Plymouth Rock has not grown larger since your middle school field trip. As someone who lives a dozen stone’s throws away, I would be among the first to notice a growth spurt. Yet every day, visitors to my hometown appear surprised to discover that it is barely big enough to qualify as a boulder. The typical reaction: That’s it?
What were they expecting, I wonder. Mount Rushmore? Plymouth Rock’s diminutive size hasn’t exactly been a state secret since 1741, when Thomas Faunce supposedly came forward to claim it was the Pilgrims’ landing spot. But based on the collective sigh of disappointment I’ve witnessed, the value we place on a historical landmark is apparently proportionate to its heft. A minute or two invested in rock-gazing is plenty for the average tourist. After that, it’s time to get on with more inspiring activities, like hunting down a lobster roll.
“That’s a natural reaction,” Ann Berry, executive director of the nearby Pilgrim Hall Museum, tells me when I call to discuss the phenomenon. “People tend to think of the icons of American history as larger than life, that they’re special and amazing.”
I’ll concede this much: Plymouth Rock doesn’t make a dazzling first impression, especially in an age where snazzy presentation seems to matter more than content. It’s 10 tons of granite, cracked and patched, in a bed of sand 5 feet below street level. There are no interactive exhibits, no touch screens to dissuade the kids from texting. In fact, there is no touching whatsoever – Plymouth Rock is an all-holds-barred experience.
And it can be gripping.
William Bradford’s 17th-century journal doesn’t mention the Pilgrims stepping on a stone, only that they came ashore in Plymouth after a brutal voyage. Four hundred years later, their story has become a blend of reality and myth, and perhaps blatant lies. Today, Plymouth Rock is a place to wonder, to question, to contemplate all that happened then and since.
“The symbolism kind of outweighs the actuality,” Berry says. “People come here and make meaning for themselves.”
For those who take the time to consider Plymouth Rock, it can be a starting place, a reminder of the will to persevere and the powerful pull of freedom. That’s what Gail Tucker finds on a Sunday afternoon late last month. “I’m standing here thinking about what it must have been like for those people to come here with nothing to survive with,” says Tucker, 72, who was visiting from Arizona. “ ‘Let’s just get in a boat and go to a place we don’t know.’ It’s kind of amazing.”
To others, the landing marked the beginning of an ending. Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered atop adjacent Cole’s Hill on Thanksgiving to observe a National Day of Mourning. A plaque there describes “the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture.”
The rock has shown up in songs by Brian Wilson (“Roll Plymouth Rock”) and Cole Porter (“Anything Goes”). Malcolm X used it to describe oppression: “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us.” A road race, insurance company, and wannabe movie studio – among many others – have adopted the name. It’s been the setting for parades and protests and pranks. People from around the world come to take a peek.
Ruth Walker, a Plymouth Rock “interpreter” into her 80s, spent years bringing the Pilgrims’ past into the present until her death in 2002. Like the rock, Walker didn’t look imposing – 5 feet tall, on her toes. But her stories were huge, potent enough to hush a beehive of fifth-graders fresh off a 50-mile bus ride.
I thought of her on a recent rain-drenched afternoon during a stop along the harborfront. An onshore wind chased crinkly leaves down a gravel path and the sky oozed a silvery backdrop. My sweat shirt was no match for the creeping chill. A decade earlier, Walker had told me days like this were her favorite kind: Nature’s special effects enhanced the Colonists’ already dramatic tale. “It’s not like a spiel or that somebody can push a button,” she said. “Computers are tools, but I just hope they don’t substitute for people.”
Or replace a rock that is as big as you might imagine.