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Traveling with…Steinbeck

August 30, 2015

A new season, a new filing category.

Travelers leave home in many vehicles, via many routes. Some cover thousands of miles; others move only from one easy chair to another, while turning the pages of a good book.

Late in August I traveled both back in time—to 1962—and looped across America with author John Steinbeck, simply by picking up a paperback copy of Travels With Charley. Though written more than fifty years ago, this classic travel memoir of a man and his poodle, hit the spot more than once with the famed author’s observations about place and journeys. In particular, the following passage, one that comes about middle-in his book, about the time he makes it into the flatlands of the Midwest, resonated especially well with one of my own getaways this summer.

Steinbeck, reflecting on the decades of change he has witnessed, writes:

“It seemed to me that regional speech is in the process of disappearing, not gone but going. Forty years of radio and twenty years of television must have this impact. Communications must destroy localness, by a slow, inevitable process….Just as our bread, mixes and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech….I who love words and the endless possibility of words am saddened by this inevitability. For with local accent will disappear local tempo. The idioms, the figures of speech that make language rich and full of the poetry of place and time must go….no region can hold out for long against the highway, the high-tension line, and the national television.”

In July I took a three-day weekend and a ferry to travel to a part of Virginia long purported to preserve not only a kind of “regional speech” but also a “local tempo” distinctly its own.

Tangier Island, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, still reachable only by boat or airplane, but perhaps even more noteworthy in 2015, still incapable of delivering reliable wi-fi or cell phone service, must feel for many visitors like a true ‘Throwback Thursday.’ With only two overnight options listed on most websites, three restaurants, one museum and far fewer gift shops than a Caribbean cruise stop, Tangier does not appeal to all the hundreds of sight-seers who spill out of the two daily warm-weather ferry runs—one from the Maryland shore, one from Virginia’s mainland.

These days most visitors come for lunch and a golf-cart rental, plus the pleasure of a boat ride over the Bay. Tangier may not have succumbed to the lure of the highways—the few cars on the two-mile long island get there by barge. But the influx of tourists wanting ice-cream cones, crab cakes and photo ops have made inroads on the island economy just as restrictions on the Bay’s crab fisheries and a creeping sea rise have affected its centuries-long tradition of isolated self-sufficiency.

All of which confirms Steinbeck’s sorrows when observing how local accents and flavors can meld into a sameness. But while I was only on the island for a tourist’s weekend, despite staying overnight and longer than most, several island distinctions were still visible nonetheless. For example:

Painted, gearless bicycles. The island is overall flat, with just a few charming bridges rising briefly to carry legs and wheeled vehicles up and over the “guts”—the shallow waterways or ditches, and marshes that separate the island’s main ridges. I rented a bicycle for a couple hours and grinned like an eight-year-old to remember brakes that kick in when you pedal backwards.

Patriotism. Visible in the profusion of flags. Even to the point of planted shells.

Picket fences. White. Iconic. And everywhere.

Cemeteries. Like any geographic location so close to its water table, these were often raised, and true to the remote nature of an island, engraved repeatedly with the same surnames, more testimony to the closeness of family, present and past.

Boats and birds. Islanders may be used to egrets in their front yards, but in-landers are not. The showy white marsh dancers and the darting ocean skimmers will be as familiar on Tangier as my own backyard squirrels and blue jays. The boats and their motors that putt-putt up close and whine away in the distances, might as well be God-given creatures, too, given how Tangier families have cultivated and depended on the water since settling there in the late 1600s.

A historical placard at the Tangier Island History Museum commemorating the lodging at Hilda Crockett’s Chesapeake House attempts to sum up what visitors should remember about Tangier. Credited to Sonny Forbes, and published about the same time as Steinbeck’s Travels, it reads:

To The Stranger Who Walks Our Shores

Step not lightly upon these shores nor cast lighthearted gazes upon our isle…take not a dim view of our dwellings nor laugh at our narrow roads…do not misunderstand our language nor make joke of our native tongue…do not mock our walk or look down upon our quaint ways…for upon these shores have walked men of God, made of fibre woven close for age…and inside these dwellings laughter and love have flowed to make mansions of our homes…our language is that of times past and ages still unknown and our native tongue speaks with truth, understanding and compassion…our walk is that of pride and labor—bent somewhat from our toil but never from shame…our quaint ways may be misunderstood as slow but time is abundant here and wish it not away…and fear not our streets, as narrow they are, for they are roads of welcome to strangers, highways to let all visitors come into our lives, and exit for those who misunderstand us, or mistrust us or wish not our love.

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