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.

Nothing happens in chain hotels.

Nothing happens in chain hotels.

I understand the appeal of traveling the hotel circuit. Its great draw is benign predictability: clean sheets and towels, continental breakfast, a thermostat that you can have your way with, and HBO. Brand-name hotels, like McDonald’s hamburgers, thrive on being reliably identical wherever you are. They are generally free from the unadvertised costs of staying in complete strangers’ homes, like a vigorous local ant colony that you might want to maintain yourself with the little bottle of Raid left out for you on the windowsill.

“Oh yeah, Raid,” Henry says. “That’s good stuff.” How he knows this is beyond me, but he definitely did not learn it staying in a Marriott Courtyard.

No one does a cost-benefit analysis before staying in a Marriott, because you know exactly what you’re getting. And no one does one before an Airbnb either, because—like marriage—you really have no idea what you’re getting into. It looks good on paper, but they never tell you that the dryer doesn’t work. So you take the good with the bad: antique charm with ant infestation. Sometimes you end up in a real shithole, and sometimes you land in one with ABBA’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 waiting for you on the turntable.

This morning we awake in a nineteenth-century farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, Quebec, to a downpour that has scuppered our plans for a bike ride. This is not part of the plan, but then neither is ABBA. We crank it to eleven, our four children pounding the pine-plank floorboards to “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”

Our host, it turns out, has great taste in music. Most of it is in French, but the English stuff is boilerplate awesome: Saturday Night Fever, Grease, The Village People. As the rain comes down hard, we sit on the porch and sketch to Edith Piaf.

“Oh you’ll like this record,” Charlie says to Oliver, who is obsessed with law enforcement. “It’s called ‘The Police.’”

Way’s Mills, Quebec is possibly the smallest community I have ever spent the night in. It has a post office with a strange, thin tower like a smokestack but with windows. The vine-entangled structure is no longer in use, replaced by a small bank of maybe a dozen keyed postboxes on a pole by the roadside. Down the street, two white-clapboard churches face one another across a tiny road. Way’s Mills is barely big enough for a single church, let alone two, and both of these are large, and look like they’re having an argument. There must be a story there. No town, it seems, no matter how tiny or charming, it too small for some good old schism.

I assume that the singing I hear is coming from one of those churches. It is Saturday, so a choir rehearsal is plausible. I go to check it out. The sound isn’t coming from either church, but from over the river, from what looks like a house. It turns out to be the community center. On the lawn beside it is a statue of Mr. Way, whose eponymous mills once stood near the site.

The sound is heavenly and familiar, but not because I have been to heaven. My wife runs inside to check it out and report back.

“You have got to come see this,” she says from the middle of the traffic-free street.

A group of fifty or so people from all over Canada have gathered on the second floor of the community hall. The dark room is covered in thin wood paneling running at an angle from floor to ceiling. Men and women, old and young, sit in folding chairs arranged in a square, facing a choir director in the center. From somewhere out of sight, an emcee announces the name and hometown of the person who will lead the next song.

The singing sounds magical, ancient, Appalachian, and hearing it is like stepping into some dense mythological forest running from north Georgia to eastern Canada. Once the pitch is established, each song almost roars into life. It is loud, vivacious. They sing from the Sacred Harp hymnal, in the shape-note style, an intuitive form of musical notation designed two hundred years ago. The tradition of shape note singing is carried on by groups like this who meet now and then, just to sing together.

This group meets in Ways Mills once a year.

It just happens: today is the day.

 

 

 

Some people plan. Some just go.

It turns out that the rooftop cargo container is higher than 2.20 meters after all. There’s really no need to explain how I know this.

It’s not the last boneheaded parking maneuver I will make today. I don’t know how many items are included on the Comprehensive Catalog of Possible Unforced Parking Errors, but I’m confident I’m performing well above the Mendoza Line.

Hergé, by Andy Warhol.

Now, a father who is really on top of things would schedule a trip to Quebec City with his wife and Tintin-loving kids to coincide with the major exhibit on the great Belgian comic artist, Hergé, that happens to be going on at The Museum of Civilization. I know such forward-thinking fathers exist. I once rode with one who drove his kid and me to camp in North Carolina one summer, and surprised us with a side-trip to Wilmington to frolic as much as one can in incredibly cramped quarters on the Battleship USS North Carolina.

But I am no such father.

On the way up to Stanbridge East, my wife asked me, “What is our plan for when we get there?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“What do you know about the town?”

“Nothing.”

“So you were thinking we’d just show up and see what happens?”

“Basically.”

I didn’t even bother to find out what the name of the Quebec City newspaper is or if there is a local version of Creative Loafing, and I didn’t consult either one, if they even exist, to find out what we could do when we got here. No, I figured we’d just rock up and see what is UP, Quebec CITY?!

I get lucky with the Hergé exhibit, which has me so engrossed that I am constantly being asked by one of my kin where George is. He is as engrossed as I am. It’s not often that I have to drag my children out of a museum exhibit, but none of us want to leave this one.

“Did they have Tintin when you were a kid, Dad?” Henry asks me over lunch after the exhibit.

“They had Tintin long before I became a kid,” I say. I tell him about how I never read Tintin until he and his brothers came along, and about how one of the best things about having children is all the new things they expose you to. “And they still had Tintin when I became a kid a second time,” I think too slowly to say in the moment.

We made the turn today, back south. We are in the new Airbnb in a hamletina in the Eastern Townships, far away from the price-gouging, maple-everything merchants in Vieux-Québec. Charlie is upstairs, reading the Tintin adventure The Shooting Star to Oliver, who is tearfully cradling his already-broken blue single-prop model plane from The Black Island.

I listen to them until Charlie can’t read another word.

Some people plan; some just go, and hope to get lucky.

And then pay $53 for a parking foul.

 

 

We Never Made it to Montreal (and not just because of the violent intestinal insurrection that I will not discuss)

A lone gull–a black, swept-back silhouette against a cloudless sunset–soars silently upriver towards the city, the St. Lawrence River beneath us like antique amber glass, and I sit on the DIY deck observing them both, thinking back fondly to a time when I thought this trip was a good idea.

Henry has run away from the Airbnb again. It’s the fourth or fifth time he’s done it so far. Slamming the door behind him for emphasis, he has declared that he’s going back to Asheville, but right about now he’s in the middle of the gravel driveway up to the not-quite-done Airbnb that looked a whole lot more finished in the professional photographs that I should have been more suspicious about, and realizing that walking from Quebec to North Carolina is not such a good idea either.

He’s probably stomping up the unpainted two-by-sixes masquerading as front steps as we speak, and any second now will be slamming the door behind him again, pissed off that he can’t actually accomplish the revenge he feels like he wants.

I know how he feels.

Quebec has been wonderful in the true sense of the word–especially the remote hamlet of Stanbridge East where we spent one night more than we planned. Stanbridge was initially appealing because it was only about 45 minutes from Montreal, where we had hoped to spend a day or so.

But we never made it to Montreal.

We spent our last night in Stanbridge cooking dinner with our host and his two small girls, having gone biking with them daily on impossibly beautiful farm roads virtually free of traffic except for the occasional white-tailed deer and ubiquitous red-winged blackbirds flirting with the roadside. On one of those trips, he led us to an even tinier hamlet-let called Mystic, where the chocolatier we were aiming for was–tragically–closed. But all was not lost; we ended up at an outdoor ceramic festival across the street. We had a good lunch together, and I wasn’t even slightly annoyed with either George or the old lady who told him off for getting too handsy with the terra-cotta candelabras.

It was hard to leave.

But of course we did, and everyone is mad at me because of it. Including me. It was time to move on to the next place, which is great and all, but there is no friendly host whose adorable little girls just walk up to you one morning and want to introduce you to the family alpacas.

“It’s a lot to ask,” my wife said to me in the car on the trip from Philadelphia to Fishkill, New York, during which I firmly consolidated my status as persona non grata. “Taking four kids on a cross-country road trip, I mean. And it’s hard on the adults, too.” She went back to looking at her phone, which she did for most of that leg of the trip. She said she was just looking at her Facebook, but I’m starting to think she was searching google maps for “nearby divorce lawyers.”

It’s not the first time I’ve uprooted my family and dragged them across the country. At least this time we are all going back to where we started from. But the last time, five years ago, we packed up everything and left a place we had been for ten years, a place that never felt like home.

There was a time when I worried that my kids would resent me for transplanting them like that, that they would not come to feel like Asheville was home for them either.

So when Henry angrily tells me that he wants to go “home,” and by “home” he means Asheville, I feel for the first time in 1500 miles that at least one of the two big road trips I have led my family on has turned out to be a good idea.

 

Benjamin Franklin would be so disappointed in me. The Big Ass Car rolls into Philly.

“I am not throwin’ away my…shot!” the two-year-old sings from his pack-and-play in the hotel room we weren’t supposed to be staying in.

It is 1:36 a.m.

It seems we are going to be talking about him a lot, so let’s call the two-year-old “George,” since that’s a more efficient use of syllables and also his actual name.

We don’t leave at first light, obviously, and we don’t even leave just in time for the George’s nap. Departure time from the Outer Banks is more like 4:30 p.m., which is about the time George is usually warming up on re-entry into the waking atmosphere.

So we don’t roll into Philadelphia until about 11:00, to find access to the Airbnb bachelor pad that seemed like a good idea at the time blocked off by a tractor-trailer unloading shrink-wrapped cargo in the middle of the street of the “recovering” neighborhood that it turns out I should have been more suspicious about. The approach to the apartment is like one of those circular mazes on kids’ menus: there is only one way in, and every other failed route will leave you having to back an overladen Suburban out of a dead-end one-way road with on-street parking on both sides. Eventually it’s more fun in either scenario to just give up and eat the crayons. The tractor-trailer is blocking the lone route to bed, and he isn’t going anywhere any time soon. After unsuccessfully circling the elusive portal to hidden treasure for a good half hour, we ditch, and mutter something inappropriate in front of the kids whom we wrongly think are asleep.

We pull up alongside the curb in a part of town where there is unoccupied curb space. My wife and I are both on our phones, scrambling to find a hotel room for six in a pinch, when we find one called The Franklin that looks reasonable.

“We should call that one,” I say, but not because Ben is the theme of tomorrow’s activities.

About that time a bellman waves to me from the curb, a gesture I interpret to mean something like “you can’t park that grotesque, overgrown station wagon here, sir. It does not look right,” because in addition to a congenital aversion to the obvious, I am an expert at misreading signals, especially when already perturbed.

“This hotel has rooms available,” he says.

Meanwhile Smart Boy here is waving away the bellman, googling photos of The Franklin Hotel, grumpily trying to find a phone number for The Franklin Hotel, trying to locate The Franklin Hotel on Google Maps, all while sitting in the driver seat of a grotesque, overgrown station wagon parallel-parked directly in front of the revolving brass door of The Franklin Hotel.

Tomorrow I am sure I am going to read some proverb from Benjamin Franklin which I should have heeded, but for now I look out the window across Chestnut Street at the floodlit Greek Revival façade of The Second Bank of The United States. It’s now a portrait gallery, but it began as a national bank, chartered in 1816 on the model created by Alexander Hamilton.

I cannot get away from this guy.

It’s almost 2:00. George is still not throwing away his shot.