23 Oct 7 Things I Learned About New England

1) The light in New England is very different than the light we get 400 miles south. New England light is low in the sky. It feels like afternoon all day long. And it makes things look gorgeous because it seems to deepen the color.

2) Everything is close together in New England. From Hartford to Boston to Providence to Portsmouth to Portland, you can drive through all of these destinations — five states — in a single day. That means you’re close to lots of cool stuff just about anywhere you go.

3) Most everything here is made of wood. Way back then, wood was abundant and easy to work with. To make their wooden houses look fancier, and more costly, builders 200 years ago fashioned the outside of the finer homes to look as though they were made of stone. This is called “rustication,” and it can be quite deceiving.

I grew up in a generation that equated New England with the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving and whitewashed churches on green town squares. That New England is here. It has a buttoned-down Ivy League flavor in part because everything (or almost everything) looks so settled. I mean old and solid and a little intimidating. In Dedham, Mass, I visited the
Fairbanks House, the oldest timber frame house in the nation: built in 1636. In Newburyport, Mass, a maritime city on the northern coast, I saw many houses almost as old. And these weren’t museums; people were living in them. In one of these houses, I dined in front of their circa 1700 hearth, which was big enough to hold a compact car. The oldest chair in that house dated to the 1500s.

By the way, no churches in this country were painted white until the 1800s, and most not until about 1850, because paint was expensive and far from perfected. The pilgrims and all those other colonial folk lived happily in unpainted houses and buildings.

4) New England is the best place to celebrate Halloween because it has the coolest — spookiest — cemeteries. Their graveyards are small and numerous and crowded with centuries-old thin-slabbed headstones.

5) People on the coast talk funny. People inland don’t. The closer you get to the water, the more the people talk a Brit version of English. The people in Vermont don’t talk funny at all.

6) “The Great North Woods” is to New England what the Upper Peninsula is to Michigan: vast and wild and not to be taken lightly. It encompasses the northernmost wilderness of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine and runs up into Quebec.

7) With the exception of a few cities, like Hartford, CT., there aren’t many people of color in New England. I don’t know that this is anybody’s fault, but for someone like me, who’s coming from a city that’s 60% African American, it’s an odd sight, seeing so many white folk.

8) Vermont is the hippie haven of New England. It boasts the only state capital that does not have a McDonald’s.

I’m now in Vermont and here are a few other things I’ve learned:

1) Vermont is the least populous state, after Wyoming. Only about 600,000 people total. Baltimore has more people than that.

2) Burlington, VT, is so diverse, there are 20 languages spoken in the city’s high school. But the state itself is about 98% white.

3) The Vermonters call outsiders “flatlanders.” The Flatlanders are buying up property for vacation homes and thus inflating real estate. This is a very expensive state to live in. Young people can’t afford it, which is why Vermont is losing population.

4) Vermont got its start as a tiny autonomous nation in 1777.

Tomorrow, Cleo and I drive to Newport, Rhode Island, where we will visit its famous fabulous mansions. I’ll be interviewing the people who oversee them, and I’m promised a private tour of the Elms and the Breakers. I am very excited about that.

We’ll end our tour with an event this weekend in Providence, at the historic Lippitt House. And that’s probably just as well because it’s getting cold here. I’ve got the van running now to heat us up before going to bed. Cleo’s wearing her new sweater, which she seems to like.

The pumpkins are out on every porch. The leaves are piled high in the yards. And my van smells of apples. I picked some from a wild tree on Peake’s Island, just off the coast of Portland, Maine. My friend, Tim, took me there. Then I bought some (organic) at the farmer’s market. I’m going to make an apple pie in the van’s kitchen tomorrow or Friday to celebrate the season. I’ll get home just in time for Halloween. Jill tells me the trees in Maryland are just now turning. So it looks like Cleo and I will get to enjoy fall all over again.