Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Searching For Wallace Stegner - All The Difference.

 I will remember the sound of peace and quiet that surrounded me in White River Junction and at Willoughby. The sight of the mountains and the Northern Loons swimming past me in my kayak. The summer rain that would come and go, sometimes in a fury, but never staying long. The clear skies at night and the bright stars that looked close enough to touch.

 I would try to hold onto some of that peace and tranquility as I rolled back home on the Vermonter, which again was about half full. Through Bellows Falls, and Brattleboro, we picked up more passengers, and would soon be in Massachusetts where I could anticipate getting back home.

I will return next year to Greensboro, as I did the year before and I will again be challenged to find a different way to spend the adventure. Perhaps I shall return to the Highland Lodge, but doing it by train like I did 6 years ago just to talk about Wallace Stegner with the precious few people who knew anything about him is what made the adventure stand out as something a little more special. Robert Frost had written about "The Path Not Taken", and I chose the one that has made all the difference.     

Searching For Wallace Stegner - Stay Frosty.

  Part of my adventure in Northern Vermont was to not only write and sight see, but to get away from some of the stresses surrounding work back home. It was my hope that as few days away would recharge my batteries, and I would come back refreshed and inspired. However, anytime my phone rang, it was about work.

I was hoping the second day would smooth over all of that.

I had passed by Lake Willoughby in my travels last year and decided this year I would make sure to stop. I had booked a small room at the Willoughvale Inn and Bed & Breakfast, which overlooked the crystal clear glacial waters with its mountains and sheer granite cliffs rising out from either side. My room was in the back, and had a private entrance, which was nice, because I was able to keep some privacy, and hoped to get some writing down. However, seeing that there was a fleet of unused canoes and kayaks by the water... writing would have to wait.  I walked to the waters edge grabbed a small kayak, put on a life vest, and paddled out to the middle of the lake to snap a few bucket list pictures.

Now that I have that out of the way. Lets get a bite to eat.

There is not much in the way of food out here in this past of Northern Vermont. You have to find a general store, and I did mange to get some wine, cheese, crackers and fruit, as well as a couple of deviled eggs. Wolfing down the eggs, I realized crackers and cheese wasn't going to get the job done. Since the bar was right on the other side of my wall, I decided to make my way over and order a burger.

The bar had a wonderful view of the lake and mountains, so I finished my burger, ordered a Manhattan, and enjoyed it out on the porch watching the clouds change color with the setting sun.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Searching For Wallace Stegner - Miles To Go.

Lake Willoughby was to be the second stop of my 48 hour journey. Waking up to the sound of a train in White River Junction got me active pretty quickly, and I had some time to kill before my rent a car was available. Drank some coffee from the lobby, grabbed a juice and scarfed down a breakfast bar I brought with me.

Checking out of the hotel I sat down and waited for the rental company to pick me up. I was able to see just about everything that happens in town by looking over either shoulder. Soon a car with the word THRIFTY on the side of it pulled up. Guess that would be my ride.

Rising up the highway with the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont rising as well, it looked like I would have a good day in Greensboro for my writers conference. Getting off the highway in Saint Johnsbury, and retracing my path thru Danville and in to town. Pulling the car next to the tent where the conference was to take place, the rain started falling. Figures! I was a little early, and I waited for the shower to subside, before grabbing my laptop and making my way into the dark tent.

During the conference, I noticed that even though Wallace Stegner is mentioned often, and is one of the reasons that the writers series exists, the locals don't really care quite as much about what he did outside of Greensboro. I am the resident expert about his life in Saskatchewan, and to a smaller extent, in California and Utah. In this small, lovely Vermont town, the people are mostly focused on their own, and were less enthusiastic about the outside world beyond the Northeast Kingdom. "Fair enough" I thought. It really is about them and their town, so I sat back and listened to three elderly gentlemen talk at length about memoir writing.

One of them then looked at me and noticed my laptop. It was then that I was referred to as being part of the "new generation of writers" in Greensboro. I explained that my penmanship is horrible and my hand cant keep up with my thoughts, so blogging and writing on a laptop is much better suited for my short attention span and sloppy handwriting. He knew I was a little caught off-guard, and told me later that Stegner once told him that he was considering quitting the business of writing because he couldn't find a good fountain pen anymore. These men were giants at their professions, and I am really just a pretender among them, trying to get noticed somehow, in an effort to figure out where it could lead to next.

Writing to make sense of it all.

I paid close attention to them as they spoke, hoping I would learn something among their golden words. As the conference ended, a huge rain storm struck, and nobody could hear their conversation with the sound of the downpour on the canvas tent. It was time to wrap things up, and so I took my laptop, and briskly walked to my rented car to head to Lake Willoughby.  

Searching for Wallace Stegner - Paths Not Yet Taken.

A hot, humid summer sky greeted me the day I was to set out on my latest adventure surrounding the legacy of one of the nation's most versatile and under appreciated authors. I was embarking on a 48 hour excursion starting out by train and ending the same way. Traveling along the newly created route that would take me from my home in Northampton, Massachusetts to White River Junction, Vermont. Staying overnight at the historic Hotel Coolidge, and renting a car to meet with fellow writers and other cultural enthusiasts in the tiny town of Greensboro.

       Following the writers workshop, I would then stay at the equally historic Willoughvale Bed and Breakfast overlooking Lake Willoughby. The latter caught the imagination of Robert Frost, who figured prominently in Stegner's life. Early on in Wallace's career, he looked up to Frost. Though he was a Fiction writer, and Frost a Poet, they saw similarities in one another. The fact that Frost took a shine to the younger Stegner only made that connection a little stronger. Together they would eventually help form the Bread Load Writers School near Middlebury College (where I have performed many times over the years with a band I sing in, entertaining the young undergraduates).

      Vermont in general always helps spark my imagination and I have a soft spot in my heart for the State, since my mother's side of the family are from there, so when the train line came through my town, I thought it would be noteworthy to re-create the adventure I took by train to Montana and back, to trace Stegner's roots in Saskatchewan, only to do it much closer by in his long time summer home.

DAY ONE - Town Without Pity
Hartford, Vermont.
Not the Hartford I was born in...

Better known as White River Junction. Home of the defunct Catamount Ale, and currently home to the Center for Cartoon Studies. This would be my first stop on the journey. My wife dropped me off at the Northampton Station, and the train arrived 10 minutes early.

 I hopped on the half full train with my small suitcase, and started taking pictures of the scenery as i went by. The route hugged the winding Connecticut River as it went through Greenfield, Brattleboro and Bellows Falls. Crossing over to the New Hampshire side in Claremont and then back to Vermont in Ascutney/Springfield, I noticed the Windsor-Cornish covered bridge (one of the longest in the world). The journey only took 2 & 1/2 hours, and I was soon back on the street staring at the one horse railroad town of White River Junction.

The Hotel Coolidge is a fascinating place. Built in the 1800s, Lillian Gish stayed here while filming the landmark motion picture "Way Down East", and the whole place seems encased in amber, frozen in time when things were looking up.

Over the decades I would deliberately avoid the place, because it was so run down and depressing. However, recent years have seen the town slowly making a comeback.  A couple of fancy restaurants, packed with well-dressed folks spruced up Main Street. I immediately decided I would not be eating at either one of them. I was alone, and wasn't all that hungry. I checked into the hotel and was greeted by a pleasant woman who gave me my keys and I found myself in a nice, simple, yet spacious room, with a view of Gates Street and Main Street. Outside my window was a re-painted sign for the former Gates Hotel, and in black and white the letters clearly denoted.


and a broken neon sign above the entrance saying "vacancy"

No longer a hotel, and merely an apartment house. Just to the right was a bar called FILLING STATION. I figured I would visit it at some point. A group of men were watching Donald Trump talking to a huge crowd on the television. NASCAR memorabilia adorned the place. The bartender was pleasant enough, even if I didn't totally fit in. A couple of people looked at me odd, but that could have been because this was a townie bar, and I did not look familiar. I bought a roast beef sub from a nearby pizza place and brought it back to the dive bar, where I ordered a second beer, and quietly ate my dinner before heading back to my hotel room. My head hit the pillow and I was lulled to sleep by a passing freight train as a light rain began to fall.

I woke up the next morning to another train, and saw that the sun was out and it was a warm summer day. I showered and descended into the lobby, where I found coffee and orange juice in a historic dinging room. I could imagine Lillian Gish hanging out with her director or by herself. Much of the hotel is as it was when it got a makeover in the 1920s. A black telephone hung in one of the corridors next to giant iron doors that could seal off one of the corridors. Why? I don't know. Most everything in this town closes up by 9PM. Even the dive bar was closed by then, and the hotel itself looked to be maybe mostly empty on a Tuesday. Fine by me. I enjoyed the peace and quiet, as I brought up the tunes on my laptop.

"Town Without Pity" by Gene Pitney came on, and I laughed. How fitting, I thought, as I heard another freight train run through the sleepy town. However, between the construction and the useful brick warehouses that are so a part of the revival that goes on in other cities in the northeast, it won't be long before White River Junction gets it's much needed revival. I can imagine it happening in my lifetime. But in the meantime, I am in a brick railroad hotel, beneath a broken clock tower, with a bar called the Filling Station on one side, a Planned Parenthood on the other, and in between it all... a torn up Main Street.

I figured there would be stones in the road.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Lillian Gish On Ice!

Researching a place to stay on the first leg of my 48 Hour Artist Retreat in Vermont, I found a vintage hotel located across the railroad station where I could get off the Amtrak, check into and explore a little downtown.

It even has a little history. Lillian Gish stayed here while filming the 1920 classic "Way Down East".

The hotel was last renovated back then, and I hear it hasn't changed much since, which is good.
I want it to resemble the same time frame from when I stayed at the Stegner House in Saskatchewan (which was built in 1914).

Robert Frost at Lake Willoughby

"I see it's a fair, pretty sheet of water,
Our Willoughby! How did you hear of it?
I expect, though, everyone's heard of it.
In a book about ferns? Listen to that!" - "A Servant to Servants" - Robert Frost

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

What's In A Name?

Hartford, Vermont?

Where's That?

If you mention White River Junction, then you might get a familiar response, but that is what town WRJ is actually located within.

I was born in Hartford, so I find it a curious coincidence. 

Not that the two towns are much alike - Hartford, CT is a state capitol and hundreds of thousands of  people live in the immediate area. Not to mention the 9-5 workforce.

Hartford Vermont is a sleepy railroad town, without much going on, other than the Amtrak that stops in WRJ.

However, over recent years, White River Junction has found a little appeal among artists and hipsters - drawn to the brick warehouses near any kind of significant transportation that involves a rail system. Throw in the fact that Dartmouth College is only a few miles away in Hanover, and you have the makings of a revival.

It's still early in the game, but it seems a logical bet that of all the cities in Vermont that have revived themselves of recent years (with Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, Bennington and Montpelier having their share of cultural upswings, and Burlington being downright metropolitan) White River Junction stands to be the next in line.

So part of my journey to the Writers Forum in Greensboro will involve taking the train to WRJ from the new station in Northampton, and getting to stay in the town to see if the buzz is for real.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Riding To Make Sense Of It All

It was in 2009 - I embarked on a three day journey from Western Massachusetts to Southwestern Saskatchewan. The drive was only about 90 minutes of the third day I had to travel. The other two days were going by rail from Springfield to Havre, Montana VIA Chicago.

Last year, I spent a couple of days in Greensboro, Vermont, to stay in a small cottage overlooking Caspian Lake, which was where Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner spent half of his summers, doing little but relaxing, and finding inspiration in the solitude amid the pristine surroundings of the Northeastern Kingdom. I found the area much like I found Eastend, which was by looking at maps, and reading various websites regarding anything Stegner related.

Although he was a Fiction writer - Stegner vividly described landscapes and villages made most locals suspicious, and though various interviews with the author, his family and friends. It was clear that Greensboro was indeed his summer town, and it was only about 4 hours away. So last summer, (after an exploratory day trip the previous year) I hopped into my newish car, and drove all over the Northeast Kingdom, and attending a writers conference in Greensboro, where I got to tell my story about being in Saskatchewan living in the house Wallace lived in as a child, and inspired him to write the novel 'The Big Rock Candy Mountains', which is one of the first great books about living in the west during the late pioneer days.

 Greensboro is much different than Eastend. It's greener, for one thing.

A small, disconnected, yet pleasant village that increases in size in the summer when the rich folks come to vacation. Stegner was one of them, and wrote about the balance between locals and part-timers in his followup novel "Second Growth". At first glance, Greensboro is no different than any other lake-driven rural tourist spot in Northern New England, and that is the was Stegner portrayed it in his book. The town was called "Westwick" (Eastend had been called "Whitemud" named after the river that runs through town).

I enjoyed staying in the small cottage that overlooked Caspian Lake, and I was tempted to book it again this summer, as I return to the Writers conference for a second year in a row. However, I found it was a little too much cottage for what I needed, and for less money than what I wanted to pay. I balanced it out by a retro-themed night at Injun Joe's Motor Court, which was interesting for one night, but not really a story I wanted to revisit, regardless of it being a bargain!

Piling on the miles on my car, I hit the road and discovered nearby Lake Willoughby. While I didn't stay overnight, I wanted to check out more of it than a quick drive by would allow next time I had the chance. With the views it afforded, it might be a great spot. Robert Frost thought so. The place has attracted many artists, writers and historians over the centuries.

Recently, Amtrak moved the route for the Vermonter train from Amherst to Northampton. They changed some of the times, so that taking a train to Vermont to stay overnight somewhere could be a possibility. I thought that repeating the process of taking the train to a small rural town on the way, and renting a car to complete the journey would be an enjoyable experience. Since we are being strongly encouraged to take the train, now that it runs straight up I-91 and the station is only a couple of miles away, I figured it would be a fitting way to keep the story going.

And so it shall be.