In the 2013 edition of Best American Travel Writing, Elizabeth Gilbert notes the two most important facts she’s learned about travel writing:
- There is no story in the world so marvelous that it cannot be told boringly.
- There is no story in the world so boring that it cannot be told marvelously.
In fact, she includes Daniel Tyx’s essay about the year he did not travel in the anthology and it is stunning.
In that vein, I am practicing my travel writing with the small trips I take. Not necessarily to the grocery store, but outside of Manhattan, outside of New York. Anywhere I can deem “away”. I want to tightly wind my writing skills now so that when I do take my long, impressive journeys, I’ll be able to unspool and write long, impressive essays.
I bring you the first of many efforts.
Independence on Fire Island
We’re walking behind a woman close to my age and a little girl, her backpack strapped on tight. Winding footpaths are the roads here and we pass no cars and no bikes, just the slender toned legs of the men who live and rent here. We’re a group of 7 and I am the only woman. Our host, a friend of my boyfriend’s from a gay water polo league, leans in to speak to them. I’m only half listening as we round the paths and pass more toned bodies jogging and walking small dogs. I can see the ocean past the houses being rebuilt post-Sandy, and it seems everyone is planning to come back better than before.
Somehow I piece together that our host knows the little girl and her mother, who is not present, and we’re all going to the same place. From her stance and hurried walk I know the woman in her twenties must be the child’s nanny. I remember my own days of watching two young boys and the joy I felt when I could walk them without struggle and the hidden fear that this could change at any moment. I could see she was trying to get the little one home in this perfect state.
We walk into a fenced yard that is sunken beneath the boardwalk and in full bloom with plants I don’t remember the names of; I feel for the first time slightly out of place. Not as the only straight woman on this weekend jaunt outside of Manhattan, but as someone who still refuses to dry clean clothing because it is expensive and nothing I own is worth it.
Yes, dry cleaning comes to mind when I look upon a structure that is not just a nice home, but a abode worthy of the pages of Architectural Digest. Fully erect and recovered from the storm, it is explained to me as we pass through and out to the deck, that theirs is the only home around with a surviving pool. Houses to our left and right sit bare, their pools and decks ripped away from them forever by Sandy. That is no exaggeration. The government has ruled that no new pools can be put in after the storm. Not even replacements. So not only am I lucky to be here, period, but I am lucky to be in the single remaining home with a pool.
After an aggressive jump in the ocean of 4 foot waves and temperatures that send my skin receding back to the bone, we find ourselves sunning on the deck, sipping tequila and grapefruit, and dipping in and out of the pool. I lay out, watching the nanny and the grandmother play in the pool with the little girl, fully appreciating the warm sun and that the 5th of July was all mine. We munch fresh, cold salads of all sorts– noodles, lettuce, tomato– and wrap up the afternoon with large shots of tequila. I have to laugh and I have to take it.
It is July 5th, after all, and we were going to the Invasion of the Pines. Traditionally on the 4th of July, the party was held a day to avoid rain showers. The Invasion has been a tradition for almost 40 years, ever since a drag queen was denied entry to a Fire Island bar. She returned that fateful July 4th with all of her drag friends to storm the bar and gain entry. The Invasion is reenacted every year now, with so many Queens involved that the ferry tilts under their weight. We make our way to the docks on a much clearer day than the one previous, and join the half dressed revelers already drunk and singing and waiting. Waiting for the Queens to arrive.
And in they come, they wave and we cheer and camera phones snap. Even the cops at the boat beside ours snap photos. The ladies are announced one by one as they descend from the steps. The process slowly relieves the boat of its weight. There are gowns, and sequins, and parasols, and wigs of all colors. Kimonos and scarves flutter in the wind and we catch sight of a Cruella De Vil. On to the red carpet they dash and dance and then take off to the Sip n’ Twirl to drink and dance and join the rest of us. When they’ve finished, we descend our own boat to take photographs of those we can catch. They’re gone just as quickly as they come and my photos feel few and far between.
We later take the ferry back to the mainland. Leaving the partiers to party and the tequila to sit on the shelf. It was the most American Fourth of July I’ve ever had.