Monday, August 17, 2015

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.

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