Yankee Grand Tour
first published in New England Journeys, no. 2,
Ford Times special edition, 1954
For the motorist on tour New England has only one drawback: no matter how much time he may spend there, he will want to stay longer and see more. He will find scenic beauty everywhere; no other part of the country has more historical or architectural interest or so much literary interest. His tour should be planned to at least touch the various Yankee regions that compose a remarkably diversified landscape and a remarkably unified way of life.
The Mohawk Trail enters Massachusetts at the crest of the Taconics, which are called Mountains, whereas the higher and more rugged uplans just to the eastward are the Berkshire Hills. Williamstown is in the valley between them and there are two excellent reasons for turning south here. One is to see the Massachusetts towns -- Lenox, Stockbridge, and others near them - which the millionaires of three generations ago, in the age of the Moguls, made famous by building there such grandiloquent summer estates as were rivaled then only at Newport and will never be rivaled anywhere again. Here is where you first see rural New England, with its white farmhouses and the stone walls that divide the fields and represent such backbreaking labor. And here you first find yourself using the adjective "serene" that describes the whole Yankee countryside.
The other reason for turning south on U.S. 7 is to reach and explore a beautiful area ignored by many tourists: the northwestern quarter of Connecticut. When you cross the line, the Berkshires become the Litchfield Hills, of gentler and more open slopes. Agriculture is more affluent here than in most of New England; the fields have a tailored look, the woodlots are swept. Such towns as Canaan, Goshen, Litchfield, Simsbury have no plutocratic past but they belong to an aristocratic tradition and there is a dignified elegance in the big houses set back in deep lawns. Unlike most New England towns they are not built around a central green or common but they have the same wealth of elms, the same fanatical neatness and worship of white paint, the same quiet. This very individual region extends as far south as Waterbury and as far east as Hartford. Hartford is on New England's largest river, the Connecticut, and everyone should travel at least part of its beautiful valley.
If you turn north at Williamstown almost at once you reach Vermont -- and you may never want to leave. The Berkshires have now become the Green Mountains, which, apart from Lake Champlain, are the dominant scenic feature of the state. They are less precipitous and less heavily wooded than the White Mountains of New Hampshire but contain such striking peaks as Camel's Hump and Mt. Mansfield. Their finest beauties are half hidden, to be sought in the narrow north-south valleys that are called gaps or gulfs, with an occasional notch such as Smuggler's. State Highway 100 twists through one such from Weston to West Bridgewater and another one from Stockbridge to Moretown; and whatever valley you may be in, there will be others to the east and west. Travel the dirt roads, the hill roads and "shun-pikes" (they enabled travelers to shun the tolls on the old turnpikes), and be sure to cross at least one high ridge, preferably Lincoln Gap. Make one of the cross-state diagonals, too, say Burlington to Bradford or Rutland to Bellows Falls. Speed is impossible on any Vermont road and that is just as well, for leisureliness will be richly rewarded. In the valleys watch for the crumbling, moss-covered dams that make kids' swimming holes now but once supplied power for village mills. In the hills, look for the abandoned farms which "summer folks" have not reclaimed - fruit trees and strayed garden flowers deep in the woods. Most of all learn the little Vermont towns -- Newfane, Bradford, Thetford, many like them -- with the fine spire of the meeting-house rising above the elm-bordered common, the town hall, the exquisite houses.
The landscape of New Hampshire is more closed in. The central third of the state, its most famous area, is a zone of mountains and lakes. The most beautiful lake is the largest, Winnipesaukee, but in the summer it is also the most populous and you may prefer a smaller one such as Newfound. Of the celebrated notches, Crawford is the most spectacular, Franconia the most picturesque, and Pinkham the most beautiful. The Presidentials dominate the other mountain ranges and their highest peak is Mt. Washington, but there are other memorable ones elsewhere, Moosilauke to the west for instance, and Chocorua to the east. Be sure to see the village of Orford in the Connecticut Valley, with its long mall and row of seven houses that have been called the most distinguished architectural group in New England. Far to the north is Dixville Notch, wild and aloof, surrounded by forest.
But the big stretch of the North Country, new England's only wilderness, is northern Maine. Roads are far apart and so circuitous that you must do a lot of driving, but this demi-paradise of woodsmen and sportsmen is not to be missed. From Rangeley Lake to Moosehead and from Moosehead on either north or east to Canada you will drive for hours at a time through unbroken forest, and will pass names known to all fishermen. You reach "way down East" in Aroostook and Washington counties, with Eastport the farthest tip. There you head west along the magnificent Maine coast. It is best seen by boat, of course, but no motorist will be disappointed. Deep inlets, small coves, cliffs that become mountains rising from the sea, islands, Acadia National Park, Penobscot Bay shining in the sun, the lordly houses of Wiscasset, salt air and the smell of pines -- it is a constant delight.
In the rest of New England the scenery is less memorable, though the long sand spit of Cape Cod has a unique fascination and Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay is very beautiful. Mostly, however, interest centers on our native roots, the American past that there is many strata deep and every layer absorbing, on the Yankee industries, on the schools and colleges. Boston belongs to everyone. (Tour it on foot!) Concord is the only literary shrine in the United States that has beauty appropriate to its fame. Newburyport's High Street is magnificent with the houses built by sea-captains and China merchants in the maritime age. That great period has left its mark on other coastal cities and towns, New Bedford for instance, Salem, Providence, Westerly, New London, Stonington. U.S. 1, which takes you down this coast, will show you great industrial centers, too. But you ought to seek out the memory of Yankee inventors and their machines farther inland as well, at Hartford, for instance.
In fact, by my book you ought to turn round and head back toward Vermont, for U.S. 1 is taking you toward New York, which is all very well, but it is not the white houses, the tranquil hills, the mist-hung landscapes, and the Yankee towns where all Americans, no matter from how far away, have the strange and satisfying feeling that they have come home.
(with two photographs by Robert Holland: "Mount Mansfield and the village of Underhill Center," and "Schoodic Point, Acadia National Park, on the coast of Maine.")