To Vacation: A Lost Verb Reclaimed

Southeast Light is a Block Island landmark.
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The skyline of New York City is fading in the blue haze, below and behind me, and I am headed home. Is it possible? I am pretty sure I just vacationed.

For decades, when we took a notion to travel (or far more often the case, were compelled by obligation to do so) it was to visit Ann’s folks, or mine. Then, time off was to take one of the kids to college, to visit them at college, or entertain them at home on breaks and holidays.

Less frequently now, we travel to see Ann’s 95 year old dad, my mom, our kids and their kids–far-flung and getting along right well a half-continent away without our oversight or help save for the occasional grand-baby sitting.

So when my college buddy, Steve, invited me to visit him in New York, I reckoned I was about four decades past due this kind of travel I’d been denying myself. It was okay, I tried to convince myself, to enjoy time with a friend in a fun place. Deferred gratification is a crazy notion at my don’t-buy-green-bananas stage of life, after all.

But I was concerned that Steve’s agenda for two sixty-somethings was more appropriate for the fit and resilient me he remembered from college than the wimpier and more arthritic me with grandchildren. I hated to tell him: I am no longer the Energizer Biologist.

We would kayak down Rhode Island’s Narrow River to the ocean one day, Steve told me enthusiastically and without concern, and the next, take bikes on the ferry to Block Island about three hours from his home in Westchester County north of The City. A co-worker friend of his from work had a condo we’d be able to use as a base for three days. We’d gorge on seafood. It would be great, he said. And he was right.

However, I was not comfortable with kayaking, mistakenly having thought my canoeing experience would make me a natural. Like a fish on a bicycle. Had we not been fighting both the tide and the wind that first half hour, I’d have been less apprehensive, my initial exhilaration far greater. Discovering quickly that the river was generally no deeper than my knees in most places was reassuring. I have long since gotten over my youthful illusions of invincibility, but it didn’t take long to relax into the effort of muscles long unused at my writing desk, and to be thrilled by the mild risk of this uncommon adventure in a picture-postcard setting with a good friend.

The destination of our paddle that day was the half-mile long sandy spit where the river meets the Atlantic–the place we would take out, have lunch and explore. The flow was stronger here than any seaside current I’d known–an order of magnitude stronger than the undertow of childhood beaches that infamously sucks the unwary child out to sea. So when Steve invited me to plunge intentionally into this rush of water and allow the torrent to carry us like hunks of driftwood a quarter mile towards the rocky crashing-wave islands just off shore, I balked.

But after a dozen ten-year-olds body-surfed past us in this gushing current, I got braver and decided to go with the flow. The river swept me away, and then the waves washed me back into shore with the shells and seaweed. It didn’t matter that a gull stole my sandwich while I was thus at sea. What a rush!

The next day, we ferried two bikes to Block Island and there traversed 12 miles in the rain and hiked a couple more to the north lighthouse along the rocky beach, gulls wheeling and scolding overhead. Bike seats are still the anatomical insult I remembered, and I really thought I’d be so sore the next day I would at least whine a lot, even if able to walk. Nope, I’m made of sterner stuff at 62 than I had thought, even after too many tame years since the kids fledged and I started acting my age.

So I have discovered that I remember how to recreate. I can vacation! I have a new confidence in my bones. I still feel the common bond to this good earth with my friend that drew us together to discuss Thoreau over a bottle of wine for the first time more than 40 years ago. And I am now disabused of the notion that there could not be the least reason for anyone in the far-northern state of Rhode Island to own a bathing suit. Ocean State, indeed. And I’ll be back.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I am glad those 10 year olds body surfing gave you the courage to go with the flow. It sounds thrilling, even if 10 year olds can do it. The whole trip sounds wonderful, especially having your own private tour guide rather than a lot of strangers shepharded by a burned out pro tour guide.
    Now you owe us an explanation about your South Dakota daughter. Are you sure she was on The Tonight Show? We didn’t see her.

  2. Atta Boy Fred!

    Thanks for a refreshing review of possibility fulfilled. You have a good friend that had more confidence in you than you did.

    Welcome home when you get here.