Ravishing Rockport

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"We are a long way from Starbucks,” said Mark Silva. Silva works at Helmut’s Strudel, a small shack that straddles the edge of Bearskin Neck, in Rockport.

This captured the feeling that we (Bart and Katie) had as we wolfed down a strudel on the back deck of the bakery, enjoying the scenery. We felt far removed from Boston. The view was so engrossing that Bart hardly noticed the staggering amount of crumbs littering the front of his shirt. 

We stared at views of fishing boats, heaps of lobster cages and buoys bobbing on the waves—all reminders of Rockport’s maritime heritage.

“This place is very quaint. We have the same traditions over the years,” said Jessica Randle, a long-time resident. One such tradition occurs every December when Santa Claus sails into town on a lobster boat.

“[People are] here to get a mood,” said Andrew Menna, a local artist with a gallery on Bearskin Neck. Rockport has tiny shops and art galleries standing in an intimate embrace. Cars seem out of place next to these buildings that are hundreds of years old. Bearskin Neck has been preserved by residents to maintain its identity. And the best part? There are no Starbucks.

Rockport may feel years behind Boston, but it’s only an hour away on the Commuter Rail. From Boston’s North Station, a round-trip ticket to this seaside village costs less than $20.

One of Katie’s first thoughts walking the narrow streets of downtown Rockport was, how the [expletive deleted] do these cars get down this road? To Katie, this place was foreign, having lived in Boston for two years. The salty air, bright lights and the lack of honking horns caught us off guard. There was no smell of pollution. Drivers were actually encouraging us to cross the street. And on this particular day, Katie could see for miles off the coast.

“There is a quality of light…beautiful, shimmering, very special light,” artist Brooke Taney said of Rockport. This light draws artists to this tiny fishing village on the shore of Cape Ann. Taney was preparing for an open house when we walked in to browse her work. She told us to come back at the scheduled time, tempting us with champagne. While Katie was trying to get Taney to open up about her take as an artist on the building Motif Number 1, Bart was intent on scoring some free alcohol.

Among all the art galleries, we noticed quite a few depictions of this red barn. According to rockportusa.com, Motif Number 1 is the most-painted building in the world. The solitary red barn stands on the precipice of a wharf, surrounded by water and open sky. Colorful buoys hang along the broad side walls of the barn.

When Taney first moved to Rockport, she initially refused to have anything to do with Motif Number 1. She was not excited about painting a cliché. “I was encouraged to paint Motif Number 1,” said Taney, “and I said, ‘Never! I never want anything to do with this over-painted thing!’”

At the behest of her mentor, she finally gave in and painted a modern-day variation of Motif Number 1. She painted the barn buried in the background, behind cars, parking meters, buildings.

When Bart first saw this dilapidated, overrated shack, he could not figure out what the big deal was. It’s a red barn by water. So what? It was a monolithic bucolic cliche - red peeling paint offsetting the bright blue sky and the deep blue water. It was one of those structures that was too perfect to be true. But if anything, we were more excited about the prospect of eating a hot dog than staring at this underwhelming structure.

As we approached Top Dog, a hot dog joint, it seemed quiet and unassuming from the outside. However, the inside of this one-room dog house is hot, crowded and loud. We waited patiently while the frenzied cashier ran all over the room to clean ketchup spills. When she finally took our order, she was reduced to tears (seriously). While Katie ordered, she noticed a sign that said if the Red Sox hit a home run, the customer at the register would get a free meal. At $16 for four dogs, two orders of fries and two sodas, we watched the TV in the hopes that by some fortuitous chance, David Ortiz would belt a homer.

After fighting our way through the crowd, we waited a long time for our dogs.  We began to wonder if this entire adventure was worth it. Bart decided it was. He was about to begin gnawing on his own arm when the food finally arrived. We found the dogs to be plump and juicy, the fries salty and hot. Although still a little taken aback by the cost of the meal, we had no trouble pigging out. Our only regret was eating at the Top Dog shack itself. If it was any hotter, we’d be sweating into our French fries. They really didn’t need to be that much saltier. Instead, we could have picnicked. One place to do that is at Rockport’s Halibut State Park, where we can admire a splendid vista of rocks and ocean.

Halibut State Park is three miles from downtown Rockport.  The park was a granite quarry, but is now open to visitors.  As we approached the quarry, Katie thought she was back in the dinosaur age.  The quarry is a massive donut-shaped hole filled with water. The cliff-like rocks rise dramatically into the landscape. Katie was tempted to dive in and probably would have tried if not for the numerous signs prohibiting a quick dip.

Behind the quarry are massive sandy boulders that line the shore. Seven people could lie down on one rock.  On this particular afternoon, the warm breeze and light splashing of the waves as they hit the rocks made the perfect backdrop for an afternoon nap.  And that is exactly what we did. As a result of our cat-nap, we discovered later on that the sun had burned our skin.

We were not alone in lazing on the rocks. We met Margo Bell, a New Hampshire resident, who went to the park that day to avoid “raking leaves” at her home. “[I] came here to get away and go back to reality in an hour,” she said.

Another place to escape reality is at the Paper House. The small, two-room paper bungalow is unexpectedly positioned among suburban houses. In 1922, Elis Stenman built the house with over 100,000 newspapers, using glue and varnish.

Although the frame of the house is made from wood, the walls and furniture are made of newspapers. In some places, guests can read sections. On one particular piece of furniture, the grandfather clock, visitors can read the banners of each newspaper from the (then) 48 state capitals. Today, nearly a century later, these walls can still tell stories.

The current caretaker of the house is Stenman’s great-niece, Edna Beaudoin. She lives in a (normal) house next to the Paper House. We caught her as she was working in her yard, accompanied by a pair of standoffish cats.

Of her ancestor, she said, “He was an amateur inventor, always doing strange things. And this worked out.”

Beaudoin seemed nonchalant about the Paper House. If the place burned down, it was meant to be, she said. She pointed out that her great-uncle smoked in the Paper House. Maybe he wasn’t so concerned about the potential fire hazard of lighting a flame in a building coated with varnish and stuffed with newspapers.

One of the things that struck us when we walked in the Paper House was how high the ceilings were (about 20 feet from the ground). The rich mahogany hues of the varnish made the house a little dark, but no less impressive. The furniture looked like it was built from Lincoln Logs, covered with thin rolls upon more thin rolls of newspapers. When it was built, it had the modern amenities of the time, such as electricity and running water. But there was an outhouse, so don’t bother looking for a paper toilet.

“It’s just as good as any old house made of wood,” said Beaudoin.

A word of caution: should visitors decide to go to the Paper House and/or Halibut State Park, it would perhaps be wise to look at bus schedules. We did not.

Instead, we walked what seemed like the entire length of the American continent.

This was a result of poor planning. While Katie seemed unperturbed by the distance, Bart whined the whole way.

There was a tense moment on the walk back from Halibut State Park. Bart searched for the bus line. Katie wanted to just keep walking. At one point, we stopped in a convenience store along the way. While Katie picked up some M&Ms, Bart asked the cashier if the bus would ever be coming.

“Oh, about once every half-an-hour,” an EMT said casually. He was standing nearby, scratching off lottery tickets, apparently unconcerned by our plight.

The two waited at the bus stop for about 15 minutes.

“Want an M&M?” Katie asked.

“No thanks,” said Bart, I just want the damn bus to come.

“Let’s just keep walking,” Katie said, “it’s not that bad!”

The bus never came.

We later found out that the EMT’s assertion could not have been further from the truth. On Saturdays, the bus only runs five times a day.

But we completed our cross-Rockport trek and safely made it back to the downtown area. Before long, we were on the Commuter Line back to Boston, back to our reality. One thing’s for sure—there aren’t any good, homemade strudels in Starbucks.


City Founded:

City Population:

Commuter Rail Stop:
Rockport, Newburyport/Rockport Line

Depart from:
North Station



In the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, a replica of Motif No. 1 was made into a float for the parade, and won first place in the historic float competition.



Bearskin Neck

Halibut State Park

Paper House

Top Dog