It all started with John Smith.
America, yeah, but also our hare-brained international road trip with four boys and an expanding load in the cargo hold.
Jamestown was our first stop, over a month ago. We left Asheville in late June for the Outer Banks, to spend a week with Meredith’s family twenty miles or so from where the English first attempted to establish a colony in the new world. With a high-pressure charter from Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh led an expedition to North America, which landed on Roanoke Island in the summer of 1585, the same year William Shakespeare began his acting career. There were 117 of them then.
Five years later, every last one of them had disappeared.
En route to the Outer Banks, we made a slight detour north from Durham on I-85, eventually landing outside of Jamestown in the vast, faux-colonial metroplex of suburban Williamsburg, where everything there is designed to match the über-retro red-brick-and-dentil-moulding vibe of the place, and go with the non-non-conformist spirit of the age. One plus is that you can imagine yourself as an eighteenth century-surgeon as you swagger into the colonial–themed CVS in search of tweezers to extract a twenty-first century hex-nut from your two-year-old’s nose without the use of anesthetic. Cosplay breeches optional.
Before we left Asheville, Meredith and I watched Terrence Malick’s beautiful, underrated 2005 film about the Jamestown settlement, The New World, because as parents you get to watch movies as “research” and then tell your children that it’s much more virtuous to read old books instead and that watching movies is for lazy, soft-brained miscreants who have no future and who will bring down civilization with their slothful indolence.
Meanwhile, the boys had been reading all about Smith and John Rolfe, Pocahontas and Powhatan, and the first English settlement to stick. As I navigated the Landcraft up US 13 along the Delmarva Peninsula, Meredith sat wedged between two children on the third row, reading from Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s Pocahontas.
Since then, we have driven almost 3,000 miles, and ended up in Hull, Massachusetts, the last stop on our big journey before we begin the re-entry procedure on Thursday. Hull is the northern terminus of the Nantasket Peninsula, an abortive strip of sand insinuating itself into the southern rim of Boston Harbor. It is reminiscent of the Outer Banks where we began: sound on one side, ocean on the other, and not a mile’s breadth of land in between. The culture in both places partakes of the universal flip-flops-and-cut-offs spirit of beach towns, where bad puns about venereal disease feature prominently in the names of seafood restaurants.
Hull, where we have ended up for no reason other than the price of a house big enough to accommodate my large and loud entourage, is named for the great university town in England (or, if you don’t catch that reference, see Blackadder Goes Forth, episode five: “General Hospital”). Having just come off an amazing week with my family in Rockport, Hull does not exactly radiate glamour.
But the couple who live here permanently on the ground floor of the house we’re staying in fell in love with it a few years ago and stayed. The beach is not Santa Monica, but it’s twenty minutes by ferry from the middle of Boston, and it’s a beach.
The next town over, Hingham, is home to the oldest continuously used church in America. The Old Ship Church was built by actual Puritans in 1682 but today is used by actual Unitarians, which, I am confident, would really piss off the Calvinists who built the place. But there we are. You can’t plan these things, and in the spirit of ye olde Massachusetts “transcendental metaphysics and catchpenny opportunism,” better for a church to be used as a church than a carpet warehouse.
Old Ship was built with the help of Samuel Lincoln, who came here in 1637 and promptly put down some serious roots. At an intersection near the center of town is a monument to his much more famous great-great-great-great grandson, Abraham. He is seated in a characteristically pensive pose, thinking perhaps about the unfathomably fragile contingency of history, about the weird way that without Hingham, Massachusetts, American history would look a lot different.
A few miles southeast of us is a coastal hamlet called Cohasset. An old friend of mine, a Jesuit priest, tells me it’s one of his favorite seaside towns. He tells me that the Jesuits have a retreat house there. And it turns out to be—unsurprisingly—the swankest place in the neighborhood.
But Cohasset also turns out to have another connection. Its colonial history goes back before Plymouth, to 1614, when it was “discovered” by an English explorer with some experience in the new world.
His name: John Smith.