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The Eastern Shore

Posted in Travel

'Chestertown parking meter'

The parking meters in downtown Chestertown, Maryland have “free parking” written on them. All of them. I am guessing that, when bloated big box stores sprang up outside of this classic colonial-era town, sucking all the zest and commerce out of the place, the demand for parking spaces plummeted, the meters became just another excuse to visit Walgreen’s, and free downtown parking was adopted as one tactic designed to lure people back. But Chestertown went one step further; on the sidewalk side of the meter there’s an invitation to drop in your spare change, to support local arts organizations. So every few feet, on both sides of the street, visitors have a painless way to support the kind of vibrant, varied, and enriching experiences that make this a great destination in the first place. Plus, it is weird, giddy fun to feed a parking meter without seeing the act as an odious necessity. Christian and I laughed as we pumped in all our quarters, dimes, and nickels. We searched the car for more. We returned a second day, partly in order to stuff ourselves with crab (see below), but largely in order to giggle while stuffing the meter. Good idea, Chestertown.
A note on cuisine: the national dish of Maryland, at least in the summer, is crab. Crab cakes, crab salad, crab omelets, crab melt, crab sandwiches, crab Benedict, crab hash, crab soup, crab-stuffed mushrooms, crab pizza, crab imperial, deviled crab, and for all I know crab ice cream and crab whiskey. Other foods are available, but basically they are a garnish for crab.
I was on the Shore, for rig surveys, including one in Solomon’s Island This one went okay, in a these-five-things-will-kill-you-it’s-time-to-rerig sort of way. In the process of delivering the bad news, I got a chance to watch Actual Chesapeake Working Watercraft in action. By “action” I mean one of the most demanding tests of handling small craft under power: backing into a ridiculously tight space, with a foul breeze, with everyone watching, and doing so with utterly unaffected, industrial-grade insouciance and skill. The boats were of a type called a “Deadrise.” They are narrow, low-slung, 20 to 40ft long, an evolution of the Skipjack. They are named, with complete lack of irony, things like “Shady Lady,” “Aquaholic,” and “Some Beach.” They go out for crab in the summer and oysters in the winter, and I am sure that the Chesapeake is capable of making life in a semi-open boat really interesting; the skills required for this work run well past mere parking.
Survey done, I headed down to St. Mary’s to visit my wonderful old friend Will Gates, with whom I worked during the rerig of the barque “Elissa.” That was 35 years ago. No, that can’t be right, because that would make me way over 50, which is ridiculous. But through some oddity of space and time, Will and his spouse Tara have managed to acquire 3 grown children, and Will claims to have been skipper of the 17th-century replica “Maryland Dove” for 28 years. I will humor him in that claim, but I have no doubt that the ‘Dove” is a beautiful boat, beautifully kept. Volunteers as well as paid staff host hordes of schoolchildren all year, and the boat gets out for sails on the Bay several times a year.
As the day was drawing down, and my in-depth tour of that splendid ship was done, we stood by to catch the mooring lines of a contemporary sailboat with engine trouble. It was a 40-some ft cruising yawl, with a man at the helm who wore a look of mixed determination and sadness. It was a warm, calm, lovely late afternoon. While fussing with mooring lines we made our introductions. I then asked him what design his boat was. He looked at me for a moment, then looked away. “I don’t remember,” he said. “That is why I have to give up this boat. I am out for one more cruise.” Then he told me his name, and asked me what mine was.
As darkness fell, I drove back to Chestertown. We are so briefly in this world.