Review

Off Season: Discovering America on Winter's Shore

by Ken McAlpine



Consider the sad fate that has overtaken the word "tourist" in
recent years.

It started out meaning simply someone who travels somewhere to see
the local sights. But over time it has taken on a strong odor of
disapproval. "Tourists" arrive in huge crowds, create congestion,
behave rudely, drink too much, speak in weird accents, leave trails
of litter behind them and condescend to the locals. Economically
they are a necessary evil in the eyes of residents (I once heard a
board member of Colonial Williamsburg complaining about the damage
inflicted there by tourists: "Couldn't they just stay home and
send the money?").

Ken McAlpine, however, is a different kind of tourist. Unhappy with
the stress and bustle of American life in general, he set out ---
alone --- in his van to find places where what he considers the
true spirit of "real" America survives. His hunting ground was the
East Coast, from the Florida Keys to Lubec, Maine. And just to show
that he was no typical tourist, he traveled in midwinter, largely
avoiding the better-known tourist roosting places in favor of
out-of-the-way areas, like the spot on the New Jersey shore where
one resident told him, "We don't want people to know where
Strathmere is." No Sanibel, Hilton Head, Cape May or Hamptons for
Ken McAlpine.

McAlpine has chronicled this offbeat odyssey in a deftly written
memoir. He is an experienced travel writer with a nice gift for
simile and metaphor and a gift for seeking out crusty local
characters who seem wedded to the places they inhabit. OFF SEASON
is enjoyable reading, but it also has a subtle undercurrent of
concern for an imperiled American lifestyle that McAlpine
treasures. He deplores the creeping advance of urban sprawl toward
the unspoiled places he finds, and he sides unashamedly with the
small-town heroes who are fighting against it.

The major East Coast cities --- Norfolk, Baltimore, Philadelphia,
New York, Boston --- are either skirted entirely or summarily
dismissed as obstacles to be got through as quickly as possible en
route to more interesting places like the Outer Banks of North
Carolina, Tangier Island, VA, or Montauk at the eastern tip of Long
Island.

McAlpine has a thing for "the loveliness of islands." Fishermen,
beaches and water bulk large in his narrative. He went to the
trouble of packing a kayak into his van so he could periodically go
off by himself and paddle around looking for exotica, human,
vegetable and animal. And the casual reader will painlessly learn a
fair amount about fish and fishing. Several of the places he visits
can be reached only by boat. There are no maps in OFF SEASON, so it
is a good idea to have an atlas handy as you read.

Summer weather was still around in the Florida Keys when he started
out in October, but as he gets farther north winter is an
increasingly bold presence, culminating in a harrowing night spent
in a ditch when his van slid off an isolated rural road in Maine.
He finds his interest shifting from meeting colorful people to
spending time alone, tramping beaches or exploring inlets to drink
in a sense of inner peace.

The spirit of this engaging book is well captured by the picture on
its cover. A group of empty canvas beach chairs stand, backs to the
viewer, looking out over a flat expanse of water. A thin line on
the horizon suggests, rather than depicts, a far shore. A lone gull
inspects the scene. Not a "tourist" in sight.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 13, 2011

Off Season: Discovering America on Winter's Shore
by Ken McAlpine

  • Publication Date: June 22, 2004
  • Genres: Essays, Nonfiction, Travel
  • Paperback: 290 pages
  • Publisher: Three Rivers Press
  • ISBN-10: 1400049733
  • ISBN-13: 9781400049738