This week I bought a cheap tent and headed to Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, Connecticut, for a break from the city. I wanted to see the starry sky, draw by the nearly-full moon, and wake up before dawn to watch the sunrise on the beach. The 500-site campground is a mecca for families and the RV crowd, but tent campers are welcome, and if you get up early, you have the run of the beaches and natural preserve for an hour or two.
The highest, most beautiful spot in the preserve is Meigs Point, which draws birdwatchers in particular. The windy hilltop includes purple martin houses, a nature center, a butterfly garden, and some big conch shell sculptures. The site has a rich history. According to the Friends of Hammonasset website:
Hammonasset Beach State Park is named for the Hammonassett tribe of eastern woodland Indians, one of five tribes that inhabited the shoreline area of Connecticut. The Indian word “Hammonassett” means “where we dig holes in the ground,” a reference to the tribe’s agricultural way of life. They grew corn, beans, and squash, and fished foraged and hunted as well. The first colonists arrived in 1639. In 1641 Uncas, a powerful Mohegan Sachem, married into the tribe and the area around Hammonasset was given to the Mohegans as part of the marriage dowry.
He soon sold the land to Colonel George Fenwick, the leader of the Saybrook Colony, who later traded the land to Henry Whitfield of Guilford for use as farmland. The Hammonassetts relocated to the Niantic River area, and were absorbed into the Mohegan Tribe. For more than 250 years the area was farmed. The colonists mainly used the area to gather seaweed and to cut salt-marsh hay for feed and bedding for horses and cattle….
In 1919, the Connecticut Park and Forest Commission began to acquire the lands that would comprise Hammonasset State Park. Part of the land that now makes up Hammonasset Beach State Park was purchased from Clarkson Meigs and others, a total of 565 acres, which now comprise the western end of the park. By the end of the year, 565 acres had been purchased at a cost of $130,960.
The place is lovely and only an hour and a half east of NYC by car, a little over two hours by train. Before I left the city, I did some research about tents. Places like REI and Tents & Trails cater to hardcore rock-climbing and hiking aficionados who care about efficiency and style, but I ultimately went to the Walmart near the campground. They have a pretty good section of lowbrow camping gear (old-fashioned brands like Coleman and Thermos), and I got a yellow double-wall, four-season, 2-person tent. The nylon shell filters the morning light, bathing the cozy interior in a warm yellow glow.
Each night, a robust moon rose over the salt marsh beside my tent. Most of the campers turned off their lanterns and glow lights, letting the moonlight illuminate their spaces for the evening. What artist isn’t reminded of Albert Pinkham Ryder when she sees a sublime spectacle like this?
In the moonlight, I made pencil drawings in a small sketchbook. I also used a headlamp–a small, flat flashlight attached to a headband that you wear on your forehead–when it was too dark to see clearly. Two Coats Resident Artist Sue McNally, who goes on long camping trips every summer, helped me put a sensible gear list together, and I loved the headlamp even if it did seem to attract insects to my face. Good thing I had plenty of bug spray.
I was having a productive time, so I was thinking of extending my stay, but on the last scheduled night a verbally-abusive neanderthal and his mortified girlfriend pitched their tent on the campsite next to mine. Up until that point, I hadn’t realized how truly respectful all the other campers on my cul-de-sac had been. With my new neighbors yelling and banging about (“You f**king tw*t! You think I’m going to MARRY you???!!!”; I kept thinking, Don’t EVER marry that lunatic), I decided it was about time to head home. Early the next morning, I packed up my tent, and as I drove quietly out of the park, I witnessed the majestic sunrise above.
Overall, the residency was a good experience. Camping suits my need for solitude, independence, spending time outdoors, and it caters to my penchant for problem solving. I like keeping the gear in the car so that I can have a camping residency anywhere, anytime I want. But perhaps next time I’ll set up my tent on private property or somewhere in the woods–not next to another wack-job in a big state park campground.
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