Adventures in New England
Camille and I met up in New York, swanned around the East Village and sauntered through Brooklyn. We went to some museums, sat in some cafes. We lived the good life. We got plump. We took it easy.
Slowly, through the haze of coffee and cocktails, a realisation came to dawn on us. New York is an island, unique and distinct. New York is New York, but it ain't America. Beyond the city limits, there's a whole country to get to grips with. Out there, they ain't even heard of the Big Apple.
The Appalachian Trail runs over 2000 miles up the eastern side of the United States, stretching from Springer Mountain in Georgia to the imposing Mount Katahdin in Maine. It's the oldest hiking trail in the States and the most renowned. Where better to start our American adventure? So we cherry-pick one of its finest stretches. We decide to spend five days in the forest coated valleys and mountains of Vermont. Yes Bill Bryson, we're going for our own walk in the woods.
We're going to explore New England - drink a cup of Joe and eat a slice of pie from the country store, go to a drive-in movie and dive into a crisp mountain lake. We'll conquer Mount Washington, cross ourselves a covered bridge, and marvel at the colonial gambrel-roofed clapboard houses, all with Old Glory fluttering outside.
We are definitely going to watch out for bears.
We are going to 'do' America.
We depart Brooklyn far far too late in the afternoon. Muggy New York City has got into our blood and our preparations for the adventure can't be spurred to urgency. We get on the subway heading in the wrong direction, Grand Central slipping further to the west. We cop strange looks from the other passengers as we clutch our huge packs covered in camping paraphernalia, burrowing deeper into the city.
Finally we get out to the suburbs and, pizza box sign in hand, stand at the on-ramp to the I-95 ready to chance our arm On The Road. And what an arm it is! After my travails as a solo hitcher in this country, our boy/girl charm has stirred some magic in the drivers passing us. They can't stop stopping. Two quick lifts carry us to the edge of New Haven in Connecticut where in the dusk a stream of concerned New Englanders pull over and we turn down five (yes, five) offers of a lift to Boston. We're waiting on someone heading more directly north. Soon a trucker waves us into his cab and we're heading for Massachusetts.
Ray is hard to understand; I translate for Camille who hasn't had as much time to adapt to the drawl. He directs all his conversation to her as though I'm not there. We pass a tourist attraction called Dinosaur World. Camille asks what it is, and Ray tells us that dinosaurs are creatures from the olden days like alligators, but he thinks they don't exist any more – they don't have any living ones there at the park, anyway.
He takes us, or Camille at least, under his wing. When he parks up for the night near his home we transfer from cab to car. Ray tells his wife about the 'pretty girl' he picked up and refers to us as 'her'. They drive her miles out of their way, refusing to leave her in the dark near Hartford for fear of what would happen to her in that scary urban jungle. Finally dropped in the safety of a small town, we spend the night 30 miles south of the Vermont border. The sound of motorway traffic washes us to sleep.
The next day more easy hitching and quick lifts. Camille leaves her hat and purse in one car; money, cards and all. We only realise as we clamber into the next one, a moment of angst and panic. The previous driver, having taken a shine to us, had thrust his card at Camille as we alighted and half an hour later is back. We had managed to buy him a present as a thank you and he, in turn, implores us to spend the weekend with him exploring the local battlegrounds of the war of independence. Affronted, we refuse.
It's an open top Buick '65 that takes us to the trailhead, wind whipping our hair around us as the petrol guzzling monster glides round the curves and up over the hills of southern Vermont. We clamber over the side of our ride and, in the bright sunshine of an early afternoon, our Appalachian adventure begins.
The trail's steep climbs give way to gentle meanders along undulating ridges. We dip down into valleys where streams have been reduced to a trickle this dry summer. We walk under the trees, thankfully shaded from the burning sun. Visibility is restricted to that point where the green leaves and grey bark merge into a flat curtain of colour, a wall that moves closer as the undergrowth thickens and recedes where the trees grow larger. The odd lookout reveals the hills fading away in the haze, each a paler form than the one before, all softened by the unbroken forest that stretches to the horizon. It is unlike anything it's possible to see in Britain.
We get to the top of Glastenbury Mountain on our second day. It is the first mountain Camille has ever climbed and we celebrate by eating lunch up the fire watchtower on its peak. A blessed breeze and 360 degree views are a wonderful reward, fresh cold spring water in our bottles.
As we go the odd through hiker overtakes us, people going end to end, toughened by months of walking and accustomed to travelling up to 30 miles a day. We are not the fastest walkers on the trail, but we are, perhaps, the people with the heaviest packs. At the shelter we camp by on our second night another hiker exclaims “Are those fresh vegetables?” in amazement, and an older walker patiently explains to him “They ain't doin it how we do it” pauses, and then adds “I like that.” Thanks old man.
We're carrying almost 4 litres of water each, fresh food for 4 days and scraped together camping equipment; a normal sauce pan, cheap tent, heavy mat. In all, my pack weighs over 45 pounds. The through hikers packs are half that; sometimes less. They eat dried food, fill water at every stream to cut down on weight and spend each night in a shelter where you only need a sleeping bag. We are taught the mantra 'every ounce counts' as they marvel at our loads.
We'd planned to hitch into a town and re-provision on day three. The map clearly shows a road that intersects the trail 23 miles from where we'd joined it, the first sign of human life this stretch of the trail acknowledges. It had been beautiful and rewarding, but the walking hadn't been easy - there were blisters, sore shoulders and uncomfortable bruises – the aches and pains of bodies not accustomed to whole days in the woods putting foot in front of foot. So, in light rain, we pushed on for the road, putting aside the tenderness of our heels and fantasising aloud about getting a pizza and grabbing a shower. This trip into a town became a motivator, a goal, and a fixation.
The problem is the road isn't a road. More of a gravelled logging track. With a distinct lack of traffic.
The point at which the trail crossed the track was the site for what became known as 'The Big One'. The first and only moment of cross words between us. I will be frank: things were said that shouldn't have been said. Things that might take a little time to be forgotten. Some of the words used, to give you a sense of the occasion, were 'idiot', 'stupid map', 'Into the Wild', 'over-reaction', 'Machiavellian', 'poisonous berries', and 'don't blame me'.
As the rain set in more intently, it became obvious we were going to have to cross Stratton Mountain and go another 17 miles before we would find solace and comfort outside what we carried on us, outside what we had in our packs and in our hearts.
In the rain splashed forest, the tent surpassed our expectations. We woke to see a blue sky and find our bags had stayed dry. Hardened by three days on the trail we pulled on our boots, resolute in our decision to continue. We ascended Stratton Mountain, almost a thousand feet taller than Glastenbury Mountain, before lunch. We washed our clothes and bodies in a stream, swam in a pristine lake and clocked our longest days hiking at about 12 miles.
And that night, we got our trail names. For a while it had been confusing me that people signed the guestbooks in each shelter with names like 'Lazer' and 'Caveman' rather than Sarah or Jim. When we settled down for the night at the William B Douglas shelter along with three other hikers, it was explained to us that on starting the trail you take a name that stays with you the whole route. Other walkers come to know you by it; it is your hiking identity.
We were invited to choose our names. My initial suggestion of 'Killer' didn't quite get the laugh I was hoping. It went down like a lead balloon out here in the middle of nowhere with people we hardly knew. So instead we became C-Bomb and K-Unit. Yes, you heard it here first. We rocked it. What was amazing was that the others started to call us by them straight away, although I didn't always remember to respond.
The next day was our last on the trail. We sloped the few miles down the hill towards Manchester, caught a ride into town and almost before we knew it were back in civilisation.
Fed, watered and restored, we took stock. We decided to expand our horizons, to hire a car. We went on a road trip. That's about as American as you can get, innit?
From the Green Mountains of Vermont we headed to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, wasting no opportunity en route to stop at a diner. Beautiful lakes dot the hills and crisp streams tumble over little falls. We stopped and swam often, the water sharp but not too cold, the air perfect for drying off. As you climb, the deciduous trees give way to evergreens and finally on the high Presidential range the trees cede to rocky outcrops, moss and grasses.
We cooked over a campfire. They have a law, posted up around trailheads and car parks, that makes it illegal to leave any food outside a locked vehicle to try and deter bears from scavenging round human habitations. Campers are obliged to hang supplies at least ten feet above the ground and 4 feet along a tree branch that could not support the weight of a bear.
By day we drove through villages with English place names, churches and a general store huddled round a cross roads. We went on a few day hikes down gorges and up hills. At night we camped by the side of remote roads in thick pine forests sloping up from the valley bottoms. It was all a bit Twin Peaks, and a pilgrimmage would have been in order if only Twede's was not 2000 miles away in Oregon. In the dark, with the silence and mist, I got to thinking the owls were not what they seem. Once we woke in the middle of the night, scared that 'it was happening again.' In tense silence we listened to the footfalls of a creature outside the tent, but each time I turned on the torch and peered out, nothing was there.
As we packed up our camp in the morning a dishevelled man, around thirty, cycled into the little clearing on a battered mountain bike. Camille said good morning to him. He turned and stared right through her. We packed fast, and he continued to watch us while fiddling with something in his backpack. I asked him “How's it going?” and again the stare, unblinking, penetrating, and no words. The skin on the back of my neck crawled; I felt a malignant energy as though from a coiled snake, cold and lidless. Both of us unsettled, we bundled the last things into the car. Just as we shut the door he suddenly turned his attention to us, fixed a broad false toothfilled smile on his previously blank face and, starting towards us, made a mechanical gesture with his right thumb as though asking for a lighter. Did he mutter “Fire walk with me”?
We fled. The sense of physical disquiet he stirred was unlike anything I've felt before, and over the course of the day we kept coming back to the incident, trying to unpick what had been so unsettling, to rationalise it away. By the evening there was only one answer that made sense. It was Bob.
We put a hundred miles between us and camped near the base of Mount Washington, the highest peak on the eastern seaboard. In the morning we scaled its heights via the auto-trail. This is, ultimately, a fancy name for a road. There's a cog railway to the summit too, but it was a bit steep. Over sixty dollars each for a ticket. Incredible views of the mountains around us were marred only by the massive car park and numerous gift shops. Undeterred, we joined the surreal scramble to get a photo snapped at the summit, surrounded by our fellow drivers.
I'd been eulogising the drive-in movie theatre, that quintessential American experience. So many people we talked to said they had all closed down, land sold to Walmart or put out of business by the year-round multiplexes. Well not in Fairlee, Vermont. We navigated our way there and I loved it that the show simply started 'at dusk'. We got into position early, pulling into a sloped slot with a cabled speaker you could hang over the window. Other vehicles started to arrive, people setting up comfy beds on the back of their trucks or lying on their bonnets. Friends chatted through car windows and kids ran excitedly round and round. As it got dark the projector whirled to life and The Dark Night Rises sprang onto the huge screen. We were only slightly worried about copycat murders following the shootings in Colorado. Sat in the front seats of the car watching the movie through the windscreen transported me to the 60s, to Danny getting fresh with Sandy, to all those images of this American car culture phenomenon we never have replicated in old Europe. As we flicked the headlights on at midnight and headed to find a spot to camp, I felt like I was in a coming of age movie, kids with petrol to burn but nowhere to go.
Each State has a slogan on it's license plate that range from the obtuse to the ridiculous. While Vermont's is the gentle 'Green Mountain State' New Hampshire has opted for 'Live Free or Die' which made us laugh every time we read it.
And so we drove back past distinctive farmhouses with their old wooden barns and horses grazing in fields, past country stores down snaking mountain roads. We passed a thousand American flags fluttering from porches, on poles in the garden, on lampposts in small towns. So our roadtrip drew to a close.
Thumbs out again, we were borne smoothly as far as Connecticut. The people of Vermont and New Hampshire had been unfailingly kind, hospitable and trusting; warm and ready in their help and advice and so quick to stop and give us a ride. It was on the outskirts of the dreaded Hartford we finally came up against the hitchhiking wall. We waited four hours but people only stopped to try and give us money, astonished at the idea we might need a ride rather than cash. One woman walked across the car park to inform us we were in 'Bumfuck Nowheresville' and stood as much chance of getting out of there as we did getting to the moon. As darkness fell we finally got a ride into the city with a tea party activist and his wife. She refused to make eye contact and, completely audibly, kept saying “They could kill us, they could kill us, what are you doing? What are you doing?” to her husband as he ushered us into their four by four. Camille and I were thankful for patriarchy as he calmly overruled or entirely disregarded her concerns. I offered reassurances we weren't scheming killers and soon they were talking Tea Party, anti-abortionism and anarcho-capitalism. As we left the car wifey suggested we might have been angels sent to test her faith or her charity.
We bought our bus tickets for NYC and then emerged from the station to look for food. The various dire warnings we'd had about Hartford were contradicted as we sat in the park opposite eating yummy tofu curry and taking in the cities huge free jazz festival surrounded by families with picnics and foldout chairs.
The bus bore us back to Manhattan, to the end of our time together. In the morning I headed for Montreal, Camille for London. America barely knew we'd been there. We, however, had had a good ole glimpse at one tiny bit of this huge country, and got a taste of life in the woods.