16 Jun New England Spring

Jill and I spent two weeks in New England recently. We took our custom camper van–and the dogs, of course. Jill wanted to see a really old house–since New England is the place to see really old houses–so I took her to the Fairbanks House, which is the oldest timber frame building in North America, built in 1636. She was duly impressed but also kind of freaked out about it because “it’s so dark and damp and crooked inside and I can imagine how hard it must have been to live in that house nearly 300 years ago!” We looked up the European population of America at that time: about 1,200 people. That freaked Jill out too. The pioneers, they had to be some kind of crazy to come here and live as they did, isolated in a vast wilderness.

We stopped in Marblehead, MA, for a visit with some friends and got to watch some high-end badminton, which–if you’ve never seen–is quite spectacular and takes athleticism and much skill to do well. Lightning fast reflexes help. Badminton, you should know, is an Olympic sport. The best players are Asian. To get an idea of how popular badminton is in the world, just check out this You Tube video that’s gotten over 7 million views: Crazy Badminton.

Lobster is everywhere in New England–grocery stores, roadside stands, fish shacks–and cheap. We got it more than once, the last time at a roadside place and ate it in the van. We had to use our pliers to get into it. By the way, if you’re preparing lobster yourself and have a live one, put it in the freezer first to numb it, then kill it humanely, as shown in this helpful video: How to Kill a Lobster

We drove through New Hampshire’s White Mountains, which are lovely and surprisingly wild. There was still snow on the distant peaks. We didn’t have time to go north to see the notoriously dangerous Mt. Washington, highest point in the northeast, where the weather is unpredictable and deadly year-round. Jill really wanted to see a moose. At one pint she exclaimed, “Is that a MOOSE?” It was just a fisherman in casting in a river. Actulaly, early spring is the right time of year to see a moose but all we saw were the moose warning signs. As for other wildlife: it was too cool for the black flies but the mosquitoes were numerous. However, they weren’t aggressive: they would swarm and nose around us but rarely bit. I’m not sure what that was about.

Jill made the brave and ill-advised decision to stop for Thai food in Montpelier, VT. I know, you don’t buy Asian food in Vermont, especially when it’s made by a non-Asian cook. I was more than skeptical. But it was great food! I mean, truly memorable and reasonably priced. Vermont is a foody state and Burlington, its hipster hotspot, is a foody town. We hung out with the Preservation Burlington folk and ate well. Oh, and here’s a shout-out to Chris and Sara, a rabbit loving couple we look forward to seeing again.

We’re always looking for cool historic houses to visit. Jill picked out Shelburne Farms, just south of Burlington. It’s a circa 1900 estate that has some similarities to North Carolina’s Biltmore insofar as it was a wholly self-sustained community built around one wealthy man’s vision. The barns and outbuildings are spectacular. The mansion itself is, by comparison, understated but grand nonetheless. We had a very good brunch in the house and bought some of the farm-made cheese at the gift shop.

Once we crossed into New York (I know, this isn’t New England) Jill was determined to find one of the historic vacation camps in the Adirondacks. These “camps” were resorts created by the wealthy circa 1900-1920. We set our sights on a National Historic Landmark: Great Camp Sagamore. But it wasn’t east to find because there was virtually no signage for the place and it was four miles down a dirt road, off a two-lane blacktop. When we got there, we found it not yet open for the season. We were surprised to learn that it’s a very popular place, booked solid through the summer. We talked to the groundskeeper, a flinty mountain-man with a gray-stubbled face and a battered hat. He spoke through a cloud of black flies and didn’t raise a finger to bat them away–unlike us.

As part of my Preservation America project, we stopped in Rhinebeck, NY, so that I could interview the director of Wilderstein, one of our favorite historic mansions. It’s a high Victorian frame house with a grand tower and elegant wrap-around porch that overlooks the Hudson. It was the home of Daisy Suckley, FDR’s cousin and good friend–you may remember the recent movie made about her, “Hyde Park on the Hudson.”

By the time we got home, the van was as crowded as it could ever be: not only were there two dogs in the back but also a cool Arts & Crafts fire screen that Jill had found in a Maine antiques shop, as well as a painting and a rug we got at a flea market, a box of craft stuff and a bag of vintage clothes from a yard sale, a 1960s boat compass, assorted thrift store finds (including a new Marblehead baseball cap and a William Morris necktie), and a box of leftover pizza. Next year, I tell Jill, we’re going to Texas. Lord knows what we’ll bring back from that trip.

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