I press my foot firmly against the gas pedal, giving my car free reign to hurtle recklessly down the skinny one-way road. The marshy reeds and white beach cottages that line the street flicker past in a muted blur, teasing the corners of my eyes. Almost there… A wide, empty parking lot next to an endless expanse of grey-blue water comes spinning into view and I stomp on the brake, letting the tires splutter and skid against the gravel. My hand shoves the gear into park and the car swerves to a halt, stopping in front of a long row of boulders that line the parking lot. A grin spreads across my face: it’s been too long.
Flip to the “Weekend Getaways” section of The New York Times and you’ll find a list of about a dozen picturesque little towns, each with a name right out of a Beatrix Potter story: “Oyster Bay,” “Highland Falls,” and “York Harbor.” Tucked in between the descriptions of B&Bs and local eateries will often be the words “Guilford, Connecticut,” accompanied by a glossy photo of some colorful sail boats and a caption proclaiming it to be a “quaint, coastal town.”
Although travel sections and magazine ads are often prone to exaggeration, in this case “quaint” may be accurate. Settled in 1639, Guilford takes pride in its historic roots: middle-aged women dressed up in petticoats and hoop skirts give daily tours of nearby historical houses; the local Fife and Drum Corp—complete with their tri-corner hats and white wigs—march in every seasonal parade; and nearly a third of the current residents, particularly those with the surname “Dudley,” have ancestors who were once among the original founders of the town. People who are born here have a high chance of spending the rest of their lives here: in fact, it’s a relatively common occurrence for teachers to exclaim to some unlucky student in the middle of roll call on the first day of school, “Oh, I remember teaching your mother! How is she?”
The other half of the description, “coastal,” is also non-debatable, although the water proves deceivingly hard to find. After taking Exit 58 off of I-95 N and turning right onto Route 1, you’ll be greeted by the town green, a central hub of activity spiraling out of a 12-acre patch of grass and sidewalks with absolutely no water in sight. Initially, it appears that the town consists exclusively of delicate sugar-spun boutiques, pristinely preserved houses from the 1600s, and family-run bakeries. Nearby attractions, Bitner Park to the north and East River Preserve to the south, are pointed out by tasteful dark green signs. Yet there’s no sign for the beach: the locals appear to have hidden it far from the view of tourists. This is, perhaps, their idea of a practical joke.
But wander down a quiet, unmarked road near the Green and you’ll discover a different side of Guilford, a side the tourists never seem to find. Complete with swaying beach grass and crushed seashell paths, it’s a scene stolen straight from the Outer Banks. This is the real Guilford.
Here, the pavement turns to gravel and the tightly trimmed hedges give way to rusty reeds. The ocean is suddenly palpable in the air: sea spray, with its sweet-salty tang, rushes in through the open car window and nips softly at your face and eyes. The houses, too, start transforming. No longer the antique saltboxes of downtown, the homes that line this one-way street are patched and tumbled cottages built with weathered wooden shingles and whitewashed front porches. Buoys hang tacked near the front doors, and a wind-chime or two clink lazily in the breeze. This is a place of perpetual summer: there could be snow on the ground and a Christmas tree peeking out from behind a window, but the buoys would still be out there, waiting for the ice to melt.
Past this cluster of houses, round a few corners, and you’ll have arrived at your destination: the water. Although technically known as “The Guilford Harbor,” its true name—or at least the one maintained by locals—is “The Docks.”
I’ll be the first to admit it: it’s not the prettiest place in the world. It’s honestly just an open parking lot with a border of large, tannish rocks, all jutting out at right angles and forming ankle-twisting paths down to a small spit of slushy sand. Beyond it lies Long Island Sound: a stretch of shallow pencil-grey water smudged against a dull blue horizon. A tiny island to the left interrupts the streaky skyline. On it stands an abandoned house with faded red paint and spindly stilts, surrounded by a rough thicket of cattails and phragmites. With no one around, the place is silent, almost eerily so: even when standing on the boulders, you can barely hear the waves—they lap against the shore in quiet whispers, more ripples than actual waves.
As the name suggests, a small set of docks lie to the right, but there’s a sense that they’ve been carelessly shoved off to the side. The boats seem almost aware of this, bobbing self-consciously in the water and wincing when they hit the wood, as if fearful of drawing too much attention to themselves. People and seagulls alike leave these docks alone, preferring instead to perch upon the salt-drenched rocks to the left.
The Docks draw in a varied crowd: young families with stumbling toddlers in tow, middle-aged couples going for an after-dinner stroll, and packs of teenagers sitting on the boulders and skipping stones across the water. But there’s one commonality: these people are all locals. No tourist could ever find this place, except maybe by accident; this is, after all, a getaway for the people who happen to live in everyone else’s getaway.
Perhaps that’s why the appeal of this place is often lost on outsiders. While tourists appreciate Guilford for its colonial history, the locals appreciate the Docks for maintaining a different kind of history: a personal history. This is where kids take their first steps; where high-schoolers line up in long rows of sparkling gowns and crisp black jackets to take prom photos; and where parents tote their children, expecting them to ooh and ahh at the water, only to end up applying Band-Aids to their knees after they trip and fall on the uneven rocks. It’s where children’s days begin and teenagers’ nights end. It’s a place for meet-ups and break-ups; a place for celebration, and a place where salty tears can meet their match in the salty sound.
I speak from experience. Born and raised in Guilford, I was that kid who tripped on the rocks and I was that teenage girl dolled up in a lavender prom dress and heels. On balmy summer nights in high school, I would come speeding down that unmarked road with a car full of friends, music thudding from the speakers and laughter tingling in the air. We would spill out from the car, race each other across the parking lot and leap up onto the closest rocks. Lying in the dark on those boulders, we would trade stories, make plans to someday kayak out to that island, and sing “Tonigh-igh-ight we are young” at the top of our lungs in an off-key harmony. This was our escape, our secret hideout, our place to be as young and carefree as the shifting ocean waves.
I switch off the radio and gently pull my keys from the ignition, listening as the growl of the engine dies away and silence settles into the seats. I lean back against the headrest and release a sigh, my eyes scanning the feathery gray horizon. Everything is just as I left it: the dull water, the cluster of boats, and the lonesome house on the island. The only real change is that this time I’m alone—one day when my friends and I weren’t looking, college swooped in like a seagull, grabbed us by the collar, and dropped us in far-off destinations. Back for the first time in months, I step softly from the car, walk over to rocks, and climb up on the tallest one. A light breeze washes over me and I close my eyes as I take a deep breath, filling my lungs with the misty ocean air that I’ve missed so dearly. After a moment, I open my eyes and as I look out, I can almost see the colorless outlines of my friends and me perched on the tan rocks, the sounds of our laughter still echoing across the water.
Renee Bollier was born and raised in Guilford, Connecticut, a town known for its sailing and colonial history. As luck would have it, Renee is neither a sailor nor a colonist. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.