Feeling Lucky in Small Town America
Although we had planned to head north from Boston, a pleasant coincidence had us heading west instead. My cousin Grant and his wife Judith were visiting their daughter Catherine in the small college town of Hamilton, New York and invited us to join them. I had seen Grant from time to time over the years, but the last time I had seen Judith was in the 1980s, when as a snotty schoolboy with a mean competitive streak I had thrashed the two of them – seasoned university graduates – at numerous games of Boggle. Oh, the mighty achievements to which we cling.
Hamilton is home to Colgate University, a liberal arts college set in rural New York with a campus that seemed posh and luxurious compared to the rather dowdy, fee-falling buildings that I remember from UCT. We wandered through this glorious autumnal setting and took a day trip out to the Finger Lakes where, amongst other things, we learned that New York State has some wine farms and that students in rural New York pass the time on road trips by shouting at cows and scoring points if the cows react. Despite living in the U.S. for over 25 years, I was pleased to see that Grant and Judith had maintained at least two South African characteristics – unwavering South African accents (although I did hear Grant subtly pronounce his name so that it rhymed with “ant” to make himself understood) and their unrelenting insistence on plying us with alcohol. This was probably fortunate as it helped us play a game called “Cards Against Humanity”, the sort of game that would make your mother blush and your grandmother faint. It is a politically incorrect card game of remarkable vulgarity invented by a sexually deviant oddball most suited to warped-minded participants. We took to it with ease. It may have been the booze, but there were numerous times when the game had to be paused as middle-aged card readers struggled to rein in their adolescent fits of hysterics.
After a wonderful weekend in Hamilton, we began our search for fall foliage in earnest. We started a rather directionless, unplanned zigzagging route that took us from New York to Vermont to New Hampshire to Maine to New Hampshire before returning to Boston (see here). We visited the Adirondacks, cavorted in the Green Mountains, walked in the White Mountains and made sure we could tell people we’d touched the Appalachian Trail. The Americans we met expressed wonder and surprise at both the route we were following and the time we were taking to do it and although we were regularly met with approving exclamations of “awesome” and “wow” their furrowed brows betrayed their confusion at what we were doing.
Our route took us on a grand tour of small-town America as we rumbled through small derelict towns, which always greeted us on the fringes with auto-parts businesses run by Pete or Randy or Doug and a large sign proclaiming a neighbourhood Baptist Church or Fellowship, usually sitting somewhere near the resident beauty salon. These fading mill towns and old farming centres began to take on a remarkable sameness, with town centres made up of a Dunkin’ Donuts, the odd convenience store and sometimes a local bank, but always bracketed with businesses seemingly populated by well-groomed, religious mechanics. I began to wonder if God was sending a coded message that I was not receiving – that true redemption lay in using perfectly manicured nails to work on clutches, carburettors and written-off Ford pickup trucks. I fear “former investment manager” and “aimless wanderer” will look rather lame compared to this on the Day of Reckoning.
The foliage met our expectations. As many of my friends know, I am colour-blind and I had my reservations. The rods or cones or whatever devious instruments cause my optical deficiencies ensure that I struggle with shades of reds and greens, which somewhat distressingly seem to be significant players in the fall leaf show. But I was not disappointed. Although I suspect the richness of my experience may have been diluted compared to full-colour viewers, I revelled in the blankets of yellow and red and green and the vast swathes of forests garnished with seldom subtle, often garish, explosions of colour. We took short walks through quiet walls of trees with leaves scattered on the ground seeking gentle waterfalls and we took day drives to grand viewpoints.
All the while we stayed in some lovely places, trying to taste the local food and soak up the local experience. Staying one night in a rather remote bed and breakfast, we had a huge, empty house to ourselves. We were the sole occupants and the owners just gave us instructions on how to let ourselves in. There were no pumpkin lattes, no Maine lobsters or Vermont cheeses here, so we ate at the nearby bar which had surprisingly good food. More satisfying was the rich local flavour, from the friendly waitress/bar lady/cook to the garrulous old blokes on bar stools remembering better times. Baseball played on the TV, the calendar was ten years old, NASCAR schedules adorned the walls, the jukebox sat forlornly in the corner and there was an insightful sign with the heading: “Ten reasons why guns are better than women” . I’ll always regret not finding out what these are but we were seated too far away to read them and I couldn’t find a way of sidling up to the sign without San-Marié noticing.
We stayed in an old Vermont farmhouse in picturesque surroundings and in an artist’s “forest-house” in Maine near a characterful, rocky beach. We feasted on lobster rolls and scallops and clam chowder and whoopie pie, which challenges doughnut ice-cream sandwiches for sheer decadence. One night in New Hampshire, we asked our Airbnb host (a harried single mother of two) to recommend the best pizza in town and shortly thereafter we found ourselves, with some scepticism, at the local bowling alley. The pizza was a fine, yet supremely tasty example of thick-based American excess but once again we delighted in the sheer noisy Americanness of the place – the robust political debate at the counter, the chubby American bemoaning his bowling ineptitude and the scores of enthusiastic bowlers trying their best not to follow their bowling balls down the alley.
We spent one day chasing covered bridges. These are wooden bridges with roofs, which to my eye are rather unremarkable and slightly ugly constructions. Yet my wife had taken a liking to these. She’s always been a bit of a sucker for books and movies about true love thwarted and one of her favourites in this genre is “The Bridges of Madison County”. It stars Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, where Eastwood plays a photographer seeking out covered bridges. Perhaps San-Marié hoped that by casting me in the role of covered bridge photographer, I would metamorphose into a tough man with chiselled features and quotable one-liners but at the end of an admittedly fun day, all she had to show for it were some mediocre photos and the same husband with hair on his shoulders.
Our time in the U.S. is drawing to a close – when next you hear from us we will likely be in Canada. That’s when I’ll tell you about my wife’s ongoing quest to bring cinematic delight into reality.
To see our New England Leaves Gallery, click here.