Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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Locked Gates

July 16, 2005

Rhodry and I went beach-walking yesterday, down at Quansoo. Rhodry the heavy-coated Malamutt is not a big fan of sand, surf, and summer sun, and whither he doesn't go, I rarely go either. But my friend Cris suggested a walk, and she has a Quansoo key. Part of the agenda was to introduce Rhodry and her new dog, Eliot, a nine-year-old mostly black border collie. Because Eliot is "intact" (not neutered) and Rhodry shows no signs of yielding his alpha position to anyone, I worried that the two might have to duke it out. No problem: Rhodry growled, Eliot wagged his tail, and they got down to serious playing. Seems it doesn't take balls to be alpha.

I've known the Quansoo road for nearly 40 years now. It runs just west of the western shore of Tisbury Great Pond, where my family first set foot in 1965. To get to the Sunday Sunfish races off Big Sandy, some of us would sail and others -- notably my mother, who was afraid of the water -- would drive, bringing towels, a cooler of beer and soda, and whatever paraphernalia might suffer from the soaking that's pretty much inevitable when you go anywhere in a Sunfish. Wheeled vehicle access to Big Sandy, which was owned by John Whiting, commodore of the Sunfish fleet, was off the Quansoo road. Back then, the turnoff was easy to find because there weren't many options. My last few trips, including this one, I didn't even recognize it. The Quansoo road has many more tributaries than it used to, with many more, and more expensive, houses on them. The dense, mostly scrub oak woods conceal the road from the great pond. You can't see most of the houses either.

Just about where you start smelling the ocean stands the Quansoo gate. It has been there, in some form or another, as long as I can remember, padlocked between mid-June and mid-September, wide open the rest of the year. The attendant is new; Cris says he's mostly there on weekends. Cris owns a piece of the beach and has since the 1970s. We pass without incident.

The locked gates to some Vineyard beaches and, especially, the keys thereto fascinate some people. A few weeks back a friend e-mailed me a story from the Boston Globe, dated June 18, 2005. Keys, it said, were going for as much as $415,000. Key holders who told non-intimates where the gate was were subject to the glares of their peers. And so on. The attitude of native and long-time islanders has long been "Where there's a locked gate, there's another way through." This might involve a landowner's permission (tacit or explicit; recent or not), a quick climb over the fence, or a long slog through huckleberry bushes and poison ivy. People who could finagle informal access to their favorite fishing or swimming spots didn't agitate for public beach access. By the time I moved here two decades ago, some realized the limitations of these individual solutions; now almost everyone does. The nouveau riche new arrivals, it seems, are less hospitable than their old-money predecessors.

In nearly every coastal state, the public has legal access to the shoreline between high and low-water marks. Massachusetts and Maine are the only exceptions, thanks to a law that dates back to colonial days. From time to time people fantasize a circumambulation of Martha's Vineyard, in which hardy hikers would walk between high and low water and, if confronted with No Trespassing signs, law-enforcement officers, or restraining orders, commit civil disobedience. If it ever comes to pass, I hope I find out in time. Meanwhile, I'll keep singing the verse from Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" that is never heard in elementary school concerts:

As I went walking, I saw a sign there
And on that sign it said "No Trespassing"
But on the other side it didn't say nothin'
That side was made for you and me.

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