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One Island, Two Worlds

Summer and winter are not just different seasons on Block Island — they are different places. One is a busy resort town; the other, a tiny, isolated community where there’s no such thing as an unfamiliar face.

Photography by Ron Cowie

The parts of Block Island that welcome visitors are shuttered  and flat under the silver-gray skies and biting wet winds of the off-season. The faces of the big Victorian hotels that cluster above Old Harbor are blank now, doors locked, white paint slowly peeling in the salt air and the whistling silence.  

This is the Block Island of midwinter, where fewer than a thousand people live. Many, many more claim the island as their own — people who vacation here a week or two every year, hustle serving tourists on summer break, and the lucky ones who buy second homes they enjoy right up through the holidays, hosting grandkids and cocktail parties. 
But by January the last of them are gone, dispersed to places where the long nights are not so dark, and it’s just us.
It’s not like most modern lives, living here. It’s not that it’s primitive. We have Internet — sort of — and grocery stores that sell grass-fed beef and organic milk. There’s even a medical center, more than most small towns can boast, and banks of solar panels at the post office and town hall. It’s just that the rhythms of life are so different here from anywhere else, and change so much throughout the year. I think of one of my daughter’s books, set in a prairie town in the 1800s, and maybe that gets closer to it — a life bound to the calendar in fundamental ways, although here few farm the land. We cultivate sunshine, and the vacationers who follow it.

The sun’s warmth has gone now, and there’s little to beckon visitors. If tourists were somehow to board the ferry — braving the deserted docks at Galilee, the big January swells, the chance that a nor’easter will ground boats and planes and leave them trapped — they might wander onto the wide tarmac at the ferry landing and watch the handful of fellow riders nod to each other before evaporating into waiting vehicles. In a few minutes they’d be alone, and by that I mean there might be absolutely no one in sight, no sign of life anywhere: no cars passing, no lights in the locked stores and restaurants lining Water Street.
They might conclude, reasonably, that the place had been abandoned. They’d be wrong. But they would need to come a little farther ashore, look beyond the summer resort’s landmarks, to find the places we live our winter lives.


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