A mini-landscape in Maine (Muffet)
Article Words : Matt Rudd | 01 October

A small taste of America

Take a trip with writer Matt Rudd as he travels around the USA, tasting some sweet American pie on the way

If I had to choose any place in the world to suffer jetlag on a Friday night, it would be Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Cars drive through the main square at anything from five to eight miles an hour, undoubtedly as a result of an effective ‘Kill your speed, not a snail’ campaign.

The streets are awash with law-abiding, coffee-drinking young people in college sweaters. Bagels and vitamin-enriched Fresh Samantha Smoothies are on hand to soothe you into your new time zone. Within an hour of my arrival, the stress of airport queues and Boston gridlock had evaporated.

It’s hard to believe that at the turn of the century, Portsmouth was a crime-infested industrial port with a sprawling red-light district and enough unruly drunks to fill a football stadium. But that was the case until the mid-1950s when the townspeople reacted against the decay and began to preserve an earlier colonial heritage.

Today heavy industry has all but gone, leaving behind a delightful cultural gem considered by Money magazine to be one of the top ten places to live in the USA.

Having finished my bagel, I took a stroll from the towering North Church down Pleasant Street, passing Stout Billy’s Home Brew Supply, Peavey’s Hardware, Mad Lydia’s Waltz and other fantastically American stores on my way. Me & Ollie’s Café promised ‘Honest Food’, which seemed entirely appropriate for such an upstanding community.

I woke annoyingly early the next day and made a beeline for Breaking New Grounds, a fabulous café that I naïvely assumed would be empty. At 6.45am on a Saturday morning (not usually a popular time of the week), it was packed to the rafters with sportily dressed locals clearly determined to make the most of their day.

A red-faced man strode in with ‘Morning is Best’ printed across his T-shirt, and everyone insisted on saying ‘Good morning’ to me, even though I was just minding my own business behind a jumbo mocha.

Down on the waterfront, joggers with more silly T-shirts (‘There’s only one thing worse than losing... not competing’) ran past the washed out yellows, reds and blues of the clapboard houses. I returned to my inn for breakfast to find the happy, if not mildly irritating, nature of New Hampshire further consolidated by the Portsmouth Herald. Page four’s lifestyle section was headlined with ‘Home-made baby blankets are great gifts’.

Simply, it's the way life should be

A few toll gates further up Route 95 I reached Maine, a state as big as the other five New England states combined but with a population less than that of tiny Rhode Island. Maine has a reputation for being a weekend getaway for Boston city slickers and I felt distinctly left out crossing the state border without a trailer, a boat, several mountain bikes, canoes or a picnic hamper the size of a fridge. Everyone else seemed to have taken the signs on the side of the highway to heart: ‘Maine: the way life should be’.

You also stick out like a sore English thumb if you don’t love fishing. So to try and blend in, I joined Captain Satch, his two sons and four angling enthusiasts for a deep-sea fishing experience on Maine’s equivalent of the African Queen. Fortunately, I didn’t have any Hemingway-style nightmares: in three hours, I caught one fish that was too small to bother cooking, and gladly put it back. Fanatical fishing isn’t my idea of fun so while the others tried everything short of dynamite, I relaxed and enjoyed the sun sinking into the calm blue water.

Discussion revolved around how safe and tranquil Maine was compared to the rest of the world. Captain Satch told me of a gas station owner who went on holiday for two weeks and left a note asking his customers to put their petrol money in a tin. When he got back, he’d been left the right money – someone had even left a tip.

I stayed overnight in Ogunquit, a buzzing T-shirt shopping mecca on the coastal highway. This level of commercialism might sound awful but was somehow appropriate for an unashamed American vacationland.

You see the same thing again and again as you travel north on Route One. Leaving the souvenir shops, galleries and ice cream parlours of one town centre, the surrounding inns, motels and gas stations give way to mini-golf courses, antique barns and Dexter’s factory outlets, and then within a few miles, the next town starts to build up again.

Neon America

It’s not the neon America you find in California but as I sat chewing a triple-decker burger in the road-side, chrome-obssessed Maine Diner, I didn’t feel it was far off.

It is possible, however, to escape from Americana, and one option is by kayak. “You are in rhythm with the universe. It’s you and me – we’re on the sea,” rambled Andy from his boat as we made our way up the estuary from Wells Beach. Protected by a long spit, the water was calm and blue. Flocks of Canadian geese waddled amongst the tall grass on the banks and the further we retreated from the coast, the less signs there were of human life.

Andy, my pony-tailed, meditating instructor for my first ever kayak experience, had travelled a lot (spiritually and physically) in Asia and had grand theories about humanity, the world and the cosmos, man. Stopping just short of saying ‘dude’ and ‘bodacious’, he was amusing rather than annoying and, with his love of the outdoors, he proved the ideal companion for a sunny morning paddle through the marshlands around Wells.

In the afternoon, I had planned a less energetic water activity – a two hour trip with the Second Chance Lobster Cruise Company – an innovative combination of lobster farming and tourist ferrying. Queuing for my ticket, I was accosted by a wrinkly holidaymaker. Americans on holiday in Maine seem predisposed to enquire where you come from and then always have a cousin in London and always expect you to know them simply because you live in London as well.

Having explained that I didn’t know a Vern from Texas even though he now lived in the same metropolis as me, I boarded the vessel and sunbathed my way along the rugged Maine coast with 15 other tourists and an increasing number of unfortunate lobster. If you thought lobster was a delicacy, a few days in New England will make you think again. According to our captain, they used to serve lobster to the prisoners... and the prisoners complained.

I concluded my meanderings along the coast with a morning walk around Laudholm Reserve. It felt good to retreat into this untouched swathe of wilderness. The Laudholm Trust was formed in the early 1980s to counter resort development, and in 1986 it bought the 1200 acres that now constitute the reserve.

Today, the fragile estuarine ecosystem’s main threat is from Japanese barberry and a rogue honeysuckle rather than motels or ice cream parlours. The countless red squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits I passed on my stroll seemed pleased with this state of affairs.

I decided to investigate...

The following day I turned inland into the tree-lined hills of New Hampshire. Mid-morning, I stopped in a drive-through town called Kezar Falls for a drink and saw a store called Ossipee Valley Outfitters. The sign outside read Y2K Survival Food so in a fit of millennial curiosity I decided to investigate. America’s gun lobby isn’t renowned for always looking on the bright side and Joe Piccininni, the store’s proprietor, was no exception.

“Suppose there’s a breakdown of law and order. You can’t rely on 911,” he said walking past the racks of high-powered rifles to show me the ceiling- high supplies of assorted 100-hour candles, hand-cranked flashlights, solar radios, non-hybrid vegetable seeds and MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). As I left, he gave me an almost hopeful smile. “Remember, there could be chaos.”

Two hours later I was in the comfort of Canterbury Shaker Village with not a gun or signed photo of Charlton Heston in sight. The Shakers – a revivalist group that broke from the Quakers in 1747 – abandoned England and arrived in the US in 1774 as a small band led by the radical, forward-thinking Ann Lee. After the mandatory phase of persecution and witch hunting, they were accepted and became particularly significant as a part of the New England community. Today, their numbers have dwindled to just seven, largely as a result of their celibate vows, but their legacy of architecture and design is one of the most delightful aspects of any trip to New England.

Unlike the Amish, Shakers didn’t reject technology. In fact they were at the forefront of modernity. In Canterbury, they were the first to have a motor car and by 1910 they even had their own power plant.

The village, one of several preserved in the region, is a testament to the Shakers’ industrious philosophy. In the surgery, a dentist’s chair is surrounded by all manner of apothecary from nightshade extract and slippery elm flour to buckthorn syrup and fir essence. The craft shops and agricultural buildings are treasure troves of time-saving gadgets like seed sowers, flat brooms and high-speed paintbrushes.

'Waste not, want not'

When I asked my guide why there was only one gravestone in the cemetery, he told me that, in line with the ‘Waste not, want not’ philosophy, the rest had been used as ironing boards. Perhaps most symbolic of all was the large section of village wall constructed with smaller stones than the rest. It had been built by a particularly determined Shaker called Eagle Stevens. He only had one arm.

I spent the night an hour further west in Enfield’s Great Stone Dwelling, once the largest residence of all 18 Shaker communities and now a beautiful inn restored room by room to its original Shaker style. As I set off the next day after a wholesome Shaker omelette, I concluded that being part of a strict religious group might not be as bad as I had previously thought.

By midday I was in Hanover, charming home to Ivy League Dartmouth students but also frequented by creatures at the opposite end of the intelligence spectrum. A popular bumper sticker in this part of the world reads ‘I brake for moose’ which, considering they weigh up to 1,400kg, seemed a trifle obvious. I happily disrupted a patrol officer, John F Kapusta, from his ticketing duties to ask why the bumper sticker campaign had been necessary.

“A moose is real stupid,” he explained. “People expect it to get out the way and just carry on driving. But it’ll just stand there like a big ol’ lump with its big ol’ teeth, and boom!”

In return, he asked if we English really call ‘hoods’ bonnets and ‘trunks’ boots, and then couldn’t believe I didn’t know his cousin Hank even though he too lived in London.

Back on the road, I crossed the Connecticut river into Vermont, keeping an eye out for large, stupid animals and overzealous state patrols. In New England, it’s easy to drive north or south on the plentiful main roads but heading east or west requires a higher level of cartographic ability.

And despite the supposed common language, stopping for directions is often of little help. Regardless of where I was or where I was going, every pump attendant I asked always replied, “You got three sets of lights and then it’s next left.” Perhaps this is some kind of state-wide, Anglophobic practical joke but getting persistently lost was fine. I found Vermont a great place to have a navigational crisis.

Pastures green

Since the word ‘Vermont’ derives from the French vert mont or ‘green mountain’ I was naturally expecting greenery. But, as I wound my confused way through the pristine wilderness, I was still genuinely surprised at how green everything actually is. The rolling hills and valleys are dissected by picture postcard rivers and streams and, although the forests are often thick, the vibrant views around many corners made my drive a pleasure.
Vermont puts England’s ‘pastures green’ to shame but of course it is much less crowded than Blighty. Evidence of human life exists mostly in the form of quaint little villages with white-steeple churches and red barns, while the city of Montpelier is the only American state capital not to have a McDonalds.

I made my base in Manchester, a town four hours south of Montpelier with no resemblance whatsoever to its English namesake. Admittedly the main strip is now dominated by designer factory outlets, but old Yankee America lives on at the top of town. Huge colonnaded properties stretch along the road from the Victorian-style Equinox Hotel, and evidently compete with one another, both on size of American flag and intensity of lawn manicure. Vermont’s Mancunians must use eyebrow tweezers instead of lawn mowers.

Further out, past verdant meadows, bales of hay and covered bridges, I stopped in the village of Dorset to try an award-winning apple-smoked venison chilli. Even though the award was only won at a local chilli festival, the speciality was, as they say, ‘to die for’. Fellow diners at the Dorset Inn were mostly green-blazered golfers from old Vermont stock and consequently the atmosphere was relaxed to near-catatonia until the arrival of four hungry New Yorkers.

As they began to order loudly, my waitress quietly explained, “Vermonters don’t like New Yorkers and vice versa. They arrive and they’re incredibly tense and like, ‘why wasn’t this done ten minutes ago’. And we’re like, ‘please just chill out.’”

I made a note to be more ‘chilled out’ in future and on the way back to Manchester, I took extra care not to run over the copious chipmunks and skunks.

After a serene day canoeing down the Battenkill River and exploring more of Vermont’s winding back roads, the thought of returning to London was a painful one. I had been exposed to nice, polite people, stunning food and a great spectrum of American wilderness for ten days, and had lost the taste for road rage, pollution and high-rise office blocks.

But on my last morning, my reintegration had already begun. The breakfast served at my motel was of uncharacteristically modest proportions and when a waitress fumbled a glass on the adjacent table, she swore to herself in irritation. It was the first expletive I’d heard for days in this land of shiny, happy people so I smiled a smile of recognition.

She didn’t smile back.