Seaside towns are magnets for tourists during the peak of summer. But when the temperatures drop, the tourists fall away and the towns return to themselves for the winter months. It’s during this off-season when travel writer Ken McAlpine decided to tour these places and experience the local way of life. Host Steve Curwood talks with McAlpine about his new book "Off-Season: Discovering America on Winter’s Shore."
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Every summer, up and down the east coast, tiny little beach towns brace for the seasonal tide – not of the ocean, but of tourists. For three months out of the year otherwise sleepy hamlets grind into carnival gear as beachgoers descend on souvenir shops and try to snag a surfside strip.
Writer Ken McAlpine took a tour of these coastal tourist traps. But instead of an extended vacation during the height of the sight-seeing rush, he decided to see these towns without the tourist garnishes. His book is called “Off-Season: Discovering America on Winter’s Shore” and he joins me now. Welcome Ken.
McALPINE: Thanks for having me, Steve, I’m really thrilled to be here.
CURWOOD: So, you like to torture yourself, huh? You like to go to the most fun places of the summer in the middle of winter, at least when it’s too cold to have any tourists, huh?
Author Ken McAlpine (Photo: Kathy McAlpine)
McALPINE: Well that’s true. I’ve always had sort of that twisted outlook on things, ‘cause I think you remember them longer. I mean, if you went to Miami Beach and spent a day on the beach, what would there be to remember? But if you paddled in Maine you might remember how your fingers didn’t work for the next six hours.
CURWOOD: Could you map out for us your route? And why you picked the different destinations that you did pick?
McALPINE: Sure, I’d be happy to. I started in Key West, Florida, and I finished in Lubec, Maine. And it took me five months. I started in October and I finished in, roughly, March. And as I was traveling I went south to north. I don’t know how many people said, “Why are you going north? I mean, what kind of idiot are you?” Because it gets colder.
But I grew up on the East Coast and I worked for eight years as a lifeguard in a town called Ocean City, New Jersey. And to make a long story short, I spent eight summers there and I lived there year-round for four years, and I saw how the seasons changed and the town changed. And the town sort of returned to itself in the fall and the winter – a real sense of community.
So I figured that that’s probably what might happen in some of these small coastal communities when I passed through them in, say, January, February, March. Especially the northernmost communities, when the harshest portion of winter had just squatted upon that community and unleashed all its fury.
CURWOOD: You went to a lot of small towns that are often, usually overwhelmed by tourists in the summer. And you met some pretty amazing and stalwart characters (laughs). Talk to me about George Baker. This is the guy who was doing the salt marsh diving in Georgia. Now, how does somebody like George fit in with his community? And describe for our listeners who George is, and what exactly he was doing.
McALPINE: Sure. George Baker was a gentleman first of all, I must say. He grew up -- I think he arrived on St. Simon’s, Georgia, when he was about ten years old. And I think he’s in his mid-50s now. So he grew up on St. Simon’s, and he’s a good old local boy. He’s got the build of a linebacker that’s sort of gone to seed. He’s got a bit of a belly, and he’s got a big drawl. But he’s got a heart of gold.
His job, I think since about 1967, has been rescue and recovery. So what he does is what his title says -- he basically plucks stuff out of the Georgia Marsh. And few things absorb things better than the Georgia Marsh. So over the course of his career I guess the standard operation would be a fouled prop in a shrimp boat or something. I mean, the shrimp boat might get fouled in its own net, it might get fouled on something it ran over. And George goes into pitch blackness with sledge hammers and pliers and he frees these props.
But the thing that struck me so much about a lot of these people, Steve, is they had just kind of consummate common sense. George will recover anything for a fee. He’ll recover, you know, if you lose a pair of sunglasses in the marsh or whatever. And he told me a story, and it’s in the book, about a tourist who came to him frantic because he lost a gold and diamond Rolex.
Well, what the tourist doesn’t know about St. Simon’s Island is that – you know, George, first of all, promised him, “I guarantee you. You tell me where you lost it.” And the guy said, well, he was somewhere off this dock. “I guarantee you I’ll find that watch.” And so this guy’s probably thinking, “well, lordy, that water’s blacker than midnight, you know, this guy’s a genius!” So George sends him on his way and says, “I’ll have it to you by tomorrow.”
Well, what the tourist probably doesn’t realize – and George knows from lifelong experiences – is that the tides in Georgia are huge. Six to ten feet difference between low and high. So George goes home, has a couple beers, waits till 3 a.m. when the tide goes out, and then walks out and picks up the Rolex.
McALPINE: So it’s that sort of common sense. But on the flip side, too, part of his job is sad, and it’s to recover bodies from the swamp; car accidents and that sort of thing. And he went to all kinds of extremes to find bodies for families so they would have some sense of closure. He’s a good-hearted fella with a supreme sense of common sense. And he was typical, Steve, of the kind of person I ran into. I mean it was just uncanny. And I think part of that is … it wasn’t luck, it’s just that there’s a lot of these folks that have – and I hate to use the word--escaped, but they’ve gone to these small communities because it’s a place where you can still be an individual. People just tend to accept people more in a smaller community, their quirks, probably because they have to. But, you know, the Georges, they’re multiplied ten-fold in places like – and St. Simon’s isn’t small anymore, unfortunately, it’s been discovered just like large parts of our coastline, and that’s another theme in the book. But individualism thrives in these places, and George, he’s up and down the coast in various way, shape or form.
CURWOOD: In your travels, where did you see what felt like over-development?
McALPINE: Ah, when I passed through the Outer Banks I went through Hatteras -- which fortunately has been saved since large parts of it are national seashore -- but then into places like Nag’s Head and Duck. And I’d been there in college, I went to the University of Virginia twenty-something years ago, and I saw the change when I came through. I picked up local newspapers and I saw ads for summer rentals where – and I saw these places with my own eyes from the outside – where there’d be seven bedrooms, five with Jacuzzis, one with two Jacuzzis, built right on the beach.
CURWOOD: And it’s not the locals who live in these large houses.
McALPINE: No, it’s not. It’s not. And they’re fighting tooth and nail to try to keep these places from being constructed, but it’s a tough, tough thing to fight. I mean, on St. Simon’s Island, George Baker told me, you know, all the good ole boys, they’re almost all gone. And the reason for that is when you’ve been earning $20,000 a year and somebody comes up to you with two million dollars and says, I’ll take your property, here’s the check, that’s a hard thing to resist. But, on the optimist side, I drove around St. Simon’s – which, actually, it’s probably too late for St. Simon’s, it’s still a beautiful place, but it’s a lot of planned communities and gold courses. There were signs tacked to the trees that said “Don’t Ask – Won’t Sell,” so there are still some people that look beyond the checkbook. And I’m not faulting people who accept those checks because those people have had a hard life and I don’t know what I’d do if somebody walked up to me and offered me two million. It’d be a difficult decision. And that sort of encapsulates the problem that faces the coast.
CURWOOD: Now, how much self-awareness do these beachfront towns have about themselves? And, in particular, I’m thinking about, you know, how they all grouse about “the summer people” --
CURWOOD: -- but if the summer people didn’t come, they wouldn’t be putting food on the table, and gas in their car, and piling up the shekels to think about retirement. So, how do they deal with that?
McALPINE: You know, it really is a love/hate relationship. In the fall, they are supremely relieved. I mean, they’re literally pushing people across the bridge ‘cause they want their town back. When I lived in Ocean City, New Jersey, I saw this personally. I mean, we couldn’t wait for the tourists to leave. And they were especially my life’s blood ‘cause I worked as a lifeguard, and then I worked in the casinos at the health club. By the end of the summer, we were sick to death of the tourists. By winter, we were still pretty happy with ourselves, you know, by December, it was still really nice to stand in the middle of the street and have a conversation, or go surfing and there’d be two other people out and you’d know ‘em both. By March, you were pretty much on your hands and knees hoping to see some unfamiliar faces and a little bit of activity. So, I don’t think they actually bite the hand that feeds them, at least not confrontationally. But sure, it would drive me crazy if my town suddenly had 400 people in the line at the post office.
CURWOOD: Now, Ken, it seems to me that the city was almost invented for the loner. You can get quite a bit of privacy in the huge crowd. But in a small town if you step back from people, people notice. And there’s a person in your book, I think his name is Tim Marshall, he’s the law on Tangier Island. And he stays apart from the community, I guess to have the authority to enforce the law. Why do you suppose he chooses to lead a life like that, in such a small, wonderful place – the folks there said that this is heaven on earth, that Tangier is the one place that they’d like to be. He chooses to be there but not be with the folks.
McALPINE: Tim was probably, of all the people I met, the one I admired the most. He’d grown up on Tangier. Tangier is a really small island in the Chesapeake Bay. It’s the sort of place where a family goes back eight generations. He chose to be a marine policeman, and this is an island that still … tourism is big in the summer but in the winter it’s all about fishing, it’s all about crabbing, it’s all about oystering. This is their livelihood. And Tim is basically policing what amounts to -- in many cases literally -- his own brothers, relatives, uncles.
He knows everybody on the water and he’s in such a difficult position. He either does his job, or everybody runs roughshod over him. And he is fair to a T. He lets everybody know where he’s coming from, and he has fined his brothers, uncles, you know, caught them on the wrong side of the border, levied heavy fines. You know, but a fine that will break a fisherman who’s having a struggling year. But he chose, and he stayed on this island where he was often ostracized. I mean, there was a place on the island called The Double Six, which was sort of the fishermen’s hangout; Tim is not welcome there. And he would ride by on his bicycle – most people ride bicycles, the island’s so small – and some of the fishermen turned their backs to him.
But, in the end, I think he was, if not always liked, respected. I rode back on the mail boat -- which is the only boat that can get you to and from the mainland at that time of year, and I just barely got out of there before the whole island froze in -- and I was sitting across from a fisherman. And he says to me, you know, “what are you doing here on our island?” And I said to him – they speak sort of this strange mix of Billy Carter and Elizabethan English, it’s really a beautiful language -- and I told him what I was doing, and that I spent time with Tim Marshall.
And you know, I knew, I was fairly certain that in the 18 years he’d been a marine policeman he’d probably busted this guy, ‘cause these guys are stretching the law, shall we say, to make a living for their families. They’re not averse to stretching the law, and I think I might do the same. And I told him I was spending time with Tim, and he looks me in the eye and he said, “Tim’s far, Tim’s far.” Which means, Tim’s fair. And I thought “right you are.” But he stuck by his guns and chose the life he did.
CURWOOD: So, you’re living back on the West Coast. I’m wondering, could you have written this kind of book going up and down the California, Oregon and Washington Coast?
McALPINE: I can’t really say about the Washington and Oregon Coast because I’m not that familiar with it, but I think the California coast, number one, doesn’t have the history, and number two, has too many transplants, like me! I don’t doubt that the place is full of characters, but I don’t think that there’s the same sense of history. And I think there’s a sort of seamless history that insinuates itself across the East Coast where, obviously, that sense of history doesn’t exist in the West.
CURWOOD: “Off Season: Discovering America on Winter’s Shore” is Ken McAlpine’s latest book. Ken, thanks so much for taking this time with me today.
McALPINE: Thanks for having me, Steve, its been a real pleasure and I really appreciate it.
[MUSIC: Jimmy Buffett “Bananaland” BANANA WIND (Margaritaville – 1996)]