Before storms had human names, they were only remembered for the year of their birth and for their destruction. Before the Great Gale of 1815, Napatree Point was heavily wooded. That storm ripped the trees away, leaving a sandy, dune-spined spit. Before the Hurricane of 1938, a road extended to the end of the spit, and cars drove along the road, and houses stood beside it. That storm washed the road away, and the cars and houses too, and the people in them.
When you live in New England, what you hear most about the 1938 hurricane – aside from stories of city streets turned rivers and towns splintered by waves – is that it struck without warning. Everything seemed fine, and then you were stranded on the roof of your house, or on a crumbling road, far from your family, far from help. Everything was normal, and then it wasn’t, and no one was coming to save you.
I have been thinking a lot about these kinds of things when I decide to go to Rhode Island. Not storms, exactly, but the unpredictability of the world, and how alone I am in it. I am squeezing in this little trip to a nearby state while the whirl of late winter weather and work will allow me. Luckily, one of the few places in Rhode Island that I have somehow not yet seen, but long wanted to, is just a short drive away.
Napatree Point is in Watch Hill, a tastefully exclusive summer village in the livelier town of Westerly. The 1.5-mile strip of beach is tucked behind a 19th century carousel and a yacht club and a parking area, and concealed, as if to keep out all but the most determined visitors, by a fence and a high dune. I know to climb it because its smooth sand is blazed with footprints; if others have done it, I must be supposed to do it too.
From the top of the dune, you can see the Watch Hill Lighthouse and its attendant buildings, which look like a collection of small blocks, across the green-ish waters of Block Island Sound. If you look straight ahead, you can almost see where the sand narrows and the waters of the Sound and Little Narragansett Bay meet.
Today, Napatree is a protected wildlife preserve. But as I walk along, buffeted by a wind cold enough to burn my skin through layers of winter clothes, I see no piping plovers, no harbor seals, no animals at all aside from a few determined seagulls lined up along the water-line. One takes flight, wheels above my head and – I swear – laughs.
In this wilderness are a few human things. Metal traps, spaced out near the shore. A few scraps of litter, paper or plastic objects, that look as if they’ve been dropped here by gulls or gusts of wind. At the tip of the beach, where Fort Road once ended, are the stone remains of Fort Mansfield, abandoned by the military years before the hurricane took care of most of what they’d left behind.
But mostly there is sand, in overlapping shades of grey and tan; and sky; and waves that look gentle but sound immense. There are shells in a muted rainbow of colors, and rocks of various sizes, some of them glinting silver in the sun. The wind, whipping past pebbles, has shaped the sand into funny little spiky formations. I marvel at them even as the treads of my boots destroy them; if I don’t keep walking forward, I can’t admire them, but as I go I ruin what is behind me.
And then there are the dunes – shaggy, lumpen things that form an ever-shifting ridge at the center of the beach, and creep up the fences erected to stabilize them. Standing close to the dunes provides a slight respite from the wind.
This fragile coast, part of what’s called the Outer Lands, was formed by glacial moraine and shaped by a process known as longshore drift. I imagine that when travelers are walking in nature, in solitude, they are supposed to ponder this sort of thing, this intersection of science and poetry. But I am still thinking about how suddenly the world can change, and how far I can go before I get too cold to walk back. I am thinking about how the few people and dogs who were here before have suddenly disappeared, and that I am now alone with the seagulls. To my left, the lighthouse blinks. To the right, the sand narrows, and the land ends, and there is only the ocean.
It is beautiful here, of course, as almost all of the southern New England coast is – a pale, subtle beauty that visitors don’t always take the time to see. Though this is my first time here, the landscape is familiar to me: the gentle curve of the shoreline and the grasses blowing in the sand and the unforgiving cold.
After an hour, my fingers are too numb to slip them out of my gloves to work my camera. I head back past the seagulls, over the shells, and up the dune. It seems to have gotten steeper since I last climbed it. Then I walk through the empty parking lot and past the deserted winter village towards my car, pushed along like a human tumbleweed by the wind.