They arrive as the first dogwood trees are flowering. They trickle in at first, so few you don’t even notice. They come for the trees, the wide-open spaces, for the first hints of fresh spring air billowing down from the hilltops. You might notice one on the roadside snapping a photo, or another stopped dead in the middle of the road observing wild turkeys scratching at gravel. You don’t think much of it at first. Their arrival can be as gradual as the greening of the hills.
Then one day it’s clear: They’re here. In full force. You’ll be sitting in traffic in high summer heat, at a dead stop, burning your arm on the metal edge of your open window, watching the string of BMWs, Mercedes, and Audi SUVs inch along in the opposite direction. You’ll notice their windows are closed, the people inside clean and smiling against their air-conditioned white leather seats. They are so happy, you realize, to be stuck in your minor traffic jam. This is nothing to them.
Soon you can’t get a seat at your favorite restaurant or a camping spot at the State Forest campground. You wait in line for everything—movies, groceries, the bank. For ice cream, the library, the bathroom. These people who’ve come here to get away from it all don’t realize that they’ve brought it all here. What started as a few innocuous nature-rubberneckers holding up traffic has turned into a constricted throughway, a plaque-filled artery, your small town aching like a congested heart. Tourist season is in full swing.
The summer people are back.
I can’t remember when I first noticed the sign on the interstate. It’s a small, humble billboard near the last exit in Massachusetts heading west on the Mass Pike. It says, The Berkshires: America’s Premier Cultural Resort. Some time in my teens it started to dawn on me that I lived in a tourist town—or more accurately a tourist county—but it was the sort of realization that made me wonder if it had always been that way and I just hadn’t noticed, or if it had slowly been becoming more and more of a destination. In retrospect, it almost seems as though I matured alongside my town’s appeal. But growing up, I couldn’t really see any of this. Leaving and coming back always puts a place in perspective. Driving along the highway and seeing the billboard, it was like we lived at Myrtle Beach or in the Rockies.
We were Boy-Scout-pancake-breakfast and track-meet kind of people rather than out-to-dinner and see-a-play kind of people. We were a typical family in Anytown, USA. On weekends we didn’t really venture out, instead hosting family cookouts, bringing friends and extended family to our swimming pool and back yard that bordered on an extensive cornfield on the outskirts of town. My parents owned a stretch of forest where I played with friends on weekends, and it didn’t quite register then that it was bordered on both ends by two different country clubs. Roaming on old trails through the woods I would suddenly emerge from a hemlock grove onto perfectly green fields, perfectly groomed right up to the edges of the kidney-bean-shaped sand traps. My father recalls that when he was a kid one of the clubs had a sign at its front entrance: No Jews.
The first time I traveled really far from home, far from the East Coast and the Mass Pike and returned, the beauty of the Berkshires struck me. Having known nothing else growing up, I had never really seen the landscape, the way the hills stood out in striking relief against the sky. I had only ever wanted to get out. But once I finally got out and came back I was able to see the place with new eyes, as if for the first time: puffy hills that loomed close together, hiding little valleys and hollows. Old farmhouses perched precariously along streams, which were strewn with boulders causing the water to separate and rejoin in currents like argyle. I had, for the first time, a sense of awe driving on an old windy road on a sunny day and dipping suddenly into the shade beneath an old sugar bush, the 200-year-old sugar maples looming up and over the road like pillars of a great arc. Crumbling and moss-covered stonewalls stretched across hillsides and disappeared into forests; if you followed them they would eventually lead to old apple orchards, the trees gnarled and wily and slowly being reclaimed by a hardwood stand. On any Sunday you can drive through the county, passing for stretches of a time through the sparsely inhabited landscape of open farmland, then emerge suddenly in a small village of charmingly tilted Greek Revival houses, fresh white clapboards over original chestnut beams from the 1800’s, the 1700’s. Always two churches, a general store, a town hall, the buildings separated by a quince hedge or lilacs, children in front yards haranguing passerby’s to buy a cup of lemonade. Sometimes now when I try to describe it I can only come up with the sort of language appropriated by real estate listings and travel brochures: “country charm,” “natural wonderland,” “cultural hotspot,” “award winning view from any window!”
What also struck me as I began to compare my home with others was the tier of life that had been going on over my head as a child, that had been thriving beyond my provincial pancake breakfasts: the old country farms that had been converted into private estates, the elite resorts selling dinners at $200 dollars a plate, the ring of wealth that surrounded my humble small-town existence. I began to notice the “cultural hotspots”—galleries, theater companies, and music venues that I’d never known before. There was so much that had been here all along, almost right at my fingertips, yet that tier also seemed so impossibly distant, like another world flickering just beyond a transparent yet impermeable screen.
You’ve waited on them. You’ve poured their water and brought them their organically raised grass-fed burgers, their locally grown arugula salads, paired with their expensive Italian wine. You usually don’t mind—they can be fantastic tippers. Lord knows you need the money. You’ve brought their food back to the kitchen countless times. “Too salty,” they say. “Too raw.” “It’s just…not what I expected.” It’s hard to know what they were expecting, and generally they can tailor their experience to their liking. If they pay enough, they get what they expect. You’ve made their margaritas, and when they send them back (“Too sweet.” “Too strong.”), you’ve learned to just wait a moment and send the same margarita back, topped off with a little ice. You smile back when they hold up the glass and mouth much better.
You make the beds in their honeymoon suites in an upscale bed and breakfast. You work there because it’s close to your house and you don’t have a car. You’ve cleaned the hair out of their bathtub drains; you’ve scrubbed their toilets. You’ve fixed up their weekend houses; you’ve planted their gardens. “They’re coming up this weekend,” your boss says, and Fridays are always busy, making their place look perfect so that when the summer people step out of their cars into their weekend wonderland their delphiniums stand as straight as sentinels, their floors gleam back their own reflections.
You are the little elf they never have to see.
Smithsonian magazine recently put my hometown, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, as number one on a list of “The 20 Best Small Towns in America.” These sorts of “Best” lists have always confounded me. Best for whom? Best in what way? According to the author, Great Barrington’s best-ness had been determined by a geographic information systems database that searched for “high concentrations of museums, historic sites, botanic gardens, resident orchestras, art galleries and other cultural assets common to big cities.” To keep the database from returning with results like, say, New York City, they “focused on towns with populations less than 25,000, so travelers could experience what might be called enlightened good times in an unhurried, charming setting.” It’s the only mention that the results are geared towards travelers rather than people looking to live in a place. “Best,” according to Smithsonian, means you can find culture in a place. Culture, I suppose, means art—music, paintings, good food, beauty. “There is, we think, something encouraging about finding culture in small-town America.”
When I read the word “encouraging” here, I picture a group of people with sympathetic looks on their faces, clapping their hands and calling, “Come on, you’re almost there! You can do it!” “Finding” implicates they were explorers sent on a mission to find something worthwhile. Expectations were low, so when they found culture, well, that’s encouraging. Who knew? Small towns, it suggests, can be good. The people who live here aren’t just backward inbred bumpkins driving their 4-wheelers (although we are) who think music is whatever the classic rock station plays, or that art is whatever barbed-wire-and-roses design your friend gets tattooed up his calf (although we do). By Jove, we’re civilized!
It’s always my first instinct to bristle as such findings rather than feel pride. “Best” is reserved for those seeking to consume a place. Best is for those who want to spend their money on the best. What about what exists between the “cultural hotspots?” The hotspots are created and maintained for those who come from elsewhere seeking them. This “culture” isn’t honest, I often think. If people didn’t come for the weekend, for the summer, would we still have them?
Best is never holistic. Best is, at best, arbitrary.
It becomes a goal to get away from them. On the weekends you put on a backpack and hike into the woods. You explore the old limestone quarry behind your house, stepping into the dank caves, pressing your hand against the moss that grows like a plush carpet against the walls. You roam up hillsides and beneath hemlock groves where sometimes you find deer skulls—secret stories you put together. You and your friends drive to another old quarry, the one with a rope swing and a deep pool between boulders. Between plunges into the water, you drink beers, downing them before the sun warms them, nestling the bottles between rocks to keep them from tipping over. You stand over the ledge looking into the water, feeling invincible. When darkness comes you and your friends find a crook in the river no one ever visits, build a fire on the cobbles of an old oxbow. Or you go into the woods, into an old cabin, your feet finding the path to its door the way blood makes its way back to a heart. Or on a brisk night after the first frost you all sleep in an old cow pasture, under the stars, your small coterie invulnerable, all of you protected by your connection to one another, by your connection to the land you lie on. You revel in all the secret places you know and gloat. These are your enlightened good times. This, you think, they cannot buy. They can come, but they can’t ever belong.
Even if tourism seemed to blossom in my county as I grew up, there’s been a strong tradition of “outsider wealth” in the Berkshires. It was after 1869, writes Chard Powers Smith in his 1947 book The Housatonic: Puritan River, “that tallyhos in force poured tooting down into the valley beyond the mountains, when the tanks of new wealth began to knock down the old farms all over the place, and the Puritan tradition seemed to be dangerously threatened.” He refers to wealthy mansion-builders as “invaders,” their buying and building upon the land as “attack,” as “golden invasion.”
A particular wave of new wealth, happening from the 1870’s through the early 1900’s, was especially ostentatious and frivolous—people building grand houses, frequently shifting “towers, trees and bridges” to augment their property; women powdered their hair with gold dust; there were baronial terraces and private menageries and staffs of over 100 for a single estate. “Vaguely the new rich, or the ignorant majority of them, knew that there was some incongruity between them and their money, that somehow it made them smaller instead of larger as human beings,” Smith writes. “It did not occur to them to consider their farmer neighbors and their servants as their human equals and economic wards, because that would have taken self-confidence.”
He refers to the locals, the people who settled the Berkshire towns of the Housatonic River valley as Yankees, or sometimes as Puritans. His book builds to an idealistic plea, that “there will be more permanent residents and fewer transient visitors,” and “that the transients and the big rich alike will find more attractive haunts elsewhere.” He ends the second to last chapter with the hope that inhabitants ward off industrial threat and proposed pleasure parks for “urban barbarians,” as if each were an equal threat to the local livelihood. Together, he urges, they can “resist the world conqueror.”
Sixty-five years later, despite the nearly xenophobic tone of his words, the sentiments of Smith’s book are strikingly similar to how many of the local people still feel. On one end, we’re very community oriented, making the effort to be sustainable and self-sufficient. On the other end, we’re wary of outsiders, still mistrustful of wealth and transients. Even though many here grow their own vegetables and milk, even though we have sustained our “culture” and agrarian tendencies, our economy is still largely dependent on outsiders, on catering to people who come here then go away again.
Yet there’s that feeling of subservience. A feeling I can’t quite pin down that stems more from my gut than from any rational understanding. Many of us don’t want to feel dependent on tourism, and perhaps it has to do with that façade of what a place really is, how the tourism in a town—whether Disney World or an upscale spa—doesn’t acknowledge the permanent residents, or somehow makes it seem like we only exist to serve. So even though Smith’s tone comes across as though maybe he should just get over himself, I get some satisfaction in reading his words.
In your neighborhood, you like to walk across the bridge and over the river, which once held numerous paper mills and saw mills. The foundations of the old industry still crumble along the banks, a reminder that the economy has shifted several times over the centuries. There were larger mills on bigger rivers, and those shut down, too.
On the other side of the river, you leave behind the well-kept old farmhouses and wander into rougher territory. Up the hill the houses’ foundations warp back to the shape of the land. The yards are a mix of plastic statues, chainsaws, autos and auto parts, dogs on short chains, bouncy horses, firewood, rusted frames and garbage cans. For years, one yard played host to a vast lawn mower collection. Now a lone rabbit in a small hutch lives there. A strange smell emanates from one of the houses you walk by regularly, and you begin to wonder if there’s a methlab in the basement. Plastic frames the windows. People struggle.
When the village was first settled, schoolchildren were so poor they didn’t have good shoes, or any shoes, and they lost toes to winter’s cold. You’ve seen old photos of the hardscrabble children, their malnourished gazes squinting at the camera lens—a contraption that must have been a wonder. How far we’ve come, you might think. But then, maybe not.
Along the roadside in midsummer, the brilliant orange jewelweed flowers eke their way up through the thick blanket of poison ivy. When you were a kid, someone told you to rub jewelweed on your skin if you have an encounter with poison ivy, the oils of one leaf combatting the other. The two plants grow like companions, up through the gravely cracks on the side of the road.
Growing up and moving away (although I always return), traveling to new places, I’ve relinquished some of my local’s grip on my hometown. I’ve felt the urge, when being in a foreign place, to understand it as well as the people who live there. There’s part of me that knows I never can, but it never stops me from wanting it. In New Zealand, I yearned to navigate a bay in a boat the way a local fisherman might. In Alaska I craved being able to look at a river and know about spawning cycles, or what the weather’s doing a hundred miles upstream. In the West to know the landscape well enough in order to navigate by features alone—go left at the butte, continue straight until you find the mouth of the canyon where the giant sycamore grows. Traveling, ironically, makes me crave home, to be in a place I know so well.
In Ecuador some years ago, I stayed with the family of my partner at the time. Every afternoon we sat in the balcony of his abuelita’s apartment, which overlooked the town’s central plaza. It was a quaint colonial town, the buildings in shades of lavender, mint green, cherry, and orange. His abuelita would point out all the people she knew, calling hello down to cousins and friends. Aunts and uncles would visit, sitting in chairs lined up along the balcony, the aunts bearing tiny gifts of plastic beaded bracelets and earrings. We all made small talk, and then sat silently when we ran out of things to say, staring down at people passing by. It was the closest I’d come to really knowing a foreign place. Guidebooks made mention of the town’s brilliant colors, or the thousands of steps built into the steep hillside, of the beautiful church—but we had insider knowledge. And it was so unbelievably mundane. Perhaps to really know another place is to know the ins and outs of daily routine—not what makes a place the best, but what makes it what it is.
Perhaps much of small-town America really is bleak. Boring, run-down places strangled by strip malls, chain restaurants, devoid of beauty. Who can argue with locally grown organic produce, with art? Even if the definition of what’s “good” culture is arbitrary, we instinctively know that it’s good to have it. Yet I still bristle, because it’s assumed that there’s no culture in a small town. You really can’t understand anything about a place by entering a few search items into database and seeing what comes up. A town could, on the surface, appear ugly and devoid of life, but what do you really know of a place until you strip the layers away and see how the people connect? I think that might be a better definition of culture—what people create when they come together. What does it matter if it’s worthy of hanging on galleries in SoHo? Why does the production need to be of Broadway standards?
And then, there’s the reverse—the assumption that the “culture” that puts my town on the map actually makes it a better place. To look beneath the surface, this town and its neighboring towns aren’t much different from Anytown, USA. We live the same mundane lives. We struggle through the same problems—poverty, addiction, pollution (for 40 years General Electric dumped PCB’s into our area’s largest, most beautiful river). In the winter, some restaurants close. Shows don’t come through. We’re out of work and we mope and hang tight until spring—something will come through soon, we say. Things will look up when the trees start flowering. Best is a fair-weather friend, here for the summer then out again when the frost sets in.
America’s Premier Cultural Resort. Resort implies getting away from it all—especially people. Resort implies an Edenic retreat, escape from the mundane problems of daily life, a plush paradise and blank slate for visitors to work out their woes, to brush off their stress—there only for their comfort and enjoyment. Yet as long as there are workers there to do the pampering, complete escape is impossible. Perhaps this is a plea—in a slightly different key than Smith’s—for awareness. For a place not to be worth its statistical analysis as produced by a database, nor an empty Eden. But for it to be evaluated in all its strata—for the classical music and the classic rock, for the Mercedes and the 4-wheelers, for the waffle fries and the foie gras. To see the mundane within the exceptional, and vice-versa.
Their exit is nothing like their entrance. You awake one morning to quiet. The air is clear and sharp with the first hint of wood smoke. The leaves have fallen. The beauty has left, they might say, the trees going out in style with their flamboyant array. The finale of tourist season is as grand as the fireworks at Tanglewood.
It’s like someone turned off a stereo that’s been on for so long you forgot the noise was there. It’s a new quiet, an entire under-story of subtle sounds, and you readjust. You stretch your arms in the space, step slowly outside into the gray world of late autumn. Trees stretch leafless against the white sky, spread dendritically like ink-lines on a blank page. Bleak, they might call it. Lifeless. But to you it’s just different. It’s the skeleton, bare bones spared of flesh. It’s the scaffolding, you think, which holds up all that other beauty.