Sea Stories

We hit the ground running from Rochester to Rockport, Massachusetts, where we are meeting my parents and my brother and sister-in-law and their three kids for a trip that Mom and Dad have given us for Christmas. Mom has been going to Rockport for painting workshops since the early 1980’s. My only impression of it is a watercolor she made of Motif No. 1, the iconic red lobster shack that overlooks the harbor, an image of paradoxically enduring fragility. Rockport is a special place for my mother, and it doesn’t take us an hour to figure out why. It has attracted artists like mom for years for good reason: the light is other-worldly, a particular manifestation of that maritime light that seems to bring out the essences of things.

Setting out on them high seas
Feels just like being born

By the time we drive up Yankee Division Highway onto Cape Ann, Sturgill Simpson is on the main deck, but I am starting to hear another voice from the deep, hauntingly encircling the Landcraft: Herman Melville. I recall indistinctly the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick, about how the sea holds both unfathomable mystery, terror, and solace all at once.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an underhand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feeling towards the ocean with me.”

Rereading these lines not a hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean, I am struck by how much darker they are than I remember. I’ve taught Moby-Dick several times, but in trying to read it like a professor, I missed so much: the existential urgency, the grim despair and near-suicidal impulses that only the encounter with the sea can draw down. I don’t share Ishmael’s chronic despair, necessarily, but in this spot especially, I understand what he means. An experience at the shoreline is not just a witness of something sublime and majestic; it is a confrontation–with eternity, with death, with nothingness, with oneself. The sea is, Melville writes, “the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

As I’m standing exposed to the winds at the sea’s edge, suddenly this doesn’t feel so academic anymore.

Nor do other voices that once felt so safe in the classroom. T S Eliot spent summers in Gloucester as a boy, and he titled the third of his Four Quartets after a rock formation just offshore of Rockport called The Dry Salvages. The poem is shaped by the region far more than I realized, and reading it with these very rocks just over my shoulder, it hits me the same way Melville does.

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity

The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.

Rockport is just north of Gloucester, the first seaport in the country, and long a storied terminus for countless successful fishing expeditions and almost as many failed ones. Gloucester was the final landfall for thousands of men who left looking for a big score—cod, swordfish, lobster—and never returned. In Gloucester, mom points out to me a “widow’s walk” that she painted thirty years ago, and I realize it’s not just a metaphor. Anticipation is written into the cityscape of Gloucester, in its architecture of grief, of expectation, of hope against hope. Maybe nowhere so poignantly as atop Our Lady of Good Hope, a Catholic parish built by Portuguese fisherman in 1892. In between two blue-capped spires, a statue of the Virgin Mary looks out over the harbor. In the crook of her left arm she cradles a fishing boat like her own little boy.

Closer to shore, along South Stacy Boulevard, a wind-beaten fisherman at helm looks out in a similar way. The centerpiece of a haunting memorial to the lost fishermen of Gloucester, “The Man at the Wheel” is suspiciously reminiscent of the logo for Gloucester-based Gorton’s Seafood, a stark reminder of the price really paid for fish sticks. The pedestal beneath him is inscribed with a passage from Psalm 107: “They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships,” and around him a series of bronze plaques record the names of over 5,000 fishermen who were lost at sea. The real figure is probably twice that.

It is staggering.

Later, on Old Garden Beach in Rockport, my boys play with their cousins on one of Eliot’s “losses:” a fragment of blue foam washed up on the beach, which they repurpose into a sailing vessel or boogie board. They clamber up the rocks, and to each of the mounds of granite reaching into the sea they give a name: Mount Henry, Candler Peak, Mount Marion, Port Charles, Mount Wannahockaloogie.

They do not know Melville or Eliot—or Sturgill, really—but they seem to intuitively sense what each of them—and all of us—feel. An urge to give our own names to things, a desire to secure ourselves fast to solid rock against the vast, forgetful depths. A wish to be remembered, to play at the edge of time.

 

 

 

Two Ways to Overdose on Sturgill Simpson

On the same weekend as our unexpected encounter with purple martins on the White River, my close friends from college are gathering for an annual get-together on Lake Murray in South Carolina. While I am off the grid in Vermont, they will be taking a sunset boat ride to an island in the middle of the lake where a huge colony of purple martins will come home to roost.

Chris is texting me from his Gamecocks folding chair, while the others are standing around the corn hole pitch, beer in one hand and bean bag in the other, or just watching the action. Chris tells me they’re just hanging out, listening to music. I ask him what, but I don’t need to. It’s the same soundtrack as the last time I was able to attend Lake Weekend, two years ago: Sturgill Simpson. As a gesture of long-distance camaraderie, I call up Sturgill on iTunes in Vermont. In a rare moment of cellular access, I can get one song to download.

For the next week, “Sea Stories” is the only song I can listen to on my phone. I play it hundreds of times, trying to get these lines down:

Well now you hit the ground running in Tokyo
From Kawasaki to Ebisu
Yokosuka, Yokohama, and Shinjuku
Shibuya, Ropongi, and Harajuku
Aw, from Pusan and Ko Chang, Pattaya to Phuket
From Singapore to Kuala Lumpur

By the end of the week I have almost got it, and have driven my family nuts listening to the same damn song over and over and over again.

“Noooooooooooooo!!” Henry calls from the back seat at the sound of the nautical bell that opens the tune.

We don’t make it far enough into the song for me to remind Oliver that “Dam Neck” is just a place and not a dirty word. It wouldn’t make any difference to him; he’d bleep it out anyway.

Sturgill is singing about shipping out on a US Navy frigate to Japan, but I feel his pain when he says “my life’s no longer mine.”

Over the Bent World Broods

It’s pouring rain on the day Charlie decides to sit out Suzuki violin camp. He could have picked a better day to play hooky, but there’s no staying put. Mama is not going to allow that. As we drop her and Henry off, she suggests we go for a hike. I bristle, and make that face that makes her want to punch me.

It’s not really a great day for hiking, I say, and as the words are coming out of my mouth I already regret them.

It’s no longer raining when we pull off at the Riverbend site off of VT 100, but the weeds—or “native flora”—are laden with rainwater, bowing into the overgrown trail that hasn’t been used in a while. They are over George’s head, and Oliver’s too, in places. By the time we reach the eponymous bend in the White River, we are all soaked to the skin. George, as usual, is begging to get buck naked, but he becomes distracted by a stick, and stays clothed.

According to the seventh-century theologian St. Maximus the Confessor, human beings possess two forms of will: a natural will (which inclines us to our natural ends, like eating when we are hungry), and a “gnomic” will (which makes us deliberate about means to ends). Natural wills do not hesitate, but gnomic wills do. If you pause to consider before acting in a way that you know is good, then that’s your gnomic will working. This is why, Maximus says, Jesus did not possess a gnomic will: he obeyed the will of the Father without hesitation. I don’t grasp all of this well enough to explain it to anyone, but whatever Maximus is on about, I realize one thing after the Riverbend hike to the White River.

Jesus may not have had a gnomic will, but I sure as hell do.

I’m not worried that I don’t completely understand the concept, because I don’t completely understand myself. I did not hesitate to concoct a 4000-mile road trip with four small children, but I hesitate to go on a short hike in the rain. I never said to myself, “but it might rain,” when thinking about the close-quarters marathon adventure. But when presented with a minor and not very arduous quarter-mile walk with three kids into the dense, wet brush, I hesitate, and come up with all sorts of dumb reasons why it isn’t a good idea.

It could be that I am just lazy, or irrational, or some perverse resistance to ideas that are not my own.

Like the soggy hike to the river, which is one of the best things I do in Vermont.

When we arrive to the river’s edge, there is a small sandy bank where George promptly begins beating the water with his new-found stick. On a tiny island of sand, Charlie starts construction on earthworks to dam up the flow of the river. Oliver takes to swordplay, finding long branches to poke into the sand straight up, then whacks them down with another stick. This is a perfect spot to wade in with a fly rod, but that did not make the trip. I perch on the edge of the bank a few yards up, and look.

The White River arcs away to the right behind us, beyond which a smoky mist broods over the Green Mountains. Purple martins fly in low from upstream, just above the water’s surface, foraging for flying insects. Their calls echo the sound of the river itself: bubbling, gurgling, joyful. From this particular spot, they rebound strangely from the concave hill behind them and sound as though they are calling through a pipe.

It is magical.

On the walk back to the Landcraft, we get drenched again, and I have only one regret: hesitating.

 

“Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time,” or something

It’s over 900 miles from Hull to Asheville. According to the GPS, this will take us approximately fourteen hours. Piled into the Landcraft just shy of lunchtime, we are ready for it.

The boys are urging me to drive the whole way. We won’t get in until 2:00 am, I tell them, but this hardly registers with the creatures in the back who have no sense of time. But turning south on to Nantasket Avenue, I tell myself—and Meredith—that we can totally do this. We have been on the road for five weeks, and we are ready to get home.

I set the bar too high for this trip. I planned it as if I were traveling with Meredith alone, and not with four children whose bowel movements sometimes define the itinerary. Early on, I had to temper expectations, align them more with the reality of riding with people whose interest in architectural and historical milestones does not always match my own obsessions.

And on the last day, I am true to form, setting the bar too high. One half of me is completely convinced that if we hunker down and power through, we can make it to Asheville by early morning. The other half is the rational one.

When we pull over in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for dinner, it’s clear we’re not going to make it to Asheville tonight. Not by a long shot.

It is dusk when we find a curbside parking spot that does not require a two- or more point maneuver or the use of the reverse gear that led to an almost near-miss in Tarrytown, NY. (The tire of my bike grazed his fender. No blood, no foul.)

Thanks to Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown” and Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” I expect this former epicenter of American steel production to be a hell hole of urban despair and blight, a decaying ghost town haunted by specters of soot-coated, out-of-work men of steel crushed by hardship and oblivion.

My sweet Jenny, I’m sinkin’ down
Here darlin’ in Youngstown 

King Steel is long-deposed from Bethlehem. Gigantic, sprawling brick and steel factories hulk silently by the railway lines, but the broad main avenues of town are lively with foot traffic, men and women gussied up for dinner and/or a drink. Across the Lehigh River, the Bethlehem Star—avatar of Bethlehem’s biblical namesake, its Moravian founding, and the steelworkers who built it—shines atop South Mountain. Apparently Bethlehem is going through a bit of a revival, which I might know if I were the type of person who reads Money Magazine. According to Money, Bethlehem is in the top 100 American cities to live in.

There’s something surreal about it all–a particularly American form of surreality in which life emerges amidst the dead wastes of outsourced industries. Think Detroit or the Mississippi Delta. Cars and cotton. They used to be the engines of the American economy, but when jobs went elsewhere, so did the life of those places. As with the Delta, life (of a sort) has returned to Bethlehem thanks to a strange patron.

The slot machine.

Approaching Bethlehem on East 4th Street north of I-78, it’s hard to miss what looks at first like a huge steel truss bridge suspended in mid-air. It appears to go to and from nowhere. Emblazoned on its middle, the over-sized red logo of Sands Casino. Turns out it’s a crane, not a bridge, but still serving a purpose for which it was not made.

Perhaps this is consistent with the state of our politics now, but it’s still worth thinking it odd how much small-town, rural America is increasingly becoming a series of outposts of Las Vegas.

I’m not the only one in Bethlehem setting the bar too high. People used to come to Bethlehem to pluck iron ore from the hills; now they come looking for gold.

WHERE THE WITCHES AT!?

I really wanted to love Salem.

We’ve rolled into town fresh off a children’s book about famed local architect, Samuel McIntire, which Meredith found by accident at a used bookshop in Vermont. We are eager to see some McIntires. I come prepared to love the town that produced Nathaniel Hawthorne. 

But at the corner of Essex and Washington Streets, my blossoming imaginary love affair with Salem comes crashing down faster than you can twitch your nose.

 

First, let’s back up.

Some years ago, during a meeting of the Salem Chamber of Commerce, one of the Chamber members expressed concern that tourist dollars were on the decline. How, he asked the session, are we going to bring money back into this town?

“Hawthorne used to be a big draw, you know,” one member said, “but nobody reads him anymore. Hell, nobody reads anybody anymore.”

“There’s only so much financial mileage,” another said, “you can get out of The House of the Seven Gables. It’s been good to us, but I think we need a new angle.”

[Pensive silence, punctuated by occasional Dunkin’ Donut chewing and slurps of Dunkin’ Decaf.]

“What about a new angle that’s not a new angle?” asks the newest member of the Chamber,  who campaigned on a “fresh air” theme.

“I’m not following you. What are you talking about, new guy?”

“Look. Let’s be honest. People come to Salem for one thing. Let me give you an example. I was walking through the Museum Place parking lot not half an hour ago, to this very meeting in fact, and a group of folks from New Hampshire pull up in a big van. Ford Econoline, I think. Anyway they slide the big side door open and spill out all into the parking lot. They’re looking all around going, “WHERE THE WITCHES AT!?”

“So what’s your point?”

“People want witches. So give ’em witches.”

OK, fine: none of that ever happened. But it could have. It would explain why Salem in 2017 does not at all resemble the Salem of the 1937 WPA Guide to Massachusetts.

This is one of the risks you take when you use a WPA Guide as your benchmark: often it can be a reminder of what a city once was, but is no longer.    It can function less as a travel guide than as a catalog of loss. The WPA Guide calls Salem “New England’s Treasure House.” Its description of the town foregrounds its former most famous son, Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Here are the haunting shades…of every character Hawthorne created, of his old houses impregnated with supernatural influences, and of the eerie atmosphere that still lingers in the narrow streets which the master of delicate implications frequented.”

Today, that is not the dominant impression. Salem reminds me of the City of London: a historically important center of culture and commerce bombed-out and later rebuilt during an epidemic of enthusiasm for poured concrete, a few architectural diamonds remaining in the rough. Salem today feels more like what might happen if an 80’s concrete car park married a New Urbanist outdoor mall, and held the ceremony inside one of those gigantic temporary tents set up to hawk Halloween costumes. It is not uncommon to see women (and men) dressed in Wizard of Oz-grade witch outfits milling about. It’s possible they are members of the Chamber of Commerce. I passed one on Essex Street once, and then twice, and then three times, as he went back and forth along the sidewalk as if he wasn’t sure where or who he was supposed to be.

That’s Salem today: even the witches don’t know where they’re going. They’re bloody everywhere, though. Every other shop is witch-themed, but for all that there is none of the spooky menace or eerie exoticism of the WPA Guide’s description. It’s all terrifically tepid, a brilliant example of the quintessentially American capacity to turn historical tragedy into tabloid triviality.

So at the corner of Essex and Washington, tourists are preening and posing for photos next to a bronze statue of Samantha, the adorably benign character from Bewitched. My heart sinks.

But I can imagine how that conversation went down in Chamber.

“So we need a mascot. Somebody everyone loves.”

“Are we still talking about witches?”

“Yes, keep up! We need a lovable one. What witches do we know, Herman?”

Herman scrolls through the Rolodex, turns up nothing. “Well there’s that one from that TV show. She’s just a doll!”

“Is she from Salem?”

“Well, no, I don’t think so–”

“Who cares! She’s a witch, Herman! We’re a witch town, she’s a witch, it makes perfect sense!”

An exhibit about ocean liners at the Peabody Essex Museum is a refreshing reprieve from the relentless witch-o-rama outside. It’s also an opportunity to tell my kids that I once had bunk beds from the SS United States, which still holds the record for the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic. I don’t know if my boys are impressed by this or not, but it almost feels like I did something cool once.

After we exit through the automatic doors George is obsessed with, the museum closes down behind us. We load up the Landcraft and leave Salem without seeing a single McIntire.

 

The World is Always New

It all started with John Smith.

America, yeah, but also our hare-brained international road trip with four boys and an expanding load in the cargo hold.

Jamestown was our first stop, over a month ago. We left Asheville in late June for the Outer Banks, to spend a week with Meredith’s family twenty miles or so from where the English first attempted to establish a colony in the new world. With a high-pressure charter from Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh led an expedition to North America, which landed on Roanoke Island in the summer of 1585, the same year William Shakespeare began his acting career. There were 117 of them then.

Five years later, every last one of them had disappeared.

En route to the Outer Banks, we made a slight detour north from Durham on I-85, eventually landing outside of Jamestown in the vast, faux-colonial metroplex of suburban Williamsburg, where everything there is designed to match the über-retro red-brick-and-dentil-moulding vibe of the place, and go with the non-non-conformist spirit of the age. One plus is that you can imagine  yourself as an eighteenth century-surgeon as you swagger into the colonial–themed CVS in search of tweezers to extract a twenty-first century hex-nut from your two-year-old’s nose without the use of anesthetic. Cosplay breeches optional.

Before we left Asheville, Meredith and I watched Terrence Malick’s beautiful, underrated 2005 film about the Jamestown settlement, The New World, because as parents you get to watch movies as “research” and then tell your children that it’s much more virtuous to read old books instead and that watching movies is for lazy, soft-brained miscreants who have no future and who will bring down civilization with their slothful indolence.

Meanwhile, the boys had been reading all about Smith and John Rolfe, Pocahontas and Powhatan, and the first English settlement to stick. As I navigated the Landcraft up US 13 along the Delmarva Peninsula, Meredith sat wedged between two children on the third row, reading from Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s Pocahontas.

Since then, we have driven almost 3,000 miles, and ended up in Hull, Massachusetts, the last stop on our big journey before we begin the re-entry procedure on Thursday. Hull is the northern terminus of the Nantasket Peninsula, an abortive strip of sand insinuating itself into the southern rim of Boston Harbor. It is reminiscent of the Outer Banks where we began: sound on one side, ocean on the other, and not a mile’s breadth of land in between. The culture in both places partakes of the universal flip-flops-and-cut-offs spirit of beach towns, where bad puns about venereal disease feature prominently in the names of seafood restaurants.

Hull, where we have ended up for no reason other than the price of a house big enough to accommodate my large and loud entourage, is named for the great university town in England (or, if you don’t catch that reference, see Blackadder Goes Forth, episode five: “General Hospital”). Having just come off an amazing week with my family in Rockport, Hull does not exactly radiate glamour.

But the couple who live here permanently on the ground floor of the house we’re staying in fell in love with it a few years ago and stayed. The beach is not Santa Monica, but it’s twenty minutes by ferry from the middle of Boston, and it’s a beach.

The next town over, Hingham, is home to the oldest continuously used church in America. The Old Ship Church was built by actual Puritans in 1682 but today is used by actual Unitarians, which, I am confident, would really piss off the Calvinists who built the place. But there we are. You can’t plan these things, and in the spirit of ye olde Massachusetts “transcendental metaphysics and catchpenny opportunism,” better for a church to be used as a church than a carpet warehouse.

Old Ship was built with the help of Samuel Lincoln, who came here in 1637 and promptly put down some serious roots. At an intersection near the center of town is a monument to his much more famous great-great-great-great grandson, Abraham. He is seated in a characteristically pensive pose, thinking perhaps about the unfathomably fragile contingency of history, about the weird way that without Hingham, Massachusetts, American history would look a lot different.

A few miles southeast of us is a coastal hamlet called Cohasset.  An old friend of mine, a Jesuit priest, tells me it’s one of his favorite seaside towns. He tells me that the Jesuits have a retreat house there. And it turns out to be—unsurprisingly—the swankest place in the neighborhood.

But Cohasset also turns out to have another connection. Its colonial history goes back before Plymouth, to 1614, when it was “discovered” by an English explorer with some experience in the new world.

His name: John Smith.

 

 

Shoes? Where we’re going we don’t need shoes

“Everywhere you see a sign that says ‘Public Footpath,’” our highly engaged neighbor on the east side of the street in Rockport, Massachusetts informs me, “that means it is a…”

“Public Footpath?” I say.

She seems surprised by my mental quickness.

“The ocean is that way,” she says, pointing to the gigantic blue mass on the horizon that could not be mistaken for anything else, except maybe a very, very large lake.

I do not know if it is the expression on my face or my mellifluous Georgia accent, but something in my bearing seems to say to New Englanders, “PLEASE HELP ME I AM AN IGNORANT SOUTHERNER.”

I’m not the only one.

“We are just going to walk down to the beach,” Meredith says.

“It’s that way,” our neighbor says, pointing redundantly in the direction of the big blue thing.

She helpfully informs us that there are two alternative approaches to the beach: one via the aforementioned Public Footpath, down a flight of wooden stairs, and over a stretch of slippery boulders. The other, via the road and then down a gentle concrete ramp which will deposit you directly onto the sand.

East Wind, as I am calling her, recommends the latter for its convenience, but she has not met my boys, who are chronically averse to convenience and happen to love boulders.

The boys are in the middle of the street, barefoot.

“They are going to need shoes,” she volunteers. “That pavement is going to be hot.”

“Oh,” Meredith says. “They’re homeschooled. They’re not familiar with ‘shoes.’”

The opening essay in the WPA Guide to Vermont is entitled “Vermonters,” by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. “We gather from what we read in books and newspapers and liberal magazines that life in intensively industrialized States is very different from ours,” she writes. The essay is a cheerfully defiant self-defense of the apparently bass-ackwards ways of natives of the Green Mountain State. The effect of the essay is basically this: “The way you people do things in your big, fancy-pants states with plumbing and electricity is not the way we do things up here, OK, so don’t judge us, and while you’re at it, just leave us alone. Our state bird is the hermit thrush for a reason, you know.” It’s charming, even admirable, and not unhelpful as preparation for the response Meredith gets from the waitress at the one café in Rochester.

She is asking about pies.

“We have apple, watermelon something, and maple cream,” the waitress says.

“Well, we are heading to Massachusetts and were thinking of taking a pie down there to our family. Which one do you think would travel best?”

“They have bakeries in Massachusetts,” she says.

East Wind reappears later, on the beach that she knows how to get to. Beneath the fabled New England gruffness, she turns out to be lovely, kind, interested.

The WPA Guide to Massachusetts, like the one for Vermont, also has an opening chapter explaining the locals. It begins:

“To the seeker of a clue to the character of Massachusetts people, the rubric of the east wind may be useful. Time and again a salty breeze has blown through this most conservative of commonwealths.”

It continues:

“Many symbols have been devised to explain the Bay Stater. He has been pictured as a kind of dormant volcano, the red-hot lava from one eruption hardening into a crater which impedes the next; as a river, with two main currents of transcendental metaphysics and catchpenny opportunism running side by side; as an asocial discord consisting mainly of overtones and undertones; as a petrified backbone, ‘that unblossoming stalk.’”

I don’t know about all that.

But I am sure that the best way to know a people is not through books.

 

When in Vermont, go green. As in puke green.

When you drive over two thousand miles in a landcraft with six people, it is inevitable: eventually, someone is going to barf.

My turn came early on, a near-miss in Stanbridge, when I spent sixteen hours in bed only half-successfully fighting off nausea. All I really did was re-direct it, but there’s no need to go into details.

It’s Oliver’s turn today, but we’ve all been there. He is napping on a blanket outside the door to the bathroom, so that what happened yesterday does not repeat itself.

Our first full day in Vermont, we hit a wall. Henry and Meredith attend the first day of Suzuki camp, while the rest of us stay behind in the log-cabin that could have been a set for The Great Outdoors. George is out in no time, Oliver naps three different times in four different venues, and Charlie crashes hard on the seventies-era La-Z-Boy in the kitchen-lounge. He is out for three hours.

He wakes up asking for water, which he drinks quickly, and already I can see him turning the color of Vermont. As usual, I do not act fast enough. He does not make it to the bathroom.

Now Oliver wakes up and pukes into the toilet—a Pyrrhic victory—and emerges proclaiming, “I feel awesome! I feel so great.” He returns to the couch, and his sickly, unbleached flour color returns.

The cabin is starting to feel besieged.

“No one is blowing anything out of anyone’s ass!” I want to declare, in defiance of the not entirely-vanquished threat of nausea/diarrhea.

There is no copy of The Great Outdoors in the case of DVDs in the living room, but there should be. There is plenty of other material to keep us entertained while we take turns convalescing. Now that I effectively have my children held captive, they have no choice but to give in and finally watch the entire Shrek trilogy in sequence, which they have inexplicably refused to watch until now.

At the coffee shop in Rochester, where I pop in to bogart the wifi signal for a few minutes, a man in a plaid shirt, cargo shorts, and Birkenstocks is complaining about his labrum. He has long dreadlocks down to the middle of his back, and is entirely bald on top. A single dread formed from the few strands above his forehead are woven together and swung around to the side, so that from the front it almost looks like he has a full head of hair. The style is Appalachian Hippie, but the comb-over technique is straight-up Southern Baptist.

He explains to his interlocutor (and his eavesdropper) what a labrum is.

“Welcome to the club,” the interlocutor says.

“Yeah, fifty,” the dreadlocked one replies.

“No, radiation.”

Bewildered looks from dreadlocks and eavesdropper.

“Galactic radiation. I’ve been doing some research. Fukushima. Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Studies have shown a marked increase in muscular discomfort levels since these events.”

They don’t tell you this in the WPA Guide to Vermont, but around here, Birkenstock-ed conspiracy theorists in dreadlocks delivering, in between sloppy spoon-fuls of Cherry Garcia, coffee-shop homilies about how your lower back pain is attributable to nuclear testing in the South Pacific, are not entirely fiction.

I don’t know what the culprit is in our traveling vomit festival, but “galactic radiation” sounds kind of awesome, so we’re going with that.

When in Vermont.

 

Bread for wood.

George is in the back seat singing to himself, or to the wooden toy train he’s fiddling with.

My crew, they’re a musical bunch. Violinists, the lot of them. Except me. My instrument is the guitar, but these days it doesn’t make the trip very often. I’m thinking I need to find a smaller instrument if I want to have a shot at joining the family band.

George and I are the only ones who didn’t bring instruments with us, so we just sing.

We leave the shape note singers in Way’s Mills for a different form of singing on the outskirts of Magog at l’Abbaye St.-Benoît-du-Lac. The Benedictine monks there are descendants of ones who were exiled from France after the Revolution, fled to Belgium, and returned to life in the 1830s thanks to a Benedictine named Dom Prosper Guéranger, who kickstarted a liturgical and monastic revival at the abbey of Solesmes. Once, in a former life, I wrote about him and his movement for a book I never finished, but that’s all I can remember. There are not many monks now, maybe two dozen, mostly older. But the church is full with congregants at 11:00 on Sunday.

Back in the landcraft, now fully laden with a cooler-full of cheese made by the monks here, a yellow piece of paper is tucked under the driver-side windshield wiper. I get out to remove it, and it’s just what you expect from a piece of paper stuck under your wiper: a religious tract. It’s at least tasteful, like most things in Quebec. The typeface is attractive and stately, so I assume it must communicate a respectable message. Meredith looks at it and reports otherwise.

Black-ops, stealth-mode evangelicals who prey upon unsuspecting cars in papist parking lots are not just an American thing. They are alive and well in Quebec, too. The tract reminds us to read our Bibles, which apparently they assume Benedictines or people who park in their lots do not to. In spite of the handsome typography, I do not fall for the tired old gambit, and slice off a piece of Benedictine cheese with my Leatherman.

George asks for a slice of bread. I pull out what’s left of the loaf the baker in Stanbridge gave to us as a lagniappe a few days ago.

He’s cousin to our host down the road. A big man, grey-bearded, jovial with the kind of joy that apparently comes from doing the same thing really well—making food for people—for twenty-seven years. He seems to have come into this trade by destiny: his family has lived in this area for two hundred years. They are called the Bakers.

He makes four different loaves a day in a brick oven custom-made locally. It burns hardwood—maple, oak, poplar—at about 400 degrees. Stacks of it, squares rough-cut from long planks, line the wall of the log cabin bakery. He gets the wood from a lumber guy in Vermont, who drives up here regularly. Sometimes in a helicopter, which he lands across the road. They have a gentlemanly agreement: bread for wood. Not a Canadian dime has passed between them, except when the year-end balance is uneven. Last year, they were off slightly. The baker owed the wood guy twenty-five cents.

It’s worked this way for 27 years.

I unfold the serrated blade on the Leatherman and saw into the now-crusty loaf, promptly slicing a bloody gouge into the top of my thumb. It drips onto the oat-flaked top of the loaf.

George is unfazed, still singing.

I hand him an unbloody piece of old bread, crumbs falling to the floor. “Fank you, dad,” he says, and hands me his toy train.

Bread for wood.

 

Being a Big City is exhausting, n’est pas?

“Deux lattes, s’il vous plaît.”

“One shot or two?”

I’ve played out this fool’s charade a dozen times in Quebec City, with only minor variations. It happens in every major foreign city where you feel moderately comfortable with the native tongue: you take your best shot at a simple phrase in the local language, keeping it as simple as possible, avoiding verbs at all cost, lest you make yourself look like une imbécileTraductor traitor, they say (but we say “the translator is a traitor”). So you say something like “a Coke please.”

But your accent or pronunciation gives you away, and the seemingly kind person behind the counter is onto you. They suss you out for a fake, and respond to you in a confident English, just to rub it in. Maybe they sense you’re trying out your French (or German, or Italian) on them, so they respond by trying out their English on you.

Quebec City is majestic, gorgeous, even magical. But it feels like it’s trying itself out on you too, showing off a bit. Meredith has wondered aloud why Quebec City felt just ever so slightly like Disney World. I think she’s onto it.

Maybe this is the major difference between a city like Philadelphia or Quebec City and the relatively anonymous villages and hamlets we’ve stumbled upon. Big cities have a reputation to live up to, an image to maintain, expectations to fulfill. They are on stage for all the tourists like us who rock up expecting them to be on their A-game. They have to give the people what they want.

It must be exhausting being a city like Quebec City, always performing, always putting on your best face. As a tourist in such a place, you can’t help but feel the tension along with all the charm, which may be partly why tooling around innocently in A-list cities is always so tiring. In Stanbridge East, or in Way’s Mills, I never felt this way.

There is no pressure to perform when no one knows who you are.

I don’t feel it in Rochester, Vermont, either. We are here for the week at a Suzuki violin camp. Meredith and the two older boys are in classes all day, while I write stuff, tool around on bikes with George and Oliver, and make meals or order them from the local café. There is only one.

Rochester is a lot like the town of Popperville was before Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel built the new town hall. It has all those qualities one expects from “classic Vermont,” and the description of it in the WPA Guide for Vermont is full of adjectives like “gracious,” “orderly,” “quiet.” Rochester, as it happens, “was awarded the prize at the Jamestown Exhibition (1907) as the model town of the United States. The highway curves in on the northern end past close-set wooden dwellings to the large broad level green, evenly shaded and attractive at the village center.”

As an official “model town,” Rochester is probably not innocent of a little catwalk-strutting of its own.

The WPA Guide is not wrong about the town, though. We’re on our third evening on the green at the center of town, while the boys run around flying balsa wood airplanes with other kids in the Suzuki camp. And the curvaceous road into town—state road 100—is as iconic a mountain road as I’ve seen. It’s almost like they invented Vermont for the convertible.

And don’t think that the Guide is just maple-syrup-coating things for you. It’s not afraid to call a spade a spade, oh no. Just listen to how the next village up the road fares:

“HANCOCK consists of a T-shaped collection of unpainted old houses, a white-fenced cemetery and an ugly church.”

Not exactly a place to pull your convertible over, unless you’re into unpainted old houses and ugly churches. And T-shapes.

Rochester is in permanent airplane mode; there is no cell phone service to speak of, and wifi is available occasionally at a handful of spots in town. It’s refreshing, even surprising. Like Stanbridge or Way’s Mills, Rochester is small enough that you don’t have to pretend that you’re not a tourist. Your secret is out by the time your big ass landcraft crosses the township line.

Ordering a coffee will not feel like an audition.There will be no trying out your language skills on the cashier, no anxiety about saying the wrong thing.

All that energy can be spent on something else, like just being yourself.

A shameless visitor.

A curious human.

Just some guy.