I once dated a man who grew up in Plymouth, a town still almost wholly composed of its pilgrimage past; American flags hanging limp on porches in the thick humidity of the June day we drove down to visit. If you were born there, he once said, you knew the story before you knew how to spell your own name. William Bradford and the Mayflower pilgrims. 1620 when the boat bumped up against the famous rock and the First Settlers stepped on American land.
“It was awful,” he said in the car as we rounded a corner onto Samoset Road looking for parking. “It was just awful growing up here.” He repeated it with his lips upturned, excited to share this part of himself. I was happy that last night I had told him I loved him; the remnants of the gesture had followed us here. “Nothing to do back then except skateboard in Pilgrim Memorial Park and cater to swarming tourists,” he said as he reached across the console for my hand. “Over a million a year in revenue,” he told me, “coming in from all parts of the world for the sole purpose of seeing the rock.” This sacred place of new beginnings.
“Everything in the town is connected to it,” he went on as we squeezed into a spot between an old red Volvo and a glistening F150 with protruding running bars. He wedged out and paid the machine. “This continuous flow of commerce,” he said. His high school summers spent on the grill over at Pillory Pub or the New World Tavern, flipping burgers and dropping fries into the bubbling bath of the deep fryer. Changing the oil every Tuesday after close, draining the darkened vat into a barrel out back where he might occasionally smoke a spliff with his supervisor Robby, who was taking it slow over at Plymouth State.
Two jean jackets ruined that summer from the greasy animal smell that didn’t wash off no matter how many showers he took. As we walked towards Main Street, he pointed them out, his teenage restaurants, their refinished colonial fronts still magnets for the high summer foot traffic we wove through. A woman in a costumed petticoat and ruffled sleeves brushed by, her closed parasol pointing up at something in the brickwork of the building and a small cluster of people behind her raised their heads, paused to point their phones. I followed their gaze but didn’t catch enough of her words to know what I was supposed to see and I thought about how different this was from the place I grew up, out west where history seemed to have gotten lost in the grandness of its mountains and the sprawlingness of its cities. Where I am from, Sunset Boulevard braids through the foothills of the Santa Monica mountains all the way to the coast, and, at the base of one of those foothills, Ms. Newbell probably still makes her science class hold hands as they risk the blind curves of the road so they can climb up into the browning brush of the hillside and reemerge before the lunch bell with bits of fossilized seashells or an ancient arrowhead, still sharp enough to cut a boy’s finger when he pulls it from the dirt.
And in the farthest corner of the fenced-in gym field, a permanent gaggle of delinquents, their tanned limbs flopping lazily across bleached-out benches, the skunked smell of smoke, I’m sure, still in the air. Because they are from a place that thinks of history as distant pages in a textbook, they do not think to push their gaze through the school’s chain link fence to see, in the gaps between the eucalyptus on the other side of the road, horses whipping their tails as they travel up the winding trail of Old Canyon Road, just out of sight, where a third generation farm still holds a good portion of land from the original Rancho Grant of 1851, the law that nullified all Spanish and Mexican land claims and divided the new state’s acreage amongst less than a dozen rich American rancheros. Like them, I too had never thought to look through that chain link fence, never got a glance of those frontier horses as I sat on the bleachers avoiding laps around the field, sixth period gym at Paul Revere Middle School. In social studies, we sat in our cluster of no-longer-temporary classroom bungalows off Sunset and learned the far-away facts of our namesake. His midnight ride. The famous tea party. The pilgrims at Plymouth and what they had eaten—a picture in a textbook of sweet buttered corn—at that first Thanksgiving.
The rock itself, when the man and I arrived, was not what I had imagined. It was small—maybe less than knee height and a few feet long—with the date, 1620, carved in large serif font on the top. Later, I learn that the current stone approximates only about 1/3 of its original size. That over the past four hundred years the rock has been chipped away and whittled down by hundreds of self-proclaimed patriots. A church outside of Boston claims part of their altarpiece originated from that sacred Plymouth stone, carted up the coast by their founder, a Mayflower descendant. And, in 1820, Yale’s Rare Book Library used a portion of the rock as their entryway capstone, a symbolic gesture to the nation’s heritage. It is said that they claim no wrongdoing and suggest the portion of stone they used had broken off the original by natural causes. The placards at the Smithsonian and the Pilgrim Hall Museum make similar claims. But my subsequent clicks on linked news articles suggest tourists and midnight souvenir hunters were the main culprits for the rock’s reduction in size, which is why, in 1920, Plymouth decided to hire a New York firm and build the extravagant Guastavino styled vault where the rock is now housed.
“It looks like it’s in jail,” I whispered as we walked up to the steel railing that guarded a small cut-out in the pavilion floor where, five feet below, the 1620 stone rested on the sand of the beach. Someone had dropped down pink carnations and some loose blossoms danced around one corner of the encampment. I thought encampment because as I stood there I saw the thick iron bars several feet behind the stone separating it from the actual sand and green-mossed rocks of the real beach, another two or three feet further down. The sand, through the bars on the other side, was damp and smoothed from the recent tide.
“The ridiculous thing,” the man I was dating leaned in close, thrilled by his own knowledge, “is that it’s probably not even real. The rock isn’t mentioned anywhere until a hundred years after the landing, when some old crotchety fellow fought to stop the town from building a bigger dock by saying the land was sacred. It was the landing spot, he told the town, but how would the old man have known, right? A hundred years later.”
We stayed there for a few minutes listening to the muffled exchange of onlookers bumping shoulders and bags as everyone shuffled to get their turn at the rail, look down at it, the rock. In that moment, I thought of the man standing next to me, the man that I recently said I loved, and I remembered, in that moment, thinking then of his teenage self—popped jean collar smelling of day-old fries—there at the rock with one of those petticoated girls and her parasol, in the late afterhours of an older June, when the day’s tourists had already driven on or pajamaed themselves across town in the Pilgrim’s Bed & Breakfast. Alone with the girl and inside his skin the same bones as next to me now. The sound of mist sneaking in through the darkness. Had they lost something together there, right here, her laced and underwired back pressed up against the rails. Surely the feeling will follow the utterance, I thought, before an older couple stepped away from the encampment, clearing my line of sight, once again, to the faded pink petals caught in the sand, and the man I wanted to love put his hand on the small of my back and pulled me towards him.
Two years later, six months after the man and I break up—people need to know themselves, he had said on our last night—a new boyfriend and I will rent a convertible and drive down the Cape to Provincetown for a long weekend away from work in Boston. The garden rental where we stay, behind his family property, will smell of potpourri and mildew and I will feel sickened when he tells me how much the land is worth. When we go out walking, to escape the stench, we will stumble upon the Pilgrim Monument, a 252 foot tall granite structure erected in 1910 to commemorate the original location where the Pilgrims’ first landed on American soil. On our walk towards its stone campanile, we will find a plaque detailing the five weeks the Mayflower spent docked on Cape Cod before sailing east again, towards what would become Plymouth and its rock. “In the month and a half spent on the Cape,” he reads as he reaches back for my hand, “the travelers took notes of local plants and wildlife, encountered their first natives, and drew up the first contract for the colony’s future governance.”
In the dark of the campanile’s narrow climb, we will pause to let another older couple descend. First, the woman with her downward gaze and outstretched arm, careful as she grazes the inside curve of the stone. Her husband, almost right behind, will briefly pause a few steps up, his glowing eyes quick to look me up and down. Over 160 stone steps, he’ll warn, but the view at the top is worth the climb. The man and my date will exchange a nod, an upturned smile, before we all continue on our separate ways. Right before we sense the stairwell’s rising light, we’ll hear the man’s echoed voice clamor up between our labored breaths. Just wait, he’ll shout, It’s so clear you can see the whole damn country.