It’s just after five o’clock on a potholed stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. I’m in the slow lane, moving along a concrete wall between the road and a back row of mostly dark apartments. Beyond those apartments are more apartments, a long line of giraffe-shaped cranes, and the very beginnings of a New York city morning. Almost exactly a decade after my first trip, I’m back on the road to Martha’s Vineyard. Things are the same and things are different. I’m not 22 and the sun is not coming up over the cold hills of an upstate college town, where long ago I packed a new bike, two suitcases, and the Rand McNally Road Atlas, then drove 404 miles to a town called Woods Hole. There, an editor named Dick Reston had reserved a space on a boat heading to a place where I’d landed a job at a newspaper called the Vineyard Gazette. This drive is four hours instead of eight, a relatively short shot through Flushing Meadows and over Eastchester Bay, past Toys R Us and the Times press, then under a 12-screened EZ PASS display to merge onto Interstate 95. The veritable road to Cape Cod, I-95 is a new runway compared to Route 88, the poorly-maintained upstate trucking route that long ago pummeled my car from Binghamton to Albany, where I-90 meets the Mass Pike, then 495, then 1-95 South, toward the Cape.
Westchester’s dark office buildings are a blur on my left, followed by Connecticut’s commuter rail on my right. As I cross into Rhode Island, the mute sun wetly shines and an unmowed median rises between the north and south lanes. Soon come the first sand washes, pitch pines, ever-dripping trailers, then a castle-looking outlet mall and smattering of nautical-themed license plates.
It’s nothing out of the ordinary for a drive down I-95. Not until the road veers south and passes under the Islands sign for Exit 3. The ramp is still narrow as an alley, and while route 25 east is the same, its small square signs are now big square signs, posted alongside $10,000 litter warnings and racks of kayaks in front of shake-shingled strip malls. Things feel even more familiar on the slow incline to the bridge, up past the putt-putt giraffe to the blurred monoliths ahead. Today’s fog replaces the ocean’s vista with something like a sky ride, and clouds race around my windshield as mist pours through the heating vents.
After the rotary with CAPE COD spelled out in sculpted hedges comes the welcome sight of deep cul-de-sacs of vaguely Cape-style houses, a broken sandy sidewalk no one is walking on, and the gas station where I once filled up on loan from a long-ago friend who still lives here.
The Vineyard boat sign marks the beginning of WHOI territory, with woodsy mansions and long driveways that curve down thick lawns, one of them impaled with a white windmill that most certainly was not there before.
Soon low branches lace together in a canopy overhead, a chute that ends at the boat. I pass the shuttle bus and cross the bike path, winding through woods with smaller houses, one of which rents the darkly-paneled basement apartment where I slept during my brief year in public radio.
Has it been a decade? This car’s a newish Honda instead of a sickly Volkswagen, and I can fill up on a credit card, then pay the bill with my iPhone. And yet my bike’s in the trunk, NPR owes me money, and there’s still an air of excitement for what’s ahead.
Oh. And there’s still a story to file.
The woods end in a square of bright light and I know what’s going to happen. Lawns and houses and trees drop away and everything opens up and there it is — the Island, seven miles out to a thickly glittering windy sea, where a ferry honks its arrival into a port with men in pleated shorts and Steamship polos, yelling at the long line of SUVs, a winding pack across the sandy lot, up the hill to the road where there still stands a sign: Martha’s Vineyard.
Cole Louison is a former reporter for The New York Times and author of The Imposssible.