Sunday, November 11, 2007

Travels Wests Heads Nor'east

In which Pops and Auntie tell of their trip through the great North Kingdom

USS Constitution

It all started innocently with the idea of seeing the USS Constitution and the fall foliage colors in the Northeast. You know, large old white houses overlooking a colorful valley. Covered bridges. Industrious farmers. Maple syrup. Grandma Moses country.

So, after making air, car rental and hotel reservations away we go, my sister and I. We’re just a pair of upper-middle-aged Californians who mean to play tourist around Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine – natives call it the Northern Kingdom.

A cramped five-hour flight on United through Chicago into Logan Airport, a short shuttle to the car rental agency and off we go, maps firmly in hand. (Only later do I learn that it’s been a long time since Mary had her eyes checked and can just barely make out the street signs. And I can’t hear worth a damn so driver-navigator communications are going to be dicey.) We wind our way up Route 1A to Salem. After some minor backtracking we arrive at Hawthorne Hotel – a marvelous large old structure right in the middle of "Witchcraft Center." The room has a pair of queen sized beds and separate baths – convenient when sharing a room with a sister. Very nicely fitted out. And there’s a posh restaurant and a comfortable tavern off the lobby. But it’s late and they’re closed and we need some nourishment. No problem. I had noticed a fast food place on the way into town and can chase down some grub. Get to Bill and Bob’s for a pair of their terrific beef sandwiches. Took me an hour to find my way back to the hotel -- and it couldn’t have been more than a mile. This was the start of what would become a very nasty trend.

I guess a brief note about the city of Salem need be inserted here. It is said that Boston’s streets were laid out by cows. Maybe so. M.C. Escher must have designed Salem. Being an old city (b. 1626) many narrow single-lane streets run every which way, crowded up against their Cape Cod-style buildings, seemingly without a square corner anywhere. And what is this about no signs on the street you're are on? And, a street can be named one thing and then abruptly change at a cross street. I think the Salem witches come out each night and change the street names. End of rant.

After a hearty breakfast we set out – the first turn out of the parking lot is wrong, as are the next few. (She: "What’s that sign read?" He: "Speak up, I can’t hear you." It’s like that for the next six days.) It’s as though my inner compass has been reset by demons in the night.

Pops attempst to steal Old Ironsides. The man behind him calls the cops.

Old Ironsides
We backtracked down Route 1A to tour the USS Constitution – Old Ironsides – the oldest warship afloat. (HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England, is older but is not "afloat.") It’s a dark, blustery day with gray clouds scudding across the bay. But, for nautical buffs, this tour is a must. The wooden-hulled, three-masted frigate, launched in 1797, was built of 2,000 live oak trees cut and milled in Georgia; her planks are 7 inches thick. The ship’s design was also unique for its time because of a diagonal cross-bracing of the skeleton which contributed to the ship’s strength. Paul Revere forged the copper spikes and bolts that hold the planks in place and the copper sheathing that protect the hull.

We take the guided tour which takes us below decks – from where the carronades can hurl a 32-pund iron ball more than 500 yards. The museum nearby also offers a lot of information with illustrations, a couple of hands-on displays and a model demonstrating the hull construction.

Back in Salem, we do a walk-about to visit with Michael Wall, proprietor of the American Marine Model Gallery, specializing in buying, selling, researching and refitting model ships. (I met Michael more than 30 years ago when he had a shop in Tiburon, Calif., at which time I wrote a feature story on his work for The Sacramento Bee. He also did some repairs on model ships built by my grandfather and now owned by my sister and me.) Michael has a beautiful and complete showroom and work room, offering some of the finest ship models built by craftsmen of the past and present.

Salem is 381 years old. But the events of a single summer have caused an unbalanced commercialism into witchcraft and the occult. Everywhere you look in the old part of town shops cater to witches, witchcraft, aromas, candles, potions and the like. It’s like Hallowe’en 365 days a year. Pity! The city’s first resident Roger Conant would not have been happy. We do not visit any of the shops or "haunted" houses.

A Little History Lesson
From June through September of 1692, nineteen men and women, all having been convicted of witchcraft, were carted to Gallows Hill, a barren slope near Salem Village, for hanging. Another man of over 80 years was pressed to death under heavy stones for refusing to submit to a trial on witchcraft charges. Hundreds of others faced accusations of witchcraft. Dozens languished in jail for months without trials. Then, almost as soon as it had begun, the hysteria that swept through Puritan Massachusetts ended. (Click here for more of that crap.)

One if by land, two if by sea

The following day, we take the catamaran-style ferry from Salem to Boston. The weather was rainy and the seas lightly choppy but it’s a rather pleasant 40-minute ride and offers a good view of the city. There you can follow the Freedom Trail – a 2.5-mile red brick and cobblestone path that leads to 16 of the city’s historic sites.

The Old State House, Old North Church, Paul Revere’s House – history runs amok through this city. The interior of the old North Church – you know, one if by sea, two if by land – is especially interesting. Its huge brass chandeliers, "box" pews and massive organ. A tour of Revere’s home reveals a fascinating map showing the April 1776 position of the British ships in the bay, as well as a few other artifacts regarding his metal work and "the ride." Also on display: one of the bolts used to hold together the Constitution. Lunch in a fine little Italian restaurant where Mary orders a "personal" pizza that turns out to be large enough to feed four. We turn down the offer for a doggie bag.

We take the subway to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Oops, wrong line, so we backtrack and start over. The museum, currently undergoing expansion, is a delight. Mary heads for the Impressionists while I stick with the arts and crafts of the 19th and 20th centuries. Marvelous silverware by Revere, Shreve and Tiffany; furniture (arts and crafts by Stickley and Greene & Greene) and contemporary (Sam Maloof, Charles Eames and Wendell Castle); pottery (Rookwood, Grueby, Chelsea Keramic Art Works); pewter (Edmund Dolbeare and Raymond Gibson); glass and copper by Roycroft; oils by Winslow Homer and John Sargent, and a display of cyanotypes by Arthur Wesley Dow.

Back to the subway and then the commuter train back to Salem. No sweat. But wait! We left the rental at the Salem Ferry slip and the commuter train leaves us off on the other side of town. Through the rain we quickly find a taxi to haul us back to the Hyundai.

We head north on Highway 95 to reach into Maine (so Mary can add it to her states-visited list). Lunch in Portsmouth. Then across the Piscataqua River into Maine. The coast here is quite rocky and the weather rough – even the gulls are grounded. But a hearty group of surfers is trying to catch some of the two-foot waves. Made it up to Portland – mostly on old Highway 1 – passing through York Beach, Wells Beach and Kennebunk, and then retraced our steps back to Concord, N.H., to spend the night. They say location is an important factor in placing a hotel – well, Best Western outdid themselves. The damn hotel is in such an out-of-the-way side road it took as while to locate. (Even the AAA book had the directions wrong.) And finding it, it was like, well, a Best Western. ‘Nuff said.

The next day, we head to St. Johnsbury, Vt., to visit an antique-collecting friend and her husband. Straight up Highway 93. Very nice and colorful drive. Did I mention the highway rest stops? They’re complete with visitor information center, vending machines and the ever-present souvenir gifts. We meet Paul and Steve at her shop in Lyndonville, and then trail them to her home which, she says, is "not far." Forty-five minutes later we arrive at her place where she serves a hearty meal of shepherd’s pie and we visit with her, Steve and her father, a career Army officer.

Keep you eye on the Silver, Molly

Our reservations are for the night at the Broadview Farms Bed & Breakfast in Danville. Paula and Steve decide to show us the way. By now, it’s pitch black and off we go following their SUV. Over hill and dale, round and round until I am completely befuddled and sure that we are being led up some haunted path. (Didn’t we just pass the Bates Motel?) But it turns out the B&B, run by Molly Newell, is a grand 100-year-old house nestled on a ridge overlooking a valley. The building is chock full of three generations of antiques – enough to make an entrepreneur as myself drool. (In a soft voice, Mary asks how I like all the antiques. I reply that my suitcase isn’t big enough. She breaks up.) We have a wonderful Northern Vermont visit. The talk turns to weather and comments are made like "you’re likely to see snow in the morning." We nestled down in those big old beds with the soft comforters and that’s that for the night. Morning: No snow.

After breakfast of pancakes with homemade maple syrup, we’re off again, headed back to Concord and Lexington to visit the trail made famous by Paul Revere. It’s a marvelous bit of country with the fall colors just past their peak but still a wonder. We headed down Interstate 91, which runs along the Connecticut River that forms the boundary between New Hampshire and Vermont. Highway 91 is the newer route and quite fast, but take the older State Highway 5 if you wish an up-close look at the countryside. A brief side trip takes us to Quechee Gorge, the "Grand Canyon of Vermont," a deep cut through the mountain, through which flows the Ottauquechee River.

We stop for lunch at a rustic-appearing place, surrounded by hundreds of huge pumpkins and colorful gourds, that advertises "everything organic." Wonderful wheat bread sandwiches with a lush green salad right out of the garden. A brief talk with the owner reveals that he and his wife work the farm and café from May through October and then spend the winter in Florida where they have a similar set-up. Very clever, those Vermonters.

Just one minute, man

Pretty much a straight shot down 91 to Lexington, Mass. We finally locate the visitors information building (hidden behind one of the largest hickory trees I’ve seen) to get our bearings. Instead, get a parking ticket. Lovely.

The historic Battle Road to Concord begins with the Minute Man statue at the intersection of Routes A and 4/225, just up the road from the Munroe Tavern, headquarters of the British; the Buckman Tavern, where the Lexington militia gathered and the Lexington Green where the militia confronted 800 British Regulars on April 19, 1775. The trail – mostly within the Minute Man Historical Park and Battle Field Trail – continues through Fiske Hill, the spot where Revere was captured, into Concord and finally to the North Bridge, where Colonial militia first fired upon British regulars. Rain was falling heavily on our short hike to the bridge. Mary recites from memory the "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" by H.W. Longfellow I’m impressed. To me, this is hallowed territory where, after years of trying to pull away from England, the American Revolution really begins.

Leaves of Grass

Back on the highway now – and getting a bit jaded about the scenery – make a stop at Walden Pond, which I find to be a lot larger than I had imagined. But the park and surroundings are beautiful, with the colorful fall foliage reflected on a the dark water.

On to Springfield for the night at Hartness House, an imposing three-story structure overlooking the bustling city. We thought we were headed to a room in the main building, but got relegated to the annex with its own entry (no hobnobbing with the hoi-polloi from here). The room could have been a Best Western anywhere. Mary was not pleased.

Monday back to Salem and a final night at the Hawthorne. Same room. Same bathroom with clogged drain. Same mix-up with the streets. Will I never get this right? Our final night, we splurge with a lobster dinner. Capt.’s Waterfront Grill and Club (spelled correctly) offers a variety of lighter fare. Very pleasant. Dinner of lobster and risotto is tasty but the chunk of lobster is no bigger than my thumb. Did I order the child’s plate?

Our return through Logan, via United Airlines with its cramped seating, to Denver and Sacramento is without incident. Didn’t get lost once.


Blogger KC said...

Yo, baby!

Next time git yr ass about 18 miles north-northwest of ole Salem and check out the first statue in North America honoring a woman: my ancestor, Hannah Dustin. Hero of mid Early New England.... and wikipedia has a good page on the ole hatchet-swingin' broad.

5:26 PM  
Blogger M2 said...

Thanks for dropping by, K., and we'll check that out!



8:37 AM  

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