There’s a road in northeastern Massachusetts that has loosely paralleled the coastline for almost four hundred years — a long time by some standards, wicked short by others. And, if you date the path that came before, used by the Pawtucket Indians, well, there’s really no way to know how long people and animals have passed over this winding road.
My thirteen-times great grandfather moved here in 1631, coming aboard a ship called The Plough. He was a preacher, fed up with England, and he and his little band of like-minded people landed on the shores of Lynn eleven years after the Mayflower landed in Plymouth. He was part of the Great Migration of the 1630s that solidified America as the New World, during which 20,000 people crossed the sea — when the Atlantic allowed them to pass.
They packed their hopes and dreams, and when they got here they found an intolerant Puritan population that just didn’t take to these newcomers’ ideas. I like to think my ancestor was like Bernie Sanders. He was seventy years old when he arrived and by all accounts a fiery sort, demanding freedom and liberty of those close-minded Puritans. And, as the founder of one of the first settlements in New Hampshire, I like to think he was the creator of the state motto: Live Free or Die. He certainly lived by it.
Sometimes it feels the land is not much changed since those days, and that I walk the same ground as the first Englishmen did. There are still open fields set off by stone walls, forested high ground and salt marshes that scent the air with the earth. This road was created (or bettered) by these immigrants who cut their way through the forests and marshes from Boston and Lynn and Saugus up to the harbor at Newburyport, a small but fortunate city that prospered from the triangular trade that turned West Indian molasses into rum and West Indian people into slaves.
I’m a travel writer so I know I should be writing about all the cool places along this road and in the towns that lie along it: the best beach bar! (Plum Island Grille), the to-die-for restaurant! (Loretta’s), amazing fried clams! (the Clam Box). I know about these places, they all have lines out the doors on summer Saturday nights. I’ve been to them, and they’re excellent. But, I prefer to slip in and out each July, relatively removed from the commotion of summer, yet noticing the older rhythms of this corner of the world.
Many days, too many days to be considered healthy, after an afternoon at the beach and some dinner, we pile in the car to go to White Farms for ice cream. And the thing is, it’s not just about the ice cream, which is incredible. There is also the anticipation of knowing we are going to travel for a few miles down 1A.
Along with ice cream, we also crave the anticipation for the feeling of the drive, of passing under the canopy of oak and maple trees, moving in and out of the shade, closing our eyes and allowing ourselves to be lulled into peace, watching the shadows on the backs of our eyelids and sensing the forward motion. We’ll pass a few farms with their handmade signs and the town commons and meetinghouses that are still standing from the 1700s. There’s an old farm stand that we always say would make a great little shop, for our next career.
One of the highlights is crossing the Parker River Bridge. We often hit this spot at sunset, and the light coming from behind the inland trees to shine its last rays on the river as it empties into sea, well, it’s just crazy beautiful. Here, the topic of conversation is what the tide is up to. We can tell by the direction the moorings are pulled in and how much of the riverbank is exposed.
Route 1A, between Newburyport and the Ipswich/Rowley town line is one of those winding roads on the coast that has somehow escaped being the place to be, at least for now. It’s a Sunday-drive road; just being on it is doing something. People in New England sometimes go for a drive for no reason. There doesn’t have to be a destination. And I think this urge strikes us because of roads like this. You want to be on them.
The settlers likely had no idea what kind of road they were building, they were just trying to get the sheep to market. Once, I read an old Newbury story about Nathaniel Moulton, who was fined some shillings in 1640 for not going to church. I like to think that maybe he played hooky — church could take up your whole Sunday in those days. Maybe he just couldn’t resist the temptation of a warm summer day and taking a long walk, or a long ride on his horse, on the new road. Maybe he wandered over the newly built Parker River Bridge at sunset. And, maybe he too thought it was crazy beautiful.