I should get this out of the way up front. I’m not from Essex. I don’t live in Essex. In fact when I first came to Essex I wasn’t even looking to kayak. Of course, it was December. I came to town looking to shop for antiques for my wife for Christmas. (Essex is said to have more antique stores per square mile than any town in America.) In retrospect this displayed a profound ignorance both of my wife’s tastes and the price of quality antiques. Desperate, I decided to get her a life jacket. I was pretty sure she’d kayaked once. I walked into ERBA and in the time it took to buy her gift I was signed up for guide training.
I bring up my outsider status because in writing about Essex I don’t want to lay false claim to any insider knowledge in describing the town. I don’t know what happens at town meeting or the history of the high school football team. In this case though...that works. If you’re reading this you’re likely thinking about visiting Essex (two other possibilities: You work at ERBA. You’re my Mom.) What I experienced is what you’ll experience when you arrive. And that is as authentic a coastal town as you’re going to find.
Too often now we arrive somewhere new to find a perfect corporate replica of what a place is “supposed” to look like. A coastal New England downtown includes a McDonald’s framed with artisanally bleached wood that looks almost as if it’s been sitting in the sun for a century. In Essex it isn’t a McDonald’s and it has been sitting in the sun for a century. Essex is the real deal.
I think much of this starts with the clams. Essex and Ipswich contain some of New England’s richest clam flats. People flock here for the fried clams that Essex claims to have invented. Essex starts with the clams and clamming, as an industry, can’t be faked. The industrial revolution did almost nothing to make it easier. If you want a clam someone has to stand in the mud bent over a hole and dig with a rake. There is no clean, easy version that can be branded and packaged. Watching this work is humbling and grounding.
Much of the work that goes on in Essex is like this. Honest work, easy to describe, hard to do. Out of that comes community. Summer in Essex is the clammers working the flats. It is also the lines stretching down the sidewalk by the fried clam restaurants. It’s the Essex River cruise boat chugging up the river, the high school kids scooping ice cream and the mechanics at the marina working on the underside of a boat. Summer in Essex means the wares from the antique stores spilling out on to the sidewalks. In days gone by it meant the shipbuilders hard at work sending another vessel out to sea. Today it also means the ERBA van bumping through town with a colorful load of kayaks on the trailer behind it.
That’s where I come in. I may not be from Essex, but when I’m behind the wheel of the ERBA van the locals wave and the tourists stop to watch us go by. I drive past all of these businesses and that paddle past the clammers and I develop a sense of how it all comes together to create one place. None of us are getting rich doing this. None of us are attempting to create a place that will be popular with focus groups. We’re all doing something that matters to us and, in most cases, something we enjoy. Authenticity can’t begin anywhere else.