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

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

READ NEXT: Five Cities that Surprised Me

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Photo by Jill Kimball

Different spokes: Test-riding Seattle’s three new bike shares

Photo by Jill Kimball

 

 

Seattle is a famously bike-friendly city, yet in the five years I lived there, I probably went on a grand total of five bike rides.

I have numerous excuses for this error in judgment, some of them silly (exercise is too hard; I don’t have any padded shorts) and some legitimate (the weather is terrible most of the year; the city is famously hilly; Seattle isn’t quite as bike-friendly as many would have you believe). Since moving to Colorado and becoming a full-blown cycling addict, I’ve wanted to return to Seatown and rectify the mistake…but I haven’t quite known how.

Until now.

This summer, it became insanely easy for anyone–visitor or resident–to cycle around Seattle. No fewer than three bike-share startups popped up in the Emerald City this year, and they’re so eager for your business that they’re practically giving bike rides away. (By “practically,” I mean “literally”–my husband and I took about 10 rides in three days, and the companies’ generous free-trial policies meant we never paid a penny.)

All three of these companies–Limebike, Ofo and Spin–operate in much the same way: They’re all dockless, meaning their bikes are scattered across the city, parked on sidewalks, in parking lots and along multi-use trails. Once you’ve unlocked one with a simple QR code scan or smartphone tap, you’re free to ride as long as you please. When you’re done, you can leave it pretty much anywhere that doesn’t obstruct car or foot traffic. Well, except in the middle of a lake or up a tree.

So, to recap: It’s easy. It’s convenient. It’s cheap, if not free. In other words, there’s literally no reason not to try out a bike share the next time you’re in Seattle. (Well, except for the helmet issue…which I’ll address later.) But which bike should you choose? Read on to find out what I thought about each company!

LIMEBIKE

If you live in Seattle and haven’t yet seen LimeBike’s green and yellow frames gracing the sidewalks, driveways and trails of the city, you probably live underground. Back in the summer, LimeBike boasted the biggest presence of any bike-share company in the city by far.

Limebikes are classic cruisers with swept back handlebars and Dutch-inspired step-through designs, which means it’s easy to hop on and off whether you’re in slacks or a skirt. A Limebike comes with eight gears, and shifting between them will be painless and intuitive for pretty much anyone who’s ever ridden a bike. The bike comes with a loud, satisfying bell, and it too is easy to use.

There were a few things I didn’t like about LimeBike. For one thing, I had to add payment information as soon as I downloaded the app, even though the company immediately granted me five free rides upon download–and that slowed down my momentum a bit. For another, the suspension on LimeBikes is terrible…although they’re not alone in that regard. And finally, there’s my least favorite feature: the seat post. While the seat of a LimeBike is adjustable, it doesn’t move up high enough to comfortably fit anyone who’s even remotely tall. I’m 5’8″, and I sat so low on my LimeBike that every little hill was a slow, laborious climb. (Update: Limebike has now fixed this issue, and biking around town is much easier! However, pedaling will still feel a bit laborious to anyone who’s used to sitting up high on a road bike or hybrid.)

COST: $1 per 30-minute ride. Your first 10 rides are free, and you can earn another few free rides by swapping promo codes with a friend.
BEST FOR: People who love the feel of a beach cruiser
BAD FOR: Tall people

OFO*

Unlike the other two Silicon Valley startups, Ofo is based in China and already has robust dockless bike share systems in 170 cities worldwide. Ofo differentiates itself from LimeBike with a solid yellow frame and black handlebars, boasting a look that’s a bit more sophisticated and less cartoonish. The design is something between a Dutch step-through and a commuter hybrid, which appealed to me–I’d love to see more companies designing cute commuters. I thought adding a cup holder to the basket was a fun touch, especially considering Seattle’s coffee fixation.

Ofo impressed me in the areas where Limebike fell short: Its seat actually adjusts to fit a variety of heights, making for a much less physically demanding ride. And rather than asking for payment upfront, Ofo let me get on a bike immediately after I downloaded the app.

However, Ofo, too, had its drawbacks. Like LimeBike, the suspension was terrible. The basket was too shallow to hold my purse. I found the handlebars to be a bit too close together for someone of my height. The gear shifters worked fine, but they were a little bit less intuitive than those on LimeBike. I didn’t like that the app asked me to enable Bluetooth, and I found it annoying that I had to shuffle between my Settings and the app to give Ofo permission to use my camera, when for the other two all I had to do was press “allow” within the app.

Yet even with all these drawbacks, I’d choose Ofo over Limebike in a heartbeat for the better seat adjustment alone.

COST: $1 per hour, with a first-timer promotion of five free rides
BEST FOR: Tall people and coffee drinkers
BAD FOR: People who carry large purses

SPIN*

At the time of my visit, Spin’s bright orange bikes were probably the most difficult to track down. For every dozen LimeBikes I encountered, I’d see a handful of Ofo bikes and just one Spin. Yet I was the most interested in trying this company, as their bike design probably hews closest to that of a standard commuter bike, my preferred model.

So you can imagine my frustration when my search for a Spin was unsuccessful.

It’s true–I never actually got to ride a Spin bike at all. After a pleasant Ofo ride to Golden Gardens Park one afternoon, I downloaded the Spin app and spotted one of their bikes near the beach parking lot. But when I arrived at the bike and scanned its QR code, I found out someone else had already reserved it.

With reservation capabilities, Spin has made itself a two-wheeled Car2Go, giving it an edge over the competition. It’s great for, say, commuters who want a solid transport plan in place before they head out the door. But it’s not so great for spur-of-the-moment riders or first-timers like me–people who don’t yet know the rules and are destined to be confused and annoyed to find the only bike nearby is already taken.

Like Ofo and unlike LimeBike, I didn’t have to provide my credit card information up front on Spin’s app, which was a plus. I liked the bike’s nice deep basket–it’s perfect for a purse or a grocery bag. My husband, who was able to ride on a Spin, noted the gear shifter was a bit sticky (a common complaint); I, panting behind him on a LimeBike, noted with envy that his bike frame was larger and his seat higher than mine. But given I didn’t actually give Spin a test ride, there’s not much more I can say.

COST: $1 per 30-minute ride. Over the summer, Spin was giving away 10 free rides to new customers.
BEST FOR: Commuters and regular riders
BAD FOR: One-off riders

Photo by Jill Kimball

THE HELMET ISSUE

That visitors and locals alike have taken to bikes with abandon thanks to dockless bike share is really exciting. That none of these companies plan to offer helmet rentals in the future is…mildly concerning.

There’s always been a debate about whether wearing a helmet while biking really is safer. But regardless of what you believe, the irrefutable fact of the matter is, it’s illegal to bike without a helmet in Seattle.

That obviously poses a problem for almost every potential bike share user, from local residents looking for a spur-of-the-moment ride home after a night out to tourists looking for a fun way to cruise between sights without the hassle of traffic and parking. Most people don’t pack helmets in their carry-on luggage, nor do they stash one in a purse or backpack on the way to work every day. I admit that even I didn’t wear a helmet during any of my rides around Seattle, and I felt a bit on edge without one–back home, I wear one every day during my commute to work.

There’s a huge disconnect between the city’s bike laws and its open-armed welcome to these three companies–and that has to be addressed sooner rather than later. Until then, tourists and casual riders will have to choose between flouting the law or making a temporary investment in a helmet.

Jill Kimball

My Seattle biking getup.

Have you ridden any of Seattle’s shared bikes? What did you think? Sound off below!

*Update: Both Ofo and Spin announced in August 2018 that they would leave Seattle, citing high permit costs. For now, that means Limebike is the only bike-share option in the city — however, Curbed Seattle has noted that electric Jump bikes may soon be available there.

Winter blues

…sure beats the winter greys!

lakeunion

No one REALLY enjoys constant rain, so it’s easy to believe Seasonal Affective Disorder is something we’ve all invented in our minds. But when the sun comes out in February, like it has today, I feel a huge sense of possibility and empowerment. I start getting excited about all the projects I started enthusiastically last summer but have since let fall by the wayside. If this great weather sticks around or at least shows itself a little more often, I have a feeling I’ll finally plant those indoor herb jars, seek out a collapsible, Farmer’s Market-friendly basket for my bike, and pay more visits to local parks with good walking trails.