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