September Hay

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 11:00am

I live on the Mansion Road, I grew up living on the Mansion Road.

The Searles Mansion burned during school vacation in April of 1963 and in the twenty some years between that time and the purchase of the land and road by the town — with a healthy contribution from Block Island Conservancy — the beach and access to it became, in many minds, public. 

My mother said, around the time of that mid 1980s acquisition, that for all the use “the only people who ever did any work on the road were your father and John (the late John Littlefield, Sr.), and after your father died, only John.” 

Her little diary entries in the late 1970s are laced with conditions of the road, drifted snow making it impassable, spring mud so deep it necessitated leaving the car on the pavement a half-mile walk from the house.

Then the Town purchased the Mansion, and road work was done on a regular basis. All of which I write as background: I consider two months of heavy beach traffic, literally hundreds of trips on a good day, most of which I miss due to my summer schedule, a more than a fair trade-off for the grading and plowing, and this week cutting, that is conducted by the town.

And people are overwhelmingly polite and considerate, they have travelled the road before, they pull over or they cheerfully wave when I am the first one to reach and slide in one of the several wider places where plenty of passing room can be created.

Then, there are always a couple of yahoos. Earlier in the season, as I was coming home, nearing Mansion, I found myself driving behind a bicyclist I would have passed in another location. It would have been silly doing so only to turn down the road immediately thereafter. So, I slowed when I flipped on my blinker, and, sure enough, someone passed me, then the bicyclist as well, then, yes, took that same turn cutting in front of the lady on the bicycle, towing, as I recall, one of those trailers which may or may not have held a little passenger, it is always best to so presume.

I wrote if off to the parking-space-at-the-beach panic, regretting that the driver was enough ahead of me that he missed my own turn up my road, not headed for the same lot as he after all.

Yesterday, on a beautiful September day, I stopped before turning onto Corn Neck, bearing to the right as I always do to improve the line of sight to the south. It was like Wednesday in Winter (the only mid-week dump day, distinguishable by the increased traffic) and I sat, waiting for a clearing. Someone coming from the north had his blinker on, waiting, I presumed, for both that opening and for me to pull out.

He wasn't waiting for me and thus began the exchange I have in my mind once or twice every year, but never initiate: “this is not a two-lane road!” There were no signs, I was told, how were they to know? “It isn't paved with a yellow line down the middle of it!”

In retrospect, I think he and his companion were hearing “this is not a two-way road” and are still wondering the location of the secret access the cranky lady expected them to take to reach the beach. 

Still, there is something about Getting to the Beach that drains peoples’ common sense. Years ago coming out of the Neck, somewhere just south of the Breakers, a car passed a man driving a tractor pulling a hay rake, only to turn into the Scotch Beach parking lot. 

The recent event and that old memory collided when I met the neighbor, driving one of his various old red tractors out of the Neck. It is September and it is late to be haying, unless there is a second cutting, not improbable after this summer of sporadic rain — and one crazy, albeit brief, Biblical downpour — that kept the land from its familiar August dress, seared and dry and hurting. 

But I long ago stopped even guessing at whatever the neighbor is up to when off on one of his collection of aged tractors and the sight might have slipped into the irretrievable memory bank of my mind but for passing Mitchell Farm.

There sat a farm wagon of another late hayer, filled to the top with baled hay, waiting to be put into the big gray barn that sits in a place commanding a view open to the south end of the island as well as over to the New Harbor. It is the same with several other like structures on the island, be they the exceptions, still holding animals and hay and farm equipment, or re-purposed into living spaces.

Some, like the predecessor of the Mitchell Farm barn, were blown away by the hurricane gale of 1938, others fell into disuse and disrepair, and crumbled. Dwellings have been built on a few of the empty foundations, others, like the one on the far side of what I still call my “barnyard” have all but disappeared into the underbrush. 

Another, away from my usual travel, has vanished to progress, taken down to be replaced by a new complex. It had a certain place in history, another of a few gambrel roofed barns, the same that seem elsewhere always to be painted red, at least in children's books and calendars of New England, built to replace ones lost in that 1938 storm that seems always to be lurking this time of year, demanding remembrance.

It had a smaller companion, of the same shape, that was still standing last week, an odd little reminder of another time and another way of life when these tractors and hay wagons and trucks, and before them, horses and wooden rakes, were commonplace, not picturesque exceptions slowing most summer traffic with brief wonder.