Saturday, August 30, 2008

31. Goodbye New England

August 17 was cool and partly cloudy . . . a perfect travel day. We entered Canada 10 days earlier via the scenic but slow coastal route, so we decided to depart via the longer northern route to Houlton, Maine. The U.S. customs officials were much more serious than were the Canadians when we entered Canada. The U.S. guys checked our IDs closely. They also came aboard to ask questions and peek into our refrigerator to see if we were importing anything strange or illegal. We passed inspection and they didn’t confiscate anything this time, not even the beets and blueberries.

We like to travel about 200 or so miles per day. But, since the scenery is pretty monotonous in northern Maine, we continued for another 150 miles to Bangor. We stayed a couple days at the Pumpkin Patch RV Resort. It was much nicer than anything we found in Canada, and considerably cheaper. We welcomed a couple days to rest, do laundry, clean up the motor home and do a little sightseeing around the Bangor area.

I hope none of our readers is from Bangor and, if so, we don’t intend to insult your fair city. However, we found downtown Bangor to be a bummer. This was one of the most awkward and uncomfortable cities we have visited. The photo below doesn't show it, but streets meet at odd angles, several are one-way, there are hills, tight curves, overpasses and directional signs that are hard to find and understand. We parked on the street and walked around a little. Other than some old buildings, marginal businesses and a small park, we didn’t find much of interest downtown. Apparently, not many others did either. There was plenty of on-street parking and no brochures or post cards.
Cousin Sherry told us not to miss author Stephen King’s house so we stopped by. He lives in a very large home in a nice older neighborhood of Bangor not far from downtown. The house is surrounded by a black iron fence, adorned with iron bats, spider webs and other “spooky” decorations. Pretty cool. He lives there most of the time. We took a couple pictures but didn’t bother him in case he was working on a book. Bangor has a real treasure in the Cole Land Transportation Museum. It contains all kinds of vehicles, farm machinery, early snow plows, snow cats, covered wagons, early fire engines, tow trucks, military jeeps, motorcycles, a few railroad cars and even a 1930s model tent trailer. Photos weren’t allowed inside, but they did allow us to take a picture on an old REO vehicle.

The museum was established in 1989 by Galen Cole. After surviving a World War II battle that killed the rest of his squad, he ran a trucking company and saved enough money to start the museum. He still spends time in the museum greeting visitors. Bonnie was especially interested in a WW-II memorial. It includes the bronzed Jeep outside the museum and an interior display of many battle photographs of the area where her dad had served in Europe, and during the time he was there. It was very interesting to see those photos. We saw the Kennedy compound in Massachusetts, so Bonnie thought it would be nice to see the Bush abode in Kennebunkport, Maine. The Ocean Avenue loop passes many large beautiful mansions with acres of lawn and sweeping views of the Atlantic along the rocky coastline. Eventually, we came to a wide spot in the road and pulled off to join a group of Bush-watchers with cameras and binoculars in hand. Across the water on Walker’s Point was the home of former President Bush. We enjoyed the view and took some pictures but didn’t get a glimpse of the former President. It was a beautiful sunny day, so we continued up the coast to Cape Porpoise where we watched boats and wandered around on the pier among the stacks of lobster traps. A little crab shack type outdoor café was right there on the pier, so we had a seafood lunch. It doesn’t get any fresher than that. It took the rest of the day to explore the towns of Kennebunkport, Wells Beach and York. All are very interesting quaint coastal towns, but summer traffic made it a very slow trip. It was a relief to finally leave the coast.
In York, the tide was in and nearly up to the bulkhead, but the skinny beach was still accessible and we enjoyed our final view of the Atlantic Ocean before heading inland.
On August 22, the 150th day of our “extended vacation”, we left Maine, drove through southern New Hampshire and to our next campground on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River.

The hot spot in this part of Vermont is the town of Woodstock, not to be confused with the 1960s rock music festival. The official population is only about 1,000, but Woodstock swells with tourists in the summer. A favorite downtown business is the F.H. Gillingham store. It has all kinds of interesting things and is the oldest general store in Vermont (1886). Folks also come to see the beautiful mountain scenery, historic Federal-style architecture, numerous covered bridges, parks, farms, etc. This would be a great place to spend a summer.
Just outside Woodstock, and of primary interest to us, was Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Park and Billings Farm. This unique park was established in 1992 and covers just 550 acres of forest and farmlands. It’s the only national park that focuses on conservation history and the evolution of land stewardship. Vermont is a beautiful state, but it has an ugly past. In the mid-19th century, after the American Revolution, settlers swarmed all over Vermont. They cut down 80% of the forests and cleared the land for farms. Unfortunately, poor farm practices, erosion and too many sheep ruined the land. Farming became difficult, so many of the settlers moved on and left their destruction behind. One of those early settlers was George Perkins Marsh. He grew up on the family farm near Woodstock, served in Congress and traveled extensively. He saw how human actions had ruined landscapes in other countries and decided to do something to correct the situation in Vermont. He became a leading conservationist and, in 1864, wrote the classic book “Man and Nature.” The Marsh farm was later purchased by Frederick Billings, a California gold rush attorney, industrialist and railroad builder. He was also a Vermont native and avid conservationist. He saw an opportunity to create a farm that would be a model of wise stewardship for future generations. Through his efforts, high quality animals and farm practices were returned to Vermont and much of the state was reforested. In 1934, Billings’ granddaughter married Laurance Rockefeller and they lived in the beautiful mansion on the farm. It was open for tours and was one of the most impressive homes we have seen anywhere on this vacation. The house was a solid brick structure but had lots of detail, beautiful wood everywhere and period furnishings. The family had the financial resources and commitment to conservation to continue the program that finally resulted in the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Nat’l. Park. In 1998, the Conservation Study Institute was established at the park as a forum for professionals to share their knowledge about best practices and conservation leadership. Even the view (below) has been preserved through conservation easements. Now you know the rest of the story. We couldn’t go through Vermont without a little cheese and maple syrup. Not far from Woodstock at the end of a winding dirt road is Sugarbush Farm. It’s a family owned and operated farm that raises animals and makes cheese and maple syrup. They gave us a brief tour of the maple processing operation. We tasted the four grades of maple syrup and an assortment of really good cheeses and also fed the farm animals. A loop trail showed us the maple groves and how the trees are tapped for their sap. A small chapel was positioned along the way in case anyone needed to pray or get married. Maple syrup is liquid gold. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of pure maple syrup. Very expensive!

Vermont was beautiful and we could have stayed another week or two. But it was time to leave New England and continue west. We didn’t make very good time on the narrow crooked highways through the hills of Vermont and into New York, but the scenery was outstanding. We were a little early for the “fall foliage” season, but many trees were already turning. It looks like an early autumn for the Northeast.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

30. The Maritime Provinces - Part II

Part I covered our visits to New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. This Part II is about about Nova Scotia and we have to mention the Acadians once again. We learned about the Acadians in Louisiana back in April. The story needs one more paragraph to complete the link between Nova Scotia and Louisiana.

By the early 1700s, thousands of Acadians were living in their established settlements in “Acadie”. In 1713 the area was transferred from France to Great Britain and Acadie became Nova Scotia. The French and British tended to fight and feud a lot and the independent Acadians insisted on remaining neutral. Since they were friendly to both sides, they couldn’t be trusted. So, in 1755, the British ordered that they be deported by boat to colonies along the east coast. Thousands were victims of this tragedy that is now referred to as the “Grand Derangement.” Many ended up in Louisiana where Cajun communities were developed. Not all were sent away in boats. Many of the original Acadians fled inland and their descendants have since returned to Nova Scotia to rebuild their families and communities. Their heritage is alive and well today.

Following the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia and the burning of their towns, a new Town of Amherst was established on one of the former sites. New England settlers were encouraged to settle in the area and Amherst became a busy business and manufacturing center. Over the years, the city has lost much of its strength and vitality and is now just a nice quiet town. Many old 19th century brick and sandstone buildings are still in use today and beautiful Victorian homes are scattered throughout the community. It’s sad that we can’t seem to build a school that will last 50 years any more, but all through New England and the Maritime provinces we see 200+ year old buildings standing strong and still in use.
We parked the rig in a campground just outside Amherst, which was a convenient location for side trips in all directions. The campground was large and grassy and rather pretty, as the photos show. But the facilities (rest rooms, showers, roads, recreation hall, etc.) were marginal and maintenance was nonexistent. Bonnie (and most other campers) wouldn’t go near the rest rooms so it was a good thing the motor home is self-contained.
The RV park didn’t have internet access, but the park’s owner lived in a large house down the road. He invited the guests to park in his driveway (which also served as a used car lot) and connect to his home WiFi. So, Ron drove over in the evening and did his internet stuff in the pouring rain while parked among the used cars. Not a pretty sight, but it worked.

Springhill, a few miles down the road from Amherst, happened to be the home town of popular Canadian vocalist Anne Murray. We stopped at the Anne Murray Center, looked at the displays and chatted with the lady in the gift shop while an Anne Murray CD played softly in the background. She informed us that Anne now lives near Toronto but returns to Springhill now and then to visit. Springhill is also famous for coal mining and several major mining disasters, one of which killed 125 miners in 1891. There’s lots more coal in Nova Scotia but no underground coal mines are operating today and open pit mining has failed. There are many old mine shafts under Springhill, some more than 6,000 feet deep. Most are now full of water but a small portion of one of the shafts is open to visitors, along with the small but very informative Springhill Miners Museum.
Bonnie gets a little claustrophobic underground, but Ron put on the rubber jacket and hard hat and ventured into the cool, dark, wet, drippy mine. The shaft wasn’t real deep but it provided a close-up look at the coal mining operation and what veins of coal look like underground. A real coal miner’s daughter led us through the museum and mine. She showed us how it feels to be in total darkness and gave us a pretty good idea of what it was like to go to work in a mine every day. Mining was the only game in town for the young guys and the jobs were easy to get. The interview consisted of two questions: Can you pick? Can you shovel? If the answers were “Yes”, they were hired and began a life of hard work, low pay and often culminating in an early death.
A 100 mile loop drive took us to Cape d’Or on a peninsula in the middle of the Bay of Fundy. It was another rainy day but it was still very nice. The views reminded us of some places along the Oregon coast. Near Cape d’Or is the small town of Advocate Harbour. When the tide goes out, it goes far far out and boats sit on the sea bottom until the water returns. While we were there, a lost beluga whale was in the harbor area. He was making the local news but the tide was out so we didn’t see him.
Also along the Bay of Fundy coast is a place called Joggins Cliffs. It’s a fossil hunter’s paradise and has been called the “Coal Age Galapagos”. Some of the world’s oldest reptiles and other 300 million year old fossils have been found here. The rocky cliffs erode very easily so each tide of the Bay of Fundy brings new discoveries. We got there an hour before closing time and did a quick look but didn't find any dinosaurs or rodent parts. However, an expert broke a rock with his hammer and showed us a bird beak. You have to know what you're looking for and be able to recognize it. On a drizzly overcast Saturday, we took a 90 mile drive along the scenic Northumberland Shore of Nova Scotia. We stopped at a very busy farmers’ market in Tatamagouche that offered everything from arts and crafts to home-grown produce and homemade foods. We bought a bag of baby corn cobs, a bunch of fresh beets and some fudge. Very good stuff.
Fascinated by its name, Ron insisted on stopping at the small town of Pugwash at the mouth of the Pugwash River. It’s a fishing and mining village but, more importantly, it’s famous for “peace”. It was the birthplace of the first “Thinkers Conference” in 1957, hosted by philanthropist Cyrus Eaton, who was born in Pugwash. Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein and others initiated the program, which is now known as the “Pugwash Conferences.” The purpose was to bring top scientists and other thinkers together to discuss the threat to civilization by thermonuclear weapons. Since the first conference, there have been nearly 300 conferences, symposia and workshops around the world with over 10,000 in attendance. The basic Pugwash Conference is held annually. A basic rule is that those participating must represent only themselves and not a government or organization. You never know what you’ll find along the road. We found that Pugwash is much more than just a funny name.

Our destination was the small town of Pictou (Pick-toe), known as the “birthplace of New Scotland.” Yes, there’s a story behind it. In the summer of 1773, about 200 Highland Scots boarded the ship Hector at Loch Broom in Scotland in search of better lives in America. The voyage was long and hard, food was scarce, a gale blew the ship off course by two weeks and 18 children died enroute. The Hector finally arrived in Pictou on September 15, 1773 and the pioneers established the first permanent Scottish settlement in the region. Tens of thousands of Scots later arrived at the port of Pictou. Most settled in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Pictou celebrates its heritage with several festivals, including the August Hector Festival. A replica of the original ship Hector, along with a related museum is the centerpiece of the waterfront. Songs have been written about the voyage of the Hector and reenactments of the landing are held during the festival. It’s a very big deal in Pictou. Our primary purpose for being in Pictou was to attend some Hector Festival events. The day we were there, they were having a highland dance competition and an encampment was set up and occupied by the 84th Regiment. Pipe and drum bands were marching, muskets were being fired and there was lots of talk about the voyage of the Hector. We stayed late to attend a ceilidh in the evening. “Ceilidh” (pronounced kay-lee) is Gaelic for a kind of party get-together. It’s something like a hoe-down and primarily for the purpose of music, dance and a good time. A ceilidh can occur just about anywhere from a front porch to a public hall. In this case, it was a professional event held in Pictou’s deCoste Centre theater. It included songs, dancing, humor, Acadian fiddling and a pipe and drum corp consisting of nine bagpipers and five drummers. They filled the hall with the beautiful honking, screeching, droning sounds that only bagpipes can make. It was an excellent program and a perfect way to finish off our brief visit to beautiful Nova Scotia.

The weather was miserable much of the time, so we didn't see as much as we wanted to. Then again, there's always too much everywhere we go. So, we have to make the choices that are most interesting to us and let the rest go.
Nova Scotia’s primary crop is blueberries and August is harvest time. So, before leaving the Maritimes, Bonnie picked up a bunch of berries and served them up in pancakes and over ice cream.
Does life get any better than that?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

29. The Maritime Provinces - Part I

After a week of Maine rain, Mother Nature continued to dump occasional showers, interspersed with periods of sunshine, as we rolled down Highway 9 toward Canada. By the time we arrived at the border town of Calais, it was raining heavily. Narrow streets, construction and traffic made it difficult to find our way to New Brunswick. To further complicate matters, an International Day celebration was going on and traffic was being detoured around the downtown to make way for a parade. The main street was lined with people in lawn chairs in the rain, waiting for the parade to go by. We missed that photo-op.

We were prepared for anything at the border. We gave simple responses to questions about beer, guns, cigarettes, pets and our destination. They accepted our answers, confiscated Bonnie’s main weapon (pepper spray), and sent us on our way. After all the effort to get passports and other documentation together, it was a little disappointing that they ignored it all and didn’t even check our driver’s licenses or other I.D. I guess we look too much like harmless American tourists. Or, maybe it had something to do with this summer’s 60% drop in American tourism.

We crossed the border into the Atlantic time zone and continued up the New Brunswick coast. We liked the looks of the port city of Saint John and decided to stay a couple days to look around. It’s a fascinating city with lots of interesting old buildings and a nice waterfront boardwalk and city market.
Saint John is on the Bay of Fundy, which separates New Brunswick from Nova Scotia and boasts the world’s highest tides. People come from all over the world to see the Fundy tides. A popular local tourist attraction is Reversing Falls. It looked like rapids to us, but it’s a falls to them. The incoming tide rises above the water level in the Saint John River and causes the river to flow backwards over the rapids until the tide goes out again. Thus the name Reversing Falls. Watching the tides change is very gradual and somewhat like watching paint dry. But it was interesting to see a river flow in two different directions.
Saint John (pop. 70,000) became the first incorporated city in Canada in 1785. It has lots of history and many very old buildings and neighborhoods. Unfortunately, there was no indication of the type of restoration effort that was evident in cities like Charleston or Savannah. Some of the large Victorian homes have been restored and are beautiful, but it was sad to see many others in marginal condition and deteriorating but still being occupied.
The city has done some nice things around its waterfront and has a lot more work to do to realize its rehab potential.
We left Saint John on the day that three large cruise ships were scheduled to arrive. Good timing. We stopped at the first RV Park in Nova Scotia, near the town of Amherst. It was a convenient location for several day trips in different directions.

Prince Edward Island (PEI) is the smallest of Canada’s provinces. It was a true island, served only by a ferry until 1997. That’s when it was connected to the mainland by the seven-mile long Confederation Bridge over the Northumberland Strait. Building the bridge was a public/private partnership and, according to the tourist info center, the bridge will be privately owned for 35 years and the company that built it is allowed to collect tolls to recover construction costs. We paid the toll of $41.50 (round trip), which was about $20 cheaper than taking the ferry.
The island has plenty of forests, dairy farms and lots of potato fields. The coastline is picturesque with some rocky red bluffs and country two-lane roads criss-cross in all directions. The rolling terrain is very pretty but the island is fairly flat. Its highest point is only 499 ft.
Green Gables is Prince Edward Island’s main claim to fame. A series of books written by Lucy Maud Montgomery, including “Anne of Green Gables”, brought attention to the farm where she lived in Cavendish, P.E.I. and the beautiful places she described in her books. We visited her birthplace (1874) in New London and toured the Green Gables house and farm in Cavendish, which included a walk in the “haunted forest.” Although neither of us had read the “Anne” books, it was a very interesting place to visit. The scenic north coast of P.E.I. has some nice beaches and lots of bright green grass above the fragile eroding red cliffs. The red earth (iron oxide) is found throughout the island. We followed the coastline through P.E.I. National Park and small fishing villages along the way. It was a comfortable drive. The roads were decent and there wasn’t much traffic to contend with.
We stopped for a photo of the lighthouse at Rustico and came across a quaint little waterfront café and a couple excellent seafood croissant sandwiches. Note the tilted building in the photo. We saw a lot of tilted buildings of all kinds in Maine and Canada. Bad foundations maybe?
The capital of P.E.I. is Charlottetown. It’s not a large city (pop. 32,000) but has a very nice waterfront, lots of shops, restaurants, sidewalk cafes and old neighborhoods of row houses.
Some of the oldest government buildings in Canada are also in Charlottetown. One of the oldest is Province House (below) where the meetings were held and papers created that led to Canada’s confederation in 1867. The Provincial Legislature still meets in the building and many of the rooms have been restored to their 1860s character.
One of the most outstanding buildings in Charlottetown is St. Dunstan’s Basilica with its triple spires and Gothic Cross design. The Gothic structure was built mostly of local stone. The interior walls and large support columns are a light green Vermont marble. Very pretty. The main alter is also marble and is 37 feet high. This particular church has a long and difficult history, dating back to 1721. I won’t even try to describe it. In recognition of its history, St. Dunstan’s Cathedral was raised to the level of Basilica in 1929.

We couldn't pass up a tour of the city on a red double-decker bus that was brought from London in 1973. We got a front row seat on the upper level for the one-hour very slow ride through town. We saw everything from the city center to the neighborhoods, suburbs, hospital, college and shopping centers. For a city of this size, it was an excellent and thorough tour and a good way to finish off our whirlwind tour of Prince Edward Island.