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