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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Smart

Eastham Chronicles Part 1 - Getting There

Eastham is a tiny town about 40 miles out on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. I was lucky enough to go to high school there way back when, after my dad retired from the Army. He and his family had much longer roots in the hamlet (see what I did there?) than I did as a freshly minted (and permed) ninth grader in the early 1980s. It was an awkward transition…mostly because I was an awkward teenager.

But you know how sand gets in your car and stays there literally forever? Eastham does the same thing to your heart. You find yourself going back again and again—in the summer, when the sky is that impossible cerulean blue and the air smells like warm pine needles and jasmine; or in the cold off-season months when only the most stalwart fish and chip joints are still open and the sea and the horizon work together to create entire palates of the most beautiful grays you’ve ever seen.

There’s a trick to going back once you’ve left though. You have to really want to get to Eastham, because it’s almost geographically impossible to drive by it on the way to anywhere. Also, it’s hella far away from where I live now. Come to think of it, that’s true about every place I’ve lived since I moved away.

The first step if you want to get to Eastham is coordinating everyone’s schedules. Twenty-odd years ago, it used to be just me and my husband heading up to visit my parents. We were both military, and getting our leave aligned was always a near-impossible task.

And then we had kids.

Two boys standing behind a station wagon
Before the trip. Nobody’s mad yet. They’re…almost cherubic!

If you haven’t had kids yet, and you’re wondering about the logistics of travel with young people for whom you are legally and morally responsible (and theoretically also love, most days), just remember that once you have your delightful crumb-snatchers, you can’t send them back. You are obligated to drive the rest of the way to your mom’s house with your children safely buckled into the back of your Subaru Outback, regardless of how long your youngest decides to scream the words to “Living on a Prayer” for 40 miles because he’s mad that the toy in his big brother’s Happy Meal was better.

But let not my harrowing tales of parenthood deter you. Eastham is well worth even such an eardrum-piercing journey.

You have to plan to spend at least a week on the Cape in order to make the drive worth it. That trip takes planning and butt tissue of steel. I’ve never not had to drive through New York City and all the metropolises (metropoli?) along Connecticut’s I-95 coast to get home to my folks’ house.

Now that I live in northern Virginia, we’ve tacked on Washington, DC and Maryland to the trek north. On a map, Maryland looks tiny. But for some reason known only to the travel gods, it usually takes three hours to get from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to the Delaware state line. The “Time Spent in Maryland” to “Actual Miles in Maryland” ratio is pretty wonky IMHO.

But hey, at least Delaware is short, right?

Yes, but. Delaware makes up for its brevity with what has to be the most expensive set of tolls along any stretch of U.S. highway. The dollar per mile pain is real. You pay to get into the state, you pay to drive the 12 or 20 or whatever many miles on the state’s roads, then you pay again to get out.

The process of paying tolls used to be much more annoying before the EZ-Pass. When my husband and I moved from Alabama to New York in 1999, we were each driving a car that was loaded to the gills like the Clampetts heading out to Beverly Hills. As part of our trip prep, we saved change for at least five months prior so we’d have enough quarters, nickels and dimes for all the tolls along the way. We each had a sandwich bag of change (ziplock, so we wouldn’t lose any of those precious toll-tithing coins) stuffed into the center console.

I digress. Back to Delaware we go.

Once you’ve done paying The First State for the privilege of occupying its space, you cross the largest territorial decider of the trip: the Delaware Memorial Bridge into New Jersey. To this Massachusetts girl, New Jersey marks the beginning of the North. I know the actual South is a few tolls earlier, but New Jersey is the geographic vanguard of several things I associate with my home state and its coastal neighbors:

  1. Fast talking (often peppered with gestures and/or profanity).

  2. Fast driving (not the Fast and the Furious kind. I mean that people in New Jersey and parts north want to get where they’re going. There’s no vehicular dawdling going on, and the passing lane is for passing. Not sightseeing. Ahem).

  3. Unsweetened tea and decent coffee (sorry, Alabama/Georgia/both Carolinas/a big chunk of Virginia—I tried to make our caffeinated beverage relationships work, I really did. It’s not you, it’s me. We can still be friends though, right? Call me).

Also, New Jersey has the cheapest gas along the entire trip and they pump it for you. It’s the law! That’s a small price to pay for them hosting two New York NFL teams.

Highway sign that says Welcome to New Jersey
Not gonna lie. After 3 hours in Maryland and all the Delaware tolls, this is my favorite sign along the trip.

Once you’ve made it to New Jersey with the Bon Jovi screaming child (whom you love, remember that. Just keep saying it and you’ll start to believe it again. It gets better, I promise), somebody is going to probably need to pee. This is good timing, because the New Jersey Turnpike has a ton of rest areas that are well worth the price of admission (by which I mean…yes, another toll). These gems pop up at regular intervals along your journey northward (and southward, if you’re in any mental state to be thinking of your return trip already…with kids…in a station wagon). They’re named after (I guess?) famous sons and daughters of New Jersey, like Molly Pitcher and Vince Lombardi and Walt Whitman. The bathrooms are easy to get to and mostly clean, and there’s always a Starbucks and a store where you can buy NJ swag (like these cool Astroturf flip flops).

Astroturf flip-flops for sale at a rest stop
You can find these right next to the pink “New Jersey” sweatshirts at any NJ Turnpike rest stop. At least you could in 2014.

Your next obstacle is deciding which route to take to get through New York City. By this point, you’ve been driving about five hours. Not bad, right? But the decision you make here could have longlasting repercussions for your sanity and your vehicle’s gas tank. You have a few options here. For us, it’s usually either the George Washington Bridge (the most direct route through the city) or the often less crowded but 40 miles longer route across the Tappan Zee Bridge (which I learned this summer is now named some sort of Cuomo Bridge? Sigh. I can’t train my brain to change the bridge’s name after 40+ years of calling it something else.)

It’s best to listen to AM Radio (880 has traffic and weather on the 8’s) about midway up the turnpike to see whether the traffic report involves words like “not bad, only 30 minutes inbound” or whether the announcer has his “An Asteroid Is Going to Hit Earth!” alarmed voice on.

You finally make it past whichever Hudson River crossing you choose and take the roller coaster ride that is the Cross-Bronx Expressway, and now you are in Connecticut.

A map of Mianus, Connecticut
Mianus, Connecticut never fails to entertain any of the male humans I gave birth to. Alas.

This, my dear readers, is the Get-Through State. Connecticut is pleasant…I guess? But by this point, you’ve been in the car for a minute or two and you’ve driven through every metropolis in the Mid-Atlantic. Connecticut is about 100 miles of thick traffic and left exits. It’s okay, there are lots of trees and the place names are cutesy-coastal. Once you hit the I-91/I-95 split in New Haven, you’ve passed through the majority of the heavy traffic and it’s just solid cruising from there. The gas also tends to be more expensive than in other states, so maybe hold off until you reach Rhode Island.

Facebook post about Connecticut traffic
Apparently my love/hate relationship with I-95 in Connecticut goes way, way back.

Rhode Island is also deceptively small. By the time you reach it, you’ve gone through five states and a district. You’re in the state next to Massachusetts! You’re almost there!

Not quite. You’re still about three hours away. It’s okay though! You get to drive through some cool seafaring towns and see the ocean outside the passenger window (if it’s still light outside. If not, trust me. There’s water out there). You are now also in the land of Dunkin Donuts coffee. This is a cultural boundary that happens somewhere in Connecticut, but because gas costs so much there we try not to stop. Therefore, my research into the precise location has been limited.

After Providence and some long unlit stretches of highway, you cross into Massachusetts with very little fanfare. It’s probably better that way, because it’s still a hike to get to the Cape Cod Canal. Fun fact, you actually get to what is technically considered Cape Cod before you even cross either bridge over the canal. I never knew that as a kid. It doesn’t help much now that I’m a driver, either, because by this point you just want to get there.

No worries, dear friends! The time is nigh to choose your bridge again - but the traffic is very likely much less terrible than in New York City. We always skirt the canal and take the Sagamore Bridge onto Route 6. Once you are across, it’s like you’ve crossed through a portal. The air is clean (Seriously. Open your windows and smell the salt air. Besides, the Subaru could use it), the trees turn into scrub pine, and you know you’re thisclose to hugging your mom. Just don’t go over the speed limit (especially in a car with out-of-state plates), you don’t want a ticket after this long of a trip.

Sagamore Bridge on the Cape Cod Canal in Massachusetts
The bridge across the Cape Cod Canal. You’re almost there!

As you toodle along Route 6 for the last little chunk of your trip (now it’s okay to slow down, it’s not considered dawdling here. You’re on vacation, remember?), turn on your radio. You will most likely find at least two radio stations playing Van Halen. It fits your vacation vibe, so go with it. Finally, you reach the Orleans Rotary, the last threshold of your journey. You pass a sign on the right that says “Welcome to Eastham, Incorporated in 1646.” To your right is a long strip of water called Town Cove. You drive up the highway on this, the narrowest part of the Cape, until the street you need to turn off. Your kids are probably asleep by now. You hear crickets chirping outside your windows. The sky is impossibly black and you can see stars all around. You pull into the driveway and turn off the engine. You did it.


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