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 cafĂ© 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.