Lighthouse keepers (for a day)

The lonely shoreside beacons are trendy travel spots for those willing to pay for a working vacation.

It's a certain type of vacationer who enjoys mowing the lawn in an irregular formation well after dark, then eagerly rises the following morning to raise the flag at precisely 8 a.m. This on a day off.

Dave Hazelwood is that vacationer.

It's a few minutes before 8 - the appointed flag-raising hour. The flagpole stands on a patch of grass, surrounded by a quaint spattering of Adirondack chairs. Set back a bit, dwarfing the pole, sits the Rose Island Lighthouse in all its period charm: white clapboard, subdued greenish gray trim, slate shingles, the lantern room peeking off the top.

Mr. Hazelwood is in the second day of his one-week tour of duty as cokeeper of the Rose Island Lighthouse, with his wife Mary K. Like other "keepers" tending lighthouses along both coasts and the Great Lakes between, this couple, from Hermann, Mo., were drawn to the romance and rusticity of a lighthouse vacation.

Dave is decked out in the gear he's managed to accumulate from the gift shop, which they're also charged with running: salmon-colored sweatshirt stamped with the Rose Island Lighthouse imprint, green hat. Mary K. wears the same sweatshirt in purple.

As the Hazelwoods set out to raise the flag, just one task from a shockingly thick book of instructions, they explain that it's the most important.

The waving flag assures the community, and Charlotte Johnson, executive director of the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation, that everyone on the island survived the night. (A little unnecessary in light of the cellphone that connects the Hazelwoods to shore, but an endearing ritual nonetheless.)

Of an earlier era and often situated in remote and ruggedly beautiful places - isolated islands, rocky outcroppings tottering at the ocean's edge - lighthouses hold a special place in the collective imagination.

"There is some kind of wild, romantic idea about lighthouses," says Fred Mikkelsen, who maintained the Conimicut Light north of Rose Island from 1958 to 1961, and has vacationed here with his wife.

There also seems to be something about lighthouse keepers. Stalwart, solitary people whose vigilant efforts kept boats from being dashed against unseen obstacles, they, too, stand for a wild, romantic, and bygone time.

By merging the two, a number of local preservation groups have hit on a lighthouse enthusiast's dream vacation.

These programs, in the lighthouses that the Coast Guard began decomissioning en masse in the late '70s, consist of "keeper for a night" stays that can stretch as long as a month. Part service, part adventure, they're low on lazy relaxation.

But in the time I spent with the Hazelwoods, and perusing the guest book, it was clear that those who have visited this island - with a history spanning centuries that has earned it a place in the National Register of Historic Places - left it enraptured.

Rose Island's "keeper for a week" program, especially popular in summer months, can book more than a year in advance. Overnight visitors stay in the rooms downstairs. A museum by day, they were carefully reconstructed circa the early 1900s, down to the red handpump in the sink, with the help of Wanton Chase, the grandson of a keeper, who lived here until 1918.

On the evening that I arrived, I climbed a flight of stairs and gingerly made my way up a ladder into the octagonal lantern room to survey the view. It's enchanting up there, floating above the water; lights from the five other lighthouses in the Narragansett Bay glow red and green - our own white light, first lit in 1870, blinks every six seconds. To the north, the bridge linking Jamestown and Newport was strung with what, from this distance, looked to be tiny white fairy lights. All was quiet.

Except for the sound of a lawnmower. Looking down, there was Dave, headlights zooming in haphazard circles below.

"It's the first time I've mowed the lawn in five years," he explains cheerily the next day. "I pay someone to do that at home."

Dave works for Boeing. Since the war in Iraq began, he's been putting in 14-hour days that leave little time for household chores.

But here on this pork chop shaped island a mile from Newport, known for its majestic mansions, Dave gets to mow the lawn and clean toilets for around $200 a night.

There are more than 600 lighthouses in the US, with Michigan home to the most, according to the United States Lighthouse Society in San Francisco. All but the oldest, the Boston Lighthouse on Little Brewster Island, have been automated, no longer requiring keepers. Some 350 are open to the public. A handful offer overnight stays.

Preservation groups that began to form in the late '70s to restore and care for abandoned lighthouses now have a formal channel for acquiring them through provisions in the 2000 Lighthouse Preservation Act. Integral to their efforts have been the time and money infused by volunteers and visitors.

As I tag along on the morning rounds, I find myself asking the Hazelwoods 'why' a lot: Why do they monitor wind speeds and rainfall, or the amount of water and electricity used each day? The answer, in part, has to do with educating visitors about conservation. But why the log books - filled with notes on a day's work that no one seems to read? Truth is, these entries may be the closest visitors to this - or any lighthouse - come to the actual experience of keeper.

"One time we had a blade of grass growing in a crack" in the lighthouse's concrete foundation, recalls Mr. Mikkelsen, the former keeper. Gingerly, with a pair of scissors, he says he cut the blade. Knowing the logbook would make its way, unread, into a basement in a government building, he made this entry: "Mowed lawn."

Lighthouse getaways across the country

Rose Island Lighthouse, R.I. (roseislandlighthouse.org) "Keepers" bring their own food and help maintain the lighthouse and grounds. Depending on the season, week-long stays in the modern quarters upstairs cost $900 to $1,800. Overnights in the downstairs museum are $155 to $185 and entail less work.

Keeper's House Inn, Isle Au Haut, Maine (keepershouse.com) Arrive by mail boat to this extremely remote lighthouse and inn on an island that is part of Acadia National Park. Rates, including three meals, range from $310 to $385 a night.

Big Sable Point Lighthouse, Ludington, Mich. (bigsablelighthouse.org) From April through November, volunteer keepers tend the lighthouse for two week stints. To be eligible for this true working vacation, you must become a member of the lighthouse's association (annual fees start at $25 per person) and go through an application process. But if selected, the stay is free.

Kilauea Lighthouse, Kauai, Hawaii (recreation.gov/detail.cfm?ID=1454) Overlooking the Pacific, Kilauea Point is a wildlife refuge and nesting home to seven varieties of Hawaiian seabirds.

Newburyport Lighthouse, Newburyport, Mass. (800-727-BEAM) Rent the lantern room of this 53-ft. lighthouse for an afternoon or evening. Choose anything off the menus of five local restaurants, with offerings that include fresh seafood. Up to four people can be accommodated, at $350 per couple.

For more information go to the United States Lighthouse Society at www.uslhs.org

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