Nantucket Essays

Bluff Walk

by Robert P. Barsanti

My son took me out for some exercise at ten on Sunday. In the unexpectedly clear and cool June morning, we set out from Larsen’s memorial near the Sconset market and headed north to the Bluff walk. Sunday had floated up out of September and landed on the other side of summer. The blue fog banks hung ten miles of shore, but sent small, puffy outriders racing over head. The air promised heat, but never delivered. Instead, ‘Sconset was in a realtor’s dream of pinks and green, sand and sea. The walk begins just where you think it ends. The old pavement turns, invitingly to the sea, but the bluff walk is only marked by granite and grass. We turn gently to the left, pick our way along the edge of yards, and head up along the swells.

The walk suffers its attacks every year. As usual, its most serious foe remains the sea. Every year, the ocean forces some of the Baxter Road residents to pick up and move elsewhere while the public road, without the land removal equipment, goes marching off into the air. It suffers lesser attacks from landscapers and perturbed homeowners who will plant a battalion of rosa rugosa thorn soldiers along either side. The path still exists, you just need to walk through red flowered hostility to get from one end to the other.

This day, at the very outset of the summer season, we walked within eyeshot of at least three landowners also enjoying the rare warm June morning in their back yards. One man was pacing, as if he was a tiger in a cage. One man read the Sunday Times with a mug of either apple juice or beer
beside him. The third lay in his hammock and slept. The pacer greeted us as we walked past.

Were I one of those landowners, I suspect I wouldn’t like the bluff walk too much. “East of Eden” and the other houses on Baxter Road don’t come cheap, nor do gigantic bubbles of Hydrangea, the spray of roses on the trellis, the artful parade of wildflowers up the walk. Moreover, the houses are built to open themselves up to the ocean. Somewhere in the Sarasota winter, a man dreams of pulling on old swim trunks, wrapping himself in a Ralph Lauren beach gown, and walking through his yard, down the steps, for a morning dip in the Atlantic. It’s a charming and expensive dream that
doesn’t include me, my son, or Peter Brace as an audience.

To the road, the houses throw up opaque eight-foot hedges to seal them from the greedy gaze. To the walk, of course, the houses can’t shield themselves; you can’t build the eight foot hedge on that side and block out the Atlantic. So you would need to suffer the walkers as they come along, all
brief interruptions in an Atlantic Idyll. I am pretty sure that I wouldn’t want to wake up on my chaise lounge in see someone pointing out the window treatments in the master bedroom.

I understand the dragon’s instincts about tower and treasure. I have some sympathy for those who fence out the path as best they can, and then let nature run its course. It’s not their roadway to maintain nor is it in their interest to do so. In their minds, they paid a lot of money for that view and
to share it with the gawkers and the stalkers is a bit beyond the pale. But I don’t own a Baxter Road estate, nor is it likely that my wallet will become thick enough anytime soon to pull into a garage out there. Like Wayne Holmes, I am a curmudgeon in quest of public ways. The rich have always wanted to quietly slip public lands and ways out of the commonwealth and into their portfolio. I walk the roads to the sea on Brant Point when I can, travel the same in Surfside, and walk the Bluff Walk when time, energy, and cranky knees permit. I follow Allen Reinhard’s and Annie Bissinger-Poor’s battles in the paper and vote with them, when I can, at town meeting.

This fight between the public and the private has been fought over since Coatue had trees. Someone’s beach walk is another person’s trespass. One person’s granite boulders is another person’s wall. Property owners want to limit the public and the public should want to open up the property. Lawyers file into Land Court every winter and engage in a high priced battle over these strips of land.

I was not surprised to find low hanging branches in my way along the bluff walk (nor was I surprised when my son paused to fling them at my face). I wasn’t surprised at the fences, the high grass, or the fully armed rosa rugosa. I was surprised at the lack of footprints.

The Bluff Walk, among others, has been fought over for years. Property owners want to fold it into their lands, governments want to expand it, but walkers should use it. On that bright June morning when the wind brought breakers to Sconset, the ocean pushed up fish for the fishermen and the seals, and the sun brought out the owners, their cocktails, and their flowers, Bluff walks should have produced walkers. Yet, my son and I were alone. Rights and Rights of Way are best used and not observed. The land court fights that the town and individuals have fought over the last few decades have bequeathed to the the living a network of open roads across the island. Like a right to vote or a right to assemble, these roads can’t be just observed as we drive by, but should be enjoyed by all. If we should ever have a greenway to cross this island, I hope hundreds of people walk it. No matter how many thorns that catch in your pants.

In the meantime, the bluff walk goes right at the stone pilings. Follow the footsteps of all those who have gone before you.

Articles by Date from 2012