I’ve been on the road for about a week, with more miles ahead of me. I sometimes tell people I don’t write for a living, I drive. I once calculated that I had driven a million miles in the course of my work for Yankee and that was some time ago. If I have to drive, which, quite, frankly, I love, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be than on the back roads of New England. Right now, I’m working on a long story about the Canadian border between New England and Canada. I’ve been out for a week and, through no particular planning of my own, it has been one glorious day after another, driving through the green majesty of Vermont and up into Canada, chasing sunrises, sunsets, thunderheads, words and stories.
In Canada, the signs are all in French so my high school lessons have to be recalled, though not always successfully. I did remember that the highway speed signs posted as 70, were really more like 30 mph, and I recalled the meaning of Arret but what were these frequent signs, Chemin du Chansons? I still am not sure what those mean. Somewhere north of the border of Highgate Springs, possibly in Bedford, Quebec, I passed a farm that raised elk and sold the meat from the kitchen of the farmhouse. In bare feet, the woman of the house came to the back door and asked if I would like to come in. She had a freezer full of elk steaks. I did not buy any, mostly because I didn’t know when I might be home to cook it. But, even in mid-July, it was still strawberry season up there and many roadside stands were selling baskets of bright red fruit, irresistible for the journey, even if, in my exuberance over their goodness, I managed to stain my best traveling shirt, first day out.
In the delightful little village of Frelighsburg, we stopped for a picnic under towering pine trees. The old grammar school served as an information center and provided a clean bathroom, always welcome on the road. A young girl, probably still in school but out for the summer, stood ready for us behind the counter and proudly told us, in uncertain English, the story of Frelighsburg, a town that once thrived on its apple orchards but that now is known for its wines. All such products were for sale in the old schoolroom. A couple of women, who had ridden in on their bikes, sat at a picnic table on the green, chattering away to each other in French. Could it be that I was only a few miles from Vermont?
Outside, under the pines, we spread the red-checked tablecloth we had packed for these occasions, set the table with plates and silverware, cut up carrots, cucumbers, peppers and cheese for our salad, which included greens picked from the garden just before leaving, and eagerly dug in. I am not one to take road food seriously. I travel frequently and find it is harder and harder to find a place that serves good, nutritious food at reasonable prices. I remember when fast food was first spreading across this land and one of the aspects of it that supposedly helped in its rise was the idea that when you ate at, say, McDonald’s or Wendy’s, you would know exactly what to expect, whether you were in Vermont or in Texas. That is perfectly true and I can’t defend some of the really and truly terrible food you can stumble upon when out on the road, in a place that is totally unknown to you. And the worst part is that when you get up from that meal, you have to pay for it. But I regret that that one reason has convinced people to eat generically rather than embrace the specific place where they end up at mealtime.
I find it more reliable to bring my own creations in a cooler and a hamper, including the niceties of the table which we take for granted at home. In my picnic basket, I pack two rugged plastic plates that are shaped so they can serve as a plate or a bowl if need be and two plastic mugs. I bought both these at L.L. Bean’s many years ago and they look as good today as they did when I bought them. In a couple of cloth napkins, I roll up forks, knives and spoons from the cutlery drawer in my kitchen. Since many picnic tables can be in scenic places but the spills of the last folks (or critters) who sat there are sometimes evident, I always take a tablecloth. In the evening, in the motel room, the dishes are washed and dried and made ready for the next day’s journey.
Into the cooler goes cheese and yogurt, fruit, bottled drinks, greens for the salad. I like to make up tabouli or couscous salad or potato salad made with vinaigrette as well, because these can endure some brief failures of refrigeration. In the hamper, I carry salt and pepper, salad dressing, a Ziploc of my favorite teabags, wet naps, crackers, whatever will fit and will remain intact for the journey (for instance, I take apples rather than pears because they are more rugged and don’t bruise so easily). All that’s needed is a good picnic table site, which, where I am right now, is not hard to find. But, even when they are, I prefer this way of providing for myself to any other and will stage the picnic in the car or the motel room, if need be.
The only thing I’ve discovered is that the border guards are intolerant of one’s picnic hamper. They are inconsistent. Some guards have not even glanced at it, while other have rifled through it with glee. One emerged with my lemon, brought so I could make iced tea for myself in the morning. I make strong tea in the motel room, pour it into my sipping bottle. Then I fill it with ice from the motel’s ice machine. Add lemon. Voila! Fabulous iced tea. However, at one crossing, the guard burrowed into my trunk like a gopher. He was in there a long time, rummaging. At last, he emerged with my prize lemon! My heart sank. “Sorry,” he said, “I can’t let you go through with this.” He strode to the nearby garbage barrel, lifted the lid, and ceremoniously dropped the lemon into the barrel. When he closed the lid, he all but dusted his hands off with the satisfaction of a completed task. He explained all about USDA stickers, boring insects and so forth. That didn’t make me any happier. So, my advice to you is to pack a picnic and make it fun and elegant. But, if you are crossing the border, leave the lemon at home.