It’s a shorthand we use, these preferences that define our lives. We’re morning people, or night people. We drink coffee or tea. Some favor the sweet things in life; others seek out the tang of salt or the sharpness of spice. Entire advertising campaigns play to people’s passion for the PC or Mac, and in the sailing world there’s no avoiding the question: are you a cruiser, or a racer? How a sailor answers that question will determine a good bit, from choice of boat to the weekend schedule.
Racers generally commit themselves to light and fast, preferring Kevlar sails and carbon masts to canvas and wood – if the budget allows. Spending hard-earned dollars on new technologies, they push technology to its limits. Others, coping with older and heavier boats, ponder their PHRF ratings and do what they can to maximize performance.
Still, whether their vessel is a Sunfish, a J-Boat or a fully-fitted cruiser, racers share a few characteristics. They’re tweakers at heart, constantly adjusting sail trim, seeking the currents and anticipating the wind. Demanding of themselves and one another, they’re often focused to point of obsession. In the end, their goal is simple – to get from point A to Point B first, and in the shortest possible time.
Cruisers are a different breed. While racers amuse themselves blowing out one sail after another, cruisers assure themselves that “any fool can fly too much canvas”, and ease the jib sheet. They’d rather reef the main than tear up a perfectly good sail, especially one they’d have to patch themselves while underway. They like to think of spare pumps and canned goods as ballast, and the more inches of fiberglass between them and that floating log or coral head, the better.
Cruisers have destinations, too, but the schedule is looser, more amenable to change. They’re happy to wait on weather, and though pleased by fast, easy passages, the pleasure is less the arrival time than the joys of a new anchorage.
I’ve always considered myself a cruiser rather than a racer, but in recent years I’ve come to appreciate a third option – the life of the gunkholer. True gunkholers embody the spirit of Kenneth Graham’s Water Rat, famous for telling Mole, “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
Nearly every boater knows those words, but few could finish the passage:
In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t, whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular, and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.
And there you have it – the essence of gunkholing. Whether pursued with a bicycle or in a kayak, by car or on foot doesn’t matter. It’s the “messing about” that’s the point, and the messing about that turns travel into wonder.
I was messing about on the back roads of Kansas not long ago when I realized the sun was setting. With Emporia well behind, Manhattan too far north to be reached before dark and Topeka holding little appeal, I headed west at Allen, toward Council Grove. I’d never heard of the town, but assumed from the map it might be large enough for a motel or two. If not, I’d go on to Herington, where traffic to Fort Riley probably would guarantee lodging.
On my way into town, I passed one sign pointing to a “Stone Barn” and another that referenced the Santa Fe Trail, and I began to get interested. Later, I learned just how old the town is – the main street traces the path of the Santa Fe Trail and ruts from covered wagons still are visible in the surrounding prairie. In 1825, a treaty giving Americans and Mexicans free passage along the Trail was signed beneath the so-called Council Oak, part of an extensive local grove that provided shelter to travelers, wood for wagon repairs and a name for the town.
At what seemed to be the town’s primary intersection, a half-lit vintage sign advertising “Motel” pointed to the right. Hitting the brakes, I made a hard right and looked. What I found was astonishing. No flophouse this, no old-fashioned tourist court or cookie-cutter franchise. This was the Cottage House Hotel, an area landmark that had been providing rooms to travelers since 1879.
Initially a three-room cottage and blacksmith shop built in 1867 by George Biglin, it was expanded into a boarding house in the early 1870s by Reverend Joab Spencer. When ownership passed to Mr. & Mrs. Lewis Mead in 1879, the Cottage House became “favorably known as a home for many of the commercial tourists who visited the city.” Used as apartments during WWII, it underwent refurbishing in the 1980s, and now provides comfortable lodging in the midst of the Kansas prairie.
Two significant features of the Queen Anne reconstruction by the Meads, the turret and the bay window, can be seen in the postcard above, and in these photos taken during my stay.
The restoration of the interior has been beautifully done. The white oak staircase, period lighting and original stained glass are special treats, making it possible to imagine the graciousness of life more than a century ago.
Six days and five states later, another sunset found me messing about near Hannibal, Missouri, eager to find lodging in the midst of that town’s annual Harvest Festival. Not a single motel room seemed available, but a bored young desk clerk at the Best Western gave me a list of other possibilities. For no good reason, I decided to call the Garden House Bed & Breakfast. As it turned out, a cancellation in the previous hour had left them with a vacancy, which I promptly filled.
I found the place on Hannibal’s so-called “Millionaires’ Row”, a street lined with beautiful Italianate, Greek Revival and Victorian homes built near the turn of the 19th century. My room would be in the Pettibone-Trowbridge House, an 1896 Queen Anne built by Albert Pettibone, brother of Hannibal philanthropist Wilson B. Pettibone. (The new owners have a sense of humor. See the jack-o-lantern in the upstairs window?)
Wilson Pettibone’s house, also a restored 1896 Victorian Queen Anne and a contemporary bed and breakfast, reflects Mr. Pettibone’s status as a wealthy lumber baron. Built for his wife Laura, it made use of a variety of woods in its ornate interior woodwork, and still contains the original Rookwood tiles, stained glass and gas/electric light fixtures.
America being what it is, far more than architecture and houses will delight the avid gunkholer. In Minnesota alone you can meet the Jolly Green Giant, visit the Spam Museum, peek under a bridge at a memorial for hobos, and discover where coots congregate while preparing for their own travel to Texas. Each of these wonders has its own history, its own story to tell, and yet each would have remained invisible to me had I not made a single commitment: to forego the franchise, the reservation, the interstate and my own expectations while I messed about on the backroads of America, gunkholing my way through places I never could have imagined.
As I came to the end of this wonderful trip, forced at last by necessity to travel from Point A to Point B in the shortest possible time, I thought a good bit about my sail through life. I’ve raced to meet deadlines and I’ve cruised into every sort of circumstance imaginable, but the time has come to acknowledge the truth. I’ve become a gunkholer at heart.
Like the bear who went over the mountain, I’m eager to see what I can see. While crossing the mountain on a freeway or circling its perimeter with one eye on the clock may lead to the other side, taking time, messing about, meandering, giving in to curiosity and setting aside expectations often leads to a more detailed and satisfying view.
Winning races surely is a reason for pride. Reaching planned-for destinations provides a sense of accomplishment. Planning each step of a journey ensures a certain security. But gunkholing? It lowers the blood pressure, delights the eye and inculcates a sense of wonder. It lets you hear the wind in the willows or the creak of a schooner across an unbroken prairie, and it’s the best traveling in the world.