I leave tomorrow for France and won't be back until May 21, so the blog will be quiet until then. In the meantime, I'm posting a piece I wrote after I took my first solo vacation, about seven years ago. Enjoy the travelogue and I'll look forward to catching up with you all when I get back from France. Au revoir!
I began planning the trip in April for mid-September. I called or wrote each of the New England states to get their free vacation packets. Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont all sent state road maps along with the usual magazine of places and events. I finally narrowed down my trip to those three states and began to plan where I would stay and what I would see. Eventually, I came up with a rough itinerary but left plenty of time to wander and see whatever caught my fancy at the moment.
I left Virginia on a Tuesday night and drove to my parents’ house in south-central Pennsylvania. I was stopping just outside Albany, New York to visit a friend briefly and I still hoped to be in Bennington, Vermont by 4:00 in the afternoon, so I figured getting in two hours of my trip the night before and visiting my parents and brothers was a wise start. Wednesday morning, I was on the road bright and early, after dropping my 17-year-old brother at his bus stop on my way out of the neighborhood. The trip into New York was uneventful, marked only by the excitement of seeing five wild turkeys by the side of the road just outside Oneonta.
I pull into Gene’s Fish Fry in Defreestville, New York around 1:30. My friend and her husband are leasing the fish fry from her father-in-law to decide whether they want to buy it. It’s a good business, but they are in their last week of the season and everyone is tired. The girls, aged 4 and 1, are in the back room, Alexia on a blanket and her baby sister Adrianna in a playpen. They are watching a Disney movie on the TV/VCR combination that their granddad bought them. Priscilla is busy filling orders, but we talk in between and even find time to look at pictures. She fixes me a clam roll, which I know she won’t let me pay for. I try to get the teenage worker to put some money in the cash box for my lunch, but her loyalty is to her boss and she won’t take it.
Back on the road, I drive through Troy, New York. It’s a disappointing town, too much like the urban New Jersey neighborhood where I spent my teenage years. Soon enough, though, I’m past Troy and heading into Vermont. The road winds alternately between woods and farmland on either side and then suddenly around a bend there is a bridge over a river and I am in Vermont. Bennington isn’t far, less than an hour and a half from Defreestville.
The town is beautiful and quaint and picture perfect. It is exactly what I have always envisioned Vermont to be. Coming up on the old town square, the road curves right around the Old First Church. Cars and busses are parked along the road as I drive past and people are everywhere taking pictures, capturing the nostalgia on film. Beyond the church, small shops line the main street. A bookstore looks particularly cozy with a comfy armchair right in front of the plate-glass window. A few cafes still have tables and chairs on the sidewalk and another fish fry sits on a corner. Right now, I want to locate my lodging for the night and check in before finding dinner.
On the other side of town, I finally find the Molly Stark Inn where I have a reservation for the evening. A sign on the front door says the owners will be back at 3:30, but it is 3:30 now and they have just returned. They have friends visiting and are just pulling off their boots after a short hike. Cammie and Reed are the perfect innkeepers, bright, vivacious, and welcoming. Cammie’s enthusiasm makes everyone smile in spite of themselves, and Reed is perfectly gracious. Cammie shows me my room, a cute little corner room with antique furnishings and a quilt and feather pillows on the bed. I have a private bathroom with a stall shower and pedestal sink and I retreat there to take a shower and wash away the greasy feeling from the fish fry.
After my shower, I head downstairs to check out the local menus and decide where to eat. This is the big decision time. Eating alone is a tricky thing. I want to eat somewhere where I won’t feel uncomfortable or attract attention by being alone. Indecisive, I finally just drive through town and look for someplace. The diners that are open look too frequented by locals and I’m afraid I’ll stick out, particularly by myself. The cafes, where I imagine I would feel more comfortable, have all closed shop for the season. Finally, I chicken out and head for a McDonald’s. Over a Quarter Pounder, I vow to be braver tomorrow. After eating, I follow one of the maps I picked up at the inn to two of the three covered bridges in town. One is closed to traffic, but the other is open and spans a rocky creek. Across the street is a beautiful inn surely out of my price range. I snap a few pictures and head back to my own, more reasonably priced, inn.
The inn is quiet. Reed and Cammie are entertaining their guests over dinner on the screened in porch. I pull on an extra sweater and take my journal and my schoolbooks (I’m working on my Master’s) out to the front porch. The road is fairly heavily traveled, but the woods across the road are full of pine trees, the air is nippy, and I am savoring the feeling of being in Vermont. After an hour or so, the air is too cool and I head for the toastiness of the parlor. I trade my schoolbooks for needlework and decide that I lend a quaint and genteel air to the charm the inn already has. When I finally head to bed, I’m asleep nearly as soon as I lay down.
In the morning, the smell of coffee wafts up the back staircase from the kitchen. I head downstairs and take a seat at a table on the screened porch at the side of the house. The morning air is cool, but I’m still in love with the fact that I’m in Vermont and this crispness completes the feeling for me. Cammie informs me that Reed makes everything from scratch and the breakfast is indeed wonderful: fresh fruit followed by two muffins and then a puffed apple pancake, served in a heart-shaped cast iron pan, with maple syrup (what else?) and sausage. Reed later wraps the muffin I didn’t eat at breakfast and I take it along for the road. An older couple from Minnesota sit near me on the screened porch for breakfast. We chat off and on and then friends of theirs arrive and I finish my last cup of coffee alone before heading back upstairs to pack my things. I want to see some more of the town and then get an early start on this day’s journey, so I check out right after breakfast.
The first place I head is the Bennington Museum. I saw this in a AAA travel book someone gave me for my trip. There is an admission fee, but it is reasonable. The museum holds items once used locally on farms and in homes, a collection of glass and pottery from nearby factories, and—their real boast—several paintings by local girl, Grandma Moses.
After perusing the collection, I drive around the corner to Old First Church. This is a treat. Robert Frost is buried in their graveyard and I head to his gravesite first. Signs mark the path that so many lovers of literature must have walked. I locate the long slab that marks the grave of Frost, his wife, and several of their children. I take a few moments to look around and absorb the view of the natural beauty that inspired so many of his poems. I’m already feeling reverential when I head for the church itself.
When I enter the church, an older woman is recounting some facts to a visiting couple. She tells them that the seating has all been restored to the original box seats. I think how funny it is that on a crowded Sunday some people might sit with their backs to the minister. Indeed, the older woman tells us, this is often the case on Christmas.
She gives us a delicious bit of information about the church that I have to see for myself. Teenagers and unmarried adults used to sit in the balcony, girls on one side and boys on the other. The girls’ side is nearly perfectly preserved; the boys’ side, however, is marked up by pocketknives. Some of the boys merely chipped away at the wood until they bored holes straight through to the box next to them. But many carved their initials in beautiful block letters. I smile and think that I wouldn’t have known whether to scold them for defacing the church or complement them on their carving skills. An older gentleman—the tour guide’s husband perhaps— plays hymns on the pipe organ as I walk around the church, lending an atmosphere of worship.
After the church, I head over to the Bennington Monument. The guidebook says this is the tallest manmade structure in Vermont. It is a memorial to a Revolutionary War battle that is said to have turned the tide of the war. Inside the monument hangs a trophy of the battle, a cooking kettle used by the villainous Redcoats. There are stairs to the top of the monument, but they are no longer in use. Instead, an elevator takes me and 5 others to the top lookout area. Long windows surround the lookout and every other one is open to the fresh air on this day. Signs on each wall let us know which view we are seeing: Vermont, New Hampshire, or New York. This birds’-eye view is beautiful, and the stone monument feels much safer than the slightly swaying form of the Statue of Liberty.
Finally, I’ve seen all the sights I wanted to see in Bennington and I head for New Hampshire. The drive is breath-taking. Around every bend is something unexpected: a quaint town, a country church, a mountain stream, a panoramic view of valleys below. I’m driving too slowly in some areas, but I realize that the New Hampshire drivers really don’t mind. They just speed on by, seeming to take the double yellow line more as fair warning that visibility might not be good than as a hard and fast rule that this is a no-passing zone. Still, I have allowed too much time for my drive to Greenfield. And this isn’t Bennington. Greenfield, New Hampshire turns out to be a sleepy nowhere town with nothing to really look at or do to kill some time before I can check into the inn. I finally make my way to Greenfield State Park and find a lakeside beach there where I can read and pray and write in my journal.
Finally, it is time to check into the Greenfield Inn. The inn is more promising from the outside than the interior decorating lives up to. I think that my grandparents might like this place, and the owners are older here than at any of the other inns I stay at. The town is a lovely experience, however. I’m tired of driving, so for dinner I walk down to the all-in-one convenience store/deli/gas station—ever present, I discover, in small New England towns—and buy a sandwich, some chips, and a Coke. I eat on the large wrap-around porch of the inn, listen to the kids playing outside, do some more needlework and finally watch the sun set before heading to my room for the evening. There is complimentary sherry in my room so I treat myself to a small glass while I’m watching television. I have a shared hall bath this time, but there is only one other room of guests in the inn this night and they have a private bath so I don’t really have to share.
In the morning, I’m downstairs while the innkeepers are still getting the breakfast buffet set up. I fix a cup of tea and then, because I’m the only guest who shows up for breakfast, I’m treated to a served meal and the company of the innkeeper. We talk politics over more food than one person should be expected to eat.
I keep driving east to the Maine coast. I pick up Route 1 as quickly as I can since it has been described to me as similar to the Pacific Coast Highway. I have been greatly deceived. Route 1 is not a bad road, but I don’t see the ocean once so I’m disappointed. I get lost in Portland when Route 1 takes an unmarked right hand turn. Forty minutes later, I find the turn and I’m on my way again. I stop in Freeport to hit the LL Bean outlet. The trip is successful and I’m in and out of the store with a purchase in less than 10 minutes! I stop quickly at a street vendor and buy a Coke and a hot dog for the road. This turns out to be a big mistake. Mustard gooshes out the back of the hot dog all over my sweater and one of the two scant pairs of jeans I’ve brought.
I arrive in Boothbay Harbor at just the right time. I follow the directions up a steep hill and see the Welch House perched right at the top. One of the two innkeepers leads me around to the front of the house where my room is located. As we come around the corner, my breath is taken away. There before me is a stunning panoramic view of the town, the harbor, and the Atlantic. I wasn’t expecting this. This night is the best one of my vacation and I wish I had spent two nights here. My room is beautiful, with a canopy bed and another quilt. I take some pictures of the views from the inn and then head down to the town. This is the quintessential Maine town, what I have always imagined and will always remember. It is full of touristy shops and restaurants, but they are in old buildings that fit the image of a seaside town. Everything is quaint and just beautiful.
For dinner, I take the walking bridge across the short end of the harbor and head for the Lobsterman’s Co-op. The innkeeper has recommended this place to me. The charm of these innkeepers is that they seem to be able to size up their guests and recommend just the right thing for each one. This is the perfect place for me, although I don’t hear them recommend it to anyone else.
The co-op is just a couple of walk-up windows on a fishing pier with several rows of picnic tables. The lobsters are in tanks with big steamers next to them. I order the smallest lobster available, a Coke, and a bowl of clam chowder. The chowder is served up immediately and I pick a spot to sit and dig into the best chowder I have ever eaten. Finally, my number is called and I go to retrieve my lobster. I have to leave a $1 deposit for the nutcrackers I get. The lobster comes with little picks, a dish of butter, and hand wipes. I take a picture of the little guy before I crack his first claw. I think this gives away the fact that I’m a first-time lobster eater. A middle-aged woman several tables away comes over.
“I don’t mean to be nosy,” she says, “but is this your first time eating a lobster?” I admit that it is. She continues, “I always have a hard time getting it all cracked open. Would you like my husband to help you crack the lobster open and we can take a picture of you eating your lobster?” So sweet! Of course I agree.
They snap my picture. He gives me a few instructions on how to get all the meat out, but at the first crack of the tail and the remaining claw, the meat just slides right out. The lobster is delicious and I enjoy this new culinary experience while watching sights of this less-touristy part of the harbor.
After dinner, I head back to the inn and sit on one of the decks to write in my journal, drink a cup of tea, and watch the sunset. A schooner parades around the harbor below me and completes the picture. Finally, when night has settled in, I head to my room.
In the morning, I get up early. The breakfast area is right outside my room so I decide to be the first one out there so as not to be disturbed. The innkeepers don’t cook the breakfast here. They have a man and woman who come in and do that. They lay out a buffet, the most notable item of which is scones. They are delicate and light, made just right. A couple from Italy sits near me. The wife speaks no English and the husband is not much better. One of the cooks later tells us that a large percentage of Maine visitors are European. I take a long walk through the town again before I check out. I’m reluctant to leave this area.
I follow the advice of the cooks and make a detour to Ocean Point on my way back to Route 1. They tell me I’ll see the rocky coastline that everyone thinks of when they think of Maine. They are right. I get out several times and climb around on the rocks to take pictures. The ocean roars and splashes up over the rocks. I’m far enough away to not be in danger even from spray and the sea is calm, but the view is still spectacular. Near where I’ve parked my car, the water comes up to a sandy area. I take of my shoes and socks, just to see if it really is as cold as I’ve always been told. It is.
A little farther down I follow directions from my welcome packet at the Welch House to the Pemaquid Lighthouse. I haven’t seen a lighthouse yet and pick this one at random, but it’s a good choice. Walking up to it, a sign separates grass from rock, warning visitors that those who go out on the rocks do so at their own risk; but people are everywhere on the rocks and it looks safe enough. My pictures later do not do this sight justice. The rock has been worn away in long, deep chutes from years of water washing up and back. The striated patterns of the rock are revealed and you can follow the chutes almost down to the water if you dare. Watching the water crash into the rocks and then pour out through crevices makes me think how frightening and dangerous it would be to try to swim ashore here if your ship were sunk off this coast. Thankfully I’m on dry ground.
I head off for Bar Harbor. At the inn where I am scheduled to stay for two nights, I cannot locate the innkeeper. When I do at last find him, I am already a bit disgruntled and disappointed with my choice of lodging. My outlook doesn’t brighten after discovering that my room is cramped and cold, the shower in the shared bathroom is dirty, and there are no locks on any of the doors. The innkeeper’s one redeeming quality is a good knowledge of the island and a desire to see that his guests find the hidden sights. I leave the inn that afternoon and drive around the island, eventually ending up at the Jordan Pond House in Acadia National Park for dinner. The scenery at the restaurant is beautiful and serene: woods and a small pond, separated by a wide meadow where the deer come to graze at dusk. The food is good if pricey. One of the restaurant’s specialties is afternoon tea, but since I have arrived too late for that, I order a pot of tea with my dessert and linger at the table watching afternoon turn to early evening. Leaving the restaurant, I race partway up Cadillac Mountain and find a good view for the acclaimed sunset colors. Then I head back and go to bed early in hopes of being out of the dreaded inn as early as possible in the morning.
Next morning, I wake and shower, trying not to stand flat-footed in the shower stall, and then head to the country kitchen. Dirty dishes are piled on the countertop and in the sink and, to my chagrin as a lone traveler, breakfast is served family style at the large round table. I manage to eat a blueberry muffin and drink a cup of tea and then leave for my day of sightseeing. Most of my day is to be spent in Acadia National Park. I haven’t gotten up early enough for sunrise on Cadillac Mountain (those who do are the first in America to see the morning sun), but I head to Sand Beach. Located in a quiet little cove and boasting a serene atmosphere, Sand Beach is still just that—a sand beach. It owes its fame here to the fact that so much of the Maine coast is rocky, making it something of an anomaly. My next stop is Thunder Hole. I spend over an hour here waiting for the tide to come further in and make the site begin to “perform.” Unfortunately for the performance, I have visited the park on a day when the sea is too calm to produce any real splash and “thunder” here. Still, the larger waves that do roll in give a small foretaste of the sight and sound that must be here during rougher seas.
My next stop is where my unfortunate choice of innkeepers really pays off. He has directed all of his guests to the “beach of the magical, musical stones.” Not marked on any of the Acadia maps or mentioned in any of the guidebooks I’ve read, this beach is composed of thousands and thousands of small rocks that click together as you walk over them and create a virtual symphony of music as the waves roll them over and against one another. The sound is lovely anywhere on the beach, but to really enjoy it best you have to get so close to the water that you must keep a constant lookout to keep from getting wet. I spend several hours here, slowly moving back as the tide comes in further. Finally, with reluctance, I leave.
I see a sign for “Bubble Rock” and remember seeing it in a magazine before I left. It’s only a short hike, according to the trail sign, so I follow the trail markers along the path. Very soon, the path becomes steep and rocky. Rail ties have been embedded in the path to make a sort of staircase. With legs as short as mine, the climb quickly begins to burn in my muscles. Soon, however, I reach the top of the mountain where the views are indeed beautiful. Bubble Rock seems balanced precariously on an edge of this crest; however, the magazine article I read mentioned that hundreds of children have tried unsuccessfully over the years to dislodge it. The rock scrambling in this less traveled part of the park is fun and the hike back down to my car is much easier than the trek up. I’ve missed the last horse-drawn carriage ride through the park, but my tardiness saves me some money. Instead, I drive up Cadillac Mountain and eat a quick lunch. Tourists line every rock, so this isn’t a place to come to be alone with nature. The views are panoramic: Cadillac Mountain is the highest point on the eastern seaboard and the water below is strewn with small islands.
I feel like I’ve seen all the sites I wanted to in the park, so I drive down to the town of Bar Harbor hoping to catch a whale watching boat tour. When I finally find a parking space and walk back to the launching site, there is a harbor tour boat just getting ready to leave. I opt for that instead and it turns out to be a good choice. Our tour guides are Maine lobstermen and the boat is a lobster boat. We get a lecture on lobster fishing and watch as our guide pulls up several lobster traps. More than lobsters get caught in these traps, and we get to look at a crab and touch a sea cucumber, a starfish, and several other sea creatures. The destination of our trip is a group of rocks where harbor seals are sunning themselves. We cruise back and forth while all of us snap photographs of the seals. On our way back into the dock, our guide points out the nest of a bald eagle and the eagle mother sitting on a nearby branch. We are far away and her size is far more impressive to see than to read about.
One smart thing I’ve done during this day is to keep different types of clothing with me. I start with a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, over which I layer a flannel shirt and a sweatshirt. Later, during my hike to Bubble Rock, I leave the sweatshirt behind and eventually end up with the flannel shirt tied around my waist. For the boat tour, I dig a wool pullover sweater out of the trunk of my car and leave that on for the remainder of the afternoon and evening.
Back in town after the boat tour, I walk around to see what the shops have to offer. This is another disappointing town for me. The shops are like any you would find in a New Jersey seaside town and everything looks new and touristy. There is a good fudge and ice cream shop where I buy a chocolate-covered pretzel and some non-pareils to keep me company. A restaurant has been recommended to me and it looks like a place that would have good food; however, it’s not a spot for the single traveler. It’s at the end of a quiet street and appears very retiring. I opt instead for a sidewalk café in the middle of town where I eat seafood linguine and watch the passersby. After dinner, I drive back up Cadillac Mountain in hopes of seeing the sunset and delaying my return to the inn. The sun disappears in the mist only halfway to the horizon and I linger until the light fades before making my way back down.
Next morning, I eat breakfast and head out as early as possible. I have a long drive ahead of me anyway, so the early start is good. The morning is foggy and I miss seeing any sights on my drive through inland Maine. I end up in New Hampshire by mid-afternoon. I’m in the White Mountain region where scenic lookouts appear along the road every couple of miles. I don’t stop until I see the unmistakable sight of Mt. Washington, tallest peak in the eastern U.S. Here I stop by the side of the road and snap several pictures out of my window. Soon after, I reach my inn for the next two nights, the Jefferson Inn in Jefferson, New Hampshire. In stark contrast to the inn I have just left, this place is gracious, lovely, and well run. Jefferson is another nowhere town, but I love it. I head across the street to the deli/grocery/gas station and buy a Coke to enjoy on the porch of the inn. Later, for dinner I head into the next town and get a sub and fries at a pizza shop. Back at the inn, I head to my room. This is a room I can enjoy spending the evening in. The room is large and comfy with Shaker style décor. The poster bed has flannel sheets and a quilt covering and a rocking chair sits in the corner. I curl up in bed with a novel about Jefferson that is lying on the bedside table and read until I’m too sleepy to see.
Breakfast here is better than any other place I stay. The meal is served in a good-sized dining room at the back of the house with views of the wooded mountain stretching behind the inn and the innkeepers’ horses exploring their sloped pasture. A fruit platter is followed by pancakes, sausage, and asparagus quiche. I spend the entire hour chatting with a lovely couple from North Carolina who are seated at another table. They want to fix me up with their son who lives in the same Virginia town I do. When breakfast is done, I trade my clogs for hiking boots and head out for the day.
I drive to the Flume, a waterfall and stream nestled in a long narrow gorge and reminds me of wooded trails I walked with my parents years ago. The hike takes me about two hours since I meander along the paths and stop often to enjoy the scenery. There are two covered bridges along the path, and natural beauty is unabashedly everywhere. Chipmunks and squirrels play in the leaves and the sound of water is never far away. After the hike, I spot signs along the road for the Old Man in the Mountain and pull off where indicated. I expect to have a short hike to the spot where I can see this natural sculpture jutting from the rock at the top of a mountain, but I get out of my car and turn my head and discover the phenomenon before me. I must have been staring at it all along my drive, but only from this angle does the human profile become apparent. It is striking, and I regret not bringing my parents’ camera with the zoom lens or at least a pair of binoculars.
I arrive next at Mount Washington itself. I have read the brochures on the Mount Washington Cog Railway and decide I can’t miss this attraction. It’s the most expensive thing I’ll do on my vacation, but I know I’ll regret it if I don’t go. I get on the 1:00 train, but it’s a three hour round trip and well worth every penny I spend even on this foggy day. By the time we reach the summit of the mountain, the air is so heavy with fog that it is raining. The temperature at the top is low enough that occasionally a snowflake floats by with the rain. I scramble up the pile of rocks to the official summit just to say I’ve been there and then, too soon, the twenty minute stop at the top is over and we’re heading back down. On the way down, I sit next to a woman who has just hiked up the mountain with her husband, father, and seven-year-old daughter. I feel like a wimp having taken the railway both up and down.
There is no time for a nice dinner this evening as I am scheduled to go on a moose tour. I grab some fast food and head to the town of Gorham where the tour departs. The tour bus is a little late in arriving, but I do not mind. As I wait, I dream I live here, as I watch a high school soccer game on the field in the middle of town, a quaint church off to one side, a hill dappled with fall colors behind, and even a train that comes whistling through to complete the picturesque scene.
The moose tour guarantees a moose sighting or your money back, but the tour also provides some good history of the local area including information about the logging companies that built these towns. Our moose sighting doesn’t occur until the very end of the evening when we finally spot a cow in a bog just off the road. We all exit the bus to take pictures of her and she actually walks closer to us. She seems to want to cross the road but is confused by all of us standing there watching her. Finally, she walks back into the woods and we get back on the bus and head back to Gorham. The evening is a success and the town of Gorham keeps our tourist dollars for this trip.
Next morning, breakfast is another treat and I reluctantly leave to head toward Burlington, Vermont. The drive across the rest of New Hampshire and on across Vermont is lovely and I see so many places I’d like to stop and spend time exploring. I arrive in Burlington much earlier than I had anticipated and decide to check out the town first. This is good-sized town. It still retains an aura of New England charm, but it is no quaint little village. The air is a little nippy here along the shores of Lake Champlain, so I decide not to walk around anywhere. It’s still too early to go to the inn I’m scheduled for tonight, though; so instead, I see some outlet stores just off the highway and pull off to do some shopping. I find several good purchases and then head to the inn.
After a week of traveling, with both good and bad experiences, I want someplace quiet where I can be alone for the evening. Arriving at this inn, I discover that it is really just a room for rent. The bathroom is downstairs and at the other end of the house. The house itself is located on a busy corner with lots of traffic noise, and the owners have two granddaughters staying with them who are blaring the television. I lay down on the bed and indulge in some tears while I decide what to do. Finally, I decide. This is my last night. I can either stay and be miserable, or I can leave and drive home tonight. I opt for the latter course. The innkeeper is offended that I’m leaving, I can tell, but I pay my bill and hit the road. I call my parents from a McDonald’s and tell them not to wait up but to leave the door unlocked. It is 3:30 when I leave and I know it will be at least a nine hour drive. I stop once outside of Binghamton, New York for gas and some Nutter Butters and then drive straight through. By 12:30 am I am getting tired, but I know I’m almost home. I pull into my parents’ driveway at 1:00, dump my bags on the floor and sleep on the couch.