Monthly Archives: November 2013

Part 4: In which we enter the landscape of the mind

Sorrento dock

Each of the United States has its own flavor, its own existence as myth. It is the sense one has, if one does not live in that state, but imagines what it would be like to visit.

One imagines what Arizona must be like, with its cowboys and cactus, but the reality of Phoenix — “Cleveland in the Desert” — negates that myth. That is the nature of myth.

Some states have bigger personae. California, for instance, which existed as myth both for “Forty-Niners” and for Okies. Montana offers big skies and clean air. Oregon had its trail and Mississippi has its Yoknapatawpha County.

Texas claims for itself the largest myth, although it is hard to warrant such big ideas if you have actually been to Midland or Odessa. Texas is only big in hectares. Otherwise, it is the state of large hats as substitutes for small manhood.

Each state has its mythic presence, although it is hard to make the case for Delaware as anything but the “gateway to New Jersey,” and the Garden State gains any resonance it has only from Tony Soprano and Bruce Springsteen.

But one state led all the rest historically in this landscape of the mind, as a special place in the American imagination, a place you dream about when you think your daily life is too mundane.



Historically, the state that has had the longest claim on the American spirit is Maine, with its deep woods and rocky coast, its taciturn, independent people and its echoing loons. Maine is the original great escape, the place to go to return to nature and feel what it is like canoeing across a backwoods lake with a mist rising from the water.

Maine is the place Henry David Thoreau went when his Walden Pond seemed too citified. Maine is the place that dozens of American artists went to find some glimmer of inspiring wilderness.

It’s also the place the 19th-century robber barons went for summer vacations.

As America has expanded westward, Maine has lost some of its magic, but it is still a mythical place, drawing millions of visitors every year.

But there isn’t a single Maine. Regionally, there are at least four Maines.

The first is the southern coast, which first attracted a wealthy clientele a hundred years ago. This is where old money came for the summer. It is where former President George H.W. Bush had his place in Kennebunkport. It is also home to the new Yuppie tourism centers on Penobscot Bay, where you can always get a good brioche: Camden and Rockport. They are not much different, in their way, from Carmel, Calif., or Sedona, Ariz. — all trendy shops and new museums. You visit L.L. Bean in Freeport, and see a hundred other factory outlet stores.

Mooselookmeguntic Lake

Mooselookmeguntic Lake

Then, there is the mountainous Maine of the western part of the state with its thousand lakes, from Rangeley Lake to Mooselookmegunticook. This is the part of Maine famous for its out-of-place town names: Mexico, Norway, Paris. It is a place to go for fishing and camping or renting a cabin for a week.

The large northern part of the state is especially impressive. Vast tracts of woodland crisscrossed by narrow logging roads down which rumble the most frightening, earthshaking pulpwood trucks, piled high and tenuously with rattling bundles of spruce trunks. It is the north of Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin. This is the Maine that Thoreau wrote about in his book, The Maine Woods. It is also the part of the state, on its eastern side, where they grow potatoes.Maine tree

But it is the fourth Maine that I love the most: the upper coast, from Mount Desert Island to the Canadian border.

This is Down East. It is the least touched by commercialism. It is still composed of blue-collar working towns where men go out to fish or pull lobsters from the rocky-bottomed sea. It is old wooden houses on granite foundations and cars rusted out from wet, salty winters.

Otter Cove, Acadia NP

Otter Cove, Acadia NP

It is called Down East because when 19th-century sailing packets traveled up the coast from Boston, they sailed downwind, with the prevailing breezes abaft. Back then, Maine was still part of Massachusetts. Maine owes its statehood to slavery: The Missouri Compromise of 1820 let the slave state Missouri enter the union, but separated Maine from Massachusetts and entered it as a state at the same time to keep a balance of free and slave states in Congress.

The coast of Maine is about 250 miles long, as the crow flies, but it must have been a very drunken crow that first flew the distance. With all the bays and headlands, the actual distance of that zig-zag coastline is closer to 3,000 miles. And that’s not counting the islands, thousands of them.

Mount Desert Island is the largest of them. It is properly pronounced Mount “Dessert,” as if it were filled with chocolate moose, but most people just call it MDI and be done with it. MDI is the home of Acadia National Park, one of the most beautiful in America.

Monument Cove, Acadia NP

Monument Cove, Acadia NP

It is also the home of Bar Harbor, one of the most congested towns. In the summer, Bar Harbor is a vacation nightmare, with no parking, crowded restaurants and no room at the inn.

Acadia National Park covers about half the island and includes Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on the East Coast north of Rio de Janeiro. At 1,530 feet, it catches the first rays of sunlight to hit the U.S. each day.

A road to the top provides splendid views.

But it is the view of Cadillac Mountain, rather than the view from it that is best. And the best views are from the coast roads that continue farther down east.

The real Down East begins beyond MDI. From Ellsworth — which may look like one unending K mart and KFC — you drive east and north on U.S. 1 and you leave all the tourists and development behind.

Fox Lake

Fox Lake

The towns you pass are small and picturesque: Sullivan, Gouldsboro, Sorrento, Winter Harbor, Jonesport. You see tall church steeples and town squares with bronze statues of World War I soldiers.

This is Maine for the traveler rather than the tourist. You won’t find many fancy restaurants, and the motels are all low-dollar. Look instead for breakfast in the local lunch counter with the lobstermen. There are no “destination locations.” You have to be interested in the place for itself, and not for an amusement park.

If you are looking to get away from it all, Down East is the definition of the phrase.



There are mountains to be climbed, woods to be hiked, lakes to be canoed. There are heaths to be gleaned of their blueberries and birds to scout out and listen to.

Blueberry heath

Blueberry heath

If you hike in the woods behind Sullivan, off Taunton Bay, you will find the abandoned granite quarries that used to provide curbstones for the cities of the East Coast.

Climb 1,069-foot Schoodic Mountain for the panoramic view. Or if that is too high, try 397-foot Tucker Mountain. A walk through the birches and alders will bring you to a splendid view of Frenchman Bay and Cadillac Mountain.

Schoodic Point, Acadia NP

Schoodic Point, Acadia NP

From Gouldsboro, head south to Schoodic Point, which is part of Acadia, but without the crowds. The waves boom on the rocks and a cold ocean separates you from Cadillac in the west. If there is one perfect place to visit Down East, Schoodic Point is it.

Quoddy Head Lighthouse

Quoddy Head Lighthouse

Or take the narrow road south of Lubec and you will come to the West Quoddy Head lighthouse, the easternmost point in the U.S. Out on the horizon you will see Canada’s Grand Manan Island. It might as well be China.

Take a look at any map of the eastern bump of Maine and see how the web of roads thin out. Hancock and Washington counties are nearly unpaved. It is empty. It is beautiful. It is the real Maine.

NEXT: Maine redux

Part 3: In which a previous president gets some work done

plymouth notch

As in the rest of the country, the modern world of CVS pharmacies, Burger Kings and Pep Boys has superseded the old neighborhood stores and previous ways of life in New England. Vermont has pushed back more than other states, but life is modernizing there, too.

Silent Cal

Silent Cal

But if you want to find out what old country life was really like, the best place to get a hint is at the Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site in Plymouth Notch. There, you can see the house where the taciturn and much-maligned 30th president was born, and a second where he grew up. You also can see the giant woodshed needed to keep the house marginally above freezing in the winter; you can see the two-hole privy and the smelly kerosene lanterns.

For Calvin Coolidge grew up in old country Vermont. It was hard work, and there were no potpourris nestled in the corner with the perfumed smell of herbs and spices. The smell of the house must have been a little closer to horse manure, which was collected in the stable — attached to the house like a modern-day garage — and was shoveled through a trapdoor to a collection pit under the house. coolidge 14

His quilt didn’t have cute children printed on it. In fact, when he was 10 years old, Coolidge made a quilt for himself. It is a very good quilt, too. Old Cal was pretty good with his hands. In his house, there is a chest of drawers he made when he was a little older. He would have been a right good carpenter if he had chosen that line of work.

”After the winter work of laying in a supply of wood had been done,” Coolidge wrote in his autobiography, ”the farm year began about the first of April with the opening of the maple-sugar season. This was the most interesting of all the farm operations to me.”

In a good season, they processed as much as a ton of maple syrup. But that is not all. ”After that, the fences had to be repaired where they had been broken down by the snow, the cattle turned out to pasture, and the spring planting done. Then came sheep-shearing time, which was followed by getting in the hay, harvesting and threshing of the grain, cutting and husking the corn, digging the potatoes and picking the apples. Just before Thanksgiving, the poultry had to be dressed for market, and a little later, the fattened hogs were butchered and the meat salted down. Early in the winter, a beef creature was slaughtered.

Coolidge works the horses

Coolidge works the horses

”The work of the farm was done by the oxen, except running the mowing machine and horse rake. I early learned to drive oxen and used to plow with them alone when I was 12 years old. Of course, there was the constant care of the domestic animals, the milking of the cows and taking them to and from pasture, which was especially my responsibility.”

And all around the village of Plymouth Notch, maintained as a state park, you can see the results of that self-reliance, which is the hallmark of the mountain population. coolidge 6

You can see the dark room where Coolidge, then vice president, learned of Warren Harding’s death. Coolidge’s father, a notary public, swore his son in as president using the oath Calvin had typed out on the family typewriter.

Asked how he knew he could swear in his son, old Col. Coolidge said, ”I didn’t know I couldn’t.”

NEXT: Remembering Maine

Part 2: In which certain suggestions are made

Kancamagus Highway

Kancamagus Highway

One of the best ways to see the wild parts of New England is via the Kancamagus Highway, which runs between Lincoln and Conway, N.H. Along its 35 miles, you pass white-water rivers, towering granite and long views from the mountain passes.

The road, which was opened only in 1968, climbs from the Pemigewasset River to Kancamagus Pass, crossing the crest at 2,850 feet and following the Swift River down the other side.

Rocky Gorge on the Swift River

Rocky Gorge on the Swift River

Near the Bear Notch Road turnoff is the Passaconaway Historic Site, with a nature center and summer demonstrations by craft workers in period costume. In the Rocky Gorge Scenic Area are waterfalls, hiking paths and camping in the Covered Bridge Campground.

But it isn’t the only road worth taking. The road up Mount Washington is a thrill ride of declivities and chasms, bound together with the coil of roadway.

To be sure, there are three choices for getting up Mount Washington.

Appalachian Trail, Presidential Range

Appalachian Trail, Presidential Range

The first is to climb on foot; the Appalachian Trail winds up the rocky slopes, but it is probably too strenuous for most visitors.

Mt. Washington Auto Road, with cog railway tracks in foreground.

Mt. Washington Auto Road, with cog railway tracks in foreground.

The second choice is to drive up the Mount Washington Auto Road, opened in 1861. It is a harem-scarem eight-mile drive that averages 12 percent grades and snakes around hairpin turns, and when you get back down, you probably will buy the popular bumper sticker that reads ”I survived the Mt. Washington Auto Road.” cog railway

The easiest way up is the Mount Washington Cog Railway, which climbs the other side of the mountain from Crawford Notch. The 3 1/2-mile trip, which climbs grades up to 37 percent, takes a little longer, but is great fun.

Both road and rail have what may seem ”steep” admission prices.

The New England states are small, but each offers something for the traveler.

In Vermont, the countryside itself is reason to visit, and just about anywhere you go is scenic, though more gentle than New Hampshire. Popular tourist stops include Queechee Gorge, Woodstock and Weston, all of which are filled with places to separate the tourist from his money.

Ben and Jerry factory

Ben and Jerry factory

For some people, the most magnetic draw of the state will be Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory in Waterbury, with half-hour tours and samples. It is now the No. 1 tourist attraction in the state.

The Massachusetts portion of the Appalachians highlights Mount Greylock and the Berkshires. But there is also historic Stockbridge and its Norman Rockwell Museum — and, if you can find it, the former Alice’s Restaurant.



Author Herman Melville wrote several short stories about the Berkshire Mountains, and you can visit his home, Arrowhead, in Pittsfield, where his notorious “piazza” on the north side of his home, looks out on Mt. Greylock — “Charlemagne among his peers.”

And in Maine, Baxter State Park is a treasure. A few nights in a wood-heated cabin beside Daicey Pond, under the shadow of Mount Katahdin, will fix what ails you and set the universe right.

Reich Museum

Reich Museum

But if that doesn’t work, try the Wilhelm Reich Museum, in Rangely, which its tenant called his ”Orgone Energy Observatory.” In a nutshell, so to speak, Reich believed that you could use great sex to make it rain.

NEXT: Cool Calvin Coolidge

Part 1: Bad weather and Longinus

Mt. Washington

Mt. Washington

It is not at all unusual to drive past the most imposing mountains in the East and not even see them.

The White Mountains of New Hampshire may not be taller than those in the Smokies down South, but because they are so much farther north, their tops bust through the tree line and leave their summits raw with rock. They are craggy and wild.

Between Mt. Washington and Mt. Clay

Between Mt. Washington and Mt. Clay

But the weather can hide them in swirling mists and all you see is a whitish, nebulous screen blotting out the roadsides as you drive past.

The northern Appalachians strive to reach the Whites, beginning with the low Litchfield Hills in Connecticut that grow into the Berkshires in Massachusetts and the Green Mountains of Vermont. The White Mountains cap this part of the cordillera, climaxed with the Presidential Range in northern New Hampshire and its imposing Mount Washington, which, at 6,288 feet, is the highest peak in the Northeast.

It is an impressive sight, if you are lucky enough to see it.

But Mount Washington’s other claim to fame is that it suffers the worst weather in the world outside the polar regions — at least the worst weather reported by an official weather station. mt washington chained building

On April 12, 1934, the wind spat across the top of the mountain at 231 mph, the highest wind speed ever recorded on this planet. That’s about a third the velocity of a shotgun blast. Winds in excess of 100 mph are not uncommon, and there are fog and mist at the summit at least part of 300 days every year.

The building at the summit has to be held down with guy wires.

And then there are the snow and ice. Most of the annual 70 inches of precipitation comes in the form of snow. But this whiteout isn’t unique to Mount Washington. Other mountains also hide in the clouds.

When Henry David Thoreau climbed Mount Katahdin, which rises 5,267 feet above sea level in Maine, he faced more winds and mist.

”It was like sitting in a chimney and waiting for the smoke to blow away,” he wrote in his book The Maine Woods. ”It was, in fact, a cloud factory.

”Occasionally, when the windy columns broke in to me, I caught sight of a dark, damp crag to the right or left, the mist driving ceaselessly between it and me. It reminded me of the creations of the old epic and dramatic poets, of Atlas, Vulcan, the Cyclops, and Prometheus. Such was Caucasus and the rock where Prometheus was bound.”

"Crawford Notch" by Thomas Cole

“Crawford Notch” by Thomas Cole

One can see the weather in the painting by the great 19th-century American artist Thomas Cole, whose Crawford Notch captures the mizzly scene: A mountain on the left is obscured in scud; on the right, sunlight glows from the opposing crest. At the bottom of the valley, a horseman heads for a log cabin.

The painting, at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., looks as wild and Romantic as it sounds. You certainly don’t believe for a moment that Cole has not exaggerated the effect to make a more dramatic painting. But I’ve driven through Crawford Notch, a valley just south of Mount Washington, and seen the same blowing clouds, sweeping from the peaks on my left to those on my right.

The northerly end of the Appalachians is less populated than the southern or central parts. There are more animals, and it is not that unusual to see moose wandering the roadsides. Loons swim in the lakes, and black bears rummage through the woody underbrush.

Lake Ambejejus, Maine

Lake Ambejejus, Maine

As the mountains hunker down again north of the Whites, their loss of altitude is made up for in the profusion of lakes. Western Maine is as wet as Minnesota, and as good for canoeing. The lakes have long, difficult Indian names, such as Mooselookmegunticook, Apmogenegamook, Nesowadnehunk and Ambajejus. Such names are a linguistic wilderness all their own.

Mt. Katahdin

Mt. Katahdin

But in Baxter State Park, the land rises high once again, reaching its peak at Katahdin, a monadnock, or mountain remaining after erosion has washed away the rest of the range. Katahdin can be seen from Interstate 95, 30 miles away, rising above the green-treed plain.

At least, when the weather is clear.

NEXT: Kancamagus Highway

 Part 3: A chance to pull overroadside america exterior


The central Appalachians — through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York — is the natal home of the cheesy roadside attraction. Many are now gone, but many also remain, often looking cheesier and more shopworn than ever. The Catskill Game Farm is no longer there, but Santa’s Workshop is still going strong.

They are also home to many early resorts and vacation hotels, pitched on mountain ranges not far outside the cities of Philadelphia or New York, where urban dwellers could spend a week or two breathing healthy mountain air — the Poconos or the Catskills.

And hikers can follow trails through the many state parks, or the long Appalachian Trail, which courses through the three states, weaving a path that avoids urbia and suburbia and finds the long, bent ridge lines of the breadloaf mountains.

Roadside America

Roadside America

This section of the Appalachians is the most highly populated, but there are still bits of woods and rock. But that population also meant it was economically feasible to build those legendary roadside attractions — Crystal Caves and Frontier Towns — that once punctuated the now-forlorn backroads and highways.

The quintessential tourist mecca is Roadside America in Shartlesville. It is a model-train layout the size of a department store. Opened in 1941, the exhibit is run by the descendants of its creator. Stay for the simulation of night, when all of the buildings light up and Kate Smith sings God Bless America while a spotlight shines on the Statue of Liberty. roadside america 4

Not much can live up to that. But there is the Sturgis Pretzel House in Lititz, which is the nation’s oldest operating pretzel factory, where you can learn the craft.

Also in Lititz are the Wilbur Chocolate factory and the Heritage Map Museum. wilbur chocolate facade

In nearby Ephrata is the Ephrata Cloister, which has a dozen well-preserved 250-year-old wooden buildings, including dormitories for the communal society of religiously celibate German Pietists.

In York, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, you can visit the Weightlifting and Softball Hall of Fame and the Harley-Davidson assembly plant and museum.

In Columbia, there is the Watch and Clock Museum, and Meadeville is the ”birthplace of the zipper.”

And near Harrisburg, Three Mile Island and its remaining nuclear power plant is on the Susquehanna River. Gettysburg, Pa copy

More serious sites include Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg and the Johnstown Flood National Memorial near Johnstown, where the National Park Service is showing its version of an Imax-style film with stunning special effects re-creating the devastating 1889 flood that killed more than 2,000 people.

Only a slice of the Appalachians cuts through New Jersey. The most important stop is the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area along the Delaware River. There are some exhibits, 200 miles of roads through the mountain country and uncounted hiking paths. high point state park

High Point State Park is the highest point in the state. Both it and the Water Gap include portions of the Appalachian Trail, the 2,000-mile footpath that runs along the Appalachian crest from Georgia to Maine.

The rest of New Jersey’s mountains are kind of pathetic: The Watchung Mountains in the center of the state peak out at 879 feet above sea level.

Kaaterskill Falls

Kaaterskill Falls

But New York, home to the Catskills and the Adirondacks, is one of the champions of roadside kitsch. There are dinosaurs, giant lumberjacks, recreated 19th century villages and Niagara Falls — the granddaddy of all vacation (and honeymoon) hucksterism.

Santa’s Workshop in North Pole, N.Y., is called the oldest theme park in the U.S. It opened in 1949 and used to have a petting zoo. There are dozens of Santalands and Christmas villages around the country, but this one, in northern New York, was the first, and it still gives an idea of the old-fashioned roadside attraction that has been eaten up by the Disney Worlds and Five Flags of the world.

Washington Irving wrote about the Dutch settlers of the Hudson Valley in such stories as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. His estate in Tarrytown is called Sunnyside and is a delightful look at life in the early part of the last century.



A little farther north and on the other side of the river are Harriman and Bear Mountain state parks. Seven Lakes Drive takes you through the crisp lake country of Harriman, and Perkins Drive takes you to the summit of Bear Mountain, where, on a clear day, you can see as far as Manhattan.

Just north of Bear Mountain Bridge is the National Military Academy at West Point, with its parade grounds, faux medieval architecture and stunning view of the Hudson River and Storm King Mountain.

And naturalist John Burroughs’ birthplace and final home are commemorated in the John Burroughs Memorial Field, near Roxbury. On the way, don’t miss Kaaterskill Falls, one of the most famous and oft-painted waterfalls in the country.

John Burroughs' Woodchuck Lodge, Roxbury, NY

John Burroughs’ Woodchuck Lodge, Roxbury, NY

And in Cooperstown, there is not only the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Fenimore House, the home of James Fenimore Cooper, best known as the man who invented John Wayne — aka Leatherstocking, Hawkeye, the Pathfinder and Natty Bumppo — and the Farmer’s Museum and Village Crossroads, home to the Cardiff Giant, greatest archaeological hoax of all time. cardiff giant recumbent

NEXT: New England Appalachians

Part 2: In which the lucky reader gets to eat pie

29 Diner

Central Appalachia is the home of the stainless-steel restaurant.

Built of sparkling glass, steel and neon, these old diners are beacons from America’s earlier decades, of a time when all highways had two lanes and to eat out meant a ”blue plate special.”

These days, there are a lot of ”Postmodern” diners around the country, with cute names such as the Five and Diner or the Road Kill Cafe, but they are not really diners. They play doo-wop music on the jukebox, often have young gum-chewing waitresses, menus written with cloying puns and lots of atmospherically campy Hollywood publicity photos on the wall.

But they are not really diners. They are theme parks. Those who eat there are more likely yuppies than truck drivers. bendix diner

The real thing is not nearly so self-conscious. Pennsylvania, New Jersey and southern New York are their natural environment. You find the real thing huddling along the sides of old U.S. highway routes.

The real things were establishments where you could get a ”regular” meal at an inexpensive price. Meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy were the norm, or ham with a ring of canned pineapple on top, or roast beef topped with the same brown gravy you found on the meatloaf. Ethnic food meant spaghetti.

Haute cuisine it was not, but it was filling. Wellsboro Diner interior

Or is — the diners still exist, although not as common as they once were, now replaced by burger and fried-chicken franchises.

The real diner doesn’t usually have young fresh-faced waitresses in pink skirts and cute white hats. Instead, you more likely will be served by a wrinkled, gravel-voiced waitress who has served meatloaf to truckers for 30 years.

There is no glamour in real diners. They are noisy, smoky and busy. The pie is good and is often baked on the premises. The coffee is good if you are lucky. If you are not, it will be able to etch glass, and in the bottom of the Syracuse stoneware cup, you will find a layer of sediment to chew on, that will keep you awake for three weeks into Tuesday.

The heyday of the diner stretched from the late 1930s into the ’60s. The earliest prefabricated diners were of porcelain enamel rather than steel. The smooth, pearly colors in panels along the side imitated the look of railway cars, leading many people to believe that diners were adapted railroad dining cars. They were not.

They were built in factories, such as the Jerry O. Mahoney Co. of Bayonne, N.J., or the Kullman Dining Car Co. of Harrison, N.J. Assembled in the factory, they were pulled into pieces and trucked to the site and reassembled by a factory team.

Their construction made them easy to move later on, if the owner thought a new location meant better business. serros diner vintage

Serro’s Diner, a famous old place in Irwin, Pa., cost $23,000 when it was built in the 1950s. The original building later was moved to Butler, Pa., where it was renamed Morgan’s Eastland Diner. The Serro family bought a new diner in Irwin. serros diner postcard

Such stories are common in the diner world.

Less common is the alternate spelling of ”diner.” In northwestern Pennsylvania, with a spillover into Ohio and West Virginia, the word often is spelled ”dinor.” Park Dinor Lawrence Twp PA

The food is the same, however. Some diner specialties are not likely to win the American Heart Association seal of approval.

You can find fried krautcakes, scrapple and fried eggs, chicken and waffles, fried sticky buns and ”Texas Tommies,” which are hot dogs split longways, stuffed with American cheese and wrapped shut with bacon and then deep-fried. cherry pie

But the signature of most diners is their pie. Apple, lemon meringue, coconut cream, rhubarb, cherry, strawberry, shoofly, pecan, sweet potato, Key lime, lemon chess, mincemeat, banana cream, pumpkin — even grasshopper pie.

And they sit in glass cases, lighted like jewelry under the cash register, or in revolving plexiglass towers. pie tower

Some diners, such as the Melrose in Philadelphia, became so famous for their pies that they built full-scale bakeries on the back of the building. melrose diner, philly

So, after you’ve eaten your pot roast, stay and have a slice of pie with a cup of coffee before setting out on the highway again. It’ll put you in the mood.

NEXT: Roadside attractions

Part 1: In which the mountains change character

Bear Mountain Bridge, Hudson River

Bear Mountain Bridge, Hudson River

If you look at a map of Pennsylvania, you will notice that all roads through the central part of the state seem to travel in long parallel curves, sweeping like lines of marching soldiers taking a ”column right.” eastern pa map

In few places in the country do the road maps so accurately reflect the topography: Those highways follow the valleys between the Appalachian ridges that bend through the state. One ridge lies behind another, lined up like so many pleats in a curtain.

The high, wild Appalachians of the South give way to the rural hillsides of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

The central Appalachians are even pronounced differently. In the South, the middle syllable rhymes with the ”a” of ”apple;” in the North, the ”a” becomes long and rhymes with ”hey,” a word you will hear with increasing frequency the closer you draw to Philadelphia. harvestore silo and barn

So, as the ”Apple-LATCH-ins” give way to the ”Apple-LAY-chins,” the whole character of the land changes. Hardscrabble family farms give way to large dairies. Small gray weatherboard barns give way to large red barns with blue Harvestore silos. Tobacco gives way to coal mining and steel mills.

Finally, as you travel north and east near Philadelphia and New York, the land becomes suburban.

The roads do manage to cross the ridges occasionally, although something as big as the Pennsylvania Turnpike finds it easier to tunnel under Tuscarora and Blue mountains on its way to the flatter eastern portion of the state.

What is more surprising is that at least three major rivers cut through the mountains, too.

Susquehanna River

Susquehanna River

The Susquehanna and Delaware rivers in Pennsylvania slice through them in what are called water gaps. The most famous of these, the Delaware Water Gap, knifes through the Kittatinny Ridge and divides its Pennsylvania and New Jersey halves.

Old post card

Old post card

And in New York, the Hudson River cuts through the Ramapo and Catskill mountains as it drops south from Albany to Manhattan.

These rivers helped create the history of the area, providing routes for early settlers to cross the difficult mountains.

Most famous among the early settlers are the Pennsylvania Dutch peoples of Lancaster and York counties — although you will find them north well into the mountains. Among them are the Amish and Mennonite ”Plain People” of the popular imagination.

They were German immigrants who began coming to the religious-tolerant commonwealth in the 1600s. Others were Swiss, and French Huguenots.

The Pennsylvania Dutch, though, were not Dutch. They were mostly German, and the German word for themselves, ”Deutsch,” was mistranslated.

By 1790, they made up a third of the state’s population.

But there were many real Dutch immigrants up the Hudson River Valley. Their influence is found in such names as Yonkers, Peekskill, Staatsburg and the Catskills.

Catskill Mountains and Hudson River

Catskill Mountains and Hudson River

All through the region you can find the influence of ethnic groups unheard of in the more culturally uniform Southern mountains: There are Irish, Italian, Spanish and Jewish enclaves in the mountains. It is in the Catskills of New York that the famous ”Borscht Belt” of Jewish resorts gave rise to a whole generation of stand-up comics. Does the name Shecky Greene ring a bell?

Shecky Greene

Shecky Greene

What may be surprising, though, is how much nature there is surviving in the central Appalachians. So close to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York City, there are still forest and wild lands.

You can find much of this along the Appalachian Trail as it curls through the region.

The footpath, which begins in Georgia and ends in Maine, enters Pennsylvania near Gettysburg, climbing through the Michaux State Forest and along the ridge of South Mountain. Geologically speaking, this is the northernmost tip of the Blue Ridge. Snowy Mountain, Mount Alto and Pleasant Peak are all just about 2,000 feet high.

Devil's Den, Gettysburg, Penn.

Devil’s Den, Gettysburg, Penn.

The trail crosses the Susquehanna just north of Harrisburg and climbs along Blue Mountain, the largest of the parallel ridges.

Big Mountain, Penn.

Big Mountain, Penn.

There it passes Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, where geology and prevailing winds create a perfect spot to view migrating birds, and especially a series of birds of prey, including Cooper’s, sharp-shinned, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks and bald eagles.

On the ridge, at about 1,500 feet, you can see the quilt of farms and forests that spread out in the valleys below. The gray Tuscarora sandstone is tumbled about the peak, covered by patches of green lichen.

Past the resort-area Poconos, the trail follows the Kittatinny Ridge to the Delaware Water Gap and on into New Jersey, following the wooded northwestern edge of that state past long, clear lakes and Boy Scout summer camps to High Point State Park, at 1,800 feet the highest elevation in the state.

The trail loops to the southeast for a short bit before heading north into New York near Greenwood Lake.

There, it follows the Ramapo Mountain into Harriman and Bear Mountain state parks, finally crossing the Hudson River on the Bear Mountain Bridge before heading north again, across the Taconic Mountains and into New England. Hudson panorama

At the bridge, the Appalachian Trail is only 35 miles north of Manhattan and only about 100 feet above sea level.

The woods along the trail are increasingly littered with boulders — chunks of granite or sandstone torn from the bedrock by the continental glaciers of 18,000 years ago. It makes for a beautiful woodland vista, but it is hell for farming.

Storm King Mountain, Hudson River

Storm King Mountain, Hudson River

And unlike the woodlands in the South, cluttered with undergrowth, the woods of Pennsylvania and New York are easy to traipse through. There are rocks underfoot, but not a lot of shrubbery. You step through a cushion of rotting leaves, brown and soft to the sole of your shoe.

It is true that the central Appalachians are less distinctively mountains than their brothers to north and south. They often feel more like hills. Yet the farther you manage to find yourself from the population centers, the more you will uncover the familiar Appalachian culture.

In the plateaus south and east of Pittsburgh, for instance, you still can be eyed suspiciously by a farmer who wonders why you are taking a photograph of his farm. If you hear him talk, you still will hear the short syllables and clipped speech of the mountaineer. You will find homesteads with kitchen gardens and men on autumn weekends walking the gravel back roads with their sons, shotguns slung middle-broke over their shoulders and the two in matching red plaid coats, out for a bit of hunting, hoping perhaps to scare up a turkey.

NEXT: Home of the diner

Part 7: In which the author’s belly bursts

shatley meal

‘Forty-five years ago, I broke out with a most terrible skin disease all over me, which remained on me seven years, supposed to originate from measles; I also had indigestion, and the last two years of that seven years, I had a bad cough. I had bleeding of my right lung and had nightly sweats for two years.”

How’s that for an appetizing advertisement for a good restaurant?

It is the opening of a testimonial written by Martin Shatley in 1925 about a radium spring he discovered in 1890 in northwestern North Carolina that miraculously cured his ailment.

”It has been about 35 years since I found the spring and got well. I have done as much hard work since that time as any man I know of, and after I was cured, many people went to this spring with skin diseases, rheumatism and nervous diseases, and were all cured.”

People still come to Shatley Springs in Ashe County, and they still drink the water. But most people don’t come to have their afflictions cured, but rather to have their hunger assuaged. shatley springs exterior 2

For while the radium water still flows freely, and free — anyone can drive up with a bottle and fill up — it is the restaurant at Shatley Springs that is the real miracle.shatley springs spring

Shatley Springs is on North Carolina 16, five miles north of Jefferson and eight miles south of the Virginia border.

It is found in a grassy hollow with a fishing pond in the middle. Around the pond are a handful of ramshackle cabins. shatley cabins with ducks

Their floors creak and the breeze blows through the walls; a single, 100-watt bulb hangs in the middle of the ceiling in each room. There is nary a picture on the wall, and the exterior red paint is flaking off the clapboard.

It is spartan in a way a Spartan would never tolerate. But then, the room costs only $45 per night for two. And the air is cool and clean, and you can hear the birds in the trees and the rustling leaves. There is no interstate, and the quiet is salutary.

But walk up to the large, red ranch house with the roaring kitchen fans. Screen doors slam and ruddy-faced people laugh and talk as they always do in the North Carolina mountains.

Dinner is the specialty of the house. If you need to save money, you can opt for the single entree dinners. Fried chicken is $7.95, country ham is $8.95. But I’ve never actually met anyone who has ordered them.

No, the meal of choice is the ”Family Style Country Meal,” which gives you, for an outrageous $16.95 per person, enough food to bloat an army. Greenfield's meal

There are ham and chicken,

Mashed potatoes,

Green beans,

Creamed corn,

Fried cabbage,

Pinto beans,

Fried apples,

Cole slaw,

Country gravy (the white kind),

Red-eye gravy,

Buttermilk biscuits,

And your choice of fruit cobbler with vanilla ice cream.

All washed down with radium water and iced tea as sweet as molasses.

And refills on everything, if the first round doesn’t rupture your diaphragm.

This is all Blue Ridge cooking, so the vegetables are all fresh and boiled with fatback or bacon and set down in front of you in bowls. This is not ”lean and healthy” cuisine, but it is real eatin’. Shatley Springs

People walk into the large common eating area, but they waddle out. On the long wooden porch that runs the length of the building, old-timers sit in rocking chairs, smoke and chat with their neighbors.

And if you do stay overnight and manage to right yourself for breakfast, the family-style breakfast — which will set you back $9.95 — includes cereal, juice, eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, gravy, biscuits, hotcakes, potatoes, grits, baked apples, strawberry preserves and coffee. That’s not a list of possibilities to choose from; that’s breakfast. You get them all, set down on an old wobbly table by a bustling waitress.

NEXT: The Central Appalachians

Part 6: In which a sour old man says some difficult things about some very nice people

Alan Hollar

Alan Hollar

Alan Hollar is a wood carver from Crossnore. He stands about 6-foot-seven and wears a ball cap and big frame glasses. He is giving demonstrations on cutting lathe-turned wood bowls at the craft center at the Moses Cone mansion along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The craft center is a kind of fantasy world, filled with quilts, stained glass, preciously carved wood and beautifully glazed pottery. As soon as you enter, you are hit with the odor of sachet and the sound of Irish flute and dulcimer music.

None of this has anything to do with the Appalachian Mountains, except as it is marketed to wealthy yuppies looking for faux-authentic mountain crafts.

“It’s true, I suppose,” says Hollar. “It used to be that mountain crafts were things that people couldn’t buy and so made for themselves. Now, they can buy pretty much anything they need at the Wal Mart. Crafts have become things that cannot be made by machine.”

Folk Art Center, Blue Ridge Parkway

Folk Art Center, Blue Ridge Parkway

The problem is one of integrating a past of poverty and make-do with a present of money and art galleries. Hollar is certainly correct when he says, “A culture cain’t stand still.”

Appalachian mountain crafts has suffered from the same forces that stultify Native American arts. both cultures have not stood still and are part of the same 21st century that we all live and breathe, but the market has identified their niches, and forced a “brand” or identity on them that is inauthentic.

In terms of Native American art, there are many fully-integrated artists working, as Native Americans, without having to resort to Indian stereotypes — artists such as Rik Danay, Bob Haozous and Kay Walkingstick — but too often the art-buying public wants instead pots and blankets. It is why artist Fritz Scholder once exhorted, “Stop painting Indians!”

by Harrison Begay

by Harrison Begay

Despite his warning, the market for so-called “traditional” Native American art is clotted with talking blue coyotes, lance-carrying warriors and never-ending rainbirds. And the inevitable “Bambi paintings” of deer and bear.

Originally, the creation of this Dorothy Dunn-style of Indian art was to help promote Native American arts and give talented Native artists a chance to make a living from their art. Perhaps it was too successful: Now, that style is considered “traditional,” and ordinary buyers of the art don’t want to look at anything that doesn’t fit the mold. And “Indian art” is a ghetto from which the truly talented feel pulled two ways: They want to escape the ghetto, yet, they want to create art from their cultural roots.

The Southern Highland Craft Guild has done something of the same for mountain crafts. It was formed in 1929, and was an attempt to make some money for poverty-sticken mountain folk.

Perhaps it has also worked too well, for there is little left of the mountains in these elegant doo-dads.

The tourists who glide through the Parkway Craft Center at Moses Cone Memorial Park, or the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Asheville, N.C., want souvenirs more than art, and they want something that portrays the fantasy of a “simpler way of life” that people “used to live” in the rural mountains. So, they find candles, stained glass, soft-colored quilts and jewelry in the form of dogwood flowers or bluebirds and feel they have come in contact with a more authentic way of life.

But it ain’t so. Instead, they have come in contact with a successful marketing strategy.

Some of the art is very nice, even beautiful in its way, but it is a far cry from anything that was made back in the hollers and coves when if you needed a ladle, you carved one from a chunk of wood.

“We were born into a world filled with random shapes and odd angles,” Hollar says, “but we made for ourselves a world of wallboard cubicles and we long for something with a touch of that randomness we miss. That’s why people like those bowls with the uneven edges turned from wood boles.”

Burl vase by Alan Hollar

Burl vase by Alan Hollar

And Hollar’s bowls are beautiful: They exploit the essential beauty of woodgrain and its colors. He is a master craftsman. But no matriarch living in the cut-off coves of Appalachia before electrification who required a bowl for kneading dough would have been happy with one that sported a great hole in its side.

It isn’t only the visual arts. The mountains are full of music. There was church music — some of it nearly unlistenable — and dance music, and the music that was played on front porches when the aunts and uncles gathered together and played old “chunes.”

Emmett Lundy

Emmett Lundy

You can find old recordings of some of that in the Alan Lomax collections. It is rough-hewn music, in a style that valued a keening, flat-affect voice — a style copied by Bill Monroe that he called the “high lonesome” — and always clearly amateur.

You can hear the old music in re-releases of those Lomax recordings, like those made in 1941 of Emmett Lundy from Graham County in Virginia. There is a plaintive sourness in the playing, learned from his teacher, Green Leonard. No one would call the music pretty, yet it is intensely beautiful. It is authentic.

The racks of CDs at the craft centers feature instead the commercial recordings of professional musicians who have created an ersatz “traditional” music that is hardly distinguishable from New Age pap. It is music with no angles or edges — completely unlike the hard-muscled people of the hills, who were all angles and edges — “with the bark still on.”

The soft-toned flute jigs on the stereo are like no music I ever heard in the Appalachians. Where were the scratchy fiddle tunes with every note slightly flat? Where were the affectless hymn tunes sung by straight-lipped mountain families? Why is that hammer dulcimer playing The Two Fairy Hills instead of the the strummed dulcimer playing Rock of Ages?

This is the mountain experience smoothed out and made marketable, giving the uninitiated the illusion of authenticity with none of the wood soot and bacon grease.

The CDs are on a rack by the register. They are all prettified.

“Do you have any really ugly music?” I ask. The young clerk — probably a college student from the flatlands come up to the mountains for a summer job among the “plainer, simpler folk” — doesn’t understand what I mean.

NEXT: food

Part 5: In which temps perdu come alive for the author

hog snout

Some 30 years ago, my wife and I were invited to Edd Presnell’s annual pig pickin’. It was an event in Watauga County, N.C., and attracted up to 200 invitees. My wife was a schoolteacher and had Edd’s granddaughter, Mona McGrew, in her class, and therefore wangled an invite.

Edd Presnell died in 1994, his wife, Nettie, three years later. The pig pickin’ ceased to be a yearly occurrence. Sic transit.

Edd Presnell

Edd Presnell

The Presnell family had been in the area — mostly on the same mountain — since at least the time of Edd’s great-grandfather, James Presnell, who was born in 1796. The mountain was still full of Presnells, many of whom were named after presidents: James Monroe Presnell, Hoover Presnell, even Martin Van Buren Presnell.

Of the lot, Edward Lee Pressnell, known as Edd, was the most famous. He was a renowned makers of dulcimers, and a spectacular woodcarver. How much of his look was calculated, and how much was culturally inherited is hard to tell. He sported a hillbilly beard, was thin as a rail and wore overalls; his hair seemed as if it hadn’t been combed since the Truman administration, and maybe hadn’t been barbered, either. But inside his home was a lattice-work room divider he had carved, 8-foot tall, of mountain laurel and birds that was as delicate and refined as anything made by the best trained beaux-arts master.

It was not easy finding Edd Presnell’s place. It sat on the north face of Beech Mountain in Banner Elk, near Boone, N.C. and at the end of five miles of gravel road followed by another mile of tractor path.

You can see why he wanted to stay in a location so remote: From his back porch you could see not only the local mountains of Watauga County, but also parts of Tennessee and Virginia. Mt. Rogers, the highest point in Virginia, loomed on his horizon.

On the downhill side of his property there are deep woods and laurel thickets. His neighbors’ pasturelands cleared the view, so the trees never completely blocked it.

And in the middle of the several houses, barns and cabins at the end of the tractor path, Edd Presnell constructed two beautiful trout ponds.

The leathery patriarch rarely made an appearance at these shindigs. He was a shy man, but a generous one. He liked to see “young people have a good time.”

So Edd retreated to one of the farther cabins to play pinochle with his brother while everyone else whooped and hollered.

A pig picking, by the way, is when you roast a pig slowly, all day over a hickory coal fire, so the meat, sweet and juicy, pulls away from the bone.pigmeat cooking

It is like a great Fourth of July picnic, with every variety of Southern comestible. The ice tea flowed in rivers.

Two men were cleaning four or five trout in a bucket of water as we approached the ponds. Each wore a ballcap.

“This here’s a rainbow, thems others is browns,” said one, answering my question. “Edd stocks his ponds ev’y other year, so’s you only fish the top one this year and the bottom one next. That ways the fish get eatin’ big. Like this here.”

He held up a beauty about 15 inches long and glistening in the sun. He slid his barlow knife along the trout’s belly and gutted it, holding it underwater to clean the slop away, then with a movement that told of years of experience, knifed the head clean off.

“We save these for the cats,” he said, tossing the fishhead onto a pile of several.

Nearby was a cinderblock pit with a hog splayed out with its opened belly cavity spread flat on the rack over the hickory coals glowing with white-hot heat. One elder, in another ballcap, was tending to the pig, brushing it every while in a once with a sauce that seemed to help crisp the fat.

Next to the hog were the fillets of those trout we had watched being cleaned.

I am no Izaak Walton, but my wife convinced me I should give the trout pond a try. So, we borrowed a rod and a wad of biscuit dough and headed to the pond.

Presnell dulcimer

Presnell dulcimer

Across the water there was an artist of a fly fisher, with an angler’s cap, a canvas vest and a very impressive looking rod and reel, casting his line out over the water with the grace of a Fred Astaire.

“I just had the biggest trout I’ve ever seen up here,” he said. “Had him right up to the bank, but he pulled loose and I lost him.”

He cast his scintillating fly out once more and cranked it slowly back in.

“I love fishing up here. My and my wife come up every year from Goldsboro and have a great time. Edd really knows how to throw a pig pickin’.”

He swung his arm again and plopped the fly down in the middle of the pond like an expert.

“Have you caught anything yet,” we asked.

“Not yet, but I’ve never failed before. I wished I had that big one.”

Now, there are different reasons for fishing. The pro angler was a genuine artist, and I am sure that he received great satisfaction out of the perfection of form he attained in his sport.

But I have a different reason for fishing. Me, I like to eat trout. I’d use dynamite if it got me more fish to eat.

So, I wadded up doughballs on my hook and dropped it down in the water.

I cast my line out and the bait plinked reassuringly in the pond. Unfortunately, the hook was still at the tip of my rod. I tried once more and the line flew out a good two or three feet from the shore. A third time and my hook made it into deeper water. As I said, I’m no Izaak Walton.

In contrast, the pro in the vest, now on the other side of the pond to avoid the children who had gathered around us, was a ballet dancer, so graceful was the flick of his wrist, so classic was the arch of his line.

But it was my line that gave the tug. Something took over for me; maybe it was instinct, maybe it was years of watching Saturday afternoon fishing shows on the TV. I yanked the line in, letting the fish play with the spring of the rod and then he broke the water in a jumping, twisting splatter. The kids all started screaming. “A fish! A fish! He’s got one!”

And I gave one last pull and landed the trout on the grass. One of the kids freed the hook and threaded an anchor line through its mouth and gills. It was a handsome prize, glimmering like silver in the sunlight.

We anchored one end of the fishline in the soil of the bank and let the fish down into the cold water and I cast my line out again.

Meanwhile the horde of children had found other playthings. There were crawdads in the mud and they were digging for them and taunting the crustaceans into nipping the air with their claws. There were also bright blue dragonflies careening across the surface of the water. Godfinches flitted from shrub to shrub. My line pulled a second time.

I played with the second one just as I had the first and pulled him in. The pro on the other side was getting just a wee bit disgusted with me, I could tell. He still hadn’t landed anything. The kids dropped their crawfish and rushed over to see the new fish.

We added the second trout to the first on the anchor line and wadded another piece of dough on the hook. I cast it out and hit my spot in the water. The sun was climbing ever higher and hotter. Water striders walked over the quiet pond surface. I hooked another one.

This one was big. He must have been the same one that the pro had hooked earlier. He fought and splashed and flipped his gleaming body back and forth, but I cranked him in and landed him. He was about 17 inches long, impressive and handsome. The pro turned away. We added the big one to the string.

I caught two more fish before the call went out for dinner.

About 50 people were lined up for the beans, salads and vegetables. After piling our plates, we walked over to the pit and loaded up on pork and trout. Then we sat in the shade with about a dozen youngsters and lazily ate till our bellies burst.

A breeze stirred our maple tree and made a low hiss. I licked my fingers and rose for another round of victuals. Heaven couldn’t be more satisfying.

The pro found us and with a look of discomfort asked, “You fish often?”

“Almost never,” I said.

“Yer doing mighty good. What you using?”

I could imagine his flybox full of hand-tied flies, each a masterpiece.

“I use doughballs.”

He winced. “If’n it works, I guess you don’t need nothing else.”

And dull practicality won out over art once again, as it so often does in America.

Later, when we cleaned the fish, it turned into an impromptu anatomy lesson for the children who followed us around all day.

“Is that a girl fish or a boy fish,” one of them asked.

“This is a female,” I answered as I gutted the second trout. “See this here? This is her egg mass.”

“Eggs! That’s her eggs,” one girl shouted. They wanted to touch.

“Here, feel that.”


“Can I have the head?” asked one of the boys.

In the distance, behind the house, we could hear Edd’s wife, Nettie, singing “Wildwood Flowers” and “Amazing Grace” to a small audience.

Nettie Presnell

Nettie Presnell

The clouds drifting across the skies, the herky-jerky of thousands of butterflies, the glistening blue of the dragonflies, the chirrup of the redwings, the splash of the trout, the laughter of children, the drawling conversation of the elders — they were all of a piece.

As the afternoon lengthened, carloads of guests began leaving and we gathered up our trout, wrapped in aluminum foil to take home to our freezer and started our dusty, gravel-filled way back off the mountain.

And as we drove off, we could see Edd, sitting on the front porch with Baxter, rocking back and forth, probably discussing rabbit hunting or the heat.

NEXT: Mountain crafts