We Should Have Kept Our Mouth Shut

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – I suspect that most people from away who come to peep at our fall foliage, ski our mountains, or spend a few days at an inn or an Airbnb have no concept of the ancient forces that shaped our land or the human history that’s spiced our own appreciation of it. That’s probably as it should be. Look what advertising has done for the Adirondacks or the White Mountains, the road to Stowe in high season, I-95 down the coast of Maine in August. And then there are Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, where the crowding is epidemic, but nobody seems to mind. Just yesterday some friends and I set out to take a scenic one-mile walk around an island in Portland Harbor on Sunday morning. The parking lots were full – except for one handicapped spot that the guard let us use after I held up my cane. The conviction has grown to a certainty with me that those of us who lived in beautiful places 50 years ago should have kept our mouths shut.

When an invitation arrived to visit for one night a pair of old friends in Falmouth, just north of Portland, I thought for a few moments what the drive was likely to be like. The days of hopping into whatever passed for a car at the time and just taking off are long past. The traffic is heavier almost everywhere, and the romantic pleasures of night driving have dissipated. So I checked the Internet, of course: Hmm…about three and a half hours; with a McDonald’s pit stop (I’ve recently discovered the surprising impact of a cup of black coffee and an apple fritter), about four hours. My traveling companion, coming from north of Boston to meet us there, would need only two hours and change to make it. And now, with the marvel of hands-free phone communication, we could keep in touch about our relative progress.

Meeting time was 10:00 Saturday morning, which meant for me a six-o’clock departure. That was just like old times, when work started early. Except that this isn’t old times. So I packed everything the night before and put into the car stuff I was bound to forget, set two alarm clocks, and went to bed early. It was the last day of Daylight Savings Time, so I left next morning in the dark, a fresh cup of coffee beside me, alert for wandering crepusculars, and envisioning the journey before me, while the disembodied voice in the dashboard announced imminent turns and changes of route number.

He needn’t have bothered, at least until I got into the maze of streets and roads that seem to wander willy-nilly through the suburbs of Portland. I used to travel some of this route fairly often on my way to a job on the coast of Maine and, until the coast got crowded, on vacations with my family.

It’s an old truism that traveling north and south in New England is far easier than east and west. For that – and here’s where an appreciation of ancient agents helps – we can thank the collision of two tectonic plates and, much later, moving sheets of ice.

The collision of the Proto-European Plate and the Proto-American plate turned a lot of New England into the semblance of one of those cars used in crash tests. The continental shelf off the Adirondacks was crumpled into the Green Mountains, and what became New Hampshire resulted from volcanic activity along the line between the two plates. Then, after millennia of erosion, the Ice Ages sent sheets of ice, some over a mile thick, to sort of sand things smooth. You can easily spot the “chatter marks” of ice scraping across bedrock; our woods are in many places strewn with “erratics,” boulders dropped by the ice as it melted; and a quick look at a chart of the coast of Maine near, for example, Harpswell, makes pretty clear the direction of the ice sheets’ flow.

I keep up a running monologue with Hagar, my car, as we travel. “Let’s see if we can get to Saint Johnsbury before sunrise,” I urged him. “That’s where we turn a little south for a while, and we won’t have the sun in our eyes. I hope you noticed, by the way, that I cleaned the inside of your windshield. Should be better.”

A little later: “That’s Molly’s Falls Pond. We’re just about out of the Saint Lawrence watershed and into the Connecticut.” And so it went – into Crawford Notch, where we left the Connecticut for the Saco, which we followed all the way through the commercial choke point of Conway. Then, with Toffee (the name of the Irish-inflected voice in the dash) picking up the navigation, we threaded our way east at last to the announcement that our destination was on our right. That always elicits a sigh of relief.

I don’t consider myself much of a sybarite, but must admit that over the years certain pleasures have become more attractive. The highly unusual warmth of our November thus far meant that, after a nap, we could sit on the sunny deck of our hosts’ home, chat without a break, watch the Maine coon cat maneuver into attack position at the base of a squirrel-busy tree, and – after five – sip fine scotch. Dinner was “beer-can” chicken done to perfection on the grill. A fire pit kept us warm as the air cooled down after sunset. A waxing moon crept through bare branches toward open sky. Then, after the dinner things had been put away, we donned bathing suits (we were all once involved in Outward Bound, but that was long ago) and slid into a four-person hot tub that bubbled and massaged while we watched the moon and Jupiter slide slowly westward. Then, steeped in luxury, we toddled off to the sleep of the just and the solvent.

The rest of our very brief stay was just as pleasant: brunch at a great family-run restaurant on the waterfront; the aforementioned walk around an island; visits to a couple of lighthouses (our hosts have been history docents in Portland); and at noon, back into Hagar. I punched “Home,” and off we went. The highways were uncluttered, and once we passed the attractions of Jackson and Attitash, wide open. “Okay, Hagar,” I said, “let’s see what you can do. I want to get home by sundown.” He showed me, and we did.