One Hour in Aquinnah Near Gayhead Light

The Walk to the Beach

I took a walk like this before on another side of the earth, baking under midday sun on an island in the middle of the sea. I walked up a hill to a lighthouse along a narrow, scrubby path where prickly bushes pressed in on each side and salamanders scurried around my feet. I walked and walked, unsure of where I was going, or what I’d find at the end.

This was different but the same, a whole other island in a whole other sea under weepy midday rain in a coat and sandals, the wind taking my umbrella every other minute. Orange slugs and little yellow snails with stripes in their shells like a coil of saltwater taffy clung to the wet sand at my feet. I was careful after I felt the first awful, telltale crunch under my heel.

In Italy, on that island, I walked up and not down, to a cliff. This time, in Massachusetts—a place I’ve explored so little, despite its smallness, despite the fact that I was born there—I walked down and away from the paved street in winding arcs, built as though to dissuade casual beachgoers. On Martha’s Vineyard, to get to the beach below Gayhead Light, to lounge on the sand below the cliffs made out of rainbow clay, you need to want it.

I found out later, of course, that the beach below Gayhead Light is a nude beach in summer, one of the only ones in New England, so it makes sense that bathers would want the privacy of tall grass, of a mile-long path between them and the tourist buses that rumble along the road above.

Despite the wind, the prickling, slantwise rain, I couldn’t help but be happy for whatever lay at the end of this path. In Italy, the reward had been a view of sea and sky and brush, a lighthouse keeper’s cabin half-collapsed, the clouds visible through the holes in the roof. It had been the satisfaction of knowing I’d walked when everyone else stayed on the beach.

At the end of the path, behind all that tall grass and brush, the waves looked dangerous and gray as the sky, frothing at their tips. A few men sat fishing in their big white sweatshirts, the poles held upright in buried pieces of PVC while they lounged, watched the horrible water. The nude bathers, needless to say, had gone home for the season.

From the beach, you can’t see Gayhead Light, but you can see the clay cliffs below it—white one instant, then red again—then yellow.

In Italy, I looked down from the lighthouse, so far from home and so far from the end of my travels, unsure of what was coming next but so happy for that moment on top of the world.

Back at home, in my Massachusetts, on an island I’d never seen but always wanted to, the lighthouse looked down at me.

Go there: Gayhead light is located in the town of Aquinnah on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. You can visit the lighthouse—and climb to the lantern—during high season. The beach below it can be accessed by following the path. Naturally.

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