Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Trip to Maine

I took a trip to Maine earlier this summer, before I started writing this blog. Now I've decided to post the musings I wrote during that four-week wander, even though it's way, way in the distant past. Pictures associated with the following narrative are available in Picasa albums, imaginatively titled "2009 Maine Trip, Parts 1-7." Click on the link to the right, "View My Gallery." I recommend opening it in another window or tab.

Before you get started reading this, be forewarned: it's very long.

June 6, 2009

My trip doesn’t officially start until tomorrow, but in a conscious effort to establish what I hope will be the pattern for a four-plus-week trip, I’m sitting down at the end of the day to write this recapitulation of where I’ve been & what I’ve done. If you’d just as soon not get (hopefully) daily email updates of my cross-country voyage, let me know and I’ll remove your name from the list of recipients. No questions asked.

Like I said, the trip proper doesn’t begin until tomorrow; but I will be picking up my friend Mr Kirby at the airport in Dallas at 1pm, and I got to thinking, That’s a long drive from San Antonio, about 4½ hours. Why don’t I go spend Saturday night in Austin with my friend Hank? That way it’ll only be about a 3-hour drive in the morning. Much easier.

The day began with all my preparations already made; all I had to do was take Homer to the kennel (because Sherry’s leaving tomorrow for Arlington, Virginia, and Houston), pack the ice chest and load the car. Which meant I had time to weed-eat the front yard, do the dishes, and generally just sit around twiddling my thumbs for a few hours. No soccer on TV today – the season’s over.

So I took Homer for a walk through Monte Vista and then did all those other things. Had lunch with Sherry (at Jim’s; nothing special – a mediocre salad and good tortilla soup), then finally was off. Got to Austin around 2:30 and Hank and I spent a couple of hours just catching up on things, like menus aboard the France, the grammar associated with it, his work, my lack of work, Sherry, the many exciting and unexciting things that have happened in our daily lives since the last time we saw each other back in January. Then we went for a drive.

The hill country begins on the western side of Austin. When I was in college here, it was beautiful: the drive out to Hippie Hollow, where I spent many a Saturday lounging nude by the lakeshore, was a trek into isolated countryside, devoid of signs of civilization. Now it’s a cruise through suburban Austin. Still a nice drive, but not as nice.

We stopped at the Oasis, a locally-famous restaurant and bar overlooking Lake Travis. The first time I saw this place, it was a one-story rustic-looking oversized burger joint with a great view and famous sunsets. It still has the great views and famous sunsets, but it burned down a few years ago and was rebuilt as the paradigm of architectural garishness, and it appears to have set the standard for the area. It’s now three stories tall, its deck on the hillside above the lake is now three or four terraces cascading down in a jumble of brightly-coloured umbrellas; it is, I suppose, a mix of Texas Victorian, Hill-Country Limestone, and Renaissance-Revival styles, all co-existing in a somewhat discomfiting way, and overlooked by equally indecisive private homes built on a scale that is meant to impress but only revolts. Naturally, it has a gift shop selling its own souvenirs, and out front, a permanent arts-and-crafts market of the sort one usually sees during weekend events at the county seat.

Still, we enjoyed it. We had a couple of margaritas (I give it 3 stars out of 5) and split an order of nachos (3.5 stars) and reminisced for an hour or so. Then we went further up in the hills.
Oasis on Urbanspoon

I remembered that the drive beyond Hamilton Pool was particularly pretty, as is Hamilton Pool itself. But it closes at 5pm, and by the time we got there it was too late; so we went to Reimer Ranch County Park instead, which used to be the parent-property of Hamilton Pool. Reimer Ranch is known mainly for rock-climbing, mountain biking, and ATV-riding, in which I had no interest, but it was pretty Texas Hill Country scenery of the sort that always chokes me up, and reminds me of why I love living where I do. I took a few pictures but they don’t do it justice.

The path down to the river was steep and treacherous and neither of us really was dressed for that sort of thing, so Hank and I decided that we would just pretend we’d walked down to the river (about an 800-foot descent, and return); and while we were at it, we decided to pretend we had climbed rocks, too. Might as well. So: Hank and I climbed rocks at Sex Cave, whatever that is, and at Hand Beyond, and had a great ol’ time and got our exercise and of course did it barefoot and bare-handed and with no ropes or all that other gear those people drag around with them.

Then, back onto the road, out through Cypress Creek and up to Austin, where we found a beer hall that had ESPN2 so we could see the second half of the USA-Honduras World Cup Qualifier (US 2:0 Honduras) while tossing back a few beers (in my case, 3 Killian’s Irish Reds). After the match we moved to an outdoor table and sat in the coolness of the evening under a clear Texas sky and a gigantic full moon.

June 7, 2009

The trip has officially begun. I went to breakfast with Hank at Sweetish Hill Bakery, a long-time favourite Austin shop (now in its 4th incarnation, that I know of) and had a couple of scones and probably the strongest cup of coffee of my life. Left about 9 and immediately encountered that famous Austin landmark, the traffic jam on Interstate 35. Nine o’clock on a Sunday morning and it took me 25 minutes to go two blocks.

Tyler called when I was somewhere north of the city, and we made arrangements to meet for lunch at a place he knew on Oak Lawn in Dallas. That was the acme of the early part of the day, as the travelling part was largely spent on freeways, with the top up. And anyone who knows me will know how I felt about that.

After lunch, picked up Mr Kirby at Love Field and we headed east to Texarkana. By 4pm we were off the freeway, in Arkansas, but still on a four-lane divided highway. Fortunately it soon went to two lanes and trees appeared along the sides of the road. The rest of the trip from about DeQueen to Fort Smith, where we’ve stopped for the night, was very nice: winding roads in increasingly hilly terrain, very light traffic, no towns of consequence, and pastorally idyllic scenery. At one point, in the town of Mena, we came around a curve and over a small rise and the tail end of the Ozarks appeared as magically as the trees had earlier. They put me in mind of the way the Rockies come right up to the freeway in Colorado Springs, only lower, and with trees all the way to the tops.

June 8, 2009

We stopped for breakfast in Van Buren, a small town near Fort Smith that has a nicely-preserved Victorian Main Street Historical District, running about four blocks down a low hill from the railroad depot. The merchants along the street were mainly antique shops, salons, too-chic gift boutiques and some clubs; almost none were open at the early hour we were there.

We found an open restaurant near the bottom of the street. It was a large room with a high tinned ceiling and an ancient heavily-carved bar along one wall. Next to it was a sign: Hot Beer, Lousy Food, Bad Service, Welcome. I thought it was a joke, but it proved to be accurate as to the service (I ordered one poached egg; I got two fried eggs), and more accurate than one could have wished as regards the food. We didn’t try the beer.

After Van Buren, we headed up to Pea Ridge National Military Park (with a 15-mile detour to a dead end, in search of the Ozarks Arts Center, which was supposed to be 3.3 miles east of the highway, but wasn’t). Pea Ridge, it turns out, is the site of the largest battle of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River. The visitor’s center gives a good presentation of the battle, its background and import, then there’s a 7-mile drive around the perimeter of the park, with a dozen stops to see sites where the main aspects of the battle unfolded. As these things go, it was a nice couple of hours.

After a planned detour through southwestern Missouri (so I can mark off the last two counties in that area) we came to Beaver, Arkansas, where there is a fairly long (and exciting) one-lane wooden-decked suspension bridge. It was unexpected, and capped a beautiful cruise through narrow mountain roads.

The Beaver road ended up in Eureka Springs, one of those late-19th-Century resort towns that has acquired new life as an artsy, slightly gentrified vacation site, with an interesting mix of Christianity of the Bible-Thump variety, tattoo parlours, and biker-oriented gift shops. Strangely – or maybe not so strangely – the people that man the visitors’ centers and tourist attractions seem to lack a certain expected unctious friendliness. Maybe it was time for their break.

We stopped at a shop featuring local artists, where I was suitably impressed with the photography, ceramics and wood-crafts, but disappointed by the jewelry and glasswork. Then we drove up to the top of the town to see St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church, which is on a steep hill across the street from the impressive Crescent Hotel. The church was beautiful, inside and out, and its small gardens were wonderful. Then we went to the Thorncrown Chapel, a nonsectarian chapel known for its unusual architecture. It was attractive, all glass and vertical lines, but that was it.

We spent a lot more time in Eureka Springs that we’d planned, so we’ve only gotten as far as Mountain Home tonight. But it was a good day. (Plus, the place where we stopped for dinner had low-fat, sugar-free milkshakes, which actually tasted like a milkshake.)

June 9, 2009

Today was to be a day of severe storms, with hail and all kinds of rain. They said so on The Weather Channel. I gave some thought to getting out my maps and completely changing our route, maybe going through Tennessee or something, but in the end I decided I couldn’t rely on weather reports. It was a beautiful clear sky outside. My only concession to the potential for bad weather was that I didn’t put the cover over the top when it was down. I don’t like not doing that, because it gets the headliner dirty, but neither did I want to find myself trying to remove it during a sudden hailstorm.

It continued beautiful and clear all morning. We stopped for breakfast at a little place in Mountain Home, Arkansas, called Bobbie Sue’s. A real hangout for locals, who gratified me with their comments on the car, especially the guy who drove the soon-to-be-classic Geo Tracker with the rusted-through door.

You know how it is when you stop at local places for meals: one time out of four you get real crap food or bad service or whatever, but once in a while you find a real gem.

Bobbie Sue’s is of the crap-food variety. Not that it was really bad, just that it wasn’t good. No cream for the coffee, not even half-and-half packets; just powdered milk. Bleagh. The egg sandwich was literally that: a fried egg between two pieces of bread. It reminded me of that episode of I Love Lucy where they stop for dinner in Tennessee (which, I need not point out, is very close to Arkansas and obviously served as the model) and could only get rubbery cheese sandwiches wrapped in wax paper.
Bobbie Sue's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Kinfolks’, in Greenville, Missouri, is of the gem variety. Plain home cooking, nothing fancy; reasonably prompt, friendly service, and prices even Scrooge would love. The jumbo cheeseburger ($3.69), loaded with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles like in the old days before each condiment in its turn became too expensive, filled the large bun and was perfectly prepared. The regular hamburger ($2.29), equally loaded, was likewise exactly like you would have expected at any decent restaurant in, say, 1966; which is about when their prices were normal. And the onion rings were delicious, too. They even had an excellent-looking buffet featuring ham steaks, bratwurst, fried chicken, hamburger steak, half a dozen green vegetables, very fresh looking salad, and starches like corn on the cobb and mashed potatoes. For $6.99, all you can eat. $6.99! It was really hard to pass on that.
Kin-Folks on Urbanspoon

In between Bobbie Sue’s and Kinfolks’, we stopped at Missouri’s Grand Gulf State Park, near Thayer. It was a cave system that collapsed about 10,000 years ago, forming a series of narrow canyons about 80 to 100 feet deep. It was very pretty, and nicely maintained, but the mosquitoes were murderous.

By lunch time, it was clouding up, but was still good convertible weather. We drove up into south-central Missouri, apparently touring the state’s highway-construction sites, then back down to Trail of Tears State Park, on the Mississippi River. Other than a few exhibits in the Visitor’s Center about the time some of the Cherokee passed through, the park seemed mainly to be about Lewis and Clark.

We stopped early tonight, at Perryville, and tomorrow will cross over into Illinois and on to Kentucky. As soon as we got settled in our hotel room, it started to rain outside. They expect floods tonight.


June 10, 2009

I lead a charmed life in some respects. I’ve often said so, usually as a joke, but today I feel that I honestly do lead a charmed life.

After a beautiful day yesterday, when predicted thunderstorms and hail failed to materialize, it started to rain just after we finished unloading the car in Perryville, Missouri last night. The weather reports were frightening, and, like yesterday, I gave even more serious thought to changing our route to avoid the storms and rain. I gave up on that, though, when I saw the national weather map, and realized the only places we could go that didn’t expect rain were Florida and the desert southwest. OK, so, a day with the top up; it wouldn’t kill me, would it? Not literally, anyway.

We crossed the river into Illinois and immediately made a wrong turn – those Mapquest instructions are so hard to read when you’re driving – but we got to our first stop, Fort Kaskaskia State Park, with only a slight detour. Kaskaskia was the first capital of Illinois. It exists now only in history: a flood in the early 1800s changed the course of the Mississippi River, and the entire town was washed away. You can stand on the bluff at the state park and see where it used to be.

We drove all the way across the state of Illinois. With the top down. (After an hour or so I even put the cover on it.) I tried (again – this is a recurring theme) to find an Illinois Tourist Welcome Center – I have a map that shows where they’re supposed to be, but I couldn’t find them. You’d think they’d put them at the state lines, but I’ve entered Illinois maybe 15 times now, seldom in the same place, and have never seen them. They are, apparently, virtual welcome centers, existing only on-line.

On the far side of Illinois we stopped at Cave In Rock State Park. This is one of those little parks that never makes the tour books, because there’s really not all that much to see. It’s a cave, in a rock, overlooking the Ohio River. But it was a nice place, not very crowded, lots of trees and grass, and the stroll down to the riverbank and into the cave, which is maybe 60 yards long and 12 yards high. Kirby slipped in a muddy spot inside and took a little tumble, banging up his hand and bleeding from the head, enough to frighten children but not enough to really concern me, who has seen the sort of life-threatening stream even a slight cut in the head can produce. (Yes, Chris, I always think of you when I see somebody bleeding from the head like that.) We got him cleaned off and put an ancient band-aid over the cut, and he’s still alive and kicking now, hours later.

We took a free ferry across to Kentucky. It’s actually a barge, with a tugboat in attendance. When the barge is loaded with cars, the tug pulls it away from the pier, slings it around, then sidles up to it and latches on, dragging it across the river from the flank. We, it seems, had an inexperienced tugboat driver, and on all three crossings that I witnessed, he or she had to make several attempts to land his charge properly. But we made it.

I had planned to stop for the night in a town called Morganfield, Kentucky, but we got there so early that we went on to Henderson, where we toured the John James Audubon Museum (in John James Audubon State Park). We saw a sign advertising a good rate on a decent hotel, a Drury Inn (a chain owned by a San Antonio family, so I feel some very slight affection for it) in Evansville, Indiana, so we are there for the night. And it’s still early. Maybe we’ll go out and have a nice dinner and kick up our heels a little bit, and paint the town a wee bit red. Or maybe not. Probably not.

At Fort Duffield
June 11, 2009

Well, the charm wore off some today: it rained on us. Only for the couple of hours, from Evansville to Owensboro (a distance of about 30 miles as the crow flies, but nearly a hundred the way we went). At Owensboro, we went first to the Museum of Art, which didn’t open until 10; so we walked down the street to the Brescia University bookstore, where I bought soccer shirts for Sherry and me.

The Owensboro Museum has some stained glass windows rescued from a German church; that was the draw to get me to the museum. The windows were nice – sixteen of them, all done in a Gothic-revival style. Gorgeous colours, and first rate workmanship, both in the painting and assemblage. But with that style of work, the picture comes from the painting technique, and only the colour comes from the glass. The shapes of the glass pieces bear little resemblance to the shapes of the pictures. I prefer works where the glass itself makes the images.

But the museum also had a travelling exhibit of realism that proved a splendid surprise. The concept of the show was that a number of artists created pictures inspired by more-or-less famous paintings of the past. The pictures were presented alongside small photographs of the work that inspired them. A few of the modern works were, well, ugly. Most were excellent pictures, but as far as I could tell the message intended by the artist was pedestrian, for example the artist who took Vermeer’s famous portrait of a girl and painted a portrait of a Girl With Piercings, posed in exactly the same fashion as the original work. The only message I could get from that was, Styles change, and not always in a good way. But a few of these pictures were outstanding works of art on their own. The ones that come to mind are a gorgeous acrylic Trumpeter Swan; a large still life oil on board of white flowers in a blue vase; a still life of garlic with a green vase; and one called Mondrian’s Self-Portrait. I wish I could have taken photographs of these works, but the museum didn’t allow any photography.

After that, we drove downtown to the International Bluegrass Music Museum, where I picked up a couple of souvenirs for somebody I know who is, shall we say, obsessed with bluegrass music? Then back on the road, picking up those counties. We had an unplanned stop at Fort Duffield, on the Ohio River, an earthen fort General Sherman ordered built to secure his supply line during the Civil War. It’s on a high bluff, but the parking lot’s at the bottom of the hill. It’s a quarter-mile hike up a steep hill, and when you get to the top, the place is so poorly maintained you feel cheated, even though it’s free. There are the remains of embankments, now home to many large trees; a couple of shacks reconstructed; and an overlook so overgrown with underbrush that the river is barely visible.

After that, we drove up to Frankfort where we’re staying with a friend of Kirby’s for a couple of days. He has about 215 acres of woodlands – he calls it a farm, but other than the Ford 3000 tractor out back, and a delapidated barn down the hill, I see no evidence of that from the house. But it’s a great house, all decks and vistas at the end of a long gravel drive up a hill.

We’ll be here two nights; tomorrow we plan to sightsee in Frankfort, and possibly Louisville, which is 50 miles away – there are some stained-glass studios there I’m interested in seeing – and maybe do laundry.

June 12, 2009

I went to sleep last night to the sound of distant thunder and light rain on the trees all around, an experience I haven’t had in as long as I remember. I woke up this morning to a grey, rainy dawn, the hills a mile or two away across the river invisible in the fog; and I knew that my charmed life had ended and I had resumed a place in the herd of ordinary humanity. Quelle dommage.

But after two cups of coffee the world looked different. Not literally, of course, it was still grey and rainy, but there was promise of clear skies ahead. And so it was.

Kirby and I went first to downtown Frankfurt. Top down; by then the rain had stopped and the streets were dry enough. We parked and walked the half-mile up Capitol Avenue; since the legislature’s not in session and it was only 7:30 in the morning, there was no one about besides us. The New Capitol (built in 1909) is extravagantly landscaped, as buildings are wont to be when paid for by Other People’s Money. Behind is Kentucky’s Floral Clock, which is nothing more than a clock, 15 feet across, set at about a 30 degree angle to the ground, and faced in bands of alternating green and purple plants.

The Capitol Building itself is attractive and, I’m told, beautiful to see inside. I don’t know, however, because the little security guard required photo identification before he would grant entry, and I was not willing to sacrifice my right to move about the public portions of the country in anonymity, simply to gratify some bureaucrat’s decision, aided no doubt by hefty input, in one form or another, from companies selling security apparatus and providing related services, that only people whose names and addresses are attested to by infallible governmental authorities are worthy of viewing the wonders contained within. (This is the same reason, as I recall, that I didn’t go aboard the USS Constitution at Boston a few years ago. I think that if I were ever to learn to build a bomb, and use it, it would be at either the Kentucky State Capitol building or the USS Constitution. Probably the State Capitol, because I care more for the Consitution, both the ship and its namesake.)

Walking back toward the car we found a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which we would have both recognized even if it hadn’t had a historical marker out by the street in front of it. Not a large house, it fits in very well with its late-Victorian neighbours, but the comparitive cleanliness of its lines, even of those now-clichéd stained-glass windows, makes it clear why Wright was so famous in his work.

Then we went back across the river to the Old Capitol, built in 1827, a copy of the Temple of Minerva with a lantern on top. The historical marker at the entrance said it was designed by Kentucky’s most famous and successful architect, someone named Shyrock (pronounced shuhROCK). Surprisingly, it was his first commission as an architect. It has a self-supporting circular stone double-staircase, and as we stood talking with a docent about the building I noticed that in one particular spot the acoustics of the dome were stunning. I started to ask a question, and turning as I spoke, I was suddenly aware that my voice was remarkably amplified. You have to stand in one of two particular spots, on either side of the stair where the newel post turns. The docent was glad to hear that I heard it, too; she had thought she was nuts. The other docents came over and were amazed; they had never heard the effect. Other people clearly had, however, because the large stone floor tiles were broken in both those spots, and only those spots.

After coffee across the street, we took the walking tour of Old Frankfort – three streets, about four blocks long. Lots of elegant older houses, not especially large, but well-maintained for the most part; it reminded me of the Garden District in its déclassé elegance, but with mostly Federal and Georgian style houses. These houses were occupied by many, many famous people I had never heard of; lots of Kentucky governors and other state officials; people who gave dinner to presidents passing through town; a couple of Supreme Court justices; and the man who developed Bibb lettuce. There were also some moderately impressive public buildings, like the old post office, the county court house, and old churches.

Then we drove over to Louisville, about 50 miles away, to see a couple of glass places (both disappointing: one because there was little to see, it was just a working studio with one piece under construction and a few small panels in the window; the other because it was all art-glass, and most of that trite, though there were a few interesting but overpriced pieces by a local artist named, I think, Hayden. It makes me appreciate the “eye” of the guy who runs the Gallery Vetro in San Antonio, who has a much more interesting inventory), a cathedral and a museum of “international history” (meaning medieval weapons and armour). We had a late lunch at the Manhattan Deli; I give it 3 jalapeños. Drove by Churchill Downs because Kirby had never seen it before, but there was racing going on and we couldn’t get close enough for a picture without paying to park. Then back to Frankfort, where we met his friend Donald, and a friend of Donald’s, for Thai food at a place called Thai Smile. Excellent. Outstanding. Great. Superlative. Five jalapeños. Far, far better than any Thai restaurant I’ve eaten at anywhere else. What is this place doing in a town like Frankfort?
Thai Smile on Urbanspoon

There was a free concert down at the Old State Capitol, featuring two bluegrass bands, so we all went down, got a couple of beers from the Downtown Bar on St Clair street, and just hung out. There are about 28,000 people in Frankfort, and about a third of them were there. With their dogs.

I got my first little twinge of homesickness today. Somebody near the New Capitol has one of those curly hoses, which I had been thinking of buying; and that put me in mind of my front yard, and then I thought, Sherry will have to mow it. But then I thought, no, it’s probably all dead by now.

It’s dark now, and I’m sitting with my laptop by a nice campfire in Donald’s front yard, listening to the crickets and bullfrogs. At this point, it’s a choice between writing more, or drinking beer.

Guess I’m done.

June 13, 2009

Long day. Up late last night, counting stars by firelight. This morning took the freeway to the parkway, the parkway to the highway. Stopped along the way to call and make a reservation at Hawk’s Nest State Park, West Virginia, for a room with a view of the gorge, but they were all booked up. A good thing, as it turned out; we’ve stopped for the night and are still about 2½ hours from there.

Our first planned stop was at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, but they didn’t open until 11, so we decided to go to Natural Bridge State Park first, for an hour or so, then back to see the snakes. They’re only about a mile apart.

We took the chair lift up the mountain – can you spell “acrophobia”? I can – and then walked out Laurel Ridge Trail for a view of the bridge. A little muddy, but outstanding view of an impressive natural bridge. Then we walked back to the bridge itself, which isn’t as pretty when you’re standing on it; you can’t see it. Saw a sign for Balanced Rock Trail and decided to try that; it was only about a half a mile...or so the sign said.

A hard hour later we reached Balanced Rock, which isn’t really one rock balanced on another but a single rock with a waist about two-thirds of the way up, and a crack that makes them seem, from the approach side, to be two rocks, one on top of the other. Still, it was worth the hike down. The hike back up, now that’s a different story. Exhausting. Still, glad I did it.

The chair lift back down wasn’t nearly as bad as the trip up, which surprised me. When I lived in West Virginia, it was always harder going down than up.

Spent so long at Natural Bridge that we decided to skip the Reptile Zoo altogether. Kirby didn’t mind; he doesn’t like snakes. And I’ve seen ‘em all before, & will see ‘em again elsewhere. But we wanted to make up some of the extra 3 hours we’d spent at Natural Bridge.

Stopped for lunch at Rose’s, a joint along the road back. The burgers were exactly like the ones my friend Gene used to order at the Judice Inn, in Lafayette, Louisiana. When he was in college there, it was all he could afford: burgers there were 10¢, and came with nothing but bun and meat, and optional onions. I always got them without, he always got them with, unless he had a date. Anyway, Kirby ordered his with just onion, which put me in mind of the Judice Inn. Mine was loaded with lettuce and tomato and pickle and it was an excellent old-fashioned burger. Split an order of tater tots to complete the tableau.

Then we drove the Red River Gorge scenic highway. Very pretty, but only one photo-worthy spot: a one-lane tunnel which dribbled on us as we entered. Still, a beautiful winding drive, and at 50 mph (speed limit 35) an exhilirating one as well.

After a couple of wrong turns (we’re listening to a ripping seafaring novel on audiobooks, so sometimes I forget to turn) we ended up in Nitro, West Virginia. Maybe we can get to Davis WVa tomorrow night, as I had planned, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll finally get to the bottom of New River Gorge in the morning, and will see Seneca Rocks; beyond that, it’s all gravy.

Anyway. Today’s pic is from Rose’s Restaurant in Slade, Kentucky. Really a good place, despite the sign.

June 14, 2009

The New River Gorge is much like a thousand or so other canyons, valleys and hollows in this wrinkled old state of West Virginia. But it does have two things to recommend it: a stunning view of the superlative New River Gorge Bridge, some 900 feet above; and a reasonably well-paved narrow, winding, one-way road with almost no one else on it. That was really fun.

Before getting there, we stopped at Kanawha Falls, above Charleston. I had heard of Kanawha Falls many times when I lived in West Virginia, but I didn’t know there were actually falls there. Not very high, maybe 12 feet, but easily half a mile across. And while we were there looking, we saw an otter hunting in the grass. (Which reminds me of other wildlife I’ve forgotten to mention: the indigo buntings, hummingbirds and goldfinches in Kentucky, and the kit fox in Wayne County, West Virginia; and of course deer out the wazoo.)

I changed the route from what I’d planned, and instead of going up to White Sulpher Springs, I took State Highway 20, which is now designated the Mountain Parkway, up through Webster Springs and Buckhannon. It means nothing, unless it’s that the road has some priority in paving matters. Because it was almost all paved within living memory, unlike most of West Virginia’s roads. Along the way we found a good little restaurant, the Hilltop Diner in Cowen, where they have four kinds of french fries and two kinds of onion rings; and where they feature hot bologna sandwiches (meaning, they put tobasco sauce on them) and, for dessert, a passable peanut butter pie. I had to try that, as I am searching for a peanut butter pie as good as the one I had in Dallas in 1977. The quest continues.

I decided to skip Bald Knob, the highest point in West Virginia, because the new route didn’t take us directly past it as the previously-planned one would have, and because I figure that once you arrive at the summit, all you would see would be more mountains only slightly lower all around you. Maybe some other trip.

I did, however, go to Seneca Rocks, which was also out of the way on the new route but which I didn’t want to pass up. They are two large rocks, facing each other across a narrow valley, an important gap in the Monongahela Ridge of the Allegheny Mountains, the presence of which enabled the federal government to control the valley beyond and so separate what is now West Virginia from the rebel state of Virginia in 1863. We got there just as the Visitor’s Center was closing (at 4:30; is it just me, or is that really too early for a Visitor’s Center to be closing? They should be open until at least 6, especially in summer when it’s light until nearly 9pm) so I didn’t get to explore the exhibits, just grabbed a souvenir refrigerator magnet. I will need to get another refrigerator next.

From there we went to Blackwater Falls State Park. They have a lodge there, and I figured we’d either stay in the park lodge or in Davis, the nearby town. But the lodge set too high a value on their rooms (even though, clearly, no one else wanted them on a Sunday night), so we just took some pictures of the falls and went into Davis.

Davis is one intersection. There is a motel, but it’s of the Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel variety, so we drove on. Eighty miles later (and after a so-so dinner at another small-town diner) we are in a large, comfortable, reasonably priced room in I forget what town in West Virginia.

June 15, 2009

We started off with a visit to Harper’s Ferry. The parking is a couple of miles from the actual townsite – in a place the ranger says was chosen because “nothing happened here” – and shuttle buses run visitors down to the main street of the old town.

Harper’s Ferry, for those of my friends and family who are not history buffs – meaning, I believe, all of you, with one exception – Harper’s Ferry is at the junction of the Shenendoah and Potomac Rivers. President Washington established a federal arsenal here, and it was here that the idea of interchangable parts in manufacture first was applied. Which in a sense, I suppose, makes ol' George the Father of Mass Production, among his other honours. Lewis and Clark’s expedition was supplied from Harper’s Ferry, and in the run-up to the Civil War, John Brown staged his famous raid on the Arsenal there. Colonel Robert E. Lee (the most famous commander that Fort Sam Houston has ever had) hunted him down. The town was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, as well as the actual railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio of Monopoly fame; and it was an important location on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which ran up the Potomac on the Maryland side. Then, during the war, the two sides took turns – though not very gracefully, I must say – occupying the town, which by then had shriveled to a nub. The final blow came in the big flood in 1929 or 1936 or something like that, which ruined pretty much all that was left of the population. The Arsenal was long gone by then.

Still, it’s a pleasant and interesting place, and we spent a good hour and a half walking its pretty little streets and staring into its exhibit spaces and out over its vistas. Today’s picture is the church in town.

From there we drove to Burdittville Road, where I had planned to go to Spook Hill – a location I found on the Roadside America website, a collection of oddities – but the road was closed for construction, and rather than find another route to the town, I just said the hell with it and went on, to Sugarloaf Mountain, the highest point in Maryland (1200', more or less), from which supposedly you could See Impressive Views. All I could see was office towers in the D.C. suburbs, and factory smokestacks along the Potomac. Maybe the sign warning of a rash of vandal attacks on parked cars in the park put me in an unreceptive frame of mind. I’ve left my car open – locked, but open – all over the country, and with the exception of the parking garage at North Star Mall, nobody’s ever messed with it; but I didn’t want to let it out of my sight at Sugarloaf Mountain.

After that it was a long slog, all effing day long, through DC traffic. We bypassed the city, far enough out that we caught not a glimpse of the Washington Monument, but it was 20 mph, bumper to bumper for mile after mile after mile all the way past Andrews Air Force Base; then stop-and-go suburban traffic for 50 miles down to St. Mary County, where the Potomac runs into the Chesapeake. At one point, 35 miles of traffic tie-up was caused by a 3-car fender-bender. The cop was sitting in the squad car, lights going, reading her newspaper. Oh, for the days when she would have gotten volunteers to push the cars off the travel lanes.

The drive up the Chesapeake's west shore was much, much more pleasant: very few lights, much less traffic, much nicer scenery. We got into Baltimore, as we planned, but an hour or so later so didn’t have time to see anything today. Will spend most of tomorrow here, though all I really, really want to see is Fort McHenry. We’ll do that first.

June 16, 2009

It was overcast all day today. I kept telling Kirby it was going to clear up. Every now and then the clouds would seem to lighten some, and occasional patches of blue would appear. But it stayed cloudy all day. Didn’t rain, though, so the top was down most of the day.

We started off at Fort McHenry, the must-see spot in Baltimore. Anyone who doesn’t think the story of the Star-Spangled Banner is one of the most inspiring in history, and not just American history, has no depth of understanding. If this describes you, I’m not sorry, but you need to find the 8- or 10-part documentary done on the War of 1812 for PBS about 10 years ago, and watch it from start to finish. (And the story of the British role in the event is a good object lesson for this country too, now that we, and not they, are the pre-eminent military and political force in the world.)

We stopped at Federal Hill Park to take pictures of downtown Baltimore across the harbor, then drove around to the Washington Monument, and down to the Basilica of the Assumption. The Monument was impressive, and there were lots of other statues around it, and neat old buildings like the Peabody Library and the Mount Vernon Club. Mass was going on in the Basilica so we didn’t go in; the outside was impressive but plain – a Greek temple in front, a spire, a dome, no windows that I recall.

After that we went looking for a restaurant that someone had recommended, but couldn’t find it, so had lunch at Wendy’s. Then off to the countryside for the Ladew Topiary Gardens.

The countryside north of Baltimore is, I guess you’d say, suburban, but it’s much more like Hampshire than Helotes. Very nice houses, mostly older, most not overly large, sit on elegantly expansive grounds. Those not on Estates, or Farms, or places that warrant a name, are often so heavily treed as to be invisible from the road. The road itself is narrow and winding, usually with trees on both sides that join to form long tunnels. The towns along the way are more what I’d call villages: small collections of a dozen or so homes, most so close to the road that if you tripped over the dog you’d get hit by a passing horse cart. Everyone with room has gorgeous gardens; everyone without room has surrounded the house with hanging pots and window boxes.

Ladew Gardens is 22 acres that I will have to go back to, if only because Sherry will want to see it. It’s a real treat, as today’s picture should indicate. There are a succession of gardens, mostly of the English-country variety (the pink garden, the croquet lawn, the rose garden, the folly), but at the end of the walking tour comes the sculpture garden, filled with large shrubs carved into birds and horses and such, and the Great Bowl, a huge sunken lawn lined with elaborately carved shrubs in geometric shapes. Well worth the entry fee.

Dinner tonight was at On The Border, a Dallas-based chain Mexican restaurant. There was nothing Mexican about it, unless having a margarita machine is determinative. But damn, it was good food. It gets 3 jalapeños (losing one for being a chain, and half a jalapeño for being so damned noisy; the other half-jalapeño is for having too much salt on the chips, and because the waitress looked blank when I asked for borracho beans).

June 17, 2009

The US Navy gave the anchor it recovered from the wreck of the USS Maine, in Havana harbour, to the city of Reading, Pennsylvania. I don’t know why. But there it is, lying on its side in City Park; a grassy slope rising behind it, flower gardens in front of it, and a plaque stating the fact of the gift, and no indication of why. I suppose the proper answer is, Why not?

High above the city, on the summit of Mount Penn, is a pretty, six-storey orange-roofed Chinese pagoda. It’s very nice, recently refurbished and scheduled to have its Grand Re-Opening next month (July 25, if anyone wants to be there). But again, there’s no indication of why a middling city in the Allegheny Mountains would have as its municipal symbol a mock pagoda. (It’s only open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons; maybe if we’d come then we could have asked the questions and gotten a plausible answer.)

Next we went to Valley Forge. It’s only maybe 40 miles, but took an hour and a half on the freeway, one of the most amazingly pointless traffic jams I’ve ever seen, caused entirely by the presence of one highway patrol car parked on the shoulder. You know how it goes: one person slams on their brakes when they see the cop; then everyone behind them, and the next thing you know you have traffic backed up 35 miles.

Well, you know, today wasn’t really a great day all around. It wasn’t bad, and I actually started out in a pretty cheerful mood. The sky was cloudy but looked promising enough that we had the top down all day. And I was really looking forward to seeing Valley Forge and Atlantic City. And nothing really bad happened, but then everything was just a little ... below expectation.

The National Park Service, which in my experience always has interesting and illuminating films that make even the most mundane park seem vital and exciting, managed in 18 minutes to make Valley Forge seem dull and insignificant. Oh, well, you know, the weather there that winter was just average. Some people got sick. Some soldiers didn’t have shoes. The British didn’t attack. The Continentals drilled a lot. They had a contest to build huts. If they had money, they could buy extra food at the markets Gen’l Washington set up in camp. Wow.

And the driving tour of the park was unexciting too. It’s a big place, and the 11 marked sites are fairly well spread out: reconstructed huts; a statue of Gen’l Wayne; the artillery park; various brigades’ campsites. The more interesting stops were the National Memorial Arch and Washington’s headquarters. It used to be in a town, but now it’s the only building in the area, other than the 1913 train station built for tourists.

We ended up skipping the last 4 or 5 stops on the tour; it just wasn’t interesting. Excepting this: I did get a thrill when I stood looking into Gen’l Washington’s office, to think he sat there, in that room, walked those halls, slept in the room upstairs, and so on. I don’t know if the furniture was authentic; I suspect not, it looked too nice to be 200 years old and used hard every day; but there was no one we could ask about it, as the park employees seemed too absorbed in conversation with each other. So we drove on into New Jersey, down to Cape May and up to Atlantic City, where we are now.

The first hotel we stopped at was, ugh, so incredibly seedy that we moved right on and lucked (?) into a room at a HoJo on the main avenue for a price even I consider reasonable. We unloaded and walked all the way down the Boardwalk as far as the Tropicana, where we had one drink each ($17, can you believe it; but then, Mr Kirby won about that much playing video poker while we drank them) and walked back. Our hotel’s desk clerk recommended a Malaysian restaurant (“A what?”) almost across the street, so we went there, had way too much food (all of it outstanding: shrimp puffs wrapped in bacon for appetizers; pork with big fat noodles like worms and with something I suspect of being squid in it – Mr Kirby got that – and seafood with crispy noodles, in a fantastic sauce) and waddled back to the hotel ... where we had no TV and no internet. Well, they guy did something to the router downstairs to fix the internet problem, but we had to move to another room because the tv cable was broken and there was no one there to fix it. So now we’re all settled in and I’ve finished writing up another day’s events.

Strange, I feel like it was a pretty good day. It wasn’t, but I feel like it was.

June 18, 2009

It rained all day. I took a wrong turn leaving Atlantic City and ended up on a dead-end road in a place called Brigantine Beach, where people apparently never go out for breakfast. Had to drive all the way back to where I’d started from – I suspect there was a faster way, but my car’s ancient (2002) navigator doesn’t know about it. It doesn’t know so many things. Anyway, got Mr Kirby to the airport in Newark in plenty of time for his flight, then continued on alone. Recalled how difficult it is to read a map and road signs at the same time, and the Navigator was no help. Finally saw a sign for US Highway 1, which I know goes to Maine, so I took that. It took me across the George Washington Bridge, which is a glorious piece of engineering, even in the fog with bumper-to-bumper traffic, mostly large trucks, and an $8 toll charge. Took the Henry Hudson Parkway, then another parkway, then another across the Bronx, so no trucks until I got to the Connecticut Turnpike (which is a free road; go figure). Drove that in the rain at 25 mph all the way across the state of Connecticut and into Rhode Island, where traffic got up to around 40 mph. Stopped in Newport, put money in a meter because the rain had slowed to a light mist, then started to walk around. A pleasant-ish too-cute tourist town, but managed to stumble on a ceramics gallery that is having its grand opening party tonight. Wine and cheese and salmon and all kinds of ‘licious finger food, of which I didn’t partake, but some beautiful ceramics as well – though I didn’t buy any (you’re welcome, Sherry). Then rain started up again, so I drove briefly around the outrageous mansions in the southern part of the town, not going into any of them – will save that for another trip and better weather.

June 19, 2009

Laid awake in bed this morning. Not much point getting up, was there? It’d still be raining. Wouldn’t it? Maybe ... just maybe ... think positive thoughts. Sunlight, broad beams of sunlight streaming through cottony white clouds. Cool New England air, crystalline skies ... it could happen. The light around the drapes ... isn’t that kind of bright? It can’t be cloudy anymore, not with that kind of light out there....

So I dragged my positive thoughts over to the window and peeked out. The bright light was from the bulb outside my door. It was still dark. I could see it was raining steadily on the car. So I went back to bed.

Couldn’t sleep, so I got up and spent a couple of hours alternately organizing my pictures, and surfing the web, interspersed with the ordinaries of the morning, until I just couldn’t go another ten minutes without coffee. Then I finally packed everything up and loaded the car. Eventually gave up on finding a Local Hangout and settled for a McDonalds in Providence, where they don’t trust you to put your own sweetener and cream in. Had to take it back twice to get enough; the coffee was strong to the point of being vile. Normally I have 2 cups of a morning, but not that coffee.

Poked around Providence a while, taking pictures, then drove up Highway 1 a while. Eventually I decided to go to Salem, which is on the farther side of Boston. Took about an hour to get there; longer, actually, because I saw a Jaguar dealer on the way and thought, Hmmm, I could get an oil change. It’s about time. (Actually, it’s past time by about 1000 miles, but sometimes one just can’t adhere rigidly to schedules. And I think by now every one acquainted with me has some idea of how I feel about schedules.)

Back home, I could whip into Victor’s or Barrett and get an oil change and be done in about the time it takes to change the oil. These people looked at me like I’m from another planet (and I guess I am: a planet where there is polite customer service) and offered to set something up for next week. I said no, I’ll just drive over to Salem.

Yankees. Sad.

Anyway: so I get to Salem and stop by the curb on Derby street and open the AAA book. I see there’s a National Park office in town with walking tours, at 2 New Liberty Street. That street isn’t on my map, so I call them and ask directions. They tell me they’re across the street from some museum, which I see is on my map, so I head over there. Pull around the corner, heading for the place where the museum supposedly is, and find I’m on a street that dead ends ... at New Liberty Street. I was right around the corner when I called, and the map is wrong.

I go in and ask for the walking tour brochure. There are several; I choose the Architectural brochure. Then I go for the passport stamp ... but wait! That’s the stamp for the Underground Railroad, which I got in some other place a few days ago (given enough time, I could remember where). The stamp for Salem is at the other National Park Office, a block away ... on Derby Street, where I was when I called.

OK, well, I’m flexible, within reason, so I walk over and get the passport stamp, then walk back to the car and make my way to Chestnut Street. I look at some of the pretty old Federal and Colonial style houses, then head back down the freeway to a meeting with a guy I contacted through couchsurfing; he’s offered to put me up for the night, but I want to meet him first. So we meet at a Starbucks. Turns out he’s from San Antonio, graduated from Trinity, has only been here a year, so we have lots to talk about. Spent nearly an hour at Starbucks, then went to his apartment in Lowell and sat talking for another hour, maybe two, then went to the Asian restaurant (Thai, Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian & Burmese) across the street, had Laotian meatballs wrapped with crispy noodles (5 jalapeños), spring rolls (4½ jalapeños), green tea (2 jalapeños), a Thai chicken dish (3 jalapeños) and a Cambodian beef dish (5 jalapeños). The service was lousy, the atmosphere was nonexistent, the prices were cheap even by South Texas standards, and the food overall was very good. We thoroughly enjoyed it and talked nonstop for probably an hour and a half.

By then the rain had stopped and the sky was a gorgeous blue. We dropped the top on the car and drove out to a park that runs along the Merrimac river for a couple of miles, and walked end to end and back. Then we had ice cream at one of the many local dairy places; his was “frozen pudding flavour” – he couldn’t tell what kind of pudding but it was good; mine was “Maine Bear Claws”, big chunks of chocolate and Reese’s peanut-butter cups in vanilla ice cream. It was good, but I should’ve gotten the Lobster Tracks instead.

June 20, 2009

Breakfast this morning was at the Club Diner, a block from where my host lives in Lowell. I was a little surprised by the menu: straight diner fare, except for eggs Benedict. I ordered that, with expectations as low as possible, just to see what it was like.

Turns out the restaurant is owned by the leVasseur family, four generations of French chefs, and the hollandaise sauce was probably better than I’ve ever had anywhere. The eggs were perfectly poached (“dropped,” in the local parlance) and the muffin was perfectly toasted. The ham was a little fatty, but nonetheless ... excellent.

After that, my host took me on a little walking tour of the town, down through The Acre, the roughest part of town, to the Great Gate, the original canal in town (1813, I think), with a lock and a floodgate. Some time later, the water-powered mills really took off, and Lowell was an industrial hub until the 1930s. There’s now a National Park spread all over town, preserving remnants of the early industry. The cute young thing at the Visitors’ Center, Amanda, was also a wealth of information on local dining and nightlife, which my host had not much investigated in his year in Lowell. (She was also a marked contrast with the drones at Valley Forge National Park.) We walked around a little in the quaint downtown, an area of refurbished mills turned into shops and apartments. Most of the apartments are occupied either by people who work in Boston, then come home and don’t go out, or by the elderly on fixed incomes. There is, consequently, little in the way of consumer business downtown. But it looks like that will soon change, as the U. Mass – Lowell has bought one of the large downtown hotels and is turning it into a conference center on the lower 3 floors, and student housing on the top 9. That many students will support a pretty good amount of inexpensive restaurants and clubs, as I recall.

I left around noon and headed up to Manchester, where I met Sherry’s plane. We drove up to Ro’s house in Bangor, and immediately went to a restaurant called the Muddy Rudder in Brewer, a suburb across the river, and had a feast. The waitress was excited when she heard we were from Texas; she’s moving there next month, to Austin, and we talked a little about that; then found out her family was from New Orleans (although she was born in Maine), and that she’s Italian. There’s even a slight chance we’re related by marriage, as her family name is the Italian version of the Americanized name of one of our uncles by marriage. We told her to ask her parents if there was a black sheep in their family who Americanized his name.

Food was fantastic – lobster, of course, and it really is better up here.

We were going to be staying in Ro’s basement, a huge carpeted area with 3 bedrooms and a full bath, but it flooded in all the rain they’ve been having, so we’re having to live on the main floor. One hardship after another, huh? It’s a beautiful house; looks small from the street because it’s kind of end-on and all you see is the garage and one picture window. But it’s quite large, and nicely landscaped, and a “stream” runs by the back of the property – this “stream,” with class-4 rapids up and down its length, has more water in it than the Rio Grande on an average day. There’s a hiking path the full length of it, and if it dries out enough we plan to walk it the two miles into Bangor.

June 21, 2009

There’s no cure for homesickness quite like having your wife come watch TV and play sudoku puzzles on line, just like at home. That’s what we did until about noon today. I stared out the window, took the dog out twice, organized my pictures from this trip, played computer games, ate a couple of crumpets, then a bagel, had a couple of cups of coffee, smoked a few cigarettes ... and finally gave up and went to watch TV. Saw part of a ten-year-old movie, then part of a Monk episode, then the beginning of An American in Paris. At that point my companions started talking about going somewhere and seeing something.

Believing it when I saw it, I continued watching TV until the others were well on their way to actually being dressed and ready; Sherry, in fact, actually was dressed and ready. And about an hour later we actually left the house.

We drove over to a seafood house that Ro is partial to for lobster rolls, a traditional Maine sandwich that consists of chunks of lobster meat on a small bun. Other places, she says, lade it with mayonnaise, but at this place it’s pretty much just steamed lobster meat. It was pretty good. I don’t know if it was good as a lobster roll qua lobster roll, but it was good as a sandwich. A little pricey, though. Lobster ain’t bologna.

Then we drove up along the Penobscot River and on up as far as Millinocket, near Katahdin Mountain, the highest point in New England. On the way we stopped at Elaine’s Café in Milo, where we each picked out a baked-goods treat. Ro got a chocolate cake doughnut (“so hard to find one that’s not glazed”); Sherry had a date square, a layer of fruit with crumbles on either side; I chose a Woofie Cake, “a traditional Maine dessert”, I was told; sort of a post-Raphaelite Moon Pie: two thick, crumbly slabs of chocolate cake glued together by a somewhat flavourless white paste.

We stopped at a rest area overlooking Twin Lakes, where Five Lakes Lodge stands on a spit of land backed by Katahdin Mountain, its summit shrouded in thick clouds, white against the general grey overcast. While the wooded mountain isn’t high by Western standards, at just under a mile, it is clearly higher than any other in this part of the world, and is, as a consequence, impressive and beautiful.

June 22, 2009

There wasn’t much to do last night, on a cool, misty late-spring evening in Maine, so I went to bed early. Not early enough, though, to claim my space on the bed, as Sherry had already taken in Ro’s dog Jake. On the bright side, Jake, who is probably three times as tall as Homer and at least twice as heavy, doesn’t take up any more room than our little rat-dog. This is likely due more to weather than size, since Homer is almost always stretched out full length, usually sideways on the bed, while Jake curls up into a little ball worthy of a French duke. But the bed here is smaller than ours at home, so I lay there begrudging Jake his stake, and thinking of alternative places to sleep.

The only places I could come up with were my car, Ro’s truck, the carpet in the living room, and the sleeper-sofa in the basement. None of these was immediately appealing. Fortunately, while I lay there sulking in the dark, my son called to wish me a happy fathers’ day, and after that I felt better about the world in general and was willing to tolerate Jake for the sake of peace in the world and the betterment of mankind, and all that stuff.

The first consequence of going to bed at 9:45 is waking up at 5AM. Not surprisingly, there’s not much to do at 5AM on a cool, misty late-spring morning in Maine. I made a cup of coffee, watched the mist, and generally just sat around, until Ro went to work. Then I started a crock-pot recipe for tonight, and Sherry and I got dressed to drive down to Bar Harbour and Acadia National Park. The Weather Channel’s website, which I checked yesterday, had predicted clouds every day with only a 5- to 10% chance of rain on Thursday and Friday.

There had clearly been some re-thinking to do at The Weather Channel, and when we were about ten miles out of town I decided that tomorrow would be no worse than today, and might be better, to go to the Park. So we came back to Bangor, and drove around the central part of the city looking for something to see or do. There was, according to my AAA guidebook, a walking tour of the town available from the Bangor Historical Society, and while we had no intention of making a walking tour in the rain, we thought there might be particular attractions we could drive to and look at or walk through. We found the BHS almost by accident, but they’re closed on Mondays.

OK, well, then the only thing to do is to go back to the house. There was a Monk marathon on, and they might show an episode we’ve only seen half a dozen times. On the way we stopped at a discount store, and I got a new belt and new tennis shoes (the $10 shoes I got in Kentucky last year being about to give it up). Then we came home and fixed cheese sandwiches for lunch.

Eventually we could watch no more Monk, so we decided today was the perfect day to go to an art museum. The University of Maine has one, so I looked up the directions on line and off we went.

The UMaine Museum of Art is closed for installation of a new exhibit, opening on Friday.

So we went to a used bookstore for, oh, half an hour, then came back to the house. And here we sit. Sherry is watching God-knows-what on TV (5 will get you 4 it’s either Law and Order or Monk) while I sit here considering my options: playing computer games; trying to figure out how my camera works (one of those things I always am leaving for when I really, really need something to do – this, apparently, is not one of those times) or staring out at the roaring foam of Kenduskeag Stream in the back yard. Or I could sit here writing on any ol’ topic that comes to mind. But my friends and family already know my thoughts on just about every subject; like Niles Crane, I’ve never had an unexpressed thought (yes, I have, but I’m being rhetorical). So rather than recording the minutiae of this dreary (yet oddly pleasant) day, I will stop until later, when either I will have something to say or will have thought of something witty.

My only regret is that I have no photographs from today. Maybe something will come along.

And what do you know: something did. By five o’clock, the rain had stopped and the puddles had largely drained away, and I was thinking about going out. After dinner, when the late-afternoon light was at its best – even on a cloudy day – I took a drive (top down! What a thrill!) into town, stopping at “Lover’s Leap” – an 80-foot-high outcrop of bedrock alongside Kenduskeag Stream, complete with the usual star-crossed-lovers’ tale, before heading into downtown. I walked around for an hour or so as night fell, taking pictures here and there; mostly the late 19th-Century buildings, a pretty “parkway” (a narrow, two-block-long garden, with the requisite bronze statues and cannons and memorials to once-prominent locals) along the same Kenduskeag Stream, laid out as a firebreak after the town’s central market burned down in the Great Fire of 1911; and the Thomas Hill Standpipe, a vintage water tower. Bangor is a pretty-ish city, not quaint or lively, just sort of there in a low-key, down-home way. At least when it’s not raining.

June 23, 2009

In all the trips I’ve taken, I’ve apparently never gone to any place where the weather, when I visit, is completely normal, ordinary, usual. It’s always the hottest or coldest or something. It’s always remarkable. According to one of the local weathermen – pardon me, meteorologists – this is the wettest June in Maine in the last 30 years. Naturally.

Today we set out for Acadia National Park, and there was no turning back. It was now or never. Do or die. And let me get this out of the way, so I can move on: when I paid my $20 entry fee, I was none to happy to learn that yesterday the fee would have been $10, and on Saturday or Sunday it would have been free. But I’ve dealt with that. I’ve moved on from that. I’m over that.

On the way down, we noticed a number of local ice-cream places (Maine is as big on ice cream as Massachusetts was) boasting “super” and “the best” ice cream; so my curiosity was piqued by the place called “Pete’s Pretty Good Ice Cream.” I always appreciate understatement, and consider it more likely to be close to honesty than your more commonplace puffery. So Sherry and I resolved to stop there on the way back and give it a try.

I mention this because, in the obligatory 18-minute introductory film at the park, there was a line that went (if memory serves): “In a world sated with superlatives, Acadia provides us with simplicity.” I thought that an excellent sentiment, and appreciate the idea in a park as much as in an ice cream cone.

We started off with a quick look at Bar Harbor, a town completely surrounded on the landward sides by the park. It’s much like other vacation get-away destinations, full of chi-chi gift shops and too-cute B&B’s, overpriced hotels and restaurants that strain to seem vaguely European. Yet it possesses a certain authenticity, as though its gentrified air is a product of atmospheric conditions or water temperatures; as though it exists in its present form for the benefit of the locals, not for hordes of un-sought tourists who insist on descending upon the peaceful burgh with their cameras and strange accents. The townsfolk seem to welcome the tourists not out of an insincere greed, but out of simple civility. Like they’re surprised we would come all this way just to see them. Kind of the way I like to think San Antonians welcome visitors. This apparent sincerity gives Bar Harbor an extra jalapeño in the ratings, giving it a head-start over places like Newport and Eureka Springs and Orlando and, certainly, Las Vegas.

Acadia is a pretty big park, and is chock full of awesome beauty. We only had a day – half a day, really, because of the drive from Bangor and back – to explore it, so after watching the film at the visitor’s center and prowling through the touristy souvenirs, we paid our $10 entry fee and our $10 late fee and took the Park Loop Road. According to the film, this would give us a good introduction to the park.

The first half of the route takes you down the coast, with stops at particularly impressive or beautiful places. We saw Thunder Hole, where, when the tide and wind and sea is right, the water rushes into a slot in the rock and, having no where else to go, shoots straight up, and causing a booming noise when air caught in a hole the waves have created at the end of the slot is suddenly compressed. The tide and wind and sea were more or less right today, because we heard some impressive thunder-like sounds as large waves slammed into the shore.

We saw Otter Cliffs – no otters live there; I don’t know why it’s called that – and just off the shore from there, the spot where Champlain ran his ship onto the rocks in 16-something; there was no buoy there at the time. We saw Otter Point, not far down the shore, where tidal pools form and harbour all kinds of interesting marine life; although neither of us was willing to trek down the slippery slope far enough to see it first hand, preferring to just see it from above. Though I did see two tiny tadpoles in a foot-deep triangular pool, which was probably rainwater. We saw Jordan Pond, and beaver dams and lodges, and the lighthouse on Egg Rock, and Sand Beach, all beautiful and interesting places. We didn’t climb the Precipice Trail, which is closed for the peregrine falcon’s nesting season – yeah, right, that’s the reason – and we didn’t see Eagle Lake because it was shrouded in fog by the time we got there, and we didn’t drive up Cadillac Mountain to the summit because, well, the summit was shrouded in fog and we assumed – rightly, I’m sure – that we wouldn’t have been able to see anything from there.

I’m told that Cadillac Mountain is the spot in the US to be first lit by the rising sun in the morning, and that people go up there just to say they’ve seen it first. That’ll be something I do on a later visit to Maine. Maybe. Being from San Antonio, an extra minute of direct sunlight is not something that truly draws me to exert myself.

By the end of our drive through the park, the occasional mist of the morning had become a fairly steady drizzle, so we were ready to head back to Bangor. I have to say, the Park is definitely worth the $10 they would have charged us yesterday. Okay, yes, it was even worth the $20 they charged us today.

Oh, and Pete’s Ice Cream? It’s pretty good.

June 24, 2009

Drizzle. Mist. Clearing. More drizzle. More mist. No clearing.

Oh, well. We packed up a bag and drove down US 1 toward Boston. We had big plans — well, I did, anyway — to stop at all kinds of interesting things along the way, but there just wasn’t time. Boston is a lot farther from Bangor on US 1 than it is on the freeway, and we decided we wanted to get to the stadium a couple of hours early because, according to the Boston Breakers’ web site, they had a fanzone set-up in the stadium precincts for two hours ahead of kickoff, and we wanted to have the total soccer experience.

But we did make one stop. At Bucksport, we saw a sign directing us to Fort Knox State Park and the Penobscot Narrows Observatory. Not knowing what either was, we turned off the highway and went about 4 miles, to the banks of the Penobscot River, where the new bridge across the river has an observation deck at the top of the east tower, 400 feet up. An impressive bridge, and an impressive observation deck. For once the fog was just the right element; high enough to give plenty of scope to the views, but low enough to shroud the distance in mystery.

At the foot of the bridge, a short distance down the shore, is Fort Knox, built after the British occupied the eastern part of Maine in both the Revolution and the War of 1812. An elegant fort, much more modern in design that the other old forts I’ve seen in the last 3 years of wandering around the country. Compact within the scarp, with outlying batteries accessible by long (and dark) tunnels. My camera-bag flashlight was completely dead, so we didn’t go through them.

We checked into our hotel and then drove down to the stadium. We hit a dead-stop traffic jam on the freeway, so I took to the city streets, going right through the maze of Cambridge, with more wrong turns in the 50-minute drive (which should have taken only 20 minutes) than in all my previous travels combined. But we got there, deciding along the way that we’d have something to eat at the stadium. It’s a good cause, after all, supporting women’s professional sports. Plus, stadium food is fun food.

We parked in the wrong lot, two blocks away, saving five dollars to devote to stadium food. There was no fanzone set up, unless you count the face-painting pavilion swarming with pre-teen girls. We took a stroll around the nearby buildings – the field house, the basketball pavilion, the indoor tennis courts (it is Harvard, after all), then went into the stadium. We checked out all the food options, and decided on a couple of Italian sausages with pepper and onions, and a diet coke. Tasty.

We sat in our seats, very close to the field, and watched the warm-ups. We saw Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly and Angela Hucles and Cat Whitehill and Kelly Smith and Alex Scott and Sylvie Bompastor and Homare Sawa and Kristin Luckinbill and Christine Latham and a bunch of lesser-known players. I know none of you is much into soccer, let alone women’s soccer, but these people are great, great players. Women’s pro soccer is a little slower than men’s; they don’t have the speed or the upper-body strength, and they don’t play as rough; but honestly, once the game starts on the field in front of you, you really don’t notice any difference. These women are as skilled as any men, they have remarkable ball control, and when their passes work like they’re meant to, it’s a beautiful thing to see. On television they seem slower and weaker than men; in person, it’s every bit as exciting as Arsenal at West Ham United.

Only one goal, a header off a corner by Latham in the 37th minute, but lots and lots of good shots and good play. The mist came down lightly, then more heavily, during the first half, but after halftime it stopped. My camera battery was nearly dead (I decided at the last minute to leave my speed bag in the car, which I regretted, as much for the lack of a long lens as for the spare battery) and I was saving it for after the game, when we were going to go to Autograph Alley; I thought I could get some close-up shots of the players there. But as the game drew to a close, I saw the hordes of ten-year-olds coagulating in that area of the stadium, and decided to pass on it, choosing instead to get my thrills in a high-speed night drive through a strange city in the rain.

June 25, 2009

The day held such promise, such tremendous great promise for beautiful weather and marvellous scenery. It was still drizzly in Boston, but the morning report showed that inland, like in New Hampshire where we were headed, it was partly cloudy and warming up close to 80 degrees. As soon as we were done with breakfast in Derby, New Hampshire, the top came down and we drove up back roads toward the Lake District.

The weather was beautiful, and the scenery was marvellous. Unfortunately, the traffic was sheer Hell. It was moderately heavy in the towns from Derby to Wolfeboro, then heavy in town and country from Wolfeboro to Conway. At Conway it came to a crawl, 10 mph tops for about an hour before I finally said the Hell with it, and made a U-turn and went on back to Maine.

We did enjoy the road until that point, and we spent maybe two hours wandering around Wolfeboro (“America’s First Summer Resort Town”), which is mainly one street along the shore of Lake Winapisau ... Winniepesauk ... this big lake there in New Hampshire. And we had lunch at the Wolfeborough Diner, a tiny place on main street that looked like it only allowed locals in, but they seated us, I guess because it’s early in the season and not all that crowded in town yet. (“Y’all have a lot of characters around here.” “Yeah, but most of ‘em’ll be gone by Labor Day.”) I had American Chow Mein – I’d seen in on menus all over New England and wanted to try it. It’s what us Southern folks call Hamburger Helper with elbow macaroni. Sherry had the meatloaf sandwich, which was good, with the gravy, which was even better, on the side.

The trip back to Maine, after we gave up on getting up to the Mountains, was frustrating. The roads weren’t very good – apparently Maine spends all its highway money on the Turnpike – and just how many cement trucks can one have pull out in front of one? It appears that, in Maine, cement trucks lie in wait at driveways and cross streets, and when a traveller has finally managed to pass the John Deere tractor and all four of the three-cylindered farm trucks, and has clear open highway ahead, a signal is sent to the next cement truck, and when he sees the traveller come over the hill or around the curve, he pulls out onto the highway, forcing the ambitious traveller to decellerate rapidly again. More tractors and farm trucks can then assume their positions ahead of the cement truck, and when the convoy is formed, the cement truck can turn off and await the next traveller. This, at least, is my theory of how they manage it.

I spent the last, oh, two hours picturing my car’s navigator coming in violent and premeditated contact with a well-swung baseball bat. I don’t know why I keep trying to rely on that piece of crap. Today it sent me the wrong way on the turnpike (guess how far it is between exits on that thing). If I could find a satellite-based navigator that would fit the dashboard screen, I’d get it; until then, I’ll just use it as an outdated and inaccurate map, because I sure can’t count on it to pick out a route in conformity with my instructions. (What’s so hard about “avoid toll roads” or “minimize freeways”?) And then there’s the snotty tollbooth attendant who feigned not understanding what I meant when I asked directions to Bangor. That set me off.

But the drive put me back in a mellow mood. I learned about a year ago that the best way to drive in heavy freeway traffic is to set the speed control at 57 mph and let everybody else get frustrated trying to get around me. In other words, I’ve solved the problem of sharing the road with rank amateurs by becoming part of the problem. Once we passed Lewiston, there was suddenly no traffic to speak of, so I ramped it up to the speed limit and sailed on into Bangor. (I’d forgotten which exit to take, so I tried them all; third time’s the charm.)

There was a free concert in downtown this evening, so we went to hear Caribbean music played by a steel-drum band ... except, it wasn’t Caribbean music. It appeared to be a group from an old-folks home who’d found some abandoned steel drums and learned to play such traditional tunes as “Dancing Queen” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”. There were crafts booths set up, but we were pretty late getting there so they were running short on merchandise, some of them. And a lot of is was the usual earrings-and-ceramics stuff that you can see any weekend on the Riverwalk. But I picked up a couple of local items and was happy about that. Dinner was at a very nice café called the Whig and Courier; we sat outside in the beautiful early-summer air, and drank beer and joked with the waiter, and planned our remaining time in Maine. We’re all going to go Down East tomorrow, and probably stay over out there. Down East, I’m given to understand, is “any place east of where you are when you refer to it,” or something like that. I’m told that the people there are all identical cousins and speak in the rare monosyllabic-monopedalian style. That is, one word sentences, each word consisting of but a single syllable. The notable exception is the common affirmative, “ay-yep.”

June 26, 2009

This was an excellent day; we went exploring Down East. The only downside – I’ll get this out of the way early – is that, since there’s 3 of us plus the dog, we’re not in my graceful, agile little convertible, and this on a dry, reasonably warm day. No, we’re driving around in Ro’s truck, that gi-normous, unbelievably bulky Escalade that I’ve decided should be nicknamed the White Elephant, not entirely metaphorically. I mean, this thing is so big I was embarrassed to be seen putting gas in it. (And I’ve never seen a gas pump register so large a sale, either in gallons or dollars.)

So. We started off by going to breakfast in a town just west of Bangor, Hampden, at a place that makes all its own everything. I have to wonder that Ro, who’s lived here all of four months, is already known by sight at several of the restaurants we’ve been to. Hmmm. I think about the only place I’m known by sight in San Antonio is at Timo’s, and I’ve lived there for nearly two decades. I haven’t decided if that’s a good thing, or not.

So. Had corned beef hash with poached eggs. It was pretty good; thought the has was a little dry, but what do I know about hash. Saw in the paper that Michael Jackson died. Saw on TV that Farrah Fawcett died. Pop culture will never be the same. Haven’t decided if that’s a good thing, or not.

Next we drove down the river to Frankfort, to deliver some co-op spinach to some friends of Ro’s who are refurbishing a 1790s mansard-style house. They weren’t home so she left the spinach hanging on the door, and we drove on to the Penobscot Narrows bridge, the same one that Sherry & I had been at two days before. Only this time, we didn’t go up in the observation deck, we just drove across it and followed US Route 1 east to Ellsworth (where we stopped at a chair-maker’s shop), Orland (where I took pictures of a mock-up of a horse and trap that I will eventually post on, and onto Schoodic Peninsula. This is actually part of Acadia National Park, but this part is free; which is good, because we gave our entry permit (that we paid $10 for, plus a $10 late fee ... but I’m over that) to Ro and she passed it on to someone at work. We got a lot of nice pictures of eider ducks that we thought were puffins, and of the waves crashing on rocks, and of Frenchman Bay and a lighthouse that we think was Egg Rock, the same one we’d seen from the other side a few days ago.

We wandered up and down and around, finding interesting little places to stop: roadside weirdnesses that will end up on; artisan shops; meat markets (bought some salmon candy; that’s right, salmon candy. It ain’t too bad). Eventually we found our way out to Schoodic Point, and spent, oh, an hour or so clambering around on the shore, taking pictures of waves and animals and each other, and siccing the park ranger on some stupid women who were feeding pizza to the gulls. I was hoping the ranger’d lead them away in cuffs, or at least confiscate the pizza, but no, she just gave them a good talkin’ to. Shoot.

Our next serious stop (after a U-turn to go to Wild Blueberry World) was at the falls in Machias. I’ve no idea how to pronounce that; it’s supposedly an Indian word for “bad little falls.” The town is a pretty little colonial village, much modernized but some pre-Revolutionary buildings survive. We didn’t see any, though, we just wandered around the little park built over the falls before heading on down the road to Lubec.

Lubec is the town farthest east in the US. It’s also home to, among other things, the Park Farthest East, the Point Farthest East, the Campground Farthest East, the Gift Shop Farthest East, the Post Office Farthest East, the Dry Cleaners Farthest East ... you get the drift. And I think I found the Pothole Farthest East, though there might be another. We went first to the bridge to Campobello Island, which is in Canada, to make sure that Ro, who doesn’t have a passport, would be allowed back in the US (“You’re an American citizen, we can’t really keep you out”) and that Jake, the dog, would be OK. (We were told that as long as he stayed in the truck, the Canadians would probably let him in, and there’d be no problem with getting him back to the US; he doesn’t need a passport.) So we’re going there tomorrow, before we go up to Eastport, the City Farthest East.

After ascertaining the border-crossing issues, we drove down to Quoddy Head (sight of the Lighthouse Farthest East in the US) and Sherry and I wandered around looking for the Bog Trail. We never found the bog, even though we had a map. But we had a good time at the lighthouse and on the rocks below it and even hiking the Inland Trail and taking lots of pictures at places like Gulliver’s Hole and Scenic Ledge and Green Point. Then came back to town and checked into the rather quaint little Eastland Motel, with Wi-Fi and pets OK and all the guests sitting around chatting like family, which apparently except for us they all are. Met the owner. Met the owner’s poodles, Charlie and Suzie. Met the owner’s mom. All very nice. We asked about the restaurant we’d seen down the road, and she said Oh, yes, it was good food and good people and good prices. Well, the prices were pretty good, especially since we all had seafood – lobster, clams, haddock, clam chowdah, lots of wine, dessert – and the people were friendly. The food itself, I regret to say, was only so-so.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by these Downeasters, they’re not at all the monopedalian rubes I’d been led to expect. In all honesty, you can’t shut these people up. The guy who sold us salmon candy, I thought he was going to show us his financial statements, he was so excited about how his business is going. I now know way more about the mechanical salmon slicer than I ever thought would be necessary to a compleat education, and don’t get me started on the benefits of smoking meat. The lady who runs this hotel, well, the people behind us would just have to wait while she told us all about how Suzie the Poodle is deaf and blind but still obeys hand signals and will come when you call her. (I’m still sorting that one out.) And the waitress at dinner was a hoot and a half. She picked right up on my issues with beets and messy food, and she made sure that when she brought my dessert she collected all the spare utensils first, and placed it out of everybody else’s reach.

I still had to cross spoons with Ro, but she finally backed down.

June 27, 2009

We began today with a nice breakfast at the Village Diner in Lubec (easternmost town in the USA, in case you’ve forgotten). It was our young waitress’s first day at work, and I suspect we were her first trial by fire. We all four got through it, though. I, by the way, had a burrito, after making sure it would be wrapped in an honest-to-goodness flour tortilla of appropriate size, but specifically asked her to leave out the black olives, and some other peculiar ingredient that I now disremember. It was good enough, although the sausage was what we call country sausage, and the salsa was what we call ketchup with a little onion.

Our first stop was Campobello Island, in New Brunswick, Canada. No, that’s not exactly right: our first stop was the US Customs office in Lubec, where I went next door to mail a post card and Ro, who has no passport, went to ascertain that she would be allowed back in, and just how long that would take. They wouldn’t tell her how long it’d take, but they did say that Jake, her dog, wouldn’t be a problem. (We got the same information last evening, but thought it best to get the day shift committed personally to a position; you know how bureaucrats are.)

Campobello was where FDR had his summer home. His parents had a house there, and he’d grown up spending summers there, so when he was a big boy his mommy and daddy gave him a house next door. Sort of like on Everybody Loves Raymond, but with money. Eleanor, apparently, was not as independent and self-assertive a woman as Debra was on Raymond, and FDR’s mommy was, as they so diplomatically put it at the park, dictatorial.

Anyway, it’s a big barn of a house, with 18 bedrooms (including, if I counted right, 5 for servants). All the kids’ rooms were in the west wing, all the servants in the east wing, the master bedroom and guest rooms were more or less in the middle part. The bedrooms were surprisingly small, most of them, some no more than monks’ cells. All of the furniture, or nearly all, was original to the Roosevelt family, which made it more interesting than most old houses of famous dead people. The upholstery and wall coverings had been renewed, of course, but in the same materials as had been there in The Day, so it appeared just as it would have, say, the last time the man himself was there, in 1939.

The parents’ house next door is gone now, and the park has purchased other people’s houses on either side, so the property now is much larger than when it was the Summer White House. I didn’t go to those other houses (Sherry did, but her pictures aren’t available, as she didn’t bring a computer connection cable with her), I just went through the family home and walked down to their dock on Passamaquoddy Bay. A nice sized estate, not overly grand, just very homey-feeling. Not my taste in architecture, maybe, but if I had a large family and a summer home, it’s about the kind of thing I would want. But I would never have built so close to my parents, nor would I ever allow my campaign manager to have his own room in the house.

The border guard asked some nosey questions when we came for re-admittance to the Land of the Free (a designation that loses some of its applicability with each passing year), but we got in and moved on up the road to Eastport (the easternmost city in the USA, and home of the easternmost golf course in the USA and probably a thousand other easternmost things I didn’t bother to note), a quaint little fishing town that had its heyday with the peak of the sardine-canning industry, around 1900. I had no idea there had ever been a peak to the sardine-canning industry. I guess before people could get real food .... The town’s main street is undergoing one of those too-cute refurbishments, but it hasn’t gotten out of hand yet. Most of the buildings are still naturally weathered, very few gleaming with new and unpleasantly garish colours of paint, and only one looking like it had just been re-sided in brand-new wood-look vinyl. There was the obligatory Local History Museum, consisting of a gift shop and a very large (room-sized) model of what Passamaquoddy Bay would have been like had the Quoddy Dam Project of the 1930s been funded. (That was to have been the world’s first tidal-power generating project; it may yet happen.) There were the required antique shops, some in business and some not, and some in kind of an in-between state, like the one that consisted of a large room adjoining the hardware store, with maybe a dozen larger pieces of furniture, 200 or so very old books (mostly of a religious nature), and some broken ship models. But it had the aroma of a real antique shop, a blend of dust and mildew, that makes one feel comfortably at home. Not that my house smells of dust and mildew (at least, I hope not); I mean, that’s what an antique shop should smell like.

There was a gallery of local artists and artisans, too, of course, with prices that brought the phrase “sticker shock” to mind. Yet somebody paid $15,000 for a birchbark canoe that I expect will never see water. I considered a couple of sculptures that were borderline-reasonable, but decided in the end that neither would actually look good in the places I had in mind. (My mind still goes back to a green glass vase I saw in New Hampshire a few days ago; I may yet go back for it. I doubt it, but I might.)

Lunch was at the Eastpoint Chowder House. It was a late lunch, and we were about the only people there. The high season has yet to start in eastern Maine, and many of the stores and hotels aren’t even operating yet, so it’s no surprise that many of the restaurants haven’t yet dusted off the grill and washed the tablecloths. The Chowder House opens at the beginning of June and closes in October. They offer fresh-off-the-boat seafood, and it was certainly fresh. Sherry got a clam chowder that was much more chowdery than what Ro and I had gotten the previous evening in Lubec. I had a lobster sandwich, served on a toasted bagel, and I’ll say again that I don’t see the big deal about lobster. It’s on the bland side, not as flavourful as crab or shrimp, and it’s way too expensive for what you get. Even in Maine. But it was good: the bagel and the sauce gave it some taste, and the wedge fries were well-done. The coleslaw was good, too, but then “good coleslaw” is a relative thing. Ro had a lobster salad and made no comment on it. I also had a slice of peanut-butter-cup cheesecake, which was excellent, and was made even better by the fact that neither Ro nor Sherry dared to take “just a taste” of it.

We started back to Bangor then, but of course had to pull off and stop when we saw a brown National Park Service sign for St. Croix Island International History Park, about halfway between Eastpoint and Calais (pronounced “Kallis”). This was where some French dude tried to set up a colony in 1604; by the following year he had learned some valuable lessons, and moved the colony to Port-Royal, in what’s now Nova Scotia, where it thrived by New-France’s standards; enough so that it caught the interest of the British, who conquered it 150 years later.

The park office is temporarily headquartered in a listed building up the hill from the park. The ranger (Ranger Meg) was fascinating to talk to, and we spent nearly an hour there. She gave us a tour of the house because, when the park service vacates it in a year or two, the federal government will be looking for a tenant to live there, rent-free, and maintain the house. Ro is interested in that arrangement. (“Are you a handy woman?” asked Ranger Meg; “No,” said Ro, “but I know how to hire people.”)

And now we are back in Bangor. The supplementary sump-pump is still at work, trying to drain the basement; I’m doing laundry so we can pack up in the morning and head over to Manchester, New Hampshire. Sherry has an early flight on Monday so that will be the extent of our travelling for the day.

The fireflies are out here, down by the stream in back of the house. The other night I noticed that they are a much brighter species than we get at home; the light is blue-white, instead of yellowish. But I also noticed the other day that the fireflies, all of them, flashed in a pattern of three quick flashes, like dot-dot-dot in Morse code. I assumed it was peculiar to the species. But tonight they’re all emitting single flashes, slightly longer individual pulses of light. Maybe it’s the weather that determines the pattern. Or maybe the guys who do the three flashes have already performed their manly duties and died, leaving only the 97-pound weaklings who can only manage a single pulse. I’m sure someone who reads this will enlighten me, someone from the scientifically-inclined segment of my email audience. You know who you are.

June 28, 2009

If there had to be a day on this trip when it just rained and rained and rained, today was the day for it. We had no sightseeing to do, no plans but to pack up the car, head a short-ish way down the road to Manchester, New Hampshire, and wait for Sherry’s flight home in the morning.

The weather co-operated, in that it rained and rained the entire way. It’s 220 miles from Bangor to Manchester, a trip that should take just under 4 hours (including a 20-mile detour that actually was quite a nice little drive). We left Ro’s house around 11:30 (after watching Spain, stunned by its semifinal loss to the United States, recover just enough to snatch victory away from South Africa in the Confederations Cup third-place match, 3:2, even though RSA played better most of the match), and pulled up to our hotel in Manchester at 6:30. Even after you subtract the two hours we spent at a pub in Portland, watching the Confederations Cup Final (Brazil 3:2 USA), that’s an hour longer than it should take.

Well, anyway, we made it, and we got to see the game, and an excellent game it was. The USA really dominated the first half, and although they gave up a goal in the 46' to start the second half, they kept themselves organized until about the 75'. At that point they started looking tired, and started giving the ball away cheap – long balls over the top searching for one striker in a crowd of defenders; bad short passes in the midfield; and desperation clearances in the back line. By the last quarter of the match they’d lost their composure, and that’s when Brazil took two goals from them to win.

Still, the USA played well against the two top teams in the world, Spain and Brazil, beating one, and staying close with the other. And they made it to the final of a major international tournament for the first time. (I don’t count concacaf tournaments; the only other team of any consistent quality in the confederation is Mexico, and the US has had the edge on them big time in the last 10 years.) And they played well. I feel proud of them.

No picture today; the camera didn’t even come out of the bag. So instead, I send you a look back at one of the many, many great sights I’ve gotten to see on this trip, Monument Square in Baltimore.

June 29, 2009

Another rainy day. It rained when we loaded the car. It was raining when I dropped Sherry off at the Manchester airport. It rained when I went looking for the post office that turned out not to be where Mapquest said it would be. It rained when I stopped for coffee. It rained when I went to look for the Trojan Horse that was supposed to be on the side of the road a few miles east of Concord. It rained when I stopped for gas, and asked directions to the local post office. It rained when I went in to mail Ro’s house key back to her. (The mailman said the Trojan Horse was gone, he didn’t know where, but someone had bought the building it was in front of, and they were remodelling it.)

It was still raining when I got to the Park-and-Ride lot off Highway 4 and it rained while I walked out the path to the Massacre Monument, on a little island reached by crossing on a disused railroad trestle.. I don’t know what massacre it was; the statue is of a European woman holding an axe and what look like scalps. The inscriptions are vague to the point of meaninglessness:

Heroum gesta Fides Justitia Hannah Duston Mary Neff Samuel Leonardson March 30 1697 Mid-night
Statua; Know ye that we, with many plant it/In trust to the State we give & grant it/That the tide of time may never cant it/Nor mar nor sever/That pilgrims here may heed the Mothers/That Truth & Faith & All the Others/With banners high in glorious colors/May stand Forever


March 15 1697 30/The War Whoop Tomahawks/Faggot & Infanticides/Were at Haverhill/The Ashes of Wigwam-Camp-Fires at Night & of Ten of the Tribe/Are here.

My guess is that some European settlers massacred some local Indians in retaliation for an earlier massacre of some European settlers. But that’s just a guess.

My next stop was the birthplace of Daniel Webster. I didn’t plan that one, just happened to see a sign & thought it might be interesting. The sign didn’t indicate how far it was; it was 20 miles down a pleasant winding road (oh, for dry weather!). Unfortunately it wasn’t particularly interesting: a brown clapboard two-room house, all locked up, only open Saturdays and Sunday afternoons. And, of course, it was raining, but I got out of the car anyway and walked around it, looked in the windows, took a couple of pictures.

My next stop was in New London, New Hampshire, where there was supposed to be a tombstone shaped like a loaf of bread in the Old Main Street Cemetery. I drove up and down Main Street, finally gave up and asked at the town clerk’s office. Turns out it’s not on Main Street; it’s on Old Main Street, which is about half a mile away.

At the cemetery I talked to the groundskeeper, or gravedigger; I didn’t ask what his title was. He was happy to tell me about all the Revolutionary War people buried in the cemetery, and about the loaf of bread (there’s no story, it just happens to resemble a loaf of bread). I walked around a while in the light rain, looking at the old grave markers. I thought one pair was particularly interesting: a man named Enoch Davis died at age 39 in 1823. Next to his was a stone marking the grave of Betsey, wife of John Gage & Former wife of Enoch Davis, who died at age 77 in 1861. It makes me curious about the relationship between John Gage and Enoch Davis, but by then the gravedigger had left, so there was no one to ask.

The floating bridge on Vermont Highway 65 is now closed to car traffic, apparently because it’s sinking, but you can still walk out on it. It crosses a large pond or lake, the leeward side of which was smooth as glass, while the windward side was fair agitated. One old man was swimming in it, but he was too far away to ask about the bridge. Some families were fishing at each end, but I got the distinct impression that they had no desire to talk to strangers. They kept their backs turned to me the entire time I was there. Maybe it’s the mustache. Maybe it was the rain.

I stopped in Barre to see the Whispering Statue, on the main square of the town where the two highways cross. It’s a memorial to all the young men who died in World War I, and is inscribed with a beautiful quote on the front. I don’t know who said it – it’s not attributed on the plinth, but I know I’ve read it before: “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

I didn’t know why it was called the Whispering Statue; I couldn’t hear anything but traffic noise. So I went into the public library across the street, in the belief that all reference librarians are omniscient, like the ones in San Antonio, when it comes to local matters (and to get a break from the drizzle). They apparently are not; I asked the woman at the desk and she had never heard of a Whispering Statue. Luckily, we were overheard by several elderly library patrons, and they informed me (and her) that yes, that was the Whispering Statue, but it’s not the statue that whispers; there is a semicircular granite bench behind the statue, inscribed as a memorial, and the acoustics are such that a person sitting at one end can hear whispers uttered by someone sitting at the other. Of course, I was by myself, so had no one to test this out with. I’ll have to take the word of people who undoubtedly sat there before there was an endless procession of semi-tractors passing by on both highways.

I went to Waterford looking for a glassblowing gallery that is now out of business, but found Ben & Jerry’s Factory. I didn’t take the tour – there was a huge line, and it was raining on them; this is the most people I’ve seen in one place north of Boston – and the only ice cream for sale was in pints. Travelling alone can be depressing at times, so I prefer not to invite temptation into the tent; I didn’t buy one. (I have no way to keep it cold, I’d’ve had to eat the whole thing. I do, you know, regret not having bought a pint....)

I made a stop in Richmond, Vermont to see the Round Church National Historic Landmark, which is a round church building built in 1812. It was closed. And it was still raining. So I said that was enough for one day. I came to Shelburne, a town just south of Burlington, and checked into a hotel room. Spent, oh, an hour downloading my pictures and checking email and such, then decided to go out and get a Subway sandwich for dinner.

Wouldn’t you know it? I stepped outside to find the sky a previously unknown shade of blue (well, maybe not unknown, but memory is faint) and by the time I got back with my sandwich, I was witnessing what may be one of the most glorious sunsets ever seen by man. It seemed so, at least, for being so rare a phenomenon.

I’m going to pray that the beautiful weather lasts. I hate to ask God for trivial personal favours, but right now it don’t seem so trivial.

June 30, 2009

I know that sometimes I don’t remember details clearly unless I really, really think about them; I tend to remember impressions, conclusions, overall feelings about things. Right now, sitting on a bed in Valhalla, New York at midnight, I think today was a pretty good day. By the time I finish describing it, I wouldn’t be surprised if I wonder why I think that.

It began inauspiciously with the weather report. The entire northeast, from Maine to Pennsylvania, was rainy. Oh, well, I thought, I’m pretty used to that by now. I packed my stuff and went to get ice for my little back-seat ice chest, and when I stepped outside I was again stunned by the brightness of the sun in the crystalline sky. So at least I’d get a few hours of convertible weather. I loaded the car and put the top down, but left the cover off in case I needed to put it up again in a hurry.

First stop: a few miles up the road in Burlington, to see the monument erected to the sea monster that lives in Lake Champlain. Not much of a monument, but then it’s apparently not much of a monster. Sort of a knock-off Nessie. Parking for out-of-state cars was $8.00, flat rate, but the guy at the booth said I could just go ahead. Still, I’m incensed at all the things in the northeast that cost more for out-of-state cars. That, I feel sure, is in violation of the Constitution as a tariff on interstate travel. I’m tempted to sue, but I think more likely I’ll try to get the Texas Legislature to impose reciprocal surcharges on all state fees for people from those states that screw out-of-staters. Knowing the Texas Legislature, I’d say they’ll do it, and over-do it. State parks? $125 for people from Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, $6 for everybody else.

I drove a short distance north and crossed over to the chain of islands in Lake Champlain. I stopped for breakfast in a town called North Hero, where the local bakery-slash-café had some of the best scones I’ve ever had. Then on to the bridge to New York, with a stop to take a picture of “Fort Blunder,” which the US Army started to build in the early 1800s, to defend us against attack from Canada (a serious concern at the time). Turns out the fort is in Canada. So the US built a fort to defend our neighbour, a potential enemy at the time, against attack by us. Brilliant.

I drove the scenic route south. My plan was to go to Saratoga battlefield, and then head down here, to Valhalla (just north of NYC) to spend a couple of days with Steve. But I didn’t want to just get on the freeway; that’s no fun. It was still beautiful convertible weather, so I headed southwest to Saranac (gorgeous the whole way), then southeast (still gorgeous, but clouding up by now). In a little town east of Saranac Lake, I stopped for lunch at a combination café/gift shop/icecream parlour/health spa, where I ordered what they call a Michigan. I’d been seeing signs advertising whatever this particular delectable was since I turned off the freeway and entered the Adirondacks. It turns out to be a hamburger covered with what the waitress described as a pizza-style sauce. It tasted more like canned chili, without the meat or beans. If it weren’t for an interesting conversation with the man next to me at the lunch counter, I’d’ve written the whole visit off as a bust. As it was, I enjoyed my short time there despite the lack of quality food. Afterwards, I got back in the car and headed east, toward Saratoga.

Then I saw a sign for Fort Ticonderoga, and I thought, hmmm, that ought to be interesting.

Well, long story short, I went to Fort Ticonderoga instead of Saratoga, and it was a tremendous disappointment. I guess I’ve gotten spoiled by the outstanding quality of National Park Service restorations and maintenance and interpretation (not including Valley Forge). Ticonderoga is a private restoration from 100 years ago. It costs easily twice what a similar National Park would cost, the restoration work is clearly inauthentic, the museum exhibits in the barracks buildings are pathetic (a whole floor is given over to the USS Ticonderoga, an aircraft carrier that saw some action at the tail end of World War II, and some during the Vietnam war), and the interpretation is practically nonexistent. I spent a good hour there exploring the fort, and was not able to figure out which of the surrounding mountains was Mount Independence and which was Mount Defiance; without that knowledge, so easy to provide, one cannot understand the series of battles that took place at the fort.

It started to rain while I was at the fort. By the time I got back on the road, it was pouring. The winding road south from there passes through trees that crowd right up to the road, and the sky was so dark and the rain so hard that the trees were just a black void except where headlights lit them. Every now and then, there’d be a gap in the trees, and I could see Lake George a hundred yards or so, off to the left, its shining waters undisturbed by rainfall, and beyond the mountains of Vermont shining in late-afternoon sun. Eerie.

It poured most of the way down the Thruway, letting up for the last hour or so, then half an hour on the Taconic. It was dry enough by then that, if there had been a shoulder, I might’ve pulled over to drop the top. I got to Steve’s house around 9. He and I sat out on the front porch smoking cigars and talking until now.

Tomorrow he has an errand to run out on Long Island ... in Suffolk County. So I’m going with him. I’ll go through Nassau County and into Suffolk and then I shall never have to go to Long Island again. I’m sure I will, someday. No doubt eventually I’ll accept an invitation to a house party in the Hamptons, but I won’t have to go. That makes all the difference.

July 1, 2009

A new month, a new conquest. How very fulfilling. (I know, you’re thinking of that quote, “Little things amuse little minds.)

Steve drove me down to the City for a delivery on East 64th street. We had some time to kill (delivery vans aren’t allowed in certain areas before certain hours) so we drove downtown and circled Ground Zero, which looks like nothing but the gigantic construction site in a hole in the ground that it is. Then up the Hudson and across to the east side.

While he did his business, I walked down to the next corner for a bagel and a large coffee, light, with two sweeteners. Ordering coffee here requires strictly regimented terminology, or you don’t get what you want and it ain’t their fault. While I waited I watched a crew dismantling some scaffolding over a busy sidewalk, which was strangely interesting. At one point they had what looked to be about a 400-pound I-bar standing on end and leaning against the platform they were working from. As they climbed down the whole platform would shake and I kept expecting the I-bar to fall over and crush passersby. No such luck. No need for the camera.

Then we drove out to a town in Suffolk county, the name of which I can’t spell, for his pick-up there. On the way back into the city I saw the brightest flash of lightning I’ve ever seen strike something very near, and then it started to rain. It rained so hard you couldn’t even see the hail. But when we crossed into Queens the roads and parking lots were completely dry.

We stopped at a small Indian restaurant in the Village — not Greenwich Village, but the main street of Valhalla, down the hill from Steve’s house — for lunch. They had a chicken kebab that was fantastic, excellent rice pullao, very good tandoori chicken and tikka masala, and a lamb dish that I really liked too. They didn’t have saag paneer, a disappointment, but some other kind of saag that just didn’t do anything for me. The naan was okay; the kheer was excellent, I’ll even say the best I’ve had.

Then we came back to Steve’s house and sat on the front porch, assessing our options, which boiled down to going to see a movie, going for a drive, or sitting on the front porch. We opted for sitting on the front porch. I was telling Steve about my disappointment with Fort Ticonderoga, and compared their presentation to what I’ve come to expect at National Park facilities, and I told him that in every national park I’ve ever been to, the presentations were unsurpassed and the staff was always eager to explain things, show things, and generally make people welcome ... except at Valley Forge. And when I mentioned the ranger at Washington’s Headquarters there, Steve said that he had never even been to the headquarters Washington used during the battle of White Plains ... even though it was only about a mile away. So I said, Well let’s go now. So we did.

It’s an invisible building shielded from view from the street by high hedges. There’s a small parking lot and a sign, “Washington’s Headquarters, operated by NY Parks & Rec”, and the parking lot entrance is blocked. Apparently it’s not open. So then we just drove. Mostly top down, but put it up against the inevitable rain, which didn’t come. Ended up driving up to Connecticut, to Litchfield County, which means I have now finished with Connecticut. That means I’ve been to every county now in 7 states (Texas, Louisiana, Arizona, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Connecticut). We had a drink to celebrate, and came home.

No pic today; nothing to photograph. So I send you, instead, a picture of the Massacre Monument in New Hampshire that I wrote about a couple of days ago. Since then I’ve learned that she, her baby, and two others were kidnapped by Indians in Haverhill, Massachusetts. They were taken to the spot marked by the monument, at which point the Indians killed her baby by dashing its head against a rock. She was incensed by this, and took her irritation out on the Indians, by taking an axe to them, killing and scalping ten. I think she should’ve gotten pissed earlier.

July 2, 2009

You know what’s scary? When you turn a corner and glance in the rearview mirror and see a funnel cloud coming at you from behind. That’s scary.

I felt that today. Luckily, it wasn’t a funnel cloud. Maybe it was one forming or something, but more likely is was just a dark bit of cloud sticking out of the mass of black cloud to the east of me.

I spent the day driving across New York State. Up the Sprain Brook Parkway, then the Taconic State Parkway all the way to the end of it, east of Albany. These parkways in New York are wonderful for distance travelling, as long as it’s not rush hour. The traffic heading the opposite way, into the city, was pretty thick; not stop and go, but heavy, like 281 at 7am heading into town. But the road winds through hills or low mountains, the surface is smooth, and heading north in the morning, there’s almost no traffic. If only it had been dry.

I did put the top down a few times, and probably could have had it down more, but basically I went from squall to squall all the way across the Empire State. The scenery was beautiful all the way – all these northern states, with their masses of trees and excess of water (did I mention how much I’d like to take the water of just one stream, not even a big one, back to Texas with me? There are creeks in New York and New England that are bigger than the Brazos.) seem beautiful to me. Lush. Verdant. Elegant.

From the Taconic, I drove up the Mohawk River Valley. I was going to stop at Saratoga battlefield, but the weather was too wet, so I bypassed it again. Some day; some day. In some little town I stopped for lunch at a roadside diner called Donna’s – the guy next to me called it “the best family diner in the Valley”; I don’t know about that, but it was pretty good. I asked for a Turkey Melt sandwich and a cup of split-pea soup, but the cup of soup was so big (and delicious; better even than Schilo’s) that I had them wrap the sandwich to go. When I got to the Finger Lakes, where traffic through the little towns was stop-and-go, I pulled off to have the sandwich in a pretty little city park in Auburn. There were thousands of birds there; ducks and geese and swans in the pond in front of the pavilion I sat in (to be out of the drizzle), plus robins and finches and one ruby-throated hummingbird and some small black birds that seemed to have discovered a cache of bread somewhere. But the sandwich had mayonnaise and some kind of sauce on it, and the bread was soggy. The turkey was piled high, though. It tasted okay; better, at least, than the Turkey Surprise at Ozark Mountain Park in Arkansas a few years ago, but it was messy as hell. And then there are no trash cans in the park. I guess everyone just takes their trash home with them. I stuck mine in the car and trashed it at a rest stop later on.

There were a couple of places where I had to pull off the road because it was raining so hard, but not for long. Most of the time it was just light drizzle, just enough to keep the top up. I passed two National Park facilities, the Erie Canal and the National Women’s Rights Historic Park in Seneca Falls, but I didn’t stop for either, because it was raining too hard.

I see on the map that there’s a Teddy Roosevelt National Historic Site in Buffalo, which is just a short distance from where I’m staying tonight. Maybe I’ll drive up there in the morning just to get a stamp in Sherry’s passport. But it’s the wrong way from where I’ll be going, so maybe I won’t. I had planned to get only as far as central Ohio tomorrow, but then, I hadn’t planned to get this far today. I had planned to stop for sights along the way, but I didn’t.

So: again, no pictures today. But in honour of the upcoming Independence Day celebration, I attach a picture of the Star Spangled Banner, in the place it occupied on that fateful night in 1814.

July 3, 2009

If you asked me out of the blue if days like today are rare, I’d say yes. But having kept this account of this trip, I could be wrong. It’s one of those days where every little thing seems to go badly, but the overall impression is that, for no discernible reason, it was a good day.

First thing, I went into Buffalo to see the Teddy Roosevelt National Historic Site I saw on a map. Turns out to be the house where he took the oath of office. A large house, though by no means an attractive one; in fact, I’d say that it’s among the least attractive old homes in a large district of graceful and elegant late-19th-Century mansions, and in a city that, at that time, was probably one of the most beautiful in North America, judging from what’s left. It’s one of those National Park sites that makes you think maybe we do spend too much money on preserving trivial history.

When President McKinley was shot (in Buffalo), Vice-President Roosevelt was in Vermont. He came to the city immediately, and as he was about to check into a hotel (in those days, government officials, even high government officials, were still capable of doing such things for themselves), he ran into an old friend from his New York City days. The man invited the Veep to stay at his house, just as you or I would invite Barack over if we saw him at Taco Cabana. (Unless he insisted on bringing his entourage along; Michelle and the girls, sure, but no press secretary, no appointments clerk, no personal trainer, and the secret service has to stay outside, if they stay at all. I and my neighbours would prefer they didn’t.)

So anyway, there was TR, sitting around somberly discussing tariffs and trusts and trade, when the Old Man dies of an infection. (Hospitals maybe haven’t changed all that much? I don’t know.) Ergo, a National Historic Site, recently remodelled at a cost that would no doubt buy one wing of an F-22, the outside at least, and to which the Park Service assigns a value of $10 per person. As you may gather, I rate it at somewhat less of a value, and so did not go through the house. I’ve seen old houses, lots of old houses, bigger and older and prettier and more important, and for a lot less. (I had the same attitude toward the church in Tarrytown or thereabouts, New York, famous for the Chagall and Matisse windows commissioned for it by the Rockefellers; they wanted $5 to go in, and judging from the two windows I could see from the entry, that was more than it was worth. That place, at least, was private property, even if it has laid aside its main purpose in pursuit of revenue. But I’ve seen some of the grandest cathedrals and chapels of the world, and for free, even if I do put more than $5 in the collection box afterwards. What was it Christ said about lucre? Seems like there was something about that in the bible.)

After the TR site, I drove around the city, admiring the architecture and the layout. There are a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright houses, but the real eye-catchers are all the earlier mansions, the wide boulevards, the large traffic circles, and the public buildings. None of them are overdone, which is surprising; there seems to have been a cultural predeliction for knowing just how much is enough in Buffalo. A shame that the city has fallen on such hard times; it’s about a third the size it was. Lots of empty buildings and slums, but the tonier areas can still charm. Of course, most of the biggest houses are now offices for foundations and medicos and lawyers. But still pretty, still pleasant.

After leaving Buffalo (damn that navigator!) I decided to go to Jamestown, to see the Lucy and Desi museum. There again I encountered an overweening pride of content. I decided I wouldn’t pay $15 to see Lucille Ball’s childhood toys and prom dress, nor would I pay such an amount to see the TV sets, because they wouldn’t let me take pictures. Hey, if I can’t have my own photographs to remember them by, I might as well just watch the TV show. So, on to Pennsylvania, where nothing interesting happened, except it rained steadily, and Ohio.

Ohio is the land of the self-sufficient. One must shift for oneself in this cradle of libertarianism. The Highway Department knows this, and knows how Ohioans detest being told where to go. (The response is probably always the same anyway.) So when they close a road, they just put up a sign that says “Road Closed.” In one case, they generously added a Detour sign, with an arrow pointing down the only possible alternative route, but that was the only detour sign I came across. I finally gave up on finding another hint on how to get where I was going, and chose the next road to the left.

This indeed took me to the highway I wanted, and I turned left again to resume my trip. I got about back to level with the original detour, on the other highway, when I came to two “Road Closed” signs staggered in the highway. I thought there was a lot of local traffic, because several cars came from the other direction, weaving through the barricades like cars trying to beat a train at a railroad crossing, but I turned around, pulled over and consulted my maps. I could find no alternative, unless I went 35 miles north, then 22 miles west, but I knew there had to be a way to get to the little town just down the road from where I was. I saw some people walking and asked them:
     “How do I get to the other side of that road closure back there?”
     “I guess you can go through the alley.”
     “The alley?”
     “Next to the Presbyterian church.”
     “Okay; where’s the Presbyterian church?”
     “It’s back there,” she said, indicated the closed road.
     “Can I just go around the signs?”
     “I guess,” she shrugged. “Everybody else is doing it.”
So I pulled up to the barricades and flagged down a truck exiting from the closed road.
     “Is there a way through over there?” I asked.
      “Yeah, there’s a church on the right, just before the construction; just go through the alley. Nice car.”
(I get that a lot; like 5 times a day up here. It never gets old.)

Sure enough, there’s a white church with an alley that takes you around the 3 blocks of closed traffic. On the far side, I looked back; there was a sign: “Route 617 will be closed starting June 15, 2009 for 88 days.” No suggestion of where you could go.

Unfortunately, Route 617 wasn’t where I wanted to be; my road turned off in the middle of the construction area, but it, too, was unreachable. I found a way eventually, but had to go back to Pennsylvania to do it.

I stopped for dinner at a little diner in West Virginia. It was early, and the place was empty. But I wanted to eat then, so that after I got a room I wouldn’t have to go out again. The food was lousy, really, really bad; certainly the worst I’ve had on this trip. (The second worse was last night, outside Buffalo; the blandest Italian food in all of North America. But plenty of it: the leftovers were my lunch today.) But the company was great. The waitress was from Liverpool (I thought that West Virginia accent was different from what I remembered), so I ended up sitting with her, her sister, her niece and brother-in-law discussing the merits of the Scousers and Toffees and Red Devils and Gunners. We were like golfers: we remember every goal we’ve ever seen, as they remember every hole they’ve ever played, and we talk about them.

Then into Steubenville, Ohio, for a room. But no: all the hotels in town are full, because of all the family reunions taking place, and because of some baseball tournament going on. So I went on to Carrollton, where the only hotel was overpriced, and on to New Philadelphia, where I am now. (“Nice car,” said the desk clerk. I’m going to get that on a vanity plate, I think.)

I am apparently the only person in all of Tuscarawas County who’s not at either the Fourth of July Festival or the Adult Novelty & Lingerie store, the two places where I encountered massive traffic jams in this small city. Maybe I’ll go out later. The adult novelty store is closer....

July 4, 2009

Well, this trip is over. I abandon it. After a week and a half of rain in the northeast, today was just the last straw, and I am giving up and going home.

It began auspiciously. When I stepped out of my motel in New Philadelphia this morning, there was a light haze in the east but clear skies to the west. After a Free Continental Breakfast of the sort I have assiduously avoided until today – one with surprisingly good coffee but little else to recommend it – I loaded the car, put the cover on the top, and took off for the lush, hilly roads of eastern Ohio. And indeed, I enjoyed about an hour of lush, hilly roads, with little traffic and less construction, until I reached Lancaster, Ohio.

It’s the Fourth of July today. It appears that, in Lancaster, Ohio, the tradition is to block off every highway in town for two hours while the entire population of the county turns out to watch, or take part in, a parade in honour of our national day. It’s hard to begrudge them the celebration; I love this country as much as any of our 300 million. But I wanted to get from Point A, on the east side of Main Street, to Point B, on the west side.

This proved impossible, and after near an hour of trying every road on the east side of town, I finally headed 20 miles south, then 40 miles west, then 20 miles north, to find the road I wanted.

Which was under construction. The entire length of it, some 45 miles of no shoulder, one-lane bridges, flagmen, and detours. I’ve already said enough about Ohio’s attitude towards detours; let me only add that, when you drive a convertible in changeable weather conditions such as then began to prevail, you want to be sure to be able to pull over quickly to make adjustments to the configuration of your vehicle. Roads with barricades along the lane-edge discourage that. And while in the event it did not prove necessary, the agitation of mind caused by the situation was no less for that.

I had planned to drive from Dayton, Ohio to the Illinois border on Interstate 70; I have already had sufficient experience with the backroads of Indiana to know that they can only be tolerated in short spurts, say from one town to the next, as they are line-straight, poorly maintained, and decorated with four-way stops every few hundred yards, at any point where a man leading a cow might possibly want to cross a road.

By the time I reached the far side of Dayton, it was raining. It was really, really raining. I stopped for a light lunch and wrote myself a journal entry that reads like a suicide note; the gist of it being not that it was raining, but that I was feeling pressed for time. I felt like I had to hurry through the rest of the trip. I had to be somewhere. Well, okay, I have a hair appointment on Tuesday and a car-club meeting on Thursday, but neither of those is really a big deal (sorry, Danny, and sorry, Fran, but there it is). But I just would really like to go home now. Driving in the rain’s no fun; driving fast is no fun, at least not on freeways (where anything over 57 mph is “fast”). And having to be somewhere on a certain date is no fun.

You’ve maybe noticed that I haven’t taken many pictures these last couple of days. The trip out to Maine, I researched and found all kinds of oddball things, and set my route to pass near them. The trip back, I didn’t find any of those things. Well, not many, and almost none that I was willing to go very far out of the way to see. I guess I knew then that I’d feel this way by now.

Yesterday, in West By-God Virginia, I passed a home-made statue of a viking and his dog by the side of the road. I didn’t feel like I had time to go back for a proper look and a photo. That should’ve been a red flag that it was time to go home. This morning, pretty valleys in eastern Ohio, woodchucks by the side of the road like pedestrians waiting to cross, and a string of Swiss-style chalets couldn’t tempt me to stop (at least, not after the first, which is today’s picture – it being the only picture I took today). Even a hawk trying to balance on a single power line right by the road didn’t get me to slow down.

The only time I stopped, other than for gas or food, was to get out and just stretch my legs. At that point, the rain had eased enough that I realized how hard I’d been holding the steering wheel. The place I found to pull off was at a small country cemetery. Not a choice to excite the happier emotions: the broken stones, weathered near illegibility after only a hundred years; the infant graves, the air of desuetude. And the grave of Lydia, widow of a civil war casualty, whose date of death was left blank; there being, apparently, no one willing to pay for the additional inscription.

Lastly, I killed a bird today. A nondescript brown bird, that flew out of the weeds alongside the road and swerved, too late, up into the top of my windshield. There have been two other occasions on this trip when I think I might have hit birds, but in both of those cases, I only saw them disappear in front of the car too close to see; I heard no impact and saw no carcass. But this one flipped up in the air and landed on the road behind me, flopping on the asphalt, until it was crushed under the wheel of the next car. Judging from experience, I’ll remember that sight all the rest of my life. (In about 35 years of driving, I’ve hit a dog on I-10 in Louisiana; a cat on US 183 in Austin, and a squirrel in Monte Vista; and I remember all three of them clearly.)

So I’m going home. Sorry to end on such a downer. No more new counties, no more sightseeing, no more languid roving in the backroads, at least not until next year. Just two days of freeways and the promise of a fulsome welcome at the far end.

Although: one good thing did happen today. I finally cornered the elusive Illinois Welcome Center, and got a state highway map — last year’s map, featuring the portrait of the state’s now disgraced ex-governor.

July 5, 2009

Not a total loss. Thanks to a timely check of the site, I saw that the entire route I’d planned for today was through severe thunderstorms, from Memphis to Dallas. So I headed west instead, to the Great River Road, across to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and along some back roads to Interstate 44 at Rollo. That few hours helped me to reach a little equilibrium, even though it was cloudy the whole way and there were occasional sprinkles; the top was up the whole day. But the scenery was pleasant enough, the waitress at the Huddle House in Cape G was very pleasant, and there was a little roadside park somewhere along the way where the state had cut away some of the forest to create a meadow full of wildflowers, some of which I even recognized, on a hillside below a small deck they’ve set up at the top. I saw a hawk, maybe two, and a tree full of tiny yellow birds, no bigger than leaves – they were gone by the time I got back to the car, gotten my camera & binoculars, & changed lenses, but I’d say they were finches – a bluebird, a redwing blackbird (common, I know, but one of my favourite birds), and a turtle crawling through the ground cover just below me. (By the time I was ready to take a picture he was pretty well hidden in the vegetation, but I got the back half of his shell.) Amazing, the spiritual restorative powers of twenty minutes with birds and flowers. And, of course, the transit of 3 or 4 new counties....

The rest of the day was spent driving (at the speed limit) on freeways. I’m about six hours from home now. I thought seriously about stopping for the George Washington Carver National Historic Site in Joplin, and for a few lesser attractions, but kept going. At lunch in some little town in Missouri I got a kick out of watching the dilemna of simple country folk who are presented for the first time with all the options available at a Subway sandwich shop. The guy in front of me took a good two minutes to pick his bread, and had no idea what he wanted on it. The woman behind me finally selected ham, I think just out of frustration. What a wonderful country we live in.

And I saw my first sunset since Vermont, and it was gorgeous. High clouds, light colours, and a full moon rising large as in a wispy shroud. Magnificent. All’s right with the world at moments like that.

July 6, 2009

And so now this year’s Big Trip is truly at an end. Just over 8500 miles; 21 states, though three more (Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas) were planned. Haven’t counted how many “new” counties I went through; that chore will be like the double-chocolate macadamia nut cookies sitting in my little refrigerator, a treat that I will savour at the appropriate juncture, in the fullness of time. But not right away.

I may have written this before; I certainly feel like I have: one of the great things about interstate highways is that they take almost all the large-truck traffic off the back roads, making driving from small town to small town in the forested east of this great country a truly pleasant diversion, especially where there are hills to hide scenery from view. A winding country road, reasonably well-paved, with light traffic and few billboards, gives small surprises at every turning. The pond behind the wooden fence. The old barn, still painted with a 1920s ad for chewing tobacco. The manicured hedge lining the lawn of a prosperous farmer’s house. The little garden of tiger lilies that someone has planted by their driveway.

And driving down those roads, listening to books on tape or my own private mix of favourite music, or even on occasion the local radio station, gives me time to think, to reflect, to see the solutions to all the problems of the world. A shame I can’t write them down while I’m driving. Or even remember them beyond the next turning of the road. But I know they’re here, in my head, awaiting the fullness of time.

Unexpressed thoughts become a part of us, they become the parameters our minds use later in our exercise of judgment. We don’t have to put them out there, to say things, to write things, to convince others of their rightness, in order to put them to work. They are like stakes, guideposts on the vast, unexplored plain of life, the little cairns we put up when we’ve been to a certain point, so that we know we have already explored that particular area, and don’t have to revisit it again and again to find our way. Maybe that’s why old people (like me) seem so set in their ways, so unwilling or unable to change: because we’ve already decided how we feel about national health-care or tort law or the Middle East, we’ve already decided what is right and what is wrong to our ways of thinking, and life is too short (especially when you get old) to keep re-thinking the same old things over and over.

One of that bad things about the Interstate Highway system is that it takes all the truck traffic off the back roads, and a lot of the other traffic too. That means that, when you want to find a hotel or a gas station or a restaurant in Zittsville or Crabtree Junction, there are none. Maybe a delapidated old motor court used by what look like itinerant drug dealers – though more likely farm workers – their multicoloured 1982 Pontiacs parked erratically around the lot; maybe a local franchise pizza parlour, with unpalatable spaghetti and meatballs out of a can; maybe a Gulf station (yes, apparantly there are still Gulf stations in the world) that has regular but no premium, and still sells only gas and oil, and not 20-ounce bottles of spring water and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. For gas and motels and restaurants, you have to go to the big towns, or the freeways. Luckily, so far, it’s never been more than 30 miles to a big town or a freeway.

I have only one more trip planned for this year, since we’re not going to Finland. We’ll be in San Diego for a week with Nancy and Jeff, in September, or maybe it’s October. Next year we’re going to Washington, across the Sound from Seattle. And last year I went to Florida. So in three years I’ll have been to all four farthest corners of the contiguous United States. That seems like it should be significant somehow, but I’ve yet to distill any kind of Lesson or Message from it. Maybe after I’m back from Washington next year I will have some deep secret to reveal. I doubt it, but it could happen. Lord knows I’ve solved all of life’s biggest problems many, many times on the road. Maybe then I’ll remember the answers.


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    1. Well I'm just thrilled to think that somebody actually read through this very, very long trip narrative. I mean, other than as I was writing it, I haven't even read it, just bits and pieces.

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