Small Town America
Motorhome News from North America 25 4th October - 14th October 2006
Massachusetts - from The Berkshires to Boston, Rhode Island and Connecticut
Life is like a slippery fish; you must take a grab at every moment lest it escapes. It was late when we passed through Williamstown in the northwest corner of Massachusetts - too late to stop by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute to view their fine collection of Renoir paintings. That’s one we missed, slipped off the hook so to speak, but our love of all things arty took us the following morning to Stockbridge, further south, the archetypal New England town of beautiful white houses, tasteful shops, tall churches and elegant hostels, surrounded on all sides by magnificent tree-lined hills - to The Norman Rockwell Museum. Stockbridge, Rockwell’s home for 25 years until his death in 1978, is featured in his ‘Home for Christmas’ scene, just one amongst his many sketches of everyday American life both humorous and sentimental, that appeared on the front cover of the Saturday Evening Post. It is the facial expressions and the energy expressed in his characters I recall and it is surely that which touched the
hearts and minds of all Americans. It was a most moving experience. If you don’t know Rockwell, my guess is you’ll find some on the web. Take a look. You deserve it. And smile with me.
It was autumn in handsome Stockbridge and townhouse doorways were decorated with autumn wreaths and harmonious displays of corn, straw figures and orange pumpkins. A pumpkin, four feet or more across, stood on the doorstep of a house near our campsite at Lee. Attached was a sign stating its weight - 919lbs! My old dad (a mad keen gardener and rosette winner in all vegetable sections of the Oakington Manor Horticultural Society) would have been proud of that one!
The Massachusetts Pike Highway 90 runs east towards Boston through the Berkshire Hills, broad rounded hillsides sweeping each horizon, laden with a Joseph’s Cloak of trees for mile after mile beside the dual carriageway. It is hard to believe that we have already travelled across more than five hundred miles of New England’s unbroken broad-leaf forest, through lazy lanes and sleepy towns, watching as the colours brightened with every passing moment. Soon we left the unwelcome thunder of traffic, so alien to us
after weeks of travelling the rural byways but a necessary means to a welcome end sometimes, taking us speedily to Springfield and north to ‘college country’ and the orchards along the Johnny Appleseed Trail.
As a child (yes, I was one of those once), history was learned in straight lines: Stone age, Iron age, Bronze age, Vikings, Romans, Normans…dates, kings, queens, towns, battles. The next few days would make a grand seafood soup of events in English and American, history, starting in 1775 and ending in 1620, as we walked backwards in time through the Boston area. Driving in from the west, we came first to the magnificent little town of Concord, (pronounced 'conkered') said to be the ‘Birthplace of American Liberty’. A great flagpole reaches to the sky at the head of town and an equally large ‘stars and stripes’ ripples in the breeze above the trees on the leafy common. This is a princely town, discrete, pretty, white in the sunshine when we arrived, busy in a relaxed sort of way, tourists seemingly knowing where they were going - and why. Many philosophers and writers have lived here in harmony with its beauty and nature. Some rest
now in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery: Louisa May Alcott, (Little Women), Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau - and Ralph Waldo Emerson, a friend and contemporary of Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle. His house remains very much as it was during his lifetime and was a ‘must see’ on my list, for it was he who said, ‘Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.’ Now; there was a man who knew what he was talking about.
The King’s Men were a bit low on enthusiasm by the time they reached Concord at 7am on the morning of 19th April 1775 having marched the twenty miles from Boston overnight. The first shots of the American Revolution were fired here by North Bridge that day - and in Lexington a few miles along the road where skirmishes had occurred around dawn. The British troops were searching for rebel arms thought to be stashed in the area. Outnumbered and in grave danger from the rebels, they made a hasty retreat back to Boston. 'Come on, let’s follow them to Boston and find out what it was all about.'
The Massachusetts militia, or ‘minute men’ as they were known, were rising in protest at the
constraints of continued British rule and taxation, leading to the dumping of tea into the sea from ships in Boston Harbour. Like most British visitors, we wanted to learn more about the Boston Tea Party, and to see The Beaver, a replica of one of the three ships stormed by the patriots back in 1773. The Beaver, however, was not in town. It, along with the harbour and much of that side of Boston beyond the skyscraper banking sector was under siege by civil engineers, digging holes and creating general havoc amongst the tourists walking around like headless chickens at feeding time. The whole area was a jungle of concrete pipes, piles of rubble and yellow machinery whilst they set about reconstructing the city’s infrastructure.
But Boston’s centre was a pleasant experience; an interesting mix of buildings old and new, a jumble of historic streets thrown topsy-turvy in all directions and lovely parks criss-crossed with paths - much like a little heart of London. The population appeared cosmopolitan to say the least, though it was a weekend and we were obviously in the company of other sightseeing visitors. People-watching is a favoured pastime of ours, and Boston’s eyes, noses
and lips came in a wide variety of shapes and shades, dress was smart and casual for the weekend, and every other person was wearing jeans in various bum sizes, from SM to far too many to count XXXLs. One thing they all had in common was a voice control set at maximum volume. The city also has its share of highly visible dropouts, draped in autumn blankets, sleeping through the day on park benches, mostly mature fellas and mostly in the parks where I guess they find it peaceful.
Campsites along this east coast are generally more expensive than in the west - demand and supply of course given the density of population this side of the continent. The best value sites are still the National and State Parks and they can be even cheaper if you are a resident of the state. A Texan stopped by in his truck the other day, looking for someone to talk to and checking out the site with an eye for future camping with his wife. He suggested we might get cheaper camping if we talked the language - you know, English as Americans speak it. He taught us how
to say, “You betcha!” thinking it might be helpful. We’ll give it a try next time - perhaps we’ll save a few pennies. We tried unsuccessfully to get him to say, “spiffing, super, and fretfley”, without a Texan drawl.
Our overnight camp near Concord had easy access to the Commuter Railway system, free parking at the station and just an hours ride into Boston. The city is big enough to have its own subway, the clean and efficient ‘T’ which we travelled with our Charlie Ticket - great value at $1.25 for each journey and well used. There were a few stations along the line we recognised: Cambridge, Sudbury, Ipswich, Haverhill and Colchester.
Seven Tigers passed by in cages drawn by an electric trolley as we came out of the Subway at Park Street. The Circus was in town, but what the tigers were up to on the sidewalk we never established - the show was already in progress! To get the best from our first day in Boston we caught the 07.10 and stopped for breakfast in Quincy Market, empty at that time of morning, and lunched later in the adjoining Faneuil Hall at ‘Cheers’, modelled on the
TV filmset of its namesake.
We slogged our way around the historic ‘Freedom Trail’ in summer temperatures, soaking up the atmosphere amongst lines of name-tagged tourists, in and out of churches, cemeteries, imposing buildings, statues, monuments and flashing cameras. It would be difficult to put a finger on a truly memorable feature like London Bridge, The Eiffel Tower, The Empire State Building or Sydney Bridge; but suffice to say, Boston is small enough to be pleasant, warm and friendly, and steeped in history.
One of the World’s greatest leaders once said, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.” It was of course, President John F Kennedy, and before leaving town, we wanted to visit the JFK Library and Museum. This poignant epitaph sits in a spectacular setting on the harbour, overlooking the Charles River to the city skyline. JFK was born in Boston, where the library depicts a celebration of his life, his leadership and his political ability during those troubled years of rapid change: racial tension in the South, the Space Race, the Cold War with Russia, Consumerism and the Cuban
Rocket Crisis - to his assassination on the 22nd November 1963. It was a touching experience, but this vast country is slow to learn. The past two weeks have seen three separate cases of fatal shootings in schools; in one the Principal was killed; shot three times, and the latest saw the brutal slaying of five innocent young children in an Amish school.
Cities have us searching for culture injections. It was not difficult in Boston. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum came highly recommended for good reason and it topped our list. Isabella, a wealthy widow, clearly had a few bob in her day. Her huge collection of European artefacts is housed in her purpose-built museum, three glorious storeys of Italian Renaissance elegance around a serene courtyard. It sure makes Hearst’s efforts at his Castle in California look like Mickey Mouse. Isabella's collection is somewhat eclectic, Titian, Monet, Rembrandt, Raphael, Boticelli, Whistler - and a magnificent John Singer Sargent or two. Stuffed with rather too much of great value and variety there is also some of little beauty, one might wonder what possessed her to buy it - and the space and lighting fails to do justice to much
of that which is exceptional. The Vermeer we hoped to see, (The Concert) was stolen in 1997 along with a number of other valuable works of art. If you know where it is, please give me a call; it’s still missing and there’s a $5m reward! The Museum is a must see, if I can resort to that overused tourist’s term.
Boston's subway took us the short distance across the river to Cambridge, the home of Harvard University; to the tree lined common and the beat of student youth bands on their Sunday bash. Other students stretched out in the sun on grassy parks or perched on high stools in the windows of pizza parlours, noses deep in books - and tall plane trees filtered the afternoon sun in the quads amongst the redbrick colleges. Now we can say, ‘We’ve been to Harvard.’
102 brave people left Plymouth, England, for a package holiday one September morning in 1620. Their little ship, The Mayflower, (in which they were tightly packed) arrived off Cape Cod on the east coast of America after six weeks at sea. The Pilgrims had landed! A replica of the Mayflower, built in England, rests by
the dock at Plymouth, Massachusetts, having sailed its way across the Atlantic back in 1957. There is also a large lump of rock of uncertain provenance in the harbour nearby know as Plymouth Rock, commemorating the spot where the Pilgrims are said to have landed. Believe that if you will. Perhaps it’s not quite Mecca, but the crowds were remarkably pensive. It is easy to become a bit worn by reproduction villages and forts with characters in role play when you have been travelling the boards for as long as us, but we joined in the experience just once more at the Plimoth Plantation, an excellent re-created 1627 Pilgrim village - with well versed actors. Great fun - and educational. We’re still kids at heart!
Plymouth’s sheltered shore faces out across the bay to Cape Cod, a long thin spit of land jutting out into the Atlantic like a curled witch’s finger. We played our trump card for our arrival, late in the evening of Columbus Day, a public holiday, against the flow of snail pace traffic leaving this popular sandy resort and heading for home. The sun has blessed the coast with summer temperatures and blue skies for
'Read the best books first or you might not have the chance to read them all'
several days, giving a welcome boost to the tourist trade. Cottage shutters were already up for the winter, ‘No Vacancy’ signs were displayed at empty hotels and many campgrounds were about to close the following weekend.
The northern end of Cape Cod is noted for its long sandy beaches, vast sand dunes knotted with grasses and forests of stunted oaks along the valleys, its summer crowds now but a misty memory. It’s not unlike North Norfolk, back home. Provincetown at the fingertip, is the ‘gay town’ of the cape, overdeveloped and sardine-tin crammed with wooden shed homes, their back doors opening to the beach, their front doors lining the car packed road behind. Forty miles of beautiful beaches on the Atlantic shore from Provincetown to Chatham are now protected from development with national seashore status, thanks, we’re told, to JFK.
It appears the birds have been waiting in the sunshine for us to catch up. A visit to the local Audubon Reserve gave us our first injection of birding excitement for some weeks and a number of new species to add to our list. There are some magnificent spots around the cape coast with luxurious houses on large plots
In Plymouth Harbour
of manicured gardens and small towns on narrow tree-lined roads you would love to call home - though surely at a price. In spectacular Chatham, with its harbour full of sparkling white yachts, there are graceful houses with impeccable gardens - and more gardeners with smart trucks and machinery than houses with gardens!
It was a one-mile drive to our pitch from the entrance of the 2,000 acre Cape Nickerson State Park campground. We shared the forest that night with just four other campers and a few white-tailed deer. There are four hundred sites for campers at Cape Nickerson, each pitch in about half an acre of yellowing oaks, with a fire-pit and picnic table. Forecast rain fell overnight and acorns dropped at regular intervals making gunshot sounds as they hit the fibreglass roof! Our neighbours probably thought we were watching ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’.
Somewhere, if we can find it, we have a plan suggesting we should be in Washington before the end of October. The plan includes a visit to Newport in Rhode Island, and Mystic along the Connecticut coast, before spending a few days in New York. Newport is famed for
the grand summer cottages of the nouveau riche, or the ‘gilded age’ as Mark Twain referred to it, inviting the curious visitor to ogle at the obscene ostentation of the era around the 1850’s. Huge mansions, scaled-down versions of earlier English stately homes and French chateau, stand in acres of gated gardens overlooking the ocean. They were built as showcases of wealth by rich industrialists all trying to out-do each other in the league of ‘society’: the Astors, Belmonts and the Vanderbilts amongst them. A number are open to the public these days, and there were two on our list we particularly wanted to visit: Rosecliff and Marble House, both equally opulent and both used in the filming of The Great Gatsby - up near the top of my ‘favourite list of 20’ books. Rosecliff has the most magnificent Grand Ballroom and a circular fountain in the garden where Robert Redford and Mia Farrow danced in the film. ‘Go on, get your string of pearls and your high-heeled shoes and join me for the Charleston.’
A Park Ranger allocated us pitch number 13 on Thursday, reminding us of our earlier superstitious adventures with the toilet. We survived the night,
The Dunes on the Cape
but the following day was Friday - and you’ve guessed the date; yes, it was the 13th. After a long and leisurely drive we arrived at our chosen campsite inland along the gorgeous Connecticut River in the early evening only to find it was full. That has never happened before in ten months of travelling! Like many other sites, they were closing after this weekend - and they were celebrating Hallowe’en! Nothing on this earth would have prepared us for that - Hallowe’en was another two weeks off, but there were illuminated pumpkins, spiders and kids everywhere licking their lips in anticipation of bags full of sweets from ‘trick or treating’ and dressing up as ghosts, witches or skeletons - enough to frighten the last breath of life out of your granny. At that late hour we pressed on another 30 miles in somewhat the wrong direction to the next available campground along the south coast at Clinton, near Newhaven. One can’t help but ask what a nation with, ‘In God we Trust’ on its banknotes is doing celebrating pagan rites with such gusto.
Our next stop will be an hour or so to the north of New York
up the Hudson River Valley - our site already booked by phone ‘to avoid disappointment.’ A preferred site across the water from Manhattan had no space until next week! We’re learning. ‘You betcha.’
David and Janice. The grey-haired-nomads.
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