Saturday, July 12, 2008

Classic New England

We've spent the past two weeks exploring not only the geography but just as much the iconography of New England, starting with some wonderful stone walls that Robert Frost himself would have loved. New England's famous stone walls reflect Yankee economy of motion, clearing the land of loose pieces of Canada brought south by the glaciers and simultaneously marking out fields with free fence-building material. This one was on land that was grazed a century ago, and like much of New England has gone back to forest. Indeed, there is more forest today in these six states than there was 100, 200 or even 300 years ago!

As we traveled up the Connecticut River we came to Gillette Castle, built by the actor of that name who made his mark playing Sherlock Holmes -- a few thousand times, from the 1890s into the 1920s. That funny-looking hat that every Sherlock Holmes you've ever seen is wearing?
His idea. He put his considerable earnings -- no starving artist, this guy -- into this modern-day castle,
replete with quirky features like this device to hold windows open at an angle in the strongest breeze, or hand-carved doors (no 2 are alike in the entire place!). And then there is the view, iconic if you will, of the Connecticut River and the ferry down below
that has run continuously since the early 1700s.

And what would a trip to New England be without a visit to a cemetery? Here's one of many interesting stones in one in southern Connecticut. We've been passing them almost every day, stones all akimbo, many no longer legible, but decorated with those intriguing symbols of death and life.

In New Britain we went to the art museum and it was as impressive a small museum as almost any in the country. Here is one of their luxuriant Childe Hassams, and an Eric Sloane that was in a traveling show. Sloane loved old barns like this, and crafted the frames for his paintings himself out of recycled wood from
-- old barns! We've ridden past many of these as well, though with the limited farming still being done in New England, most appear to be in use as decoration more than as functioning work buildings. Perhaps that's why they look so good.

On our route north we followed two railtrails. On the Farmington River Trail Jeff was checking the tire pressure and saw something that didn't look right. Closer examination of the rim revealed three places where cracks were developing near the spoke nipples.
This is a serious issue -- the rim can crack and collapse! For the next hour he was on our cell phone alternating between the shop in Seattle that built our bike and one in Brattleboro Vermont that we hoped would be able to build us a new wheel,
assuming we made it another 100 miles there in one piece. As it turned out we did, and when Tim the bike mechanic at Brattleboro Bike Shop showed us the inside of the old rim, it had an even more ominous crack there as well! Needless to say, we replaced the rim with something tougher.

We took another happier railtrail from Northampton MA to Amherst MA and met up with Ted and Robin, who were on a 35-mile training ride to get ready for their first tour in the Napa valley two weeks later. We got to chatting and before long were invited to stay with them. Ted got off to work the next day before Jeff woke up enough to pull out his camera, but we did get this photo of Robin
and a Ted-substitute to remember them by (sorry, our camera hiccuped on the photo, this is the best it would do). We had a great time as they and we exchanged insights into our different lifestyles, and hope we left them with some ideas to better their upcoming bike trip in exchange for their gracious meals and lodging.

A trip up the Connecticut could hardly avoid our next stop, Deerfield. In the late 1600s this was the raw edge of English civilization, the frontier. Out there in the woods were Indians unhappy about the British attitude toward their land rights, and French unhappy about almost anything British.
Deerfield was attacked several times, most famously in 1704 when some 85 of its citizens were killed and 112 taken into captivity by the French and their Indian allies. While many were eventually able to return, several young girls were acculturated into Indian families in Canada and married Indian men. The British colonists never did understand their decisions to stay in Canada.
Today Deerfield is a mile-long street of homes from the 1700s, some incorporated into private school Deerfield Academy, others into Historic Deerfield, something like Williamsburg but very low-key, mostly run with volunteer help. We enjoyed it so much we ended up spending two nights at Victorian-era Deerfield Inn.
We were pleased to see the museum explaining things in a balanced way, and correcting some of the racism and stereotyping of past eras in explaining Deerfield's interesting history.

One of the skills that gets sadly neglected in discussions of bike touring is finding potty stops. We're proud to say that we've become quite expert at scanning a park to see if it has restrooms, or sizing up a convenience store before stopping, deciding if it looks like it will have a public toilet. In yuppie areas we've even gotten good at finding major house remodels, with a port-a-potty usually nearby for the workmen. Out in the woodsy areas, however, these methods fail, so we start scouting for old logging roads running off from the road we're on, or a patch of forest that meets the Goldilocks standards -- not too dense, so we can get through, not too thin, so we don't get arrested for indecent exposure, but just right for a pair of desperate cyclists.

Now we like to think of these stops as beneficent to the bushes, "watering the shrubbery" and all that.
However, we're not so certain any more that the foliage agrees, as the vegetation struck back last week at Jeff with a vengeance. This is the back of Jeff's left calf two weeks later, after the desire to massage it with sandpaper subsided to once or twice a day instead of every 5 minutes. So watch out folks, don't mess with Mother Nature or she'll send some poison ivy after you too!

In Bellows Falls VT we decided to take the train.
A little tourist train runs 15 miles up to the hill town of Chester, and they advertise a one-way fare for passenger and bike.
Don't think they've ever loaded a tandem before, but no problem, they gave it its own car, loading from the end of the train, and we did have a nice ride back to the Connecticut the next day.
We had been worried about finding lodging on the 4th of July weekend, but the 250-year-old inn we stayed at on the village green in Chester had 22 rooms, only 3 of them occupied. Go figure! Apparently they make their real money during leaf-peeping season, as it's called here.

From the train we saw not one but two covered bridges,
and have seen so many more in the past week that we're not taking any more photos.
Here are two others of note, however: the inside of the bridge at Windsor VT that is the longest covered bridge in the US, and the lovely red bridge outside Woodstock VT that we passed on a quiet country road on another side trip from the Connecticut Valley.

After ascending the Connecticut over half its 400-mile length, we turned right and headed into New Hampshire and up into the hills to Cardigan Mountain Lodge,
1400' above sea level and seemingly miles from civilization. This is a hiker's heaven built about 1940 by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Jeff was an AMC cross-country ski trip leader there and elsewhere in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the 1970s. Our room had two sets of bunk beds and a twin, but mid-week it was quiet so we had the room to ourselves. For about $130/day for the two of us we had the room, breakfast, trail lunch and dinner, and a nightly serenade by frogs in the nearby swimming pond. It is simply astounding how much noise a bunch of frogs can make! For only the second or third time this trip, Jeff found himself using earplugs in order to sleep!

We were too protective of our knees to want to climb another 1800' to the top of Mt. Cardigan while on an extended bike trip, but we did do a five-mile hike on each of our two "rest" days there,
one to a beaver dam and beaver lodge. You can see beaver-bitten logs near our hiking companion Kathleen and our naturalist guide Meaghan in one photo, and the lodge across the beaver pond in the next.
Meaghan even just happened to have a beaver skull with her to show us! Both that day and next, we also hiked past cellar holes,
remnants of homes built by settlers in the 1700s or 1800s and abandoned when better farming land lured them westward in the later 1800s. Looking at the forest today, it's hard to imagine that the land around these cellar holes was all farmland only a few generations ago!

With no access to electronic distractions like cell phones or WiFi, we each read an entire book in our considerable down time of two days off the bike, and then heading downhill to Newfound Lake,
where we continued relaxing at the Inn at Newfound Lake, a place set up as a stagecoach inn in the 1840s. On yet another rest day -- this is meant to be a vacation, not an endurance contest -- fellow guest Cat asked us to join her on a car trip around the lake, with a stop at the Audubon Center for a walk in the woods. We found the elusive Indian Pipestem and
a not-so-elusive glacial erratic, i.e. a larger-than-usual chunk of someplace north of here that one of the glaciers brought along and dropped in the woods. We also got a nice view of a dream home on its own island, although it got us to thinking,
how do you flush the toilet on an island that's only about twice the size of your house? Oh, the problem of dream homes!

Well, it's been nice relaxing in the foothills of the White Mountains. It's back south now along the Merrimac and Concord Rivers to a town full of history, from the Minutemen of 1775 to Thoreau and his Transcendentalist friends in the 1800s, Concord Mass. Who knows, perhaps we'll even see a moose on the way!


Anonymous said...

Great to continue to follow your explorations! We're eager to see just how you traverse the time and distance to your cruise port on the west coast in time for your cruise to New Zealand!

Cat said...

Hi Louise & Jeff! The Indian Pipestem pic came out great and so did the lake pix! It's wierd to see one's self on another's blog. I'll continue to check in on you. Safe cycling! --Cat