Copyright © 2008 by Tony Horwitz. All rights reserved.
The Pilgrims didn't think much of Cape Cod. "A hideous and desolate wilderness," William Bradford called it. "Full of wild beasts and wild men." Rather than stay, a small party from the Mayflower sailed ahead, searching for a winter haven. In December 1620, they reached Plymouth, a place "fit for situation," Bradford wrote. "At least it was the best they could find."
On a New England road trip a few summers ago, I washed up in Plymouth, too. It could have been Dedham or Braintree or some other pit stop on the highway near Boston. But a Red Sox game pulsed on the radio, so I drove until it ended at the Plymouth exit. Stopping for beer at Myles Standish Liquor, I was directed to the William Bradford Motor Inn, the best I could find in peak tourist season.
Early the next morning I went for a walk along the waterfront, past a chowder house, a saltwater taffy shop, a wax museum, and a replica Mayflower moored in the bay. Near the water stood a gray historic marker that was terse even by New England standards.
Plymouth Rock. Landing Place of the Pilgrims. 1620.
I looked around and couldn't see anything except asphalt and a few stones small enough for skipping. Then I spotted a lone speed-walker racing down the sidewalk. "Excuse me," I said, chasing after him, "but where's Plymouth Rock?"
Without breaking stride, he thrust a thumb over his shoulder. "You just passed it."
Twenty yards back was a columned enclosure, between the sidewalk and shoreline. Stepping inside, I came to a rail overlooking a shallow pit. At the bottom sat a lump of granite, the wet sand around it strewn with cigarette butts and ticket stubs from the wax museum. The boulder, about five feet square, had a badly mended cleft in the middle. It looked like a fossilized potato.
A few minutes later a family arrived. As they entered the portico, the father intoned to his children, "This is where it all began." Then they peered over the rail.
"It's, like, nothing."
"We've got rocks bigger than that in our yard."
Before long, the portico was packed: tour bus groups, foreign sightseers, summer campers. Their response followed the same arc, from solemnity to shock to hilarity. But Plymouth Rock was an icon of American history. So visitors dutifully snapped pictures or pointed video cameras down at the static granite.
"That's going to be one heckuva home movie."
"Yeah. My Visit to Plymouth Pebble."
"The Pilgrims must have had small feet."
I went over to chat with a woman in green shorts and tan shirt standing outside the enclosure, counting visitors with a hand clicker. Claire Olsen was a veteran park ranger at Plymouth, accustomed to hearing tourists abuse the sacred stone. "A lot of people come here expecting the Rock of Gibraltar," she said. "Maybe that's where they went on their last vacation."
She was also accustomed to fielding odd questions. Was it true that the Mayflower crashed into Plymouth Rock? Did the Pilgrims serve Thanksgiving on top of it? The bronze, ten-foot-tall Indian on a hill overlooking the rock—was he life-sized?
The most common question, though, concerned the date etched into the rock's surface. Why did it say 1620, visitors wondered, rather than 1492? Wasn't that when Columbus arrived?
"Or they ask, 'Is this where the three ships landed?'" Claire said. "They mean the Niña, the Pinta,...
Author: Tony Horwitz
Tony Horwitz is the bestselling author of Midnight Rising, A Voyage Long and Strange, Blue Latitudes, Confederates in the Attic, and Baghdad Without a Map. He is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. He lives in Martha's Vineyard with his wife, Geraldine Brooks, and their two sons.