There is a vast difference between solitude and loneliness, Bill Kitchen of Jonesboro has discovered over the past decade. But it wasn’t a simple process to come to that revelation and Kitchen’s autobiography could easily be called, “How I discovered the richness of relationships by being alone.”
Some of the chapters could be titled “Life as a successful music promoter,” “Working on Park Avenue, New York,” “My friends, Bill and Hillary Clinton,” “Watching the second plane hit the World Trade Center,” and “Living alone for 16 months on a lighthouse island off the coast of Maine.”
Six weeks ago, 53-year-old Kitchen left the 164-year-old Little River Lighthouse on the 16-acre Little River Island at the mouth of Cutler Harbor. He is still a bit astounded that while seeking solitude to heal himself on the island, he discovered that it was his relationships with other people that were the most important things of all.
Kitchen tells his story slowly, in chronological order, waiting until the very end to share the day he left the island because the parting was so painful. Even though he is indoors, he keeps his wool cap pulled tight over his head and his heavy scarf draped around his neck, as if he is still expecting a sudden gust of cold sea wind.
“I was born on Long Island and grew up on the shore of Connecticut,” he says. “I sailed and fished always and the water was the most important thing to me.” But when it came to pursuing a career, Kitchen didn’t listen to his heart. He turned his back on the ocean and became an investment banker. “I was lucky as can be and I was set up to succeed, but I didn’t love it.” Within two years, he again avoided the sea and pursued a career as a concert promoter.
He owned a nightclub and restaurant in Virginia. He moved to Washington, D.C., and for another five years, he worked at Cellar Door Productions, one of the largest concert promoters in the U.S. Moving back to New York City, Kitchen struck out on his own and eventually produced more than 3,000 concerts. He was called on to coordinate all 13 of President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural balls. When Clinton was re-elected, Kitchen produced the next 11 inaugural balls.
He counted the president and first lady as his friends. “I adored them,” he says. He hobnobbed with Bob Dylan, joked with Chuck Berry. He had a staff, a motorcade, and spent three years as the White House “music guy,” producing events all over the city, both public and private.
Kitchen returned to New York City, became the director of marketing for Sony Music International and then spent the next eight years with music marketing agencies. “I loved it. I thought I was happy,” he says.
Then, one sunny late summer morning, he heard there might be a major fire in downtown New York City, and he stepped into the street from his apartment — just two blocks from the Empire State Building. It was September 11, 2001, and the North Tower of the World Trade Center was burning. He was still watching when, at 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower. Within an hour, that tower collapsed, followed 29 minutes later by the north tower. To say that in those moments Kitchen’s life was forever changed is putting it mildly.
“This was an absolute turning point for me. I was shell shocked,” he says. Shock, horror, and frustration overtook him, and while many people found a little bit of hope in togetherness and the company of others, Kitchen was riddled with confusion and a feeling of unease that he couldn’t shake. The trauma of that day was embedded in his mind, heart and body, he says. Kitchen struggled for months.
And then, in 2003, he grabbed an opportunity to retreat to Mexico and live — alone — on a sailboat at Puerto Vallarta. “I couldn’t get there fast enough,” he says. Besides reuniting him with the sea, the six months spent on that sailboat provided a time of healing. The roar of the falling towers began to fade. The air was clean and clear, not choked with debris and dust. Kitchen felt he might eventually find a sense of peace.
When he felt ready, Kitchen came back to New England, this time to Massachusetts to teach. Vacation trips to Maine were frequent and, at first as a visitor and then over three summers as the summer lighthouse keeper, Kitchen discovered the Little River Lighthouse on Little River Island at the mouth of Cutler Harbor.
“It was just spectacular,” he says, his face lighting up. “It is 16 acres of fairyland.” In 2011, Kitchen became the first person to live alone on the privately owned island for an entire winter. Previously, families had lived on the island and then the U.S. Coast Guard sent several men at a time. The lighthouse was deactivated in 1975 and wasn’t relighted until 2001, according to the Friends of Little River Lighthouse.
Kitchen’s plan was to market and promote the lighthouse as a learning center, especially for children, using daily dispatches from the island. Axiom of Machias installed Internet service — it took three trips to the island and a worker literally holding onto a tree and leaning over a 50-foot cliff to get a signal.
Kitchen used donations and several small grants to finance the project, created a blog and shared his photographs and experiences. He held video chats with classrooms all over the world. More than 30,000 people visited the blog.
It wasn’t all a garden of Eden. For the first six months — until Jan. 20, 2012 — the lighthouse keepers’ house had no heat. “I wore eight layers of clothes, a hat and gloves, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Kitchen says. Eventually, a pellet stove was installed. He explored every nook and cranny of his “enchanted island.” He listened to the fog horn blast every 10 seconds — an estimated 1.8 million times during his stay. He fell into freezing water, lost the motor to his boat and was nearly washed onto rocks, went a full three weeks without seeing another human. His days were ruled by three things: the tides, his VHF radio and the weather.
Kitchen says he was concerned he might be lonely but knew that he needed to continue his quest for solitude so that he might heal. Self awareness came slowly, he says, but it eventually did come. While new to the island, Kitchen listened to the local fishermen, their wives and children talk on the VHF radio. It was mostly everyday chatter, he said, but those voices became his community, his social life, his lifeline to the world. Slowly, as acceptance of “the city guy from New York” began to take hold, fishermen began delivering lobsters for his supper. They began calling him on the VHF to check on his safety and well-being.
“I finally grew to feel connected to people again, to these simple, honest, genuine people of Washington County.” In cities, he says, a man can be surrounded by thousands of people and not know a single one. But by himself, on an island, in this rural place with so few people, he knew each one intimately. He felt a part of something larger than his beloved island, and to his surprise, he began feeling hopeful again.
When the yearlong education project ran out of funding and ended this fall, Kitchen had to leave the island. “I felt like I was leaving a living, breathing entity,’’ he says. “I was part of that island and it was part of me.”
Kathleen Finnegan of the Friends of Little River Lighthouse, based in Cutler, said keeping the lighthouse and keeper’s house open during the winter was too expensive for the volunteer group. She said Kitchen’s stay was mostly self-supported and was a one-year experiment. She said the lighthouse, which offers overnight and day stays, will reopen in the spring with volunteer summer caretakers. “Bill did a great job bringing visibility and visitors to the lighthouse,” she said, but added that without major support, creating a year-round learning facility is out of reach.
Kitchen now lives in Jonesboro and works for Axiom as part of a major broadband project. “It’s been an incredible six weeks,” he says, referring to the readjustment to life on land. “I’ve discovered the potential of Washington County the Bold Coast and my ability to play a role.” He’s eager and happy to be among others and has already volunteered on a half dozen local committees.
Kitchen’s last trip from the island to the mainland was taken alone. “I closed up the house,” he says slowly, struggling through tears that quickly appear. “I took one last climb up the 33 steps of the tower and looked out over the expanse of sea. I sat in the Adirondack chairs on the bluff.”
Kitchen is quiet for moment, grappling with the memories. “I turned off the VHF radio, went down the catwalk and got in the boat. I knew there was a possibility that I would never be on that island again.” A pair of eagles that lived with him on the island flew overhead and circled twice. “I like to think it was a blessing and a thank-you,” he said.
“Did you look back?” he is asked.
“Oh, I looked back,” he answers. “I’ll look back the rest of my life.”
For more information about the Little River Lighthouse, go to lighthousefriends.com. Kitchen will be updating his blog soon to include his continued exploration of Washington County, at thelighthouseendeavor.com.