What I learned from years of waiting on vacationers

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When you grow up a local in a state known as "Vacationland," where do you go on holiday? The answer is you don’t.

My family, which lived in an area of midcoast Maine, mostly went on camping trips to other regions of Maine. These vacations weren’t something I looked forward to, since I couldn’t get the appeal of swapping our trees for other, identical trees. Our back-to-the-land lifestyle, growing our own organic vegetables, heating the small, solar house we’d built ourselves with logs we fed into a wood stove, already felt like “roughing it.” Even as a kid, I got that my parents had chosen to live differently. I respected this but was still acutely aware of what I was missing. These were not necessarily material objects, but experiences. From a young age, I craved cities, cafes, culture, everything hard-to-come-by in my current life. No one around me had much of anything I didn’t, but they also didn’t seem to want more. I did.


And so, as I got older, I set my mind on earning the money to escape by waiting on and cleaning up after tourists who stomped through our seaside village each summer. I didn’t understand who these people were, enjoying leisure time I assumed they’d earned at fancy jobs in other, fancier locales. I didn’t associate whatever they did with work. “Work” was what I saw those around me doing: building houses, growing and harvesting food, and a variety of tiring service jobs. Although my mom and stepdad were college-educated, they’d chosen to live in a state with more natural beauty than career opportunities. My stepdad was a carpenter, and my mom ran our household—growing our vegetables, baking our bread, heating our house, which all took long hours—while also maintaining odd jobs. I didn’t know who these well-dressed summer people were, but I assumed they were rich in a general lord-of-the-manor way and resented them for it. All of this taught me vacations weren’t for people like me, and probably never would be.

Not that we were stereotypical locals. My family had settled in the area only recently, at least by Maine standards. Most of our neighbors, who’d lived and lobstered in our village for generations, saw us as hippy weirdoes. I was more of a bookworm, and with my red hair and freckles, I was sometimes compared to the children’s book character Anne of Green Gables.


Given my family’s outsider status, I should have felt a greater kinship with the summer people. They, like my parents and me, enjoyed books and art and music. They came from the places I longed to go, where they had experiences I coveted. But I could also see them refracted through the eyes of my fellow Mainers. Tourists were entitled—making our lives miserable in order to enjoy their summer rituals. They didn’t think twice about clogging our country lanes with traffic as they made their way to our historic lighthouses and forts or dined at the seafood restaurants where we worked but couldn’t afford. Many talked down to us, like we were slow children. I remember feeling irritated by these strange people, who made our lives worse and better at the same time, given that we depended on them so completely in our little tourist economy.

Meanwhile, despite the budding writer within me, I didn’t yet have the imagination to see my daily scenery with a summer person’s sense of discovery. When I drove to the cottages they deemed “quaint,” it was to clean and earn money for college.  Sure, I smelled the same salty air they did, but it was rarely “refreshing.” As I wrestled with the tiny mattresses in the bunk beds of these vacation cabins, scraping my knuckles as I strained to straighten the fresh sheets in the cramped space, I would look out at the grayish green chop on the harbor, slapping away at the barnacled rocks—but I always had one eye on the clock, my mind busy adding up my earnings. More than anything, I feared the shame of being caught there by the next guests, preferring to remain invisible.

It wasn't until my mid-20s—when my best friend, Beth, who'd grown up vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, had the chance to invite friends to the island—that I first tasted true seasonal leisure. I’d just finished grad school in Boston for journalism and felt poised for adulthood and my “grownup” career. Also, for the first time, like I finally might be entitled to relax for a week.

Nervously, I lined up for the ferry in Wood’s Hole, which for New Yorkers (or anyone familiar with Gossip Girl), is kind of like the Hampton Jitney. Everyone seemed to know the drill, but I was anxious I wouldn’t know when to get on, or off, the boat. That I’d do it all wrong. As I pushed forward with the eager throng onto the lip of the long zigzagging plank, I felt my anxiety lessen with each turn of the walkway. By the time I found a seat on the ferry, I realized there was nothing to do now but relax and let the boat take me.


Beth tucked our small group of friends into one of the picturesque gingerbread cottages her stepfather owned in the Oaks Bluff campgrounds. Here, we squeezed into beds as rickety and rustic as those I used to clean, and flipped through dog-eared paperbacks. She led us through her favorite island customs, like the Snickers ice cream at Mad Martha’s she’d been telling me about for years. When we actually visited the shop, at first, I felt cranky about the long, indecisive line. But when I was finally handed my cone, with the scoops oversized and quickly melting, I was already laughing like a little kid.

On this first-ever leisure vacation, I spent my days reading at the public beach, my nights eating fried clams that somehow tasted better than the ones I’d grown up with by the Maine seaside. Of course, as ideal as it was, our trip wasn’t exactly an Eddie Bauer catalogue. We were on a budget and only there because of Beth’s family’s generosity. As grateful as I felt for the vacation, I still felt closer to those serving us than other vacationers, with their boat shoes and Black Dog sweatshirts. But despite whatever lingering unease I may have harbored, the leisure was free and all ours, the days and nights blissfully long and boring.


When we returned again to Martha’s Vineyard the next summer, I had just weathered a very rough, disappointing year. Freelancing was harder and less lucrative than I’d hoped, and my longtime boyfriend and I were breaking up. As I stumbled up the ferry plank, I was glad I knew the routine without having to think, and even gladder to have escaped all the money problems and heartache in my regular life; the student loans and the first difficult year of “adult” living. There was comfort in the familiar rhythms of the island, including the kind of treats I didn’t normally indulge in. I had saved for this moment, making the extra generous scoops at Mad Martha’s all the sweeter; the salty, crispy, squishy fried clams all the more decadent.

Back on the mainland I had a giant existential question mark over my life. But here, at least for this week, nothing was expected of me—which was still a new concept. I started to understand why people take vacations, and why even those who aren’t lords and ladies of the manor deserve them. By week’s end, I felt soothed by the sea breeze and monotony of Martha’s Vineyard’s beauty and simple pleasures, even if I was going to step off the return ferry into the unknown.


I returned to Martha’s Vineyard again five years after my initial visit, before I moved out to Los Angeles, where I was hoping to expand my horizons as a writer and get a fresh start from the disappointments I’d incurred during my early post-grad years. And when other friends began retreating to the island in the summers, too, I took them up on their offers to visit. No matter where I was in my L.A. life—up or down, (somewhat) flush or on my last credit card—I always felt an immediate sense of ease as I climbed the ramp to the ferry.

This summer, when my boyfriend and I visited those same friends on Martha's Vineyard—my sixth time—I saw it in yet another light. Despite the fact that my partner has traveled more of the world than I’ll probably ever see, I was moved watching him embrace the island the same way I did. Somehow, traveling with him, and showing him my own vacation customs, helped me to, once and for all, acknowledge their ritualistic power. To admit that maybe I don't need to have to have an "us or them" mentality about who gets to enjoy beauty or respite—which I admit I’d held onto way past the point of its being useful.


While it’s easier for some to pull off than others, we all have the right to take a break and enjoy the fruits of our labor—whether it’s a relaxing trip to see friends, a summer holiday, or a quiet afternoon to ourselves. We just need to give ourselves permission to do so. This past summer, as we bit into our gooey cone of Snickers ice cream and enjoyed long hours of non-activity, I was finally able to merge both Vacationlands—the smell of salt air, the buttery pop of broiled scallops, the lazy blinking of fireflies—in my grateful, relaxed mind.

Sarah Tomlinson is the author of the father-daughter memoir Good Girl, which was released by Gallery Books in 2015. She has ghostwritten or co-written thirteen books, including the New York Times bestseller Fast Girl, with Suzy Favor Hamilton, and two un-credited New York Times bestsellers. Her music criticism, articles, and personal essays have appeared in publications including Marie Claire, MORE, Salon, and more.