Monday, October 11, 2010


Several months ago, a group of us seniors concocted a plan to travel around New England. The funny thing is that back in February, it never occurred to us that many tourists flock to New England in the Fall to watch the autumn colors which, of course, were beautiful. We got four couples as takers, including Dianne and me. We agreed to rent two cars and travel in a caravan.

When renting the cars, we discovered that a big surcharge is imposed when you pick up the car in one city and drop it off at another. Our plan was to fly to Boston and drop off the vehicles in Bangor, Maine. After considerable shopping, Avis gave us a rate--it was about $990 for ten days for a Chevy Impala. We rented two. Split between four couples, it's not that bad. The other issue is that if a car had more than one driver, they would charge an additional $13 per day for the second driver. Thus, I drove the whole way, and Ron did the same in the other car.

We had an interesting group of people traveling with us. In our car was Norm, a World War II veteran and his beautiful wife, Pat. In the other car was Ron, a retired plumber, and his wife, Marilyn, Doug, a fireman, and his companion, Betty who was the trip organizer and leader. Betty brought a GPS gadget which we called Lucy, but after several dead end streets, none of us loved Lucy very much.

The trip was low budget--we stayed in second tier motels for the most part. The beds are pretty much the same everywhere, but there's a big difference in the bathrooms, compared with more expensive motels. The vanities are very small--in a couple of places, you couldn't even put a toothbrush on the vanity. With two people in each room, this is a major inconvenience.

But somehow, we all got along for the 10 days although we had our moments. One amusing item is that the word party is pronounced the same as potty by New Englanders. That could cause some embarrassing moments.

The highlights of the trip are as follows:


We spent our first three nights at the Earl of Sandwich Motel in East Sandwich on Cape Cod which boasted a pond with a menagerie of tame ducks, geese and turkeys. Each night, the owner built a campfire and the guys sat around talking. The first morning, we drove down to Falmouth to ride the ferry to Martha's Vineyard, the famous island which is the playground of the rich and famous.

The burning question was, "Who the heck is Martha?". The consensus answer among us was Martha Washington. We later learned from the guidebook that British explorer Bartholemew Gosnold who discovered the island in 1602 had a daughter named Martha. He found many grapes growing on the island. Martha's Vineyard is the second largest island on the U.S. Atlantic Coast (first is Long Island). The island has several small towns. The ferry sailed to Oak Bluffs where we caught a bus and purchased all day passes. The island has several bus routes covering the entire island. You just want to get on the right one. We drove by the salt marshes and beaches to Edgartown, the largest town on the island.

From Edgartown is a short ferry ride to Chappaquiddick Island which we didn't take. Chappy, as the locals call it, is all residential, so there is no reason to go there--unless you're interested in political history involving the Kennedy family. You may recall that back in 1969, Senator (and then presidential candidate) Edward "Teddy" Kennedy was involved in a tragic incident that resulted in the drowning death of a young female campaign worker. We asked around and were told that there is no plaque or any other indication that Teddy had ever been there. But the name Chappaquiddick lives on in political infamy.

Edgartown is a picturesque fishing town with several blocks of small gift shops and restaurants, many with a nautical theme. We covered the whole town in an hour or so, and from Edgartown, we had several choices. The first bus was headed to Aquinnah at the Western end of the island. Aquinnah is the new name of the town and the sandstone cliffs formerly known as and still called Gay Head by most locals. We were afraid to ask why the name was changed, but according to Wikipedia, the name was changed in 1998 in a close referendum vote to the Wampanoag Indian word meaning "land under the hill." Many Indians live there to this day, according to the guidebook. All over the island we saw massive houses owned by the rich and famous.

We decided to take the bus up to Vineyard Haven where we had lunch and were able to catch the ferry back to the mainland. We sailed by many large schooners anchored in the harbor.


Locally known as "P-Town", it stands at the very tip of Cape Cod. The Pilgrims first landed there in 1620, but then they continued across the bay to Plymouth Rock. Getting there is half the fun, and we took the scenic route along the ocean through quaint little towns. On the Eastern end is Cape Cod National Seashore where we had the opportunity to walk on the beach . The ladies really enjoyed that. The weather was foggy with scattered showers, but a beach is a beach.

Provincetown is the Key West of the North. Among other things, it has a large, active gay community which hosts many cultural events. The main landmark in town is the 252 foot high Pilgrim Monument and Museum. It is the tallest all-granite structure in the U.S. I took nothing for granite--I was the only member of our group to climb to the top--there is no elevator. When I reached the top, I could see the cars and my traveling companions but could not see a whole lot of the town because of the fog.

I befriended a lady cashier at the Ace hardware who recommended the Surf Club restaurant at the harbor. We were apprehensive at first because nobody else was in the restaurant. Maybe there were all waiting for us to act first, but after we sat down the restaurant quickly filled up. The clam chowder was very good as it was all over New England.

In P-town, the three or four blocks near the harbor are filled with small stores and restaurants catering to the tourist trade. Many of the buildings carry a rich history. We drove around looking for a house belonging to Norman somebody, either Rockwell or Mailer. It turned out to be Norman Mailer the novelist who established a writer's colony in the two story Cape Cod house right on the ocean. Mailer died in 2007. We walked around the house but didn't go inside. Other famous people connected with Provincetown include writers John Dos Passos and Eugene O'Neill, and cosmetics giant Helena Rubenstein.


Yeah, I know they're spelled differently. Plimoth Plantation, using the 17th Century spelling, is a re-enactment of the Pilgrims' village of the 1600's The people dressed as they did in the 1600's, and planted vegetables and built houses and fences as they would have done at that time. They conducted seminars to explain what they were doing--in Elizabethan English.

A couple of miles away, on the harbor, is the famous Plymouth Rock, which has the inscription "1620" carved on it. It is housed in a Greek temple building, and you have to look down at it. You can't touch it. The rock used to be much larger, but back in the 1800's souvenir hunters were carving off portions with hammers and chisels which were actually provided to them by the authorities. We're not even certain if that is the right rock because it has been moved several times. The rock is smaller than a car--well maybe the size of a Smart car, but smaller than a Plymouth. There are many rocks on the beach, but Plymouth Rock may have been the largest one. Apparently, the Pilgrims used the rock to tie up their ship, the Mayflower.

Nearby is the Mayflower II, a replica built in the 1970's and actually sailed across the Atlantic. We were fortunate enough to board the ship and look around. The crewmen were re-enactors and explained the various jobs of the crew members. The bunks were very small, and we wondered whether the people were small in stature. We were told that people of that era were only an inch or so shorter than people of today, but they used to sleep sitting up.


Salem, Mass. dates back to the early 1600's, and for much of its history was a trading port for Yankee shippers trading with the Orient. The town also has a checkered past that most towns in that situation would rather forget. The most famous event was the notorious witch trials of 1692 in which 150 people were arrested and imprisoned. The trials were conducted by the infamous Court of Oyer and Terminer, presided over by John Hathorne (Nathaniel Hawthorne's ancestor--more on that later) and supported by Cotton Mather. The result was that 19 people were ultimately convicted of witchcraft and hanged. A twentieth, the 80 year old Giles Corey refused to plead guilty and was crushed to death with heavy stones in an effort to induce his "confession". His response was "More weight!" which confounded the authorities.

The victims included men, women and even 4 year old Dorcas Good who testified against her mother Sarah Good (Bad, also hanged). From a political standpoint, most of the accused witches were unmarried or recently widowed land-owning women--if no legal heirs, the land would revert back to the colony or the previous owner.

In Salem, they decided that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Salem made witchery into a tourist attraction. There are at least 2 witch museums (we toured one) and even a museum called "Forty Whacks" devoted to the infamous Lizzie Borden who actually committed her dastardly deeds in Fall River, about 100 miles south. To quote the 1960's song, "You can't chop your momma up in Massachusetts, Massachusetts is a far cry from New York."

One of the theories explaining the eccentricities of the accused was convulsive ergotism, caused by eating rye bread made from grain infected by a fungus, ergot, which is also a component of LSD. This could cause people to act crazy with involuntary muscle movements.

They still have witch trials in the modern era although they don't call them that. You can ask the Amirault family about that. In a day-care sex abuse hysteria, their Malden, Mass. day care business was destroyed in the 1980's based on the fanciful testimony of 4-year olds. Gerald Amirault was accused of rape for allegedly plunging a wide blade butcher knife into the rectum of a 4-year old and had difficulty extricating it. Incredibly, this horrible crime left no injury or any other mark on the child. The prosecution's evidence was based on testimony by 4-year olds who had spent much time with over-zealous therapists. You can't cross-examine a 4-year old. The prosecutor in that trial, Martha Coakley went on to become the state Attorney General and recently ran for the U.S. Senate. In the Senate campaign, the Amirault trial emerged as a campaign issue, and Ms. Coakley snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, losing to a Republican, Scott Brown, a rare event in Massachusetts.

Gerald Amirault served 18 years of a life sentence before he was set free in 2004. His wife, Cheryl and his mother Violet each served 8 years before their convictions were overturned. The full story of this miscarriage of justice was documented by Wall Street Journal reporter Dorothy Rabinowitz who won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the case.

The other attraction in Salem is the House of the Seven Gables which was the title of an 1851 novel by Salem native Nathaniel Hawthorne. The heroine of that novel, which I read in high school, was a lady called Hepzibah Pyncheon who was patterned after Hawthorne's cousin Suzanne who lived in that house. She was a classy society matron who was short on cash and had difficulty maintaining the large gloomy house. Hawthorne's birthplace is nearby. His father was a sea captain. His great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne presided over the witch trials. The author added the "W" to his name to distance himself from his notorious ancestor.

Halloween time in Salem is exciting. The town capitalizes on its rich history to bring in thousands of tourists to see the ghoulish events. We took a trolley ride to view the many historic houses of Salem.


On a warm, sunny day, we boarded the Isle of Shoals steamship cruise through the harbor past the Portsmouth Navy Yard, actually located in Kittery, Maine. There we saw 2 submarines docked in the harbor. Hey, we can watch the submarine races! As we went out to sea a mile or two, we could see hundreds of lobster traps, each marked by colored buoys. Lobstermen identify their buoys by the color.

Portsmouth's other claim to fame is that President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated a peace treaty there, ending the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize.


Not far north of Portsmouth, we stopped in York Beach, a small fishing village on the rugged coast of Maine, with a lighthouse, the Nubble Light. We were actually looking for Bud Light or Miller Light but found that later. I love lighthouses, and each one is different. Across from the lighthouse was a carry out seafood shack where we all shared a large plate of delicious fried shrimps. After eating our snack, we continued on to Perkins Cove, another quaint fishing village with a pedestrian drawbridge across the river. We shopped in the ubiquitous gift shops and stopped for chowdah at a small restaurant overlooking the bay. Did I mention these little towns are quaint? After lunch we continued on to Kennebunkport and drove as far as the Bush farmhouse. At least we think it was George Bush's house, based on the description. We then turned west on a 2 hour meandering drive toward New Hampshire, following the directives of our soon to be despised GPS system, Lucy.


Mt. Washington is the highest peak in the Northeast, at 6288 feet. It was first climbed by Darby Field in 1642, and we're not sure why he bothered to do so. It's known for having the world's worst weather, with hurricane force winds very common. We weren't disappointed. Upon reaching the summit, we were greeted by driving sleet and 80 mph winds. That's normal weather there. We thought Chicago was the Windy City, but this was ridiculous! I couldn't wear my cap because it would blow away. I ran up to the windswept observation deck and found only one other brave couple up there. The sleet stung my face and head. If I ever go back there, I'll wear a hood like Dianne did.

On the summit is a weather station, gift shop, museum and a small diner which served excellent chili. There is even a small hotel, the Tip Top Inn, built in 1853. The weather station is the featured event. It once recorded the highest wind velocity every recorded--231 mph, though not on the day we were there, although it felt like it. The highest temperature ever recorded there was 74 F, and the lowest was -49F. In the museum, they showed a video of a guy sitting outside on the deck trying to read a newspaper which was being blown apart by the violent gales. Eventually, the wind blew the guy over along with the table.

The cog railway is an engineering marvel. Built in 1869, it was the first of its kind in the world. The trip is only 3 1/2 miles to the summit, but it takes an hour to get there. We took the early run which uses an antique steam locomotive--the later runs use bio-diesel. The train stopped halfway to fill up with water. We shared the packed railroad car with a tour group from the National Taiwanese University who took pictures of everything. The Chairman of the group was a friendly guy who sat next to Norm and talked to him. The train ascends the mountain at a steep grade, and the riders are encouraged to stay in their seats. Many of the Taiwanese didn't understand English and they were careening around the railroad car.


This is a world class resort in Bretton Woods, NH, built in 1902 at the foot of Mt. Washington. This was the first place on our trip with valet parking. A group of diplomats established the World Bank there in 1944. A Who's Who of famous people stayed there and their photos grace the walls. A young Joseph Kennedy was pointed out to us. This is a grand hotel which compares favorably to the Grand Hotel in Mackinac Island, Michigan and the French Lick Springs in Indiana, with its long porticoes, expansive lawns and world class golf course. On a rainy day, we were happy to enter its warm lobby and hand out by the fireplace.


We left our little motel in the ski town of North Conway in good weather to take in the beautiful
autumn colors of the White Mountains of New Hampshire on the famous Kancamagus Highway (you HAVE heard of it, haven't you?). The name reminds me of the old Jack Benny routine about the Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga Railaway. Well, its about a 30 mile drive along the rushing rapids of the Ammonoosuc River. At several places we stopped to take pictures of the foliage and the rapids which are large granite blocks in the river. I stepped out onto the river, jumping from rock to rock, but I missed one. I landed on my a** in the frigid water. Betty stood on the shore with my camera but neglected to photograph me as she was rightfully concerned that I was seriously injured or would be swept over the falls. Fortunately, I clambered back onto the rocks and made my way ashore very wet, but more embarrassed than anything.

Reaching the other end of the Kancamagus Highway, we had lunch in Lincoln, NH. Since we're from Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, we wondered if it was named for him. We learned the town was founded in 1764, long before Honest Abe was born. It was named after the Duke of Newcastle and Ninth Earl of Lincoln (the same guy).


All gorges are gorgeous, but this one is special. In the Franconia Notch State park, they charge $13 admission to walk the 2 mile round trip to the gorge. For us old folks they have a shuttle bus that covers about half of the walk. Most of the trip is uphill on a slippery trail. This is a popular trail, but there's a lot of people who shouldn't be making the trip. For example, we saw many foreign people schlepping little kids and strollers up the slippery wooden steps. Also women in high heels tried to negotiate the steep path. There's no way. The witch in the ticket office should have been warning these people who had no idea what they were getting into.

But if you could make the trek, it was definitely worth seeing. The day before, we had a 3 inch rain, and there was a lot of water coming down this narrow gorge over the waterfalls and rapids. The gorge is 800 feet long, perhaps 15-20 feet wide between granite walls 70-90 feet high. For probably thousands of years, there was a 10' X 12' boulder stuck suspended between the walls of the gorge. In 1883, in a heavy rainstorm, a landslide swept it down the gorge. A similar thing also happened to the Old Man of the Mountain, a rock outcropping which was the New Hampshire state symbol until it crashed down one day in 2003. All the king's horses and king's men couldn't put it together again.

At the top of the gorge is Avelanche Falls, a 45' waterfall creating a roaring sound and spraying us tourists as we stood on wood platforms and steps to observe it. The water rushed down the gorge over Table Rock, a flat granite outcropping 500' long and 75' wide. You don't want to wade into that.


We were holed up in a small motel in Twin Mountain, NH, with not much more than a general store, which, by the way, sells almost everything. But we needed a restaurant for dinner. We drove through the little town of Bethlehem, NH, which didn't have much, and continued on to Littleton, a town of 7,000, about 20 minutes away. We stumbled onto a good restaurant, the Italian Oasis, located in a mixed use office building on the main drag. The owner is a Gary Sinise look-alike who did his best to accommodate our party of 8. The 40 minute wait was worth it. They served stuff like "Parma with Karma". Dianne and I had haddock with parmesan over pesto linguini, and also haddock with salsa. Someone else had the swordfish steak. The food was excellent.

As a kid, I had always wanted to come to Littleton. You've probably guessed that I was a weird kid. As far as I was concerned, Littleton, NH was the philately capital of the world. Back in the 1950's, everyone collected postage stamps, and the Littleton Stamp Co. used to mail order stamps all over the country for collectors--long before the Internet. As it turned out the Sinise character knew the stamp guy whose 90 something widow still eats in the restaurant. The company also sold coins. The two Sundman brothers split up the company, and one opened another store in Mystic, Connecticut. So life comes full circle.


Even though we drove up in Chevys, our group has Cadillac tastes, and we were eager to see this classy mountain which towers over Bar Harbor, Maine. It was named after the same guy who later discovered Detroit. They really did name the car after him. But hey. Maxwell Smart had two cars named after him!

In any event, Cadillac Mountain, located in Acadia National Park, is the highest point on the Atlantic Coast of theU.S. at 1500 feet. We drove the winding road to the top where you can see everything for miles around. So we enjoyed a grand view of the ocean and inland also. Two cruise ships were docked at Bar Harbor. We met a young honeymooning couple dressed in cycling clothes walking around barefoot on the rocky mountain. They had rode their mountain bikes up the mountain. They were kind enough to take pictures of our group.


This is yet another quaint fishing and lobstering village with gift shops catering to the tourists from the cruise ships. Another quaint fishing village! We fought through the throngs of cruise passengers and had a fine seafood lunch at the harbor.


We were flying out of Bangor, Maine, in the afternoon and had a few hours to kill. Frankly, we had never heard of this museum until we visited the Bangor Chamber of Commerce to plan our day. The Chamber is located across the street from a large Indian casino which we didn't visit. In the park, next door is a 50' statue of Paul Bunyan, the legendary lumberjack. The blue ox was nowhere to be found. That one is in Bemidji, Minnesota. The nice lady at the Chamber showed us the brochure about the Cole Museum and we decided to visit.

It is devoted to various forms of transportation and features classic automobiles, delivery trucks, farm and highway equipment, and even snowplows. Remember, they get a lot of snow in Maine. Also, the museum exhibited a Sherman tank, jeeps and other memorabilia (MRE rations!) from World War II which thrilled veterans like Norm.

While preparing to leave, I heard one of the employees addressing an elderly man as "Gale", and I asked if he was the boss. He was, and I was privileged to meet Mr. Galen Cole and talk to him for a few minutes. He was a combat infantryman in World War II who lost his entire squad to a German tank gun. He vowed that if he survived the war, he would do his best to make the world better. He took over his father's trucking company, and after 50 years of success, he created this museum. Mr. Cole was a friendly guy, but in a hurry to leave, as a busload of tourists was disembarking outside.


Our group had to have lobster, and this was the place to do so. Ellsworth is on the Union River near the coast, about 20 miles from Bar Harbor. We stayed there for two days. At the restaurant, they keep the live lobsters in tanks sorted according to size. They charge you by the size of the lobster. The smallest is 1 1/4 pounds, and the largest are 3-4 pounds. Personally, I don't enjoy picking apart a lobster, so I ordered the lazy man's lobster for $21.95, and let them do the work.

Overall, we had a great trip, and everyone is still talking to one another. The worst part was the trip home. The flight from Bangor to Philadelphia was delayed 3 hours, causing us to miss the connecting flight to Chicago. We had nightmares about spending the night in the Philly airport, but they squeezed us onto a later flight and we arrived in Chicago close to midnight.