A tale of two villages

Over which small town will the first American sunrise of the 21st century shine?

Published December 24, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Eastport, Maine, (population 1,967) sits on the easternmost edge of the continental United States, its rocky Moose Island shores long forgotten by the sardine industry, its white-spired downtown neglected by all but the heartiest of sightseers. So it's no wonder Eastport's treating the 2000 sunrise as a gift from tourist heaven.

We're talking hoopla. We're talking fireworks, a millennial dance recital, a millennial parade of lighted scallop boats. Snow or shine, we're talking a millennial golf tournament. The town fathers are tricking up the quaint streets with banners and flags, the soda fountain promises a Millennial Sundae (ingredients: top secret), the Chamber of Commerce a flotilla of Navy warships ("Nuclear submarine and Eisenhower-class aircraft carrier -- we're not yet sure what Secretary Cohen will send") -- all amusement for the bleary, cash-laden tourists craning across Passamaquoddy Bay toward the dawning American millennium. Eastport needs the sunrise.

Which is unfortunate. Because the village of Sconset -- 30 miles out to sea on Nantucket Island, Mass., -- will beat Eastport by half a minute.

Think of it as a photo-finish horse race across the curve of the earth, where the noses are islands, and the flashbulbs are the rising 2000 sun. The starting gun was an anonymous tip; the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror contacted Vladimir Strelnitski, resident astrophysicist for the Mariah Mitchell Association. He did the math. And yes, since the earth's winter tilt pushes the Northern hemisphere away from the sun, 'Sconset will (theoretically) steal the twilight's first gleaming from its poorer northern cousin.

"But altitude, atmosphere -- there are many ifs," he said. "For such a small difference, no serious scientist should say which will definitely be first. It must be approached with a mood of humor."

For Rand Castile, director of Eastport's millennium committee, the news from Nantucket Island just isn't funny. "That's funny," he said from his water-view home. "What is he, an astronomer or an astrologer?"

Like Eastport, Nantucket is a former boomtown (whales, not sardines) turned bust. Like Eastport, its charm was preserved by a time capsule of poverty.

But make no mistake; Nantucket's no Eastport. These days, this 7- by 14-mile swoosh of seascaped sand is as recognizable as a Nike symbol, and just as marketable. Its quaint Algonquian name sells choco-chunk cookies, split-rail fencing and mango nectar. Five airlines fly to Nantucket's quaint airport, five ferries dump passengers on its quaint shores. This summer, as its population swells from 9,000 to 60,000 residents, its quaint cobblestoned streets will gridlock with rented jeeps, prompting some natives to fix new bumper stickers on their spanking new $36,000 pickups: "It used to be nicer in Nantucket." No, Nantucket's no Eastport.

Which is why there's little interest in another blast of touristic sunshine -- particularly in the usually shuttered winter. A millennium committee grudgingly formed, agreed on nothing and happily disbanded.

"There was talk of fireworks -- but that fell through," explained Mike Manville, spokesman for Nantucket's Chamber of Commerce. "Basically, we have no interest in a millennial brouhaha."

Perched over the computer in his observatory office, Strelnitski is the first to say that scientifically, the millennium is "an absolutely senseless event" -- and that economically, town fathers know best.

"We are a rich island," the Vladivostok-born scientist observed. "Maybe, we can say 'yes, we understand -- this year you can claim the first place.' Otherwise, we will produce hysterics which have no reason."

This week, as Eastport continues to swell with New Year's bookings, the first tourists buzzed Nantucket's summer shops. Mina Manner sat in the yard of her crooked, gray-shingled 'Sconset cottage, lobbing a spitty tennis ball to her black lab.

"They're going to come, let 'em come. Why not?" the 74-year-old Nantucket native laughed, flinging another spit ball toward the seamless ocean view. "Winter's long. Let's have a party."

"Years ago, I would have celebrated New Year's with Guy Lombardo, on the radio. But that was the 1960s. Since then, Guy and I have parted ways."

By Charles Graeber

Charles Graeber has written for Harper's, GQ, Vogue, Details and Wired.

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