I had been living in New York city for two decades and indoors was where I lurked, purring like a house cat by the windows of office buildings, cafes and smoky bars. My world was asphalt, black tar and a deep urban gray. I was into chairs, throw pillows and cozy comforters. The thrill of an ottoman gave me goose bumps, bubble baths were not uncommon and I spent a long time each day contemplating groovy designs for my facial hair. I was in a bad, bad way.

But I hadn’t always been like this. I had once fished for my supper in a flimsy kayak, waist deep in squid, lures, sharp teeth and the primordial knowledge that I was on intimate terms with Mother Nature. I had been to first, second and third base with her and was headed for home, whatever that meant. I was young and I loved her. It was beautiful, nothing weird, I assure you.

But then, somewhere along the way, I had turned my back.

“We have to go,” I said to my wife, Cathlin.


“Back to the beginning, to where it all started.”

“But where is that?” she asked.

“Martha’s Vineyard,” I said.

And so we left New York city in 2002, newlywed and no longer content to be nearly dead. We came to the Vineyard for an extended honeymoon, staying at a friend’s house in Oak Bluffs. It was a test drive of sorts to see if this Island where I had spent my childhood summers kissing slugs and earwigs, wearing layers of dirt like regal garments and embracing the tough love of a stormy surf, was a place we should call home.

I was hooked from the start. It was September, life before children, who could blame us for falling so hard. I found a job at Jardin Mahoney’s garden center, where Phil Swift took me under his wing. Phil had dreadlocks down to his thighs, wore skin the color of dirt and the texture of bark. He was like an old growth tree, quiet and steady with fingers so long and knobby birds could perch on them.

He looked me up and down that first day on the job, took in the creased Carharts and flabby triceps.

“This ain’t your usual line, is it?” he asked. A rhetorical question, of course it wasn’t.

Phil nodded and didn’t hold it against me. Months later, after I had wrestled a huge white pine tree into the bucket of the front loader, hoisted it high in the air and set it down with a quiet kiss in the cab of a pickup truck, I shed a tear when Phil said “Good job brother.” I cried again, but much harder, when Phil died this past February.

Working outdoors wasn’t enough, though. That spring I looked at Cathlin and said I needed to go further.

“To where?” she asked.

“Out there,” I said pointing to the neighbor’s backyard. They were away, not back until summer and so I walked over to their ample yard carrying with me a tent, sleeping bag and bicycle. My plan was to live outdoors with only these three things, plus the clothes on my back for one full week. I took no food or money, just brought along my wits, determination and a newfound appreciation for making myself suffer just for the heck of it.

Cathlin called to me from the porch.

“Do you want a flashlight? You know how you have trouble sleeping if you don’t read first.”

Darn it woman, you know me too well. I accepted the flashlight but no books. I would find them on my own.

“Have a nice week,” Cathlin said, and walked back into the house.

In the morning I was exhausted and fighting a caffeine withdrawal headache. I walked down to Mocha Motts and asked Tim the owner if I could barter my skills for some bagels and coffee.

“Well what can you do?” he asked.

I thought for a moment. Not much really. Then I remembered seeing a window box of sorts at the entrance. Instead of plants it housed the Circuit avenue compost of late nights and early mornings — cigarette butts, nip bottles, coffee cups and dog pee.

“How about I clean out the window boxes in exchange for a cup of coffee and a bagel with cream cheese each morning for a week?” I asked.

“Deal,” Tim said.

Later in Vineyard Haven, outside the old health food store where the Tisbury Grocer is now, I met a guy named Wheatgrass Jack, a garden gnome of a man gone slim on wheatgrass and farming. When I told him what I was up to, he handed me a green shot and welcomed me aboard. The next day I biked up to Allen Farm where he worked, to help with farm chores and prepare wheat grass beds. In return Jack gave me bread, eggs, salad greens and a jug of wheat grass.

This was the way it went that week, passed from one character to the next in my search for food and discomfort. I was new to the Island in the off-season but by bike and barter I found my people and my places. I visited Dumptique for the first time and found free pots and pans to cook with over my small fire, to boil eggs in seawater and fry up french toast for dinner. I found books to read by flashlight and some changes of clothes, too.

I met the homeless and nearly so, down at the Oak Bluffs harbor restrooms, where each morning we would gather silently, waiting for the attendant to open the door. It rained a lot that week and my new friends taught me there was no shame in washing your socks out in the sink and drying them with the hand dryer.

I still went to work each day, sharing my stories with Phil and savoring the ease of the water cooler. I also marveled at how much free time I had by returning to the primal, even though I had to hustle for food each day. There were no leisure distractions, phone calls to make or anything to do really except meet my most minimum daily requirements. But I missed my wife and so decided to take her out on a date.

First I walked into Offshore Ale and asked for the owner and was directed to Bob Skydell who then directed me to the peanut shells on the floor. Sweep them up, he said, and you can have two beers and two burgers with fries. Then I biked to Edgartown and cleaned the movie theatre’s flower boxes in exchange for two movie passes. I still remember the flowers in that window box, the walk upstairs to the theatre while holding Cathlin’s hand, and the burgers and beer before the show. But I can’t remember what we watched that night. Most likely, I fell asleep. I had never prepared so hard for a date in all my life.

After the show I left my bike in Edgartown and let Cathlin drive us home. We stopped at a spot on State Beach and in the dark peered out at the opposite coast and our possible future. We moved off the Island not long after that night, but returned five years later to stay, this time with two small children.

As I write this on my porch I look up at my son and daughter playing tag in the yard, and it occurs to me that I write in part to tell my children who I was, but also to remember who I am, something that is not always clear to me in the present moment. I started this essay feeling soft again, this time from the sedentary nature of middle age and with only myself to blame. But the journey on the page was like a workout, as it always is, and I can’t help smiling as the glow of memory revs my heart more than exercise ever does.

And so, as the light fades, I rise from my rocking chair and dive into the scrum with my children. But instead of declaring myself ‘it’ and chasing them down, I lie on the ground where Mother Nature receives me as she always does, along with my children and a crowd of faces I can no longer see.