Monday, June 22, 2009

Running Through History and Memory in Gloucester, Massachusetts

(Homage to Fitz Henry Lane, painting by Kevin Macneil Brown,
acrylic on canvas, 2009)

By Kevin Macneil Brown

(This piece appeared, in slightly different form, in NEW ENGLAND RUNNER magazine.)

Some dreams actually hurt. For example, there’s the recurring one where I’m running on the beach. It’s a beach from my childhood summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts; a beach that, in my memory, shines as an image of alluring mystery; of joy and discovery: Good Harbor Beach. There’s a long, gently curving stretch of pale sand; a scatter of rocky islands that seem to float on an incoming tide; the twin lighthouses of Thacher’s reef rising from the waves to the northeast.
In my dream, I head out for a run from my home in the Vermont mountains; a run through woods or meadow or brick-built downtown. Then I turn a corner and my heart takes a leap of joy inside me: I’m all of a sudden on Good Harbor beach. The sense of happiness, of being truly “home”, is vivid, even through the filter of dreaming.
And that sense still lingers when I awaken to realize that it was only a dream, that Good Harbor Beach is nearly two-hundred miles away; that in reality I won’t turn a corner and find myself there when I head out for a run today.
So maybe it’s not exactly the dream that hurts. It’s the waking up.

I began running for fitness at the age of fifteen. That was over thirty years ago, and, as might be expected, my running has changed, just as I have, over the years. From fitness training, through road racing, to long endurance and exploration runs on wooded trails, my running has evolved into a moving meditation, a way to connect with my deeper self, and with the history and geography of the world I run through. Often when I run, my head and heart and energy systems seem to work together better than they do at any other time in my day.
A few years ago, after a four-month period of particularly intense effort in my life, I decided to give myself the gift of a return--to run-- to Gloucester. I had no agenda other than to run on the beach, to look at the Atlantic, maybe take some time to peruse the canvases of New England marine painter Fitz Henry Lane on display at the Cape Ann Historical Museum. Knowing full well of Gloucester’s fabled past as America’s premier fishing port, I had a pretty good idea that by running in Gloucester I would once again be running through history and geography.
What caught me by surprise, though, was that, for the first time, the geography and history I ran through and into would be my own.

So now here I was. This was not a dream; it was really happening. I ran along the sidewalk beside a strip mall and road busy with Friday night traffic. I turned a corner, and there it was: whitecapped blue water on the horizon, long, pale sands in the sun. Now, faced in a waking state with the reality of Good Harbor Beach, I could feel the full force of the yearning for this place, a yearning I had for so long carried inside me.
I flew over the wooden walkway over the dunes, onto the sands, where just a few off-season walkers and kite-fliers moved, with plenty of distance between them. And I ran, feasting my senses, for more than an hour: loops and circles, up and down, on the pale, heavy sands above tide-line, the hard-packed and sandpiper- tracked sands at water’s edge.
The water grew silver and the sky pale gray after sunset, and I ran back to my motel. A white egret flashed by me in the roadside salt marsh. I knew I’d sleep well tonight.

The city of Gloucester is about the sea; about fishing; about the perfect harbor that Samuel Champlain called Beau Port when first he saw it in 1606; the same perfect harbor and headlands where English adventurers from the Dorchester Company laid out fish racks to dry their catch in 1623; the same perfect harbor that Lane painted over and over in the 1800s as a harbor full of working ships and boats beneath a huge, luminous sky.
Not far from the harbor was the place on East Gloucester square where my grandfather, Johhny Brown, worked in a little grocery store in the 1950s and 60s, selling canned goods and boxed cereal and fresh clams and linguica sausage and golden Portuguese sweetbread to fishermen and their families. Just a long stones-throw away were the wharves and piers where he’d take me walking, and we’d look at boats-- draggers and seiners and schooners and swordfish boats-- in the crowded harbor.
Back then the harbor had plenty of stories. Anybody in Gloucester’s Portuguese community in those days could tell you about Smoky Joe Mesquita, an Azorean-born schooner captain legendary for his uncanny, almost supernatural, ability to find fish. He was also legendary for his bravery and generosity: having brought all but one of his crew back from sea alive in a terrifying November storm in 1898, he wore the crown of honor at the Church Our Lady of Good Voyage, offered grateful prayers to his patron saint, and gave bread to the poor of the city.
My grandfather had told me the story of Gloucester fisherman Howard Blackburn, who, lost in his dory on the foggy, wintry Grand Banks off Newfoundland, with the frozen corpse of his dory mate beside him, rowed for days through ice and snow with his hands frozen to the oars--his fingers fell off later. Blackburn became a local hero, and went on, years later, to cross the Atlantic alone in a twenty-five foot sloop.
As I set out early, breaking into my stride for a long morning run, these stories returned to my memory, filling my mind with a slightly different perspective on what we runners call endurance.
It was a perfect clear May morning with a splash of silver sunlight across the blue ocean, the air already warm at six AM as I ran along the back shore at Bass Rocks, where waves broke, with infinite variety and energy, in white foam against the dark rocks below. I followed the road as it curved inland through a neighborhood of fine old homes and cool, dark patches of shade, then arrived again at waterside in East Gloucester, a crowded but appealing village defined by its boatyards and docks. An amazing profusion of vessels of all shapes and sizes, in all states of rigging, repair or dis-repair, filled the narrow harbor here, and scumbled, inverted images of mast and keel and bowsprit reflected back from the water, broken and shimmering in the pale morning light.
That same morning light filled East Gloucester Square, where, as if caught up in a deja vu, I recognized the shape of the storefronted building where my grandfather had worked.
It was already hot and humid as I took some hilly detours on the streets nearby. I was sweating, and my skin felt to me extra salty in the saturated, maritime air. Here was the street where my father had grown up; a while later, I reached the head of the harbor, with its long view of the fishing fleet and the fish- processing factories along the pier. Every place I ran seemed strangely familiar this morning; I realized that my memories were running alongside me.

After shower and coffee, I spent a little more time on my feet, taking in the Fitz Henry Lane paintings on permanent display at the Cape Ann Historical Museum. To my eyes it seemed that, despite the passage of a century and a half and the urbanization this city and its waterfront, Lane’s perspective of water and boats beneath a massive sky still held true: the suffusing maritime light that Lane captured so well had not changed at all.
There were more treasures to be found at the museum: the actual crown that Smokey Joe Mesquita had worn in 1898; the sloop GREAT REPUBLIC that Howard Blackburn had sailed single-handed across the Atlantic in 1901. .
But now I needed sustenance, and my legs needed rest. I settled down with a west- ender sandwich from Virgilio’s Bakery: rosemary-scented prosciutto ham with provolone cheese, red peppers, and herbed olive oil on a sesame-coated scala roll, crusty on the outside and chewy inside. For good measure, I threw in a hand-made cannoli, scattered with chocolate pieces. After all, I did have more running to do, and I’d need plenty of fuel.

The next morning, an intense symphony of bird song rose from salt marsh and scrubby woods and pulled me awake just before the sunrise. Without thought, I put on my shorts and shirt and running shoes in the darkness. Still groggy, I went outside and broke into a run beneath soft, gray, and drizzling skies. The Sunday morning road was free of traffic. I could hear rolling waves on Good Harbor Beach, and I headed toward that sound.
I had the beach to myself this morning. A pale orange ball of sun, made eerie by an intervening bank of thin fog, rose above the water. Gulls screamed above the breaking waves. My body woke up, moved faster, spurred by the soft and cooling drizzle, the kelp and salt smells in the air.
Just before a rising fog swallowed them, I caught a glimpse of the twin light towers of Thacher’s Island. I remembered the haunting and terrifying story that went with this place and the dangerous shoals nearby. In August of 1635, a pinnace had set out from Ipswich, to round the rocky coast here and make for Marblehead. Aboard were twenty- three people, including Anthony Thacher and his wife and four children. Caught in a hurricane that ripped her sails, the pinnace anchored to ride out the storm. But fierce winds and waves caused her anchor to drag, and she was driven into the ledge. High seas washed the passengers into the waves and against the rocks, where they suffered the ordeal of shipwreck and exposure to the sea’s absolute power. Anthony Thacher scrambled at last to safety upon the island; before long he found his wife, safe and dry also. But their children, and all the other passengers aboard the pinnace, were lost to the storm.
The only survivors of this ill-fated journey, Thacher and his wife were stranded for a day and a half on the island, until another Marblehead-bound vessel could take them off. Anthony named the island Thachers’ Woe, that it might always tell his sorrowful story. In 1771 the first lighthouse was built upon it, to mark these dangerous waters.
Again, an old story made me think about endurance. And it made me think about my own small yearnings, casting them in a different light in the face of thoughts of a loss as profound as was that of the Thachers.
The lines of Gloucester’s history are tangled up in loss: the sea has taken more than its share of the brave and adventurous souls who set forth from these coves and harbors. I meditated on these things as I ran, and some words came to my head, in rhythm with my footfalls and my breath. They were the words of Gloucester’s greatest poet, Charles Olson:

It is undone business
I speak of this morning
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet
Another twin towers showed from inland: the sky blue domes of the Portuguese church, The Church Of our Lady of Good Voyage. I circled the beach once more, and headed toward town, keeping the domes on my horizon. There were a few vehicles on the road now; pickup trucks mostly, with fishing gear in the beds, men with ball caps and Styrofoam coffee cups in the cabs. I reached the church, took in the stunning sculpture of Our Lady herself, holding a Gloucester Schooner safely in her arms. I ran further up what those of my grandfather’s generation called Portugee Hill, into a steep neighborhood of close-together white houses with a surprising view to far blue water under the low, gray sky.
Running up the hill felt great; running down again felt even better. I retraced my route, back to the beach.
The twin lights were gone now, swallowed up by a squall line, and the orange ball of sun was lost in thickening fog. I was running on Good Harbor Beach again. Not in a dream, but for real. The pealing chatter of sandpipers sang from the misty tideline.
With each stride, my feet found the water’s edge, closing the yearning circle, rooting me in history and memory and a sense of this powerful place.