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Sense of Place: Road Trip

Sense of Place: Road Trip
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Day One
I first meet Scotty Johnston at Boston’s Omni Parker House hotel, the gathering place for Tauck’s “Classic New England” foliage tour. He’s been around, beginning with Tauck as a tour guide about 50 years ago. With his white beard and hair, Scotty is a dead ringer for Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. For the next few days he’ll guide me in our SUV, as we shadow the motor coach carrying foliage seekers from around the country and the world. We know there’ll be times when I need to stop and explore while the tour drives ahead, so Scotty, who knows the route as well as his own hometown, will be my bridge.

Our first stop is Lexington Green, to soak in the echoes of the American Revolution. We continue west to Concord and Orchard House, home of Louisa May Alcott, then on to beautiful, historic Monument Street and the Old North Bridge. Now, I traveled this road for 25 years with my children. Did we ever stop to visit the Old North Bridge? No. On this day the air is clear, and the trees are washed in autumn color. History and leaves make a potent combination.

The “scenic route” is something most people avoid. I usually do. It takes too long; it’s crowded and congested. But as we make our way up to Salem, Massachusetts, I begin to understand what the draw is. It’s Columbus Day weekend, and Salem teems with visitors. Scotty and I stroll the streets, brimming with open markets and a fall-festival atmosphere.

A woman approaches us in period dress. In colonial English she informs us of a reenactment soon in the town center. We wend our way through the city, saving the best for last: tree-lined Chestnut Street. Scotty’s passion is historic architecture, which he shares with great enthusiasm, pointing out lovely old sea captains’ homes.

Leaving Salem, Scotty takes the wheel, and we follow the bus tour from the coastal towns north of Boston on our way to the coastal towns of New Hampshire and southern Maine. All of these destinations hold personal memories that have shaped my life and the lives of my children: Essex (and Woodman’s fried clams) … Ipswich … antiquing for props after a long day at the beach, where 22 years ago, I felt the first twinges of labor before the birth of my second daughter. There’s a unique fall smell in the air in these coastal towns. It’s salty, mixed with a weathered fishermen’s culture, textured by the vast painterly marshes. It’s evocative and compelling.

We continue up a craggy stretch of New Hampshire coastline, just north of Salisbury, Massachusetts, that I’ve never seen before. The sun is fading past summer shacks, closed for the season. The sea is washing over sandy beaches and bare picnic tables. The sky turns a shade of purple that only this transitional season produces, soft against the cool snap in the air. I can’t believe this is only the first day, and we still have a bit to go before reaching Portsmouth, our evening destination. What a day!

Coming into Wallis Sands, Scotty mentions that we’re approaching a stretch of his favorite homes overlooking the sea: magnificent summer “cottages,” built in the decades when industrialists were creating huge financial empires. As we make our way into Portsmouth, we almost drive past an old church with a multitude of pumpkins on the front lawn. Scotty glances at me. In the last light of October 11, I have to try: We won’t see another display of pumpkins that measures up to that one. Lucky.

Day Two
After breakfast we load up our gear and head out into the chill, driving north to famous Nubble Light on Cape Neddick, outside York, Maine. The sun pokes through a steel-gray autumn sky, creating the perfect atmosphere to see this classic setting. With Scotty at the wheel, I notice two little girls perched on an “outlook” platform, stretching on tippy-toes to peer through the bulky metal viewing binoculars. With camera in hand, I scramble to discreetly exit the SUV. This is my unexpected gift at Nubble Light.

In Portland, Maine, the tour divides, with half the visitors going on a walking tour of this historic city, while the others board Captain Tom Martin’s “lobstah” boat, the Lucky Catch, to head out into Casco Bay. Scotty and I join the walking group down narrow harbor streets. The day is clear and crisp as we eventually find our way back to the pier to meet the boat. We all swap places, and now the walkers scramble aboard to learn a little about the work of lobstering.

The payoff comes at lunch at a wonderful outdoor spot perched right on the harbor. This is my opportunity to photograph Maine lobster, steamers, “chowdah,” lobster rolls, coleslaw, and blueberry pie. I order all of them–just for documentation, of course.

Sated at last, we depart the city of Portland, heading northwest toward the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As we drive from sea level up to the higher elevations, the fall color intensifies.

Near dusk, we find ourselves driving through the vibrantly colored foliage of oak and maple trees, contrasted against the majestic evergreens, and on to the cozy accommodations of our hotel, the majestic Omni Mount Washington Resort at Bretton Woods.

We make plans to meet in the lobby at 6:30 a.m. to catch the first light of day–usually the clearest and most compelling light.

Day Three
In the early-morning darkness, we enter a village surrounded by mountains and rocky streams, hugged by turning trees. The sun rises over the Presidential Range, the snow-capped summit of Mount Washington poking up through the clouds. The sky is changing rapidly from purple through shades of pink and delicate blue. Heading southeast into North Conway, Scotty shares a story about Arthur Tauck’s car breaking down on the road with a double flat tire in front of Cannell’s Country Store one time in the late 1920s. A gentleman named Ray Cannell owned it; he befriended Tauck.

Updated Monday, August 23rd, 2010

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