Tour De New England

 

With an entire weekend ahead and a car at my disposal, I took off for a tour of New England. I left Ft. Monmouth at 0530 on December 12, 1998 and headed north on the Garden State Parkway. The plan was to go across the Hudson at the Tappan Zee bridge and head East on I-84. The plan went well until I crossed the Hudson (after paying a $3.00 toll to cross the bridge) and inexplicably ended up on the Taconic State Parkway headed south. The Parkway is marked as I-83 although this designation does not appear on the map. By the time that I realized what was happening I had been sucked into the New York City traffic vortex. After a fruitless attempt to find I-95 North I stopped at a gas station and asked for directions.

           

While on my way out of and through the city I got a good look at the vertical neighborhoods of the Bronx and Queens. It all looks pretty depressing. Fortunately traffic was fairly light and I was able to maintain speed once I got on the Interstate. I did find out that New York State levies an exit tax in the form of a $1.00 toll shortly before you reach the Connecticut state line. Let no-one say that New York misses any opportunity to raise revenue.

           

I-95 parallels the shoreline as it makes it’s way across Connecticut through the urban areas along the shoreline. The urban areas are interspersed with the  standard undulating wooded countryside of the Northeast with a few rock cuts along the highway. The USS Nautilus is berthed at the Submarine Museum in New London, home of Electric Boat. It would have been nice to see this but time was pressing.

           

The Interstate turns north and east once it enters Rhode Island and the landscape is typical of the East Coast. That is to say, it is indistinguishable from almost any other Eastern state. There is a large area of pine trees just outside of Providence. This was unusual and unexpected. Providence itself is most notable for the unusual architecture of the State Capitol building. Although it is equipped with the requisite dome it also has four columnar turrets at the corners. The effect is striking.

           

Although I-95 is laid out on a diagonal in a basically rectangular state, it still takes less than an hour to drive through the state. There are a number of cities that take longer to drive through. The area of the state is not much larger than the City of New York and has far fewer people.

          

Boston is the northern anchor of the Northeast Corridor and the first of the highway loops surrounding the Greater Boston Metropolitan area actually passes through Providence. The inner loop surrounding the city proper is about 35 miles from Providence. Along the way I saw several cranberry bogs. I had never actually seen the places where Ocean Spray gets its raw material. The bogs were somewhat smaller than I had imagined they would be but I am sure there are much larger ones around.

           

 After filling the gas tank ( the needle was bouncing on E) I drove into the depths of the downtown Boston maelstrom. I quickly discovered three things about driving in Boston. One, it takes cojones to drive in Boston, Two, the entire downtown area is being torn apart to install a new transit system, and Three, there are precious few signs directing people to the Visitor Center or the Historic District. The total number of signs that I saw with this information was zero. I also found out that unlike many other cities where it is difficult to find the expressways, in Boston it is difficult to stay away from the things. I ended up driving around the downtown area looking for the historical areas that this city is known for and  generally finding everything but what I was looking for. I did find the Aquarium, Beacon Hill (not much of a hill, more like a grade), and the tunnel to East Boston. The tunnel is free eastbound but it costs two bucks to get back to the City.

           

I eventually stumbled onto Boston Commons and spotted one of the signs for the Freedom Trail so I knew I was getting warm. After circumnavigating the Commons I spied the Visitor Center. The next challenge was to find a parking spot. I knew of Boston’s reputation in the parking department but I was not eager to park in the garage at the Commons because I figured that it would be rather expensive. I found a spot in an alley right across from the Visitor’s Center. The space was marked as a loading zone but I decided to take a gamble on the law not being enforced on a weekend. This proved to be a losing proposition.

           

After securing the vehicle and loading up on the requisite tourist items like camera and film, I crossed the street and headed for the information desk. I must mention that crossing the street in Boston is a little different than crossing the street in, say, Seattle. In Seattle, people generally wait for the light to change. In Boston, it’s everyone for themselves. This is especially nerve-wracking for the driving public. People just go whenever.

           

The Visitor’s Center at the Commons is apparently run by the City because nothing is free. I picked up a map of the downtown area and an interpretive guide and headed off down the Red Line.

           

The Freedom Trail winds for 2 ½  miles through downtown Boston and probably has more history per mile than any other place in America. It starts at Boston Commons and winds through several neighborhoods until it reaches the Charles River. I was surprised to find that the memorial to the 54th Regiment (the first black Regiment of the Civil War and the Regiment whose story is told in the film “Glory”) is located at Boston Common. Other highlights of the tour include the Granary graveyard; where a number of famous American figures are buried, the original meeting hall of the Sons of Liberty, Paul Revere’s house, the Old North Church, the sight of the Boston Massacre, and the Old State House where the Declaration of Independence was first read to the people of Boston. It was very cool to walk in the places and to see the buildings that the founders of this country had walked in and used. In a sense walking among these artifacts underlines just how young this country is. There are many places in Europe where a 300 year-old building is considered nearly modern.

 

I walked across the Charlestown Bridge to visit the USS Constitution at the old Boston Navy Yard. The Constitution is a well-preserved example of an 18th century frigate and is all the more impressive for being the oldest commissioned warship in the world. Make no mistake, with the exception of the guns, this is a fully functional sailing vessel. There are a few concessions to modern functionality such as an engine, electricity, and a sprinkler system below decks, and I’m sure that the ship never looked as good as it does now while it was in regular service, but you can gain a good understanding of life aboard this vessel by touring her. It is a good-sized ship, but when 400-500 men served aboard her it must have seemed very small indeed.

 

There is a Fletcher-class destroyer from WW II berthed near the Constitution and the contrast between the two ships gives a good lesson in the difference 150 years of technology made in warship design.

 

The highlight of the tour was the lowering of the Colors at sunset. During this ceremony a small cannon is loaded with a blank charge and fired immediately prior to the lowering of the flag. The sailor guiding the tour had said that the gun would be more of a “pop” than a “bang” but the noise was satisfyingly loud and a bit startling. A troop of Boy Scouts happened to be along and they saluted the Flag as it was lowered. If I had been thinking I would have gotten a picture of this as it was truly an American Moment.

 

After the ceremony at the Constitution had concluded I made the short walk to the Bunker Hill memorial. The Battle of Bunker Hill was the official start of the American War for Independence and curiously enough actually took place on Breed’s Hill. It became known as the Battle of Bunker Hill due to a cartographic error when the map of the battle was drawn up for the English. The monument itself is a 200 foot obelisk and is easily visible. There are stairs to the top of the monument but the site was closed when I showed up. The hill itself is of a fairly good elevation and I imagine that it was quite a climb for the British troops who had to attack uphill in the heat of summer while wearing heavy packs. Although the British technically won the battle, it was a Phyrric victory at best.

 

Walking back to the car, I noticed a few things about the City of Boston in general. The Italian section of this city is large. I had always thought of Boston as an Irish city but there are a lot of Italian restaurants in  the parts of Boston that I saw and, I was to find later, in the coastal part of  Massachusetts in general. I also noticed that there aren’t that many panhandlers and bums in the tourist section of the city. This is in marked contrast to places like San Francisco and Philadelphia. There also appears to be an unusually large percentage of women in Boston. One would normally expect a 50-50 split but the ratio in Boston of women to men appears to be about 3-2.

 

After I got back to the car I found out that the Parking Patrol had tagged me. Fortunately the police here aren’t as militant as they are in some places and I only got tagged once. The cost of the ticket was still cheaper than paying a parking garage.

 

Getting out of Boston was easier than getting in although even though the egress did not go as planned. One of the annoyance factors about driving in Boston is that double-parking is a way of life. Basically I just drove down an artery paralleling the Interstate and turned down a promising road. Luckily I made a good choice and followed the signs to I-93 North. I felt like putting one of those “Don’t follow me, I’m lost too” bumper stickers on the car. After I cleared the major portion of the Boston metro area I got onto U.S. 1 to find a hotel. Again, traffic was not bad, although there was one bad moment at an exit where I had to bust a move to avoid unwanted contact with cars on either side.

 

I found out that the north and southbound lanes of U.S. 1 for some distance outside of Boston are separated  by “Jersey” barriers and opportunities for U-turns are scarce. I finally decided to head north on U.S. 1 until I came upon a town that had some hotels. After driving through rural Massachusetts for a while I came to Newburyport and surrounding communities. This is an area right on the beach so I figured hotel rooms would be cheap since the season was over. I did find a guy who would rent me a room for the night for $30.00 but, surprisingly, he didn’t take plastic. After driving back to an ATM for cash I did get the room. The room actually turned out to be suite (living room, kitchen, bedroom, and bath) that was not a whole lot smaller than my apartment. The room was furnished with real wood paneling, giving it a kind of North Woods hunting lodge feel, and it was roach-infested, but I wasn’t planning to live there. The TV was real old-school. There was cable, but the TV only had the old-style channel selector (no remote!) so channel selection was rather limited. But for one night, it was good enough.

           

I awoke with a start on the second morning of the Tour because it was light outside and I hadn’t planned to sleep that late. Checking the watch, I discovered that it was nearly 0800 and well past time to get rolling. After showering, dressing, and collecting my things, I headed north on I-95. Very shortly I had crossed the line into New Hampshire.

           

The coastal scenery along the Interstate in New Hampshire is fairly unremarkable except for the large DOT signs along the highway pointing out the “N.H. State Liquor Store”. A curiously mixed message for a state that has a 0.08 limit on blood alcohol when driving. I also noticed that this State has a seatbelt law that only applies to persons under the age of 18. If a State is going to have a seatbelt law this seems like the right way to do it.

           

After crossing the bridge over the river at Portsmouth I was in the great State of Maine. I soon discovered that  Maine has spent considerable resources in telling the traveling public about itself. Not in the class of Kansas, perhaps, but educational nonetheless. Within the first six miles you know that “Fireworks are Illegal”. “Seatbelts are Mandatory”, “Maine has Tough Drunk Driving Laws”, “Lights are Required With Wipers”, and “If You had a Business in Maine, You’d Be Home Now”. After learning about the State of  Maine you are required to pay the $1.25 entrance fee to the Maine Turnpike. I should mention that Maine is the only State that I’ve seen that advertises lobster on it’s DOT signs; as in the signs that tell what services are available at the next exit and whenever a restaurant sign is displayed there is a notice as to whether lobster is present.

           

I drove as far as Kennebunkport since I knew this to be the summer home of President Bush and wanted to see the town for myself but I also hoped that there would be some genuine Maine coastline present. I did notice on the way out to the town that the ponds and rivers had started to freeze over and that there was snow on the ground. I had reached the contemporary southern edge of winter.

           

Kennebunkport is a relatively small town and in the late Fall is pleasant enough. The downtown area seems to have every manner of tourist shop, though, and in the Summer must be overrun with visitors. I drove to a place just outside of the downtown area called Parish Point where there was some actual Maine coastline and stopped to take some pictures. Parish Point is a piece of donated land deserving of it’s own marker and in a small area includes the perception of the Maine coast, that is to say, a haven for tidal pools amidst the rocks. There is kelp on the rocks, a surprising find, and the water was cold. The rocks that line the shore are flint-like and sharp. In many ways this area has similarities to the Northern California coast. I looked for signs of marine life in the tidal pools but my untrained eye could not detect anything. I was actually thinking sea anemones after my experience in San Diego but of course this was too far North and on the wrong coast.

           

 After fooling around on the Maine coast for a while it was time to head back out to the highway and New Hampshire again. I got nicked for the $0.50 toll to get on the highway and the Maine exit tax of $1.25 to get out of the State. Tolls in this part of the country almost make you appreciate living out West, where the spaces are large and the highways are free.

           

After crossing back into New Hampshire I took the U.S. 4 exit and started westward toward Concord. The road here is what you expect the modern U.S. highway to be; two-lane blacktop through the countryside. As I was winding my way through the country I saw a fairly nice Isuzu 4WD for sale for $1,600. Just the day before I had seen a much older Chevy pickup for the same price in Massachusetts. Go figure. I guess it pays to shop around.

           

 After reaching Concord I headed North on I-93. I wanted to see the famous Old Man of the Mountains but didn’t have a clear idea as to where he was. I sort of knew that this landmark was located in the Franconia Notch area but I didn’t know exactly where. As I approached the White Mountains I started looking for Tourist Information Centers. I finally found a National Park Service information office in New Hampton. The gentleman there was knowledgeable of the State (he was a native) and was able to point me in the right direction. The right direction turned out to be 40 miles up the road and I was getting hungry (it was afternoon). I stopped in Plymouth for gas but could not find an open restaurant that took the right credit card. I decided to bag lunch until after I had passed through the White Mountains.

           

I think that the White Mountains of New Hampshire must be named for the amazing number of birch trees that populate the landscape. The mountains themselves are more spectacular than I had imagined. There are sections that rival the Cascades for ruggedness and beauty. I was surprised to see that there is a town named Blair and that there is a highway sign that proclaims “Blair’s Bridge” at the next exit. This is one of New Hampshire’s many covered bridges and it was neat to see my name up on a highway sign for all the world to see.

           

After entering the White Mountain National Forest the road turns green and the scenery turns spectacular. The Interstate narrows to one lane each way and the speed limit drops to 45 mph. Apparently the State wants you to enjoy the views but other drivers have other plans. If you don’t maintain at least 60 then you will be passed at every opportunity. I got passed by a semi-truck going uphill. At the time I was doing 50 but after that I kept up speed sufficient to stay with traffic.

           

 I kept up a lookout for the signs to the Old Man viewing area as instructed and turned off at the first one. As I pulled in to the parking area I saw the sign describing the sight but all I saw in front of me was a tree-covered mountain side. I was about to ask where the Old Man was when I turned around and there he was on the mountain across the road. The sight is suitably spectacular but the Sun was in the wrong place (right next to it) to take good pictures. I shot a few frames anyway and pulled out to continue on my way.

           

 After a few more miles of beautiful Franconia Notch the highway turned westward out of the mountains and I started looking for the exit to U.S. 302 which runs west toward Vermont and I-91. To my left I could see the snow-making machines going full-blast on the ski slopes. Soon the exit for Littleton came up and I turned off to see what sort of food could be had here.

           

Littleton, NH, is a medium-sized town that has the requisite raised sidewalks and fair-sized downtown. I found an Italian restaurant with a good view of the mountains and some of the best Italian food I have eaten. The ingredients were fresh and the marinara sauce was truly outstanding. The service was good and the prices were very reasonable. After lunch it was back on the road with a little prayer that nothing unexpected would happen because the next sight I wanted to see was 80 miles away and it was already two o’clock. I figured that there were about two hours of good daylight left and I wanted to be able to take some pictures.

           

 Heading south and west out of town on U.S. 302 I got to see a good bit of the New Hampshire countryside. Saw my first covered bridge in the town of Bath and I noticed that driving through this part of the country at this time of year is a lot like driving through a Currier & Ives print. The stone walls, frozen ponds, snow-covered ground, and small towns with their buildings and bridges designed in the classic New England style all contribute to a bucolic holiday feel. I would not have been surprised to see a horse-drawn sleigh in the fields.

           

I crossed the New Hampshire-Vermont border over the Connecticut River at the town of Woodsville and immediately entered the town of Wells River, VT. From here it was a short drive over to Interstate 91 and then southward  through the mountains and paralleling the river while completely disregarding the speed limit.

           

The reason for this scofflaw behavior was a desire to see the longest covered bridge in use in the U.S. I had first found out about this structure from a brochure in the hotel room in Massachusetts and the Forest Service ranger earlier in the day had told me a little of the history of this bridge. It was built by two men in 1866, one of whom was an illiterate gentleman by the name of Tucker. Even though he couldn’t read or write he sure knew how to build a bridge.

           

An hour later I turned onto state road 9 and headed back north to the town of Windsor. There is a sign in town directing travelers to the bridge and I drove across it back into New Hampshire. There is a parking area immediately after crossing the bridge where I pulled over to take some pictures.

           

The bridge itself is a very well-preserved 405’ long wooden structure complete with wood planks for the roadway through it. The structure employs a stone pier in the middle of the river to support it and heavy wooden beams under the main deck and as wall and roof supports. I waited patiently for car-free intervals to take pictures (it is on a state road, after all) and generally admired the structure. After too short a time it was time to leave and head back to New Jersey. There was a long way to go and it was time to get back to the world of work.

           

Darkness comes early to the mountains in late Fall and by 4 o’clock the headlights were on. As I-91 heads south across the Massachusetts state line the mountains gradually give way to hills and then to relatively flat land. Halfway through Massachusetts I was surprised to find a series of mountains and then reminded myself that these must be the Berkshires. It would have been nice to see these in the daylight but that wasn’t how things worked out. I was a bit startled to find myself in an urban driving situation in Springfield since I hadn’t been in any population-intensive areas through three states.

           

From Springfield down through Hartford and New Haven where I joined I-95 south into New York City the scenery was urban and the traffic heavy but navigable. I suffered a setback in Connecticut when I got turned around after filling the gas tank and drove north back through Hartford before I realized my error. Fortunately there is a traffic circle in downtown Hartford and getting pointed in the right direction again was relatively painless. As I entered New York I passed the same toll booth that I had stopped at the day before and noted that New York does not charge any money to enter the state. In fact, I discovered that everything westbound through the city is free.

           

Since I had never driven in this direction in New York before I was a little apprehensive about getting on the correct roads to get me where I wanted to go. I had some idea of what roads I needed to be on to get to the Garden State Parkway but the actual process was a mystery. Fortunately everything was well-marked and marked well in advance of the necessary exits. I ended up following a semi-truck that looked like it knew where it was going and cruised behind it. This truck was involved in an incident in which a car tried to fight for the lane into which the truck was merging and the car very nearly ended up being crushed between the first truck and another in the lane on the right. It was only through the awareness of the truck driver and a few others that an ugly accident was avoided. The driver of the car certainly wasn’t doing themselves any favors.

           

Other people that were surely feeling less than blessed were the ones stuck in traffic on the northbound side of the Interstate. Traffic was at a standstill from well into the Bronx to a mile or so on the west side of the George Washington Bridge. I was very happy that I wasn’t stuck in that mess. It did remind me of Seattle, though. As for my side of the road, traffic flowed smoothly into the eastern terminus of I-80 and then to the Garden State Parkway. Once I reached this point I felt right at home since this was familiar territory. After stopping at the requisite tollbooths I turned off at exit 105 and headed to Ft. Monmouth. When I pulled into the parking space at the Transient Lodging Facility and turned off the engine I breathed a sigh of relief. After 2 days, 7 states, and 1100 miles I was safely back at my temporary home. When I walked through the door it was 8:59 P.M., and time for the X-Files.