Friday, April 25, 2008

Visiting hours

Driving into Rhode Island is anticlimactic. The ocean part of the Ocean State is nowhere near the highway, until you get to Providence. Otherwise, nothing stands out in the landscape. We have no Gateway Arch, Golden Gate Bridge or Statue of Liberty to speak of and even the Big Blue Bug is a 40-minute drive from the southern border (and 20 minutes from the north). The only clues that you've crossed into Rhode Island are a couple of road signs, a pothole or two and the tidy R.I. Welcome Center in the pines of Richmond, located off I-95 before Exit 3.
During a recent visit, a woman who worked on staff but didn't want to be identified said the question most commonly asked by tourists is, "How do I get to Newport from here?" Those looking for information about South County are mostly interested in "beaches and seafood." Summer is the busiest season for vacationers, while truckers make up the bulk of visitors in fall and winter. "You'd be surprised to know how many truckers don't know where they're going," said the unnamed source, Deep Tourist.
Counters built into the doorway keep a running tally of all visitors. Hand-scrawled grids, recording the data for last year, indicated an 11-month total of 377,538 walk-ins. (The page for the August count was missing the day this reporter dropped by. Deep Tourist had no explanation for this, but was confident that the page would turn up eventually.)
"One question we hear all the time is 'How come Rhode Island is called Rhode Island' if it's not an island," Deep Tourist said. "So we inform them that the state's official name is actually the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations and that the Rhode Island part is actually Aquidneck Island, where Newport is, and the Providence Plantations part is everything else, which confuses them even more. But if they ask why it's called the Ocean State, all we have to do is show them a map, and they go quiet when they see all that blue."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ode to the Pier

A couple of times every week, my friend Gavin and I walk the length of the sea wall and the beach at Narragansett Pier. Today the lunchtime crowd included the usual surfers, jet-skiers, high school kids playing hooky, URI coeds in bikinis working on tans, guitar strummers, sketchbook artists, newspaper readers, shell collectors, joggers, dog-walkers and aging sun-worshippers. After a couple of good surfing days, the swells were moderate, but the leisure ranked high on the Cloud Nine/Ghiorse Factor 10 scale.
People have been recording perfect days at Narragansett Pier for two centuries. In the archives section of The New York Times, there's a story with the dateline, "Narragansett Pier," written on June 15, 1877. In the manner of the era, the story is introduced with blurb previews:
The story goes on to report that Narragansett was "discovered" as a summer resort by folks from New York and Philadelphia who tired of the snooty Newport socialite scene. It recounts beach customs such as the 10 to 11 a.m. "bathing hour" when "all go in together." After dinner, everyone played croquet. In the evening, people attended garden parties, bonfire parties and hops. The article also goes into detail about the old South County tradition of "straw parties" - essentially clambakes - made up of young and old, rich and poor. People traveled from all points of South County in large wagons or stages padded with sweet-smelling straw. "Everything at Narragansett is done in a sort of universal picnic style that is very agreeable."
Times have changed, but the simple pleasures and democratic spirit of Rhode Island leisure haven't. In a world of talking heads, screaming headlines and endless white noise, the Pier is still a place where you might find a more rational kind of happiness.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Where's Rhody?

Reader Bob Mulcahey, a Connecticut resident whose family has a summer cottage in Narragansett, sent an e-mail to local media outlets today pointing out an error in Jon Latimer's "1812: War with America," described as "the first complete history of the War of 1812 written from a British perspective." Here's Bob:

"As a former U.S. Army officer in the Corps of Engineers, serious student of military history, and lover of maps, I found this book to be extremely interesting, informative, and well-documented (has ~200 pages of notes). However, having grown up in and prepared surveys/maps in Rhode Island while earning my Mechanical Engineering degree and now having lived in Connecticut for 50 years where I designed and patented jet engine components, I got a chuckle out of the New England map on page 86 because it...completely eliminates Rhode Island."
It's not the first time Rhode Island has been dropped from a map. Cartographers always have trouble fitting our state's name into the little broken rectangle that graphically represents the Ocean State. (Usually they stick us out in the Atlantic somewhere with a line or arrow pointing to the state. Sometimes they cheat with the initials R.I. Occasionally they park us next to a sea serpent or, worse, New York.)

But the simmering resentment has been building. We know that back in the day the British wanted to completely eliminate Rhode Island from every map, mostly for burning their ships and ruining their tea and committing various acts of piracy all over their Union Jacks. As far back as the mid-1700s, Rhode Island was fighting with the Crown. It all came to a head in 1772, when the good folks of Warwick burned the British ship GASPEE, giving Rhode Islanders their own Independence Day anniversary (long before those johnny-come-lately Bostonians) while making the Brits really, really mad. In a London minute, they impressed our sailors (not in a good way), seized our property and, worst of all, put an end to our most lucrative industry: smuggling.

Of course, the whole map thing could just be a typo, but where's the fun in that?

Monday, April 21, 2008

RI via Alaska and Asia

The "size of Rhode Island" hotline is already buzzing. A man whose name was garbled on the voice mail he left in the office tipped us off to a reference on page 32 of the March issue of Field & Stream. In a story titled "Salmon Roulette," writer Kirk Deeter describes how the proposed Pebble Mine in the heart of Alaska's greatest wild salmon and rainbow trout region could devastate one of the world's best fisheries. The article is accompanied by a graphic element in the shape of Rhode Island, overlaying part of Alaska, and the words: "The Pebble Mine footprint could compare in size to Rhode Island."

My father, a daily New York Times reader, passed on the following nugget from the Op-Ed pages, a piece titled "The Baton Passes to Asia," written by Roger Cohen: "The world exists in what Paul Saffo, a forecaster at Stanford University, calls 'punctuated equilibrium.' Every now and again, an ice cap the size of Rhode Island breaks off."

Got size? Rhode Island: It's good for you.