Lifeguard posts at Bonnet Shores, Narragansett

A year in Rhode Island

A year in Rhode Island

Almost exactly a year ago today, two humans stuffed two cats, three plants and countless boxes of junk into an old Camry and drove 2,000 miles east into the eye of a bomb cyclone.

One of those humans, of course, was me.

Sunflower field in Providence

On the long drive from Colorado to Rhode Island, I spent a lot of time wondering what exactly we were getting ourselves into – fretting about the harsh winters we might encounter, wondering whether we’d make friends, hoping I would land a job quickly (Spoiler alert: I did!). Mostly, I wondered whether we’d just made a huge mistake.

As a lifelong resident of the West, I never thought I’d live on the other side of the country. Aside from the occasional daydream about moving to New York City, I had spent little time wondering what life on the East Coast looked like.

Then, in the fall of 2017, my husband found an oceanography opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Suddenly, I was spending tens of hours researching housing costs, scanning climate reports, and generally musing on what it might be like to live in a state whose biggest claim to fame is its minuscule size.

South East Lighthouse, Block Island

Countless friends, most of whom have never lived in or visited New England, have asked about my experience here. “Do you like Rhode Island?” they ask. And I reply that I hate it and like it in equal measures. “Is it different on the East Coast?” they ask. And I reply, yes, completely, but also not at all. My split-personality answers illustrate how utterly confounding I find my adopted state to be.

Now that I’ve lived here a year, I wanted to share a few delightful, frustrating, absurd and strange things I’ve learned about the Ocean State. Maybe they’ll explain why I’m often enraptured one day and exasperated the next.

The beaches

Napatree Point, Westerly, Rhode Island

Beavertail Point, Jamestown

Any conversation about the best of this state begins and ends with its beautiful shores. Rhode Island boasts 400 miles of coastline – not too shabby for a state that’s just 37 miles wide and 48 miles long! There are so many places to lay your towel on the sand come summer that investigating all the options could take a lifetime.

Rhode Island’s beaches were a pleasant surprise to this snobby Californian. The pristine white sands you’ll find here make the beaches in my hometown seem grubby and gross by comparison. The Atlantic is substantially warmer than the Pacific, reaching 70 degrees in August and September, which makes long stretches of swimming a bit more feasible. And I love the windswept pines, roses and tall grasses that grow on the dunes and line each sandy pathway to the water.

East Beach, Charlestown, Rhode Island

Beachgoing in Rhode Island is practically perfect, which is why Easterners from New Jersey to Maine flock here for coastal holidays. The only flaw, in my mind, is the lack of free beach access. In Santa Cruz, it’s possible to park on the street for free within walking distance of nearly every beach, lock your valuables in the trunk, and take along little more than a towel and a frisbee. In most of Rhode Island, you really have no choice but to drive to the beach and pay $20 to park in the official lot, as there are usually no sidewalks, street parking spots or even bike paths nearby. As a result, a trip to the beach is often a bigger production out east: To get their money’s worth, families will fill up the car with full-sized coolers, tote bags full of games, and even wall-height windscreens and camp out all day.

The beverages

My husband and I moved to Rhode Island from one of the healthiest places in the U.S., so we were confounded to discover Rhode Island’s preoccupation with sugary drinks. Order a “regular” coffee at Dunkin’, the Northeast’s answer to Starbucks, and you’ll receive drip coffee that’s been rendered unrecognizable by the addition of large quantities of cream and sugar. Here and at other coffee shops around the state, it’s de rigeur to order a 20-ounce iced coffee year-round. Usually, you’ll be asked to choose from a dizzying array of flavors, from thin mint to blueberry to banana bread. Ask for unsweetened coffee, hot or iced, and you’ll often be met by a blank stare.

I suppose this is to be expected in a state whose national drink is Coffee Milk – which is not, as it sounds, coffee with milk, but instead a glass of milk with sweet coffee syrup mixed in.

That’s not to say all Rhode Island beverages are too sweet. My favorite state specialty is Del’s Frozen Lemonade, a summer treat dating back to the 1940s. It’s the perfect balance between sweet and tart.

The people

Providence, Rhode Island

West Coasters like to perpetuate the stereotype of the gruff, grumpy Northeasterner. New Englanders, in turn, say the West’s friendliness only exists on the surface, and that many of its residents are flaky and passive-aggressive.

I once accepted the former as fact and assumed the latter was misdirected jealousy. But now, a year into my time in Rhode Island, I’ve been forced to confront the fact that West Coasters are way off base – and New Englanders aren’t.

Throughout Rhode Island, you’ll be met with the kind of small-town charm that’s usually associated with the Midwest and the South. Everybody here “knows a guy” who can fix your broken plumbing, find you a rental house or direct you to the best bars in town. Rhode Islanders will go out of their way to ensure your happiness – even if they just met you five minutes ago, and even if there’s nothing in it for them. Sure, they may not greet you in L.A.-style singsong, but in the end, they often prove to be more genuine.

It seems the only place where comical levels of friendliness don’t exist is in most retail stores, and frankly, for that I am grateful. Walk into a nice department store in San Francisco or Seattle and you’ll be harassed by about five salespeople in as many minutes. Here, store employees let their customers shop in peace.

The driving

Signs on I-95 in Rhode Island

Drive down the I-95 corridor in Rhode Island and the billboards will convince you Rhode Island has major problems with drinking and aggressive driving. I’ve found neither to be true – but that’s not to say the state has no driving quirks.

One of the most aggravating aspects of driving here is navigating the so-called “Rhode Island left.” Imagine coming to a red light at a standard intersection where you intend to go straight and the person opposite you has signaled left. In most other states, you can expect the left-turner to yield to you when the light turns green. But here in Rhode Island, the natives believe it should be the other way around – and if you disagree, you may find yourself the recipient of an angry honk or a new dent in your bumper.

At first, I was surprised but sheepish, believing I was simply uneducated in state law. But now that I’ve consulted the Rhode Island Driver Manual and confirmed the law is consistent with that of California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, I’m just annoyed – and constantly terrified I’ll get in a fender-bender.

The sightseeing

Newport, Rhode Island

The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island

There’s so much history, scenery and culture in this tiny state that it’s almost impossible to comprehend. I was a total New England newbie when we moved here, so it’s been a thrill to spend my Saturdays walking to picture-perfect lighthouses, strolling through 300-year-old villages and hiking by Revolutionary War-era cemeteries – all of which exist in abundance here.

Church in Narragansett, Rhode Island

I haven’t yet tired of exploring this state – good portions of Rhode Island’s East Bay and northwestern corner are still calling my name! – but whenever I want a change of scenery, I don’t have to go far. Massachusetts and Connecticut are less an an hour’s drive away, and weekend trips to countless breathtaking places are easy to pull off. Already, my husband and I have visited New York City, the Berkshires, the Hudson Valley and Southern Vermont for the weekend, and I’ve explored Martha’s Vineyard, Boston and Plymouth solo. There’s still so much of New England to explore – Acadia National Park and the White Mountains are at the top of my regional bucket list – that I’ve barely thought about destinations farther afield.

The weather

Treaty Rock, Rhode Island

Look, I’m just going to come out and say it: The weather here is truly dismal. Not just in January, when all the trees are bare and the damp, windy air whips through every layer, chilling you to the bone. Not just in August, when the relentless heat and humidity sucks the life out of your hair and your fitness routine. It’s dismal nearly all the time.

Snug Harbor, Rhode Island

I thought I was prepared for the seasons, having lived through snowy winters, record-breaking rain and blistering sun in other states. But I underestimated the power of dampness, something that’s less pervasive out West. Seattle didn’t ready me for the 63 inches of rain Rhode Island saw in 2018. In Colorado, I didn’t learn how to prevent summer mildew from damaging winter clothing while it’s in storage. And office work in Central California didn’t teach me how to dress for two seasons at once – the extreme one outside and the climate-controlled one inside.

Long Pond and Ell Pond hike, Rhode Island

While I would never dream of leaving New England in October, when the trees are ablaze in magnificent colors and temperatures are just about perfect, I think the other 11 months of the year would be better spent elsewhere. There’s a reason why so many Rhode Islanders prefer to summer on the Cape and winter in Florida.

The big picture

While so much about this place has been a pleasant surprise, it’s safe to say I’m not sufficiently in love with Rhode Island to consider it a forever home. But it’s only been a year, and I find that I warm to the the Ocean State more with every passing month. I love that I can eat freshly-caught seafood year-round. I enjoy living a five-minute walk away from a kayak rental shop and a 20-minute drive from spectacular Gilded Age mansions. And yes, even those sweetened drinks are growing on me. Who knows how I’ll feel at the end of year two?

Providence, Rhode Island

Fast ferry from Quonset to Martha's Vineyard

32796844518_370e31c85c_o

 Have you visited or lived in Rhode Island? What do you like and dislike about it?

READ NEXT: Five Cities that Surprised Me

Snow

When snow is forecast in Seattle, everybody steels themselves for what’s to come. The kind of snowfall that other major cities expect–nay, scoff at–is enough to turn this entire city upside down. Seattle’s total transformation only after a couple inches of snow accumulation is partly because snow and ice make for treacherous walks, drives and bus rides up and down its steep hills, and partly because we can’t justify the cost of studded tires or salted roads round the clock.

So when it snows in Seatown, you can expect a lot of rogue behavior on the roads. Pedestrians opt to simply wait until the roads are clear to cross rather than to press buttons at crosswalks; lane dividers on major highways cease to exist; cars don’t stop at intersections unless it’s an overt safety hazard not to; and buses seldom take passengers exactly where they want to go.

(Don’t believe me? This morning I tried to follow the rules at a crosswalk, pushing the button and waiting patiently. A driver nearby leaned out his window and shouted, “Don’t you think we’ve moved past formalities by now?”)

Snow

Things went surprisingly smoothly earlier in the week, when everybody in the city knew exactly when and where to watch for snow. Everyone ran errands early, left work at the appropriate time, and settled in for the long haul at home. The roads were a mess, as usual, but most people seemed to stay safe.

But in the last 24 hours, when the flakes were expected to turn to light nighttime showers and daytime rain–when the snow was, in fact, expected to wash away–we got the opposite. The flakes fell more persistently than ever, and our white blanket grew thicker. School districts gave up for the remainder of the week, local shops stayed shuttered, and almost no one dared to drive.

I thought this would be a tame one-day snow event, nothing too crazy. But as evidenced by tonight’s Twitter posts, which tell of icy commutes, mass power outages and tree-splintered carports, there’s plenty of crazy to go around…


Snowmageddon

“You tell people they might see snowflakes out their windows tomorrow morning and then nothing happens…but you give no forecast at all and then I-5 is a skating rink.”

Ah, the weather reporting catch-22–as neatly summed up by a Seattle Times editor.

Today all the editors (I sat meekly in a corner and took notes) met to discuss how they’d handle the next “snowmageddon,” the nickname for 2008’s Northwest snowstorm, or other natural disaster. Among the questions on the table: Do we call in the troops at 3 a.m.? Do we let everyone work from home and post pictures and blog items to show how hard their neighborhoods were hit? Do we use bit.ly bundles so readers can be informed and prepared before The Big Storm hits? Should the information be prominent on the homepage, or does it deserve only a tiny square of seattletimes.com real estate?

At the root of all these ideas were two questions whose answers were more complex than just a “yes” or “no”: What exactly do locals want or need to know in the event of a major snowstorm? And do we have the resources, capacity and desire to give those locals exactly what they want?

Here’s the answer to the first question. Readers, they concluded, read the paper’s weather stories every morning not to marvel at meteorological miracles but to see how the weather will affect them personally. That’s why, if the city wakes up to a snowstorm, the most important information to disseminate immediately is road conditions, school closures and information on anyone who was hurt. People need to know how (and whether) they’ll be able to get to work, whether their kids need to be dropped off on the way, and whether everyone they know and love is safe.

Here’s the answer to the second question: no.

If everyone is most concerned about how the weather will affect them, they’ll probably be eager to know when a snow plow will visit their street, whether it’s safe for two-wheel-drive cars to drive in the neighborhood, whether the local convenience store is open, which day their youngest child’s daycare will be up and running again and whether church/bridge club/rehearsal/24 Hour Fitness will go on as it always has.

People have a lot of questions. For news agencies to answer all of them, they’d have to have an unlimited budget and an endless supply of reporters working around the clock. But let’s face it: not even The New York Times could–or would, for that matter, even if they could–supply all the above information.

However, it’s fascinating how much information we can provide in a short amount of time.

Among other things, Times editors want to tell people how many inches of snowfall their neighborhood has seen in comparison with other neighborhoods in the city; which major roads in their neighborhoods are open or closed; which school districts have announced snow days; and what the weather looks like later that day and beyond.

Someday, they also want everyone on staff to post pictures of the weather scenes near their respective places of residence and map the pictures in an interactive graphic. They’re also mulling posting reader-submitted photos in the same package, à la The Washington Post during its own snowpocalypse.

As for the catch-22, The Times has decided to err on the side of caution, informing people of any and all possible turns the weather could take on its brand new blog, The Weather Beat. So far I’m the blog’s sole contributor, but come snowmageddon season, I’m sure the entire staff will pitch in.