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Wheels roll over crushed shells, sand and dirt as I press on against the electric September wind, legs burning. After two weeks of cycling trips around Martha's Vineyard's roughly 225 sq km - from the colonial whaling hub of Edgartown, to the lobster shacks on Menemsha's boat docks, to rainy arrivals in every lighthouse parking lot in the late afternoons - my calves are strong and my face and shoulders are brown with the last days of a Cape Cod summer. I only have 48 hours left on the east coast and I'm not sure why, but I've put off this ride for my final day. That morning I'd walked my bike to the tiny Memorial Wharf on the edge of Edgartown and bought a ticket to cross the 160m channel to Chappaquiddick.
Spittles of rain glazed my rain jacket, but it was still warm as the new shore closed in. The three-vehicle ferry connects Chappaquiddick's 180 year-round residents to the Vineyard's mainland and the separation between the two places feels defined. While its 1537 hectares are still linked by the barrier beach sands of Norton Point, hurricanes and severe storms have led to breaches - most recently for eight years between 2007 and 2015 - resulting in Chappaquiddick's permanent reference as an island. It has been this way for as long as anyone can remember. The Wampanoag tribe who first settled here called this place "Cheppiaquidne" meaning "separated island", though today, the island is mostly known as "Chappy" to locals.
I had come to Edgartown for a two-week writing residency at the Noepe Center for Literary Arts in late September to write fiction. But it was this real event that happened more than 50 years before - just a blurred recollection from a sophomore history class - that had a hold on me in the days after I arrived. Sitting in a wicker chair on the porch with a gin and tonic on those humid nights, I'd read excerpts of the inquest and news clippings, scrolling down the screen on my laptop, the sound of ice clinking around in my glass. It was supposed to be a reward for reaching my word count on my own writing project, full of plot points and characters who fell flat in comparison to the meaty fears and wants that fuelled events on July 18, 1969. At the time of Kopechne's death, Ted was the youngest and last surviving brother of the Kennedy family. Bobby was assassinated only 11 months before, five years after JFK in 1963. Their oldest brother, Joseph Kennedy jun, had been killed in action during World War 2 in 1944. It was hard not to imagine the dual weight of grief and family-driven ambition Ted would have laboured under that summer, as his career was marched towards the US Presidency, in the shadow of his brothers. Kopechne - labelled "the blond" and "the girl in the car" in newspaper headlines - was part of a group of women known as the Boiler Room Girls, who worked closely on Bobby's campaign. Kopechne had also been responsible for helping craft Bobby's keynote speech on Vietnam. In death, she played a one-dimensional role when her body was brought to the surface of the lagoon.
I discovered the best lobster rolls were sold every Friday night at the Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven. Twenty bucks got you a roll thick with lobster, a bag of chips and a drink - all of it loaded with rich white meat that I'd eat on a park bench overlooking the harbour. Another night I cycled home in the dark, after waiting in a line of people in a parking lot outside Back Door Donuts in Oak Bluffs for a hot apple fritter. Open from 7pm to 1am, the business is literally the back door, evening operation of Martha's Vineyard Gourmet Cafe & Bakery that holds regular daytime hours in a courtyard off the main business area. Walking across the street with the fritter in my hands, I took my first bite mid-stride - and just about fell to my knees. It still stands as one of the best first bites - the warm dough, the cinnamon and sugar, the chunks of apple - that I've sunk my teeth into.
September is wedding season in the Vineyard, and our residency was across the street from the Old Whaling Church and squeezed between summer homes that become bridal suites and bachelor pads on the weekends. At night, editing our work in our rooms with the windows open for the cool relief of a breeze, we'd hear the live music and DJs at receptions - we once did a reading of our work backed by Livin' on a Prayer - followed by calamity after the bands packed up. One morning we all sleepily came out from our rooms into the kitchen to discuss the exact words of one inconsolable lover to another, screamed down the block under our windows. Another night, I sat still as stone on my veranda chair for a good half hour, book in my lap, trapped as two wedding guests had a hushed argument on the other side of the hedge.
On this final morning, as I moved my bike off the ferry and into the small parking lot on Chappaquiddick, there were no crowds that I had become used to sharing roads with during the days. I had all the food and water I would need in my day pack. As I set off on the one road that stretched out in front of me, I caught the scent that I had learned to stop for: plump, purple grapes hanging from the vines wrapped around the branches of trees above me. Sweet and juicy, I had found pockets of these grapes within my reach all over the Vineyard. Chappaquiddick was no different - just fewer people to compete with for this reminder of these islands' namesake. Martha's Vineyard was most likely named for the wild grapes that British settlers found here (though the origin of "Martha" is hazy. Some historians have speculated that it was a daughter or close relative of an explorer named Bartholomew Gosnold in the early 1600s).
It is the quiet of Chappy that people come here for now, in contrast to the scenes across the water on the Vineyard. In the days before I arrived, people warned me about the wind when they talked about the Chappy beaches that went on for miles, absent of the picnic blankets and umbrellas seen on the mainland once the weather begins to cool. Here, the sea and sand is for the hardy. I cycled for 45 minutes in the wooded areas, past quick glimpses of houses within the trees. Like so much on this tiny island - and in contrast to the showy A-list celebrity homes and busy waterfronts of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs - they were created for deep privacy.
As infamous as Dike Bridge is, it is anti-climactic on arrival. Little has changed about the bridge in the 50 years since the crash, except for a guard rail. Otherwise it is just the choppy lagoon water below, the tan colours of sand beyond this, and the sky above. Today it is moody, with roiling clouds promising a storm by the evening - a quiet landscape, like an oil painting. There is no sense that any great catastrophe happened here, or that a life ended in these waters. And that it was likely preventable. When Kopechne's body was discovered by the rescue diver, he later testified that he found her in the back seat of the car, her head turned away and up, like she was craning for her last intake of air. The diver also testified that she might have been alive in the car for hours. He could have had her out in 25 minutes if he had been called. That's the haunting part - for me, and for others who have gone to that place in their imaginations. Author Carol Joyce Oates based her 1992 novella Black Water on Kopechne's last hours in the submerged Oldsmobile, as a woman looks back on her life while waiting for the man who has jettisoned himself off of her to reach the surface, to return for her, which he never does. I didn't know this at the time, but ahead of filming the 2018 film Chappaquiddick, director John Curran also spent time on this bridge, looking down late at night to get a feel for this place where Kopechne died.
I look up as the rain becomes heavier. I turn my bike around and begin the slow, sandy return to the ferry dock. I realise that this place makes me lonely and I'm ready to leave; to be around people again, in a bar, surrounded by loud laughter, drinking beer and eating oysters in half shells on buckets of ice, like a normal vacationer. On the way back, I take a side trip down another sandy road to Wasque Point Beach and pause to take a moment to look out at the sea, the marsh grass, feeling the sand between my sandalled toes. This is my last bike ride and my last day of a summer that has already stretched out beyond expectations. The view is beautiful and autumnal. It makes me feel sad and strange, maybe haunted and threatened by the stories submerged here. They are truer and more disturbing than any fiction I could create in this place.
GETTING THERE AND GETTING AROUND
Martha's Vineyard is accessible by ferry year-round on the Steamship Authority from Woods Hole on Cape Cod, docking in Vineyard Haven and in Oak Bluffs. Other ferry services operate summer only, from May to October, though the Steamship Authority is the only way to bring a vehicle to the island if you are travelling by car. Passenger-only ferry services run seasonally from New York City, Montauk, New York and Falmouth, Hyannis and Nantucket, MA, among other hubs. Taxis and a public bus run from the ferry terminal around the island if you arrive on foot. Martha's Vineyard has two airports: Katama Airfield and Dukes County Airport, used by Cape Air, US Airways and Delta Airlines. Flights arrive regularly from New York City, Boston and Washington D.C. The island has numerous bike rental options from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown, like Edgartown Bicycles, just on Main Street, which has daily and monthly rentals. Chappaquiddick is accessed by the Chappy Ferry, which runs regularly from Edgartown year-round, with increased service in the summer months.
WHERE TO STAY
From backpacker rooms to high-end resorts, Martha's Vineyard has a range of accommodation to suit most budgets. The HI Martha's Vineyard is a summer-only hostel, open from mid-May to mid-October off the Edgartown-West Tisbury road, with dorm beds from $39. Up island, the Beach Plum Inn has rooms and cottages as well as an on-site restaurant overlooking the quiet Menemsha Harbor with guest access to the lovely Lucy Vincent Beach. Oak Bluff's history as a Methodist Church camp shines through in the playful decor at the Summercamp Hotel, just across from the town harbour, with rooms starting at $300 in the high season. In Edgartown, the Kelley House Hotel offers quaint but comfortable rooms and an outdoor pool near the boat docks. Nearby on Main Street, the luxurious Hob Nob bed and breakfast has an on-site spa and a private charter boat for guests.
WHERE TO EAT
The Net Result on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven is a must for fish and chips and fresh-off-the-boat seafood in general. Larsen's Fish Market in Menemsha is a great place to try your hand at tackling a lobster in the rough, while sitting on the back of the dock to watch the fishing boats come in. Atria in Edgartown is a go-to for upscale burgers and fries, while State Road Restaurant on State Road in Tisbury has been continually voted best fine dining on the island by locals, offering modern American cuisine sourced from regional farms and fishermen, such as roasted Menemsha oysters and pan-seared scallops to grilled island lobster and dry-aged ribeye with black garlic butter and ramp pistou.