The Terrible Importance of Coffee and Cakes

In visiting various churches throughout the summer I was surprised by many things. Different traditions, different demographics, different scriptural interpretations. But nothing was more shocking or outlandish than the complete absence of Coffee Hour nationwide. For those of you who were not raised with such a tradition, Coffee Hour is the social time immediately following the service. Everyone goes to another part of the church (usually referred to as the Parish Hall) to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea with a selection of cookies and treats brought in by whatever group of parishioners had signed up to bring treats that week. Growing up, this was an absolutely crucial part of church to me. Coffee Hour is the time when I talked with the other people in the community. It was when little kids sold wrapping paper for their school fundraisers, and when everyone got to enjoy a store-bought cake decorated to celebrate whatever birthday or anniversary was just around the corner.

At my current church, Coffee Hour sometimes takes on a life of its own, featuring such feasts as chili cheese dogs or sushi or red beans and rice. But even the smallest Episcopal congregations I’ve visited in my life manage to put together a nice loaf of banana bread and a coffee percolator. But I went to churches all across the country and found nothing. The entire summer I went to exactly one Coffee Hour, and it was at the Second Congregational Church in Newcastle.

When every day involves a journey of 200 miles, it can be hard to find time for church. After my Saturday in Portland I knew I wanted to attend a Sunday service, but I was also in a hurry to get to Acadia National Park. I woke up early to pack up my campsite, and I started down the road. My plan was to drive until about 9:40AM, then start looking for church signs. Most churches have their main service between 10AM and 11:30AM, and I figured eventually I would see a sign for a service that started in 5-15 minutes. That’s where I would go to church.

It was 9:45AM when I saw a church with the main doors open to the street. There were bells ringing and an usher at the door. A small sign pointed to the parking lot. I figured it wouldn’t get any easier or more obvious than this, and I pulled into the lot. I threw a skirt on over my shorts, which had become my standard practice at unknown churches. I never know what kind of place I’m walking into and what the dress code will be, but I know most people won’t take issue with a young woman in a skirt, so long as it covers her knees.

Three different people greeted me as I walked in and took my seat. The building was sparsely decorated but full of small touches. There was an instrumental prelude, and an old man with a box of matches waddled up to light the candles at the front. I saw on the front of my program that I was visiting the Second Congregational Church in Newcastle, which is part of the United Church of Christ. A few gathering words were spoken, followed by a hymn. An older woman carried a notebook up to the front. She had short, brown hair and red-rimmed glasses. She performed a solo for the congregation, “His Eye is On the Sparrow.” She had a lovely voice, but it seemed strange to me because of my previous association with the song. I’d only ever heard Lauryn Hill sing it. In comparison to the emotional, gospel tone of Ms. Hill, the woman in the red-rimmed glasses seemed so rigid, so clear, so proper. I imagined my grandmother singing a cover of “Killing Me Softly” and smiled.

After the sermon there was a second solo, followed by the closing hymn. I went downstairs to attend my beloved coffee hour, and found the parish hall filled with brownies and blueberry muffins. I stuck up a conversation with a little old lady whose voice was high and delicate and reminded me of a famous actress, though I wasn’t sure which one exactly. Her eyes got wide when I told her about my journey, and she pulled another person into our conversation. A few seconds later she ducked away, and soon the gossip was spreading through the whole room and people kept coming up to me to hear my story.

And that’s when I experienced another first. I tend to get asked a lot of the same questions when I tell my story. But one of the first people I spoke with during Coffee Hour at Second Congregational managed to ask me a question I had never heard before:

“What can we do to help?”

I was so surprised I didn’t have an answer. I still didn’t have an answer a few minutes later when a completely different parishioner asked the same thing. Eventually I suggested that they take my card and contact me if they knew anyone I could stay with on my way back towards Seattle. They smiled when I explained that I hadn’t heard of their church at all before today, and that I simply stopped because they were starting the service when I happened to be driving by. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, and when I came back out I saw a pair of women loading up a collection of brownies, cookies, and muffins into some tin foil. They handed me Ziplock bags full of extra veggies as well as some cheese and crackers, insisting it was the least they could do.

I have met some wonderful people on my journey. I’ve been invited into the homes of complete strangers. I’ve had men I didn’t know stop to fix my tires. I’ve had families give me a chair to sit on and a beer to drink. I’ve experienced some fantastic examples of humanity on my trip. But I don’t know that I’ve ever felt quite so genuinely welcomed as I did at Second Congregational. And it all comes down to that one question: What can we do to help? We would all do well to make such a sentiment central to our lives, and I think churches have a duty to do so. It has been pointed out that the church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members. I have never felt the benefit of being a non-member so strongly as I did in that little basement parish hall in Maine – a place I only found because the timing was right.

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Portland as Seen from the World Wide Web

Welcome to MaineSome cities on my route I approach with no connection. I’m not staying with anyone, I don’t know anyone, no one has given me any recommendations. This was the case with Portland, Maine. I snagged the last open campsite at a campground just north of the city, and drove into town the next morning. With no real humans to turn to for advice, I was forced to rely on the top attractions listed on Trip Advisor.

The first stop on my list was the Maine Jewish Museum, which is inside the Etz Chaim Synagogue. I parked a block away, walked up to the door, and found it to be locked. This is when it occurred to me that I’d shown up on the sabbath, and of course it wouldn’t be open. I often lose track of the days of the week when I travel, because for me there is no such thing as a weekend. However I’ve come to realize that my sudden abandonment of the regular workweek hasn’t effected the rest of the world, and I should try to stay aware if I’d like to do such things as visit a religious institution or book a hotel room last minute on a Saturday night.

Victoria MansionI moved on to the next spot on my list, the Victoria Mansion. This large and beautiful building was built in the 1860s and is 97% original. Please take a moment to consider the likelihood of a 150-year-old, fully-furnished building being 97% original. The man who first commissioned the home was a wealthy hotelier from New Orleans. Construction was complete right at the start of the civil war, and the family ended up stuck in the South for several years, unable to see their new home. Even after that, the Portland mansion was only a vacation home, and the docent explained that if the family was going to be in Portland for less than a week, they wouldn’t bother to open up the house and hire servants. They’d just get a hotel room. When the hotelier’s widow decided to get rid of the home many years later, it was sold completely intact, right down to the silverware. The new family continued to use fine china bearing someone else’s monogram for many years, which is why all those pieces were still there when the building was turned into a museum.

Flatbread CompanyAfter the mansion tour I opted to grab some lunch at the Flatbread Company, which was highly recommended by the type of people who write restaurant reviews online. I sat at the bar and an attractive blond bartender with slightly shaggy hair asked me if I’d been there before. I told him I hadn’t, and he explained that they used all local ingredients, everything was farm-fresh and in-season, and that if I turned around I could see that all meals are cooked in plain view in their open, brick-oven kitchen “so you can see nothing weird is going on with your food.” After he explained the Farmer’s Market Salad and the special Shepard’s Pie Flatbread Pizza I started to wonder how much Portland, Maine had in common with Portland, Oregon.

After eating way too much food, I parked the car along the Eastern Promenade and began to walk. I walked down to the beach to see the boats and the children. I walked past the canoe rentals and onto the bike path. After about 45 minutes I walked past the foul-smelling water treatment plant and began to wonder if I should have turned around already. I got to the far end of the promenade and my endurance was rewarded with a shady, wooded return path on the upper side of the park to get me back near my car.

Old Dock copyFull of food and tired of walking, I laid down in the shade and took a nap of indeterminate length. I was reminded of my solo travels in Europe, which seemed to always involve me getting tired and falling asleep in the sunshine on the grassy knoll of a public park. After my nap I returned to the city for some highly recommended gelato and a walk down Commercial Street. Back at my campsite and tired from my day of walking, I opted to skip the campfire and go to bed at sundown.

Before I DieSo that was Portland. There was certainly something poetic about being there, a place I always considered to be the very last bit of civilization before the country dropped off into the northeastern ocean. Nothing too insightful happened in Portland, but that may be because I wasn’t helped by humans. Instead I was directed by the Internet. There is a huge dip in quality when you allow the faceless, nameless masses to put in their two cents. You miss the sense of purpose that you get from a real person offering advice. The fact is, even if it’s just a recommendation from a waitress you met in New Mexico when you stopped for a piece of pie, every suggestion offered by a single, living, breathing human will ultimately be more fulfilling than anything Yelp can ever provide.

A Real Writer

Library FountainA strange thing happened while I was visiting Boston. Regular readers of this blog will know that these posts are no longer in real-time, and that by the time you read about an adventure here, I have long since moved on from it in the real world. This means that I was in Boston the day I published my post on the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.

Occasionally I will get nervous before publishing. There are lots of reasons for this. Sometimes I worry that I’m making too bold a statement, and that perhaps I haven’t thought it through enough first. I worry that people will read it and instantly point out all the holes in my argument I never considered. The WBC post was my first big post of this nature, my first post to really make an argument. It was also about a very controversial subject. A subject that inspires the worst in people. And I was suggesting a position I hadn’t heard put forth by anyone else. I was very worried.

Words and PhrasesBecause I almost always publish between 7AM and 8AM Pacific Standard Time, the post didn’t show up until after 10AM in Boston. By then I was on my way to the Boston Public Library near Copley Square. I had been told by friends that the library was worth checking out, and I found it to be a large and lovely place in which to get lost. After wandering in and out of the hallways for some time, I made it my mission to find the rare books section. It was somewhere up on the third floor and in a corner. I went back and forth, up and down. Not all of the elevators reached all of the floors. Not all of the floors were continuous. As I walked I started to wonder how people were reacting to my post. I finally reached the reading area right in front of the rare books section and pulled out my phone to check the responses on Facebook. A few of my friends had hit the Like button. Whew. At least I wasn’t completely crazy.

PuppetsThere were different levels of rare to the rare books section. The first seemed to be books that were generally interesting and old, but not fragile. The room wasn’t remarkably different than others in the building. Off to the side was a collection of old marionettes in glass cases. To get to the next section, I had to go through through a glass door. This was no ordinary door. It was the sort that seals completely when closed in order to maintain the temperature of the room behind it. This was the main section of rare books. The lighting was very dim. A woman was seated at a desk, explaining in whispers what they had in their catalog to a pair of patrons. Everything was delicate. Everything was unusual. They were featuring works by Daniel Defoe, including first editions of Robinson Crusoe from 1719. Behind another glass door was a third room, but this one was available by appointment only, and only to researchers. You couldn’t casually look at the books in that room. You had to prove yourself first.

I left the rare books area and went back out into the reading section. I couldn’t help it – I checked my phone again. There were a few more Likes, and now some Shares. My friends were saying very complimentary things about the post. What a relief.

Copley SquareI walked back out of the library, taking a quick detour to the map room because maps are great. I walked across the street into Copley Square and took a photo of two women taking photos of a turtle sculpture. The square was a nice open respite from the large, imposing city buildings. I saw a small fountain off to the side of the square, the shallow kind that kids will jump around in when the weather becomes too hot to bear. I sat on the edge of the fountain to take in a bit of sunshine. I pulled out my phone again. I read more feedback, now from strangers. People I didn’t know were sharing what I had written. People I didn’t know were complimenting me on it. I laid down and smiled.

Reflection

I know many writers suffer from a sort of perpetual doubt, myself included. No matter what people say or how many times you hear it, there will always come those days when you think what you’ve written is not good enough. One might even say it’s what makes you into a good writer – the obsessive need to improve what you’ve created for fear that it is secretly worthless. I have received compliments on my writing before, and I can only hope I will receive them again in the future. But on that post, I actually got people talking. I got people arguing. Shirley Phelps tweeted about me, which was something I didn’t even realize was on my bucket list until it happened. No one pays me for what I do. I’ve never had anything traditionally published. I am still a beginner, an amateur. But on that day, leaning back onto the warm stone of Copley Square, I felt like a real writer.

The Boston Challenge: Part Two

Harvard GatesFor my second day in Boston I wanted to visit Harvard. I looked up the tour times and caught a train I thought would get me there just in time for the 10AM tour. When I arrived at Harvard Square Station I only had a few minutes to find the Harvard Info Center where the tours were supposed to take place. I took off immediately in one direction, but quickly realized I was going the wrong way. I began to speed-walk the other way and had gone a good four blocks before realizing that I was right the first time. I turned around and picked up the pace. I caught sight of the Info Center and practically ran through the doors and up to the woman at the counter as the clock struck ten.

“Unfortunately all our guides are students and we’re between quarters right now,” she told me. “Our summer tours ended yesterday.”

Rats.

“Do you have a smart phone?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said out of breath and masking my disappointment.

“There’s a free audio tour you can download if you’d like,” she said with a smile. “It will take you all over Harvard Yard.” I thanked her and ducked into the hall to download the guide.

Harvard ChapelI followed my phone as it led me from building to building in the area I had so quickly ran past just a few minutes earlier. I listened as the polite voice explained the history of the structures and their uses. I couldn’t go inside any of the buildings, but the yard itself was littered with chairs for the tired student and/or tourist. As a professional tour group went by I overheard a young women explaining that the chairs were Harvard’s solution to the fact that they don’t really have a student lounge anywhere. My audio guide told me I could go inside the chapel, but there was a funeral going on and the place was surrounded by security guards tasked with keeping out lookie-loos like me. I found a set of steps nearby and took a few minutes to rest in the sunshine.

Big ChessI’m not really sure what I was hoping to get out of a visit to Harvard, but whatever is was I didn’t find it. I suppose it holds some strange Ivy League mystique, as through you will show up and magically look through the past at the hundreds of brilliant people who have passed through its gates. But in the end, it’s just a school. The same old buildings that undoubtably feel too far apart in the winter when it’s cold and you’re rushing to class. The same prospective student tours parading through. The same silence inside buildings when you’re in between academic quarters. And while I’m sure the education one gets at Harvard lives up to the reputation, in the end, the reputation is what it’s all about. That’s why it’s in our consciousness. That’s why you’ve heard of it. But you can’t really visit a reputation. You can’t get off the train and take a look at renown. Harvard is just a collection of buildings, the sort you might find at any old and decently-funded institution. I went to a public school on the West Coast. There was ivy growing on our walls, too.

By recommendation I went to Mr. Bartley’s for lunch. I sat at the counter and, like at lunch the day before, I was served by a man who seemed to own the place. The logo in the window was a clover leaf, and a sign above the cooking areas said “Irish NEED NOT Apply.”

Boston Tea PartyHaving completed my short tour of the Harvard area, I caught the train back into town to visit the site of the Boston Tea Party. Like happens sometimes, there is a highly visible area commemorating the event with a museum, a reconstruction of a ship, and plenty of ways for tourists to spend their money. However the actual spot in which the city has erected a plaque (and the site of the real event), is set off to the side and around the corner. In fact it’s a bit difficult to find the Boston Tea Party Plaque. It’s attached to a seemingly arbitrary building with no other stores or signs around it. But I suppose that’s what happens sometimes with historical locations. Simply because the area was important once doesn’t mean it can or will stay that way. In the case of the Boston Tea Party, the actual shipping dock no longer exists at all, having long since been replaced by more useful docks in other locations.

MassacreIn contrast, the site of the Boston Massacre is in the middle of a still busy and thriving intersection. It makes sense, as people rarely form mobs in out-of-the-way locations. The Boston Massacre is marked by a decorative ring on the ground, and is as easy to miss as the Tea Party sign for the complete opposite reason. A person could miss the Tea Party marker because it’s off to the side. A person could miss the Massacre ring because it’s so central. The intersection is packed and moving at all times, and it’s easy to let your eye move onto one of the impressive nearby buildings or an eclectic passerby.

I crossed the city to Newbury Street to see the shops. Shopping holds little interest for me normally, and no interest for me while traveling. Still, it’s sometimes fun to see the ways different stores appeal to different cities. I never miss an opportunity to slip into a comic book shop, and I saw a sign for one on Newbury. To my surprise, there were almost no comics in the entire store. Most comic book stores these days have large selections of related merchandise, and many make more money selling Superman action figures than Superman comics, but I’d never seen such an extreme example. I managed to find an aisle or two of comics in the back, and the rest of the store was music, movies, and clothing. I wondered what kind of transition such a place had to go through to start out as a comic book store but end up selling everything else. I wondered if they ever thought about changing the name.

Leif EricksonWith some effort I managed to find the statue of Leif Erickson on the nearby Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Per instructions from a priest/judge I know, I stood in front of it and sang “I’m a Little Teapot.” I like to think of it as a sign of respect to the first European to land on North American soil.

It seemed a bit early for dinner, but I was too hungry to care. A friend had mentioned the “Daily Catch” in the north end, and I hopped on the train again. The restaurant was very small – there were only five tables. One such table was extra long and had one couple seated at the far end. I took a seat on the opposite end as it was the only space available. The menu was written on the wall in chalk. The one and only waitress said hello and, upon request, endorsed the black pasta with ground squid. By her tone I could tell she got asked the question a lot, and that she rarely had complaints after patrons followed her standard recommendation.

As she went to hand my order to the one and only cook, a family walked up to the restaurant door. The man asked the waitress how long they would have to wait for a table of four. She turned around to look at her five full tables and told him at least a half an hour. In normal circumstances the wait times given at restaurants seem very abstract. I always imagine a series of equations involving the flow of staff and the time it takes to turn over a table. Of course in reality these calculations that are based on guessing how long it takes people to eat dinner. When this waitress said the wait would be 30 minutes, I knew exactly which table she was thinking would be finished around that time. And the people at the table knew, too, since the restaurant was so small we could all hear the conversations she had at the door. I think most people understand intellectually that restaurants know how we eat better than we do, but there’s something strange about seeing a group of people and knowing you are the only reason they are still waiting.

Line out the DoorThe man’s wife took the kids across the street to pick up some pastries for later. More people got in line behind them. By the time I left the Daily Catch, there were more people in line than inside. I walked down the street to pick up a treat from Modern Pastry. They packaged it up in a box and wrapped it in string with the same quick dexterity I had witnessed the day before at Mike’s Pastry. On the train ride back to the hotel I checked my list. I was proud of all that I had managed to see, and mournful of all the things that had been left unseen. Should I have spent more time on the Freedom Trail? Was one scoop of ice cream at JP Licks really enough? Had the New England Aquarium really been worth the two hours I spent there, or should I have spent some time at M.I.T.?

AquariumThe problem with The Boston Challenge is that it goes on forever. Boston is a packed and beautiful city. There’s long history at The Old North Church and short history at Fenway Park. I think of it like Rome and Seattle. Some cities have too many nooks and crannies to ever get old. And even if they do, it’s so easy to find a new favorite park or restaurant or cafe. There’s always somewhere you want to go back to. And I will go back to Boston.

If nothing else, I still need to watch the Red Sox play the Yankees.

The Boston Challenge: Part One

I approached Boston as a sort of mission. I didn’t know anyone in the city, but I knew plenty of people who had lived there in the recent past. The day before I arrived, I posted a Facebook status asking for suggestions on how to spend two full days exploring Boston by myself. The response was overwhelming. I set out to experience as many of their suggestions as I possibly could.

Green MonsterI check into a nice hotel on the west end of the city, right off the subway line. The building is an old three-story walk up, clearly renovated from a previously wealthy home. The rooms are all named with titles meant to remind you that you are in Boston, such as John F Kennedy, Paul Revere, Boston Common, Constitution, and Old Bay State. Parking is at such a premium in the area that I have to pay extra to get a space in the back, and even then I am double parked and must leave my key at registration in case they need to move it later.

I settle into my room and start combing through the suggestions. I plot them out based on location and proximity to the subway stops. There is a collection of suggestions in the North End, and some more over near Harvard. Still more are in the area around The Common. I open tab after tab on my computer, trying to figure out the best route. An hour later I finally have a plan and I make my way to bed.

Boy at FenwayThe next day begins with a tour of Fenway Park. In an ideal world I would get to watch a Red Socks game in Fenway, preferably against the Yankees. Unfortunately chance hasn’t favored me in this regard, and the next home game won’t be for two more nights, at which point I am supposed to be setting up my tent in Maine. So the tour is the next best thing.

The tour group is huge, and the guide is old. He takes us from place to place, showing us the visitor’s locker room and the old bleachers. We sit in the seats placed on top of the Green Monster and learn how hard they are to acquire. There are, in fact, many seats in Fenway that one can only get via lottery because demand is so high. We hear over and over again how in 1947 Ted Williams hit the longest home run ever hit in Fenway. It’s marked by a special red seat, which is sold like any other ticket in the section.

Loge BoxI am surprised by how small the park is. I didn’t realize that its size is part of its legend and charm. I was expecting something huge and overpowering, but Fenway is about the small things, and the not-too-distant past.

I hop back on the train and make my way to The Commons, a beautiful public park that reminds me of Central Park in New York City. There are people sitting on blankets on every patch of grass, and ice cream carts attracting children on every corner. An old friend and fellow Episcopalian told me to check out St. Paul’s Cathedral. As I near the end of the park I see a prominent church on the corner and assume it must be St Paul’s. I am mistaken, but I wander inside anyway. It’s an old church, though it’s been restored. The design is simple and plain, and everything has been rebuilt over time. It’s hard to find the appeal in sitting somewhere that neither looks nor feels like it belongs to the past. I walk out, disappointed.

St. Paul'sI check my map again, sure I’m in the right place. I look all around but St. Paul’s is nowhere in sight. I begin to walk down the block, pulling out my phone every few feet to see if my tiny dot is going towards or away from the church’s tiny dot on the map. I circle around the entire block before ending up almost directly across from the church I was just in. I look up to see St. Paul’s Cathedral, hidden in plain site. It is massive and wedged right in with the rest of the big city buildings. It feels old and imposing, like the father’s bank in Mary Poppins. I walk inside.

View from the PewThe church is very dark. It looks as though it hasn’t been restored at all. Below each aisle seat the carpet is worn down to the wood, marking years of anxious parishioners taking the first spot available and tapping their feet during a lengthy service. There are cushions for kneeling, but they seem to be made of hard sand, making them only marginally more comfortable than the floor. A small Chinese woman with glasses is at the organ, practicing for Sunday. I find my way towards one of the older pew boxes in the back, the kind that still have doors. I sit and listen. We are the only two people in the cathedral.

After the cathedral I stop by the Copley Public Library, then walk over to The Esplanade for a leisurely stroll along the water. I see a few tourists unsuccessfully trying to windsurf on rented contraptions, and I watch their guide go from one tourist to the next, helping them get back upright. It is the first time my mind has ever considered the extremely difficult mechanics of windsurfing. Until this point it had been an activity strictly reserved for clipart and neon designs from the 1990s.

I’m starting to get hungry. My friends had made it clear that the North End was the place to eat, saying, “You can’t go wrong in the North End.” I get off the train and start walking up the street. I pass by many good-looking restaurants, and eventually step into a place called The Florentine Cafe for no specific reason at all. I take a seat at the bar, and the bartender hands me a menu. I find myself torn between two raviolis: a butternut squash and a lobster. I ask the bartender for his opinion, and he says without a doubt to get the lobster.

“Voted best lobster ravioli in town by Boston Magazine,” he tells me.

My plate comes out and the sauce is made of heaven itself. I have to fight the opposite urges to slowly savor each bite or to shove everything in my mouth at once. When the ravioli is gone I start lapping the sauce up with my bread, cursing myself for having eaten some of it as an appetizer with mere oil and vinegar.

I manage to pull my head up from my feast enough to witness the bartender transform into the owner. Vendor representatives keep coming up to the bar, each time having a small business meeting while the owner wipes down the glasses. A woman from the printing company has him approve the new menu layout, followed by a man who confirms the restaurant’s next order for drink supplies. A third rep comes in on behalf of a business I couldn’t quite catch, but he offers to do for $1200 what the bartender/owner had been paying $1300 for from another company. Sold.

Old North ChurchAfter lunch I stop by the Old North Church where, as usual, The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. There is no entrance fee to see the church, and a laughably small fee if you’d like to get a guided tour. The Old North Church is famous for giving the signal to Paul Revere via lanterns in the window that the British would be arriving by sea rather than by land. While the real history does involve Revere and lanterns and a water attack, the true story is more complicated and less poetic than, well, the poem. Of course the church would be a site worth visiting even if the whole story was a complete fiction, since it would still be the setting for one of the most well-known and frequently quoted poems in America. Imagine if the local zoo had, through some miracle of time and space, acquired the actual raven Edgar Allen Poe had mused on – you’d want to see it.

A Nap in the GrassI take a walk through Fanueli Hall and catch a quick show from some local buskers. It’s been a long day and my feet are complaining. I walk along the Greenway for a short while before finding a welcoming patch of grass. I pull off my shoes and turn my purse into a makeshift pillow. The sun is warm and comfortable. I don’t know how long I sleep. An hour. Maybe two.

When I wake up I’m still not hungry. I have stuffed myself too full of food throughout the day to stomach dinner, but I figure I can probably manage a dessert. I have recommendations for two nearby pastry shops, and quickly find myself at the front of a long but fast-moving line at Mike’s Pastry.

“What’s your best cannoli?” I ask the man behind the counter. I had been told to get a cannoli at Mike’s, but I wasn’t prepared to choose between so many options.

“I’d say the chocolate chip is our most popular,” he replies.

“I’ll take it.”

Ted WilliamsHe constructs a beautifully simple white box around my treat, and pulls at a line of string suspended from the ceiling. He wraps the string twice in every direction, moving with the speed and precision only pride and repetition can create. I carry my little white box on the subway all the way back to my hotel. In the seat across from me, a fashionably dressed woman holds a beautiful white orchid in a pot. There is something fantastically cosmopolitan about the whole scene. I felt like a true city-dweller. I felt like I was living in New York City again.

And that was just the first day.

By Chance, A Windmill

I am still following the highlights of a National Geographic Road Trip plan when I stop in Chatham, Massachusetts. The tiny town is busy with tourists. I consider not stopping at all, since I can’t see anywhere to park my car and the main entertainment appears to be shopping. However the trip description mentions a park and a windmill, and I figure I will give it a shot.

Mill Arms

I have a hell of a time finding Chase Park. It eludes me in that illogical way certain locations can seem mystifyingly invisible. I drive in circles, crossing by the same streets and getting stuck in dead end roads. Eventually I find the tiny parking lot and the small park sign. In front of me and suddenly towering over the landscape is the old wind-powered gristmill.

I walk around the mill taking photographs. Behind it I see a rock labyrinth tucked away in a quiet, grassy depression. The large fans of the mill are attached to the roof, which can be rotated around the mill by way of a large pole that reaches to the ground and originally would have been pulled by mule. This, I assume, allowed the mill to stay in operation no matter which way the wind was blowing. As I walk around, I see a small door on the side. I don’t bother trying to open it, as I assume it is only for maintenance. I can’t imagine anything of note inside an old windmill. As I’m getting ready to leave I see an old man carrying a bag.

“If you wait ten minutes you can see the inside,” he tells me, pulling a small waist apron from his bag.

I look at my watch – it’s ten to eleven. The man attaches a name tag to his shirt that identifies him as a docent, and he explains that the other docent is the one with the key. I nod. There’s a brief silence before he realizes he might as well start telling me what he knows. He explains the long history of mill ownership and how the original structure was moved to this location in 1956 after it was given to the town of Chatham. He points to the fans and explains the dangerous way in which they used to change out the cloth sails. He tells me that right now the sails are inside, but they’ll be putting them on for the weekend.

“If you’re here on Saturday you should come by,” he says. “We’ll be firing it up and grinding some cornmeal.”

I explain that I’m actually only in town for about an hour, and another couple walks up to us. They ask him where the labyrinth is, and he raises a hand to point.

“The labyrinth is over there,” he begins, turning to see the other docent walking up the path towards us. “And the windmill will be open in ten … nine … eight … seven …” As he counts down the other docent approaches with the key. The couple laughs and the woman insists, “Oh there’s no need to rush him, we’ll be back up in a moment.” The couple walks down towards the labyrinth. The man opens the door. I look at my phone and see the time tick over to 11AM exactly.

With the door open I walk inside the mill, a docent in front and behind. The gristmill reminds me of the old riddle about a rowboat: You have a rowboat with a leaky board. You replace it. Over time every one of the old boards begins to leak, and one by one you replace them all. Is this still the same boat? And if not, at what point did it change?

The windmill has seen its share of terrific gales, and many of its old boards have had to be replaced over time. Still, the heart of the structure is the same, as is the primary grindstone. The second docent takes me upstairs to the second level, along with a pair of approximately eight-year-old girls and their mother. He shows us the stone and explains how it works. He tells us about its exceptional weight and how difficult it is to move the stone at all, let alone get it up onto the second floor of a windmill.

In explaining how milling works, the docent tells us that the grind stone gets dirty over time, and it must be cleaned. He points to a mechanism that allows the huge stone to swing out to the side for maintenance. Because of the way the stones are positioned in relationship to the floorboards, there is barely a foot of open space below the dirty surface. The docent focuses his eyes on one of the little girls.

The Girl and the Mill

“So what do you think we do?” he asks her.

She shrugs.

“Well I know I’m not going to fit under there, so we’re going to have to get someone small to sit directly under this huge stone.” The docent points to the little girl. “Someone just about your size.”

The girl’s jaw drops in the cartoonish way you assume never happens in real life. She is filled with disgust and horror at the very idea that anyone would make a child do such a thing. Her mother smiles.

“Well,” the docent says, “just in case there’s no one small around, we better have another plan.” He points to the large wooden levers and gears and explains that the entire stone can be rotated sideways, exposing the dirty underside and allowing for safe cleaning. The girls seem relieved.

I thank my guides for the wonderful lessons on the surprisingly interesting world of grinding. As I am leaving I see the couple from before. They are standing next to the folded up sails and learning how to ensure accurate measurement of cornmeal.

Mill GearsMy visit to the mill was short, maybe 45 minutes if you include the ten minute wait at the start. In the course of my whole trip, it was a blip. Nothing life-changing or monumental, just an interesting bit of history and engineering. But the mill is only open for three hours a day, three days a week. A tour would be easy to miss. And if I hadn’t gotten so lost trying to find the park in the first place, I most certainly would have missed it.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had almost a full year before I left. By way of the Listener Mail segment on one of my favorite podcasts, I had been in contact with a pair of fellow travelers, Scott and Edie. They were a married couple with a dog who had decided to travel full time around the United States in their car. I was excited to talk to them since they seemed to already be living the trip I was about to take. When they said they would be driving through Seattle I offered to take them out for Thai food near my house.

During our conversation they asked me what I was most looking forward to on the trip. I told them about the summer I spent living in New York City, and how one day I was wandering around Manhattan and stumbled onto a street festival that only happened once a year. I told them I was excited about the possibility of accidentally encountering big events like that.

“That will certainly happen,” Edie assured me. “For example, what is Seafair?”

Her question made me smile. She was asking because that weekend we were having one of the most well-known and largest annual events we have in Seattle. During Seafair there are pirates and parades and clowns and a fly-over by the Blue Angels. Scott and Edie just happened to be in town while it was going on.

And in Cape Cod, I just happened to be walking by an old man, who just happened to be a volunteer docent, who just happened to be waiting for his associate to come open a 200-year-old building that just happens to be open nine hours a week. And I know for every gristmill there are a hundred other occasions where I didn’t get lost and didn’t run into a docent and didn’t even know I had missed anything. But there’s no use focusing on all the things I have missed out on. Not when there are so many happy accidents left to have.