Saturday, August 1, 2009

Waking up to the sound of running creek water has got to be one of the nicest experiences imaginable (all the better with an extra hour before family members arise, allowing time to read, write, and relax). We've been on the road for a week now, and it's hard to believe. Even yesterday's drive from Montreal seems ancient, yet the week itself has flown by. We have so many twisting roads and tiny towns yet to visit that I can hardly be sad at the prospect of this trip's limited span. But I'm a bit wistful all the same.

Looking out the window, thinking about the road ahead, I hoped that the low hanging fog would dissipate later in the morning. I was hungry for blue sky. Our energy was strong, despite our tired bodies, and we chatted about the prospects of living in Vermont one day (presuming Vienna would be willing to visit with grandkids on a fairly regular basis). I guess most tourists in these parts think the same thing: "I've got to live here!" Of course that's part of our plan. In fact Jenny scheduled us a visit with a local realtor/property manager so we could begin to research some of the practicalities of owning land and a home in this part of the country. During that time Vienna chatted with a friendly local general store owner and later curled up on a couch in the adjacent building to read Travels with Charley.

The realities of Vermont's seasons, most especially its buggy summers and snowed-in winters, call for sober assessment. Even so, I couldn't help but smile every time we passed through another town with a towering white church and old town hall. Fairly soon the skies were perfectly open and sunlight poured itself into every valley. The day was so promising that Jenny and I began to project ourselves forward into retirement: me volunteering at the local fire fighting crew and maybe lecturing from time to time at a nearby college, Jenny being active in her church community and performing in local theater. Every lakefront home, roadside river and covered bridge called us to imagine life in Vermont.

After our meeting with a local real estate guru we stopped near Putney at Curtis's BBQ, just ahead of a line of 60 bikers who fortunately gathered just after us. Curtis and his employees run their stand from a line of buses that often get lost in the smoke from the outdoor pit. We pulled together a meal of ribs with a spicy sauce, mashed sweet potatoes, a cup of cucumber and onions, and sweat corn on the cob that we got to shuck. Best of all, we enjoyed an opportunity to chat with the pit boss himself, Curtis, while petting his pot bellied pig who tolerated our attention so long as we continued to feed him apples. Curtis is like many of the other roadside entrepreneurs we've met over the years. He's good at what he does, he enjoys it, and engages in conversations with visitors (surely asking the same questions) with grace and charm.

Our moods high and our bellies full we drove a few miles north to visit Santa's Land, one of those year-round Yuletide family amusement parks that hang on decade after decade. This was our first, and we entered with expectations of goofiness. Truthfully it is a strange thing to visit an amusement park dedicated to Christmas in August, but we just had to see what it's like. Santa's Land is mildly strange but undeniably sweet. We entered a deer habitat whose denizens were both wary and intrigued by the possibilities that we might feed them; we sat in a one-room schoolhouse that plays holiday specials we remembered from childhood; we rode a train (whose chatty conductor turned out to own the place), and, yes, we visited Santa, a dude who plied us with candy canes and offers to pose for pictures. We couldn't resist. Oh, and did I mention the petting zoo (YouTube video)?

Heading north on a rolling course we fell into a pattern of calling out the two most common ornaments on houses in these parts: stars and eagles (but never, yet at least, both on the same fašade). The game was to see who could spot the ornament most quickly. Vienna naturally fared better than Jenny and me, yet she grew nervous when my competitive juices began to flow, especially since my attention was not necessarily fixed on the road ahead. Our goal was Bellows Falls, the location of a terrific landmark on our itinerary, however the Miss Bellows Falls diner wasn't open. We never did discover the reason, but we figured the closure was correlated with some sort of homecoming event going on downtown. We considered sticking around for fireworks but decided to head south once more to Brattleboro, playing Stars and Eagles as we drove.

An early dinner at Chelsea Royal Diner got our town visit off to a good start. Thus far we've been able to sit in the original dining car during each stop on our tour, even though most diners front a more bland sitting area to accommodate larger crowds. And we were fortunate once more. Jenny and I selected salads in an effort to assuage our guilt about straying this lengthily from our diets; Vienna aimed straight for the chicken pot pie, forgoing dessert as her own personal penance. This place was a treat, particularly for its homemade ice cream and reasonable prices.

After a quick detour into New Hampshire to photograph the "license plate house" (which at least lives up to its name) we figured we'd snag a motel back in town. How hard could it be? Well, we learned the hard way not to just amble along on a Saturday night in Southern Vermont. Our sights lowered from "quirky and fun" to "cheap and easy" to "whatever works" pretty quick, and I growled at the repetition of hotels who don't mount No Vacancy signs while demonstrating No Concern about helping a traveler find lodging down the road (if you're going to entice someone into the lobby, you'd better offer more than a shrug). At last we pulled into a Motel 6, generally an OK deal as long as the neighboring rooms aren't filled with lunatics, and parked our car next to a pickup filled with barking dogs. Ah, we learned, there's a dog show in nearby Keene, NH; that's why there were no rooms to be had. In a manner both kind and earnest the manager and front desk person at this motel broke out phonebooks and started calling options for us. We wound up at a place called Dalem's Chalet; let's just leave it with that. Still, we enjoyed a chance to do some laundry, shoot some twilight neon, and rest up for the second half of our Diner Tour. The movie on TV? National Lampoon's Vacation, perfect for our choice of lodging.

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All text copyright Andrew Wood.
Photos copyright Andrew and Jenny Wood.