alien to it. I could do that by getting as far away as possible from the resort itself, by losing myself in the infinity of the night sky, in the Atlantic’s seamless horizon, and in the forgetting eyes of a playful seal. Outside in a place like that, how can I simply look down at my feet?
I fell asleep on the drive back to Boston. (Dad, you’re the man for driving). When I woke up, the first thing I saw on the highway was a sign that read No Exit.