Island coasting – a driving technique raised to lifestyle


I got into the habit of coasting downhill in neutral my first winter on Martha’s Vineyard, in the fall of 1979. I had a book contract and a National Geographic Magazine assignment, but would be broke until my literary ships came in. The habit continued the fall of 1997 when I returned to work for The Martha’s Vineyard Times, then again in 2004 when I returned to the Island after a few years off. Once more, I had a book contract and a National Geographic assignment. Once more, I was broke. Not much had changed.

In 1979 I had rented the Captain Silva House, which my old, now-departed friend Doug Parker had just bought on State Road on the outskirts of Vineyard Haven (eventually he turned the barn into a gallery called On the Vineyard, now the Trustees of Reservation offices).

The Captain Silva House sits at the bottom of a dip in the road, whether coming from up Island or down. To save on gas, whenever I returned home I would shift my ’72 Volkswagen Bug into neutral and, as my calculations and skills improved, could coast all the way into my driveway from the top of the hill — all of about half a mile — without ever stepping on the accelerator pedal.

It was my understanding, fact or not, that such a tactic, legal or not, safe or not, saved a few dear drops of fossil fuel, ergo protecting both my pocketbook and the Planet. If it was illegal, not to mention slightly dangerous, I defended it with the good old ends-and-means justification. (By the way, there’s no mention of it being illegal in the Commonwealth here:

At the time we were in the throes of an oil crisis, so a gallon cost — gasp! — around 85 cents. It was not much compared to the approximately $4 one shells out today. But still, I reasoned unreasonably, a half mile here, a half mile there could add up by the time I’d reach the Pearly Gates – or got rich enough to buy a piece of Windy Gates.

There was another flaw in this strategy to save a few precious pennies on even more precious petrol. In case you have not noticed, Martha’s Vineyard is not exactly, say, Nepal. Hills are not plentiful. Downhill skiing is not our big tourist draw. Our poor incline-deprived kids are reduced to sledding down that paltry mound at Tashmoo Lookout from not-quite-nosebleed heights.

Yet, over time I discovered the hidden ups and downs, ebbs and flows, rises and falls — in short, the topographical sensuousness of the lady landmass named Martha.

For example, from just about in front of the Tisbury Farm Market on State Road in Tisbury, an ever so gentle incline begins to take a coaster all the way to Five Corners when there’s no traffic and if there’s a slight wind at your back.

From the intersection of the North Road and the Menemsha Crossroad, you can make it all the way to the Menemsha Galley and, if you’re not careful, right into the pond.

From the scenic Keith Farm overlook on Middle Road in Chilmark you can roll down to Beetlebung Corner. And then there’s that glorious roller coaster a half mile further east on Middle Road.

While I have not saved a fortune, in the process I found a greater value in the practice. It has taught me to slow down, to appreciate the scenery I sometimes forget to admire in the summer rush from farmers’ market to beach to fundraiser to cocktail party, or in the winter blahs when all I pay attention to is when summer will arrive.

Over many years of my own Island ups and downs, of brushes with literary immortality and love eternal (brushes regrettably avoided), and of jobs come and gone, I came to another realization: coasting on Martha’s Vineyard is not just a driving technique – it’s a way of life. In fact, it may be our defining lifestyle choice.

It’s very easy to coast through life here. You can cobble together a living, make enough money through the busy summer months – drive a tour bus by day, shuck oysters at parties by night, garden or hammer nails when called upon, sell a little real estate here and there, live off your trust-afarian inheritance, whatever it takes – and still disappear to Vieques for the winter with what disposable income you care to dispose of in any indiscriminate manner you choose. Then you can come home and do it all over again and again season after season. I know people who have lived that way for decades, well past the time when you may dismiss this modus operandi as the devil-may-care randomness of one’s 20s and 30s.

Then too, the landscape remains relatively the same. Oh, there is change: the sudden and complete disappearance of such beloved and iconic landmarks as Humphreys in North Tisbury one season, or the unsettling appearance of a trophy house that blocks a heretofore unobstructed view from your own trophy house on Osprey. But generally speaking, the scene stays reliably, dependably, beatifically just like it was last year, just like it will be next year.

The same can be said for people’s social landscape. From one year to the next, it’s the same old same old faces at the same old same old Fourth of July parties. As time goes by, in fact, those social circles become blessedly insular.

In a manner, time here can effortlessly stand still, lulling us into the belief that we can coast not just in neutral, but almost with eyes closed, trusting that the curves and hills are right where we left them the last time we had to shift into gear.

And therein lies the final flaw in my coasting system, whether metaphorical or not. At some point you do have to shift into gear to move forward. You can’t coast uphill.

Nonetheless, for those few miles — or those few years — the thrill endures, luring us into the firm conviction that coasting, at least on Martha’s Vineyard, is a good thing.

Perry Garfinkel, a former editor of The Martha’s Vineyard Times Calendar section and the author of “Buddha or Bust” ( promises to shift into gear. Soon.