Solving for pie…

The most pressing question on our road trips is not the calculation of distance from Point A to Point B, but from Point A to “WHERE DO WE HAVE LUNCH”?

We said farewell to the Berkshires, heading east and then due north. I was thrilled with our route as it meant several hours driving up the eastern border of Vermont, a new – and so beautiful! – state for me.

Everyone has a different definition of what constitutes having “visited” a state. I think we can all agree that flyovers do NOT count (which is why despite a score of airplane window views of the Grand Canyon I must sadly admit that I still haven’t seen it). If you’re a purist, I suppose you would say one should spend a night somewhere, excepting the dreaded experience of sleeping over in an airport terminal. But we didn’t have time to settle in, so we decided that stopping for a meal could count as having actually been to Vermont.

Lunchtime called to us about the time we rolled into Chester, which is tucked into the eastern edge of the Green Mountains. Technically larger than a village with its population of 3,005 so we will call it a small, small town. A charming town! I don’t know about the other 3,000 folks but the 5 we met were disarmingly friendly and so welcoming that they completely dispelled any notions we had about those stand-offish New Englanders.

The first two people we met wasted no time in telling us exactly where we should go to eat. “There!” they pointed “You have to eat there! See the sign?”

Well, yes we did, and while I don’t ever remember having pie for lunch before, it is apparently a thing in Chester, Vermont. We might be in the heart of the northeast, but we were going to dine at the Southern Pie Café.

Good thing we got there when we did – they were almost sold out of pie! I had coconut and the CE had peach. A la mode, OF COURSE!

Since it was, after all, a fall day, I ordered some hot cider to sip while we chatted it up with our new friends, two more local ladies who told us all about themselves. One of them had lived in Chester her entire life and that means a long time since I am not sure she was a day under 90.

We still had miles to go so we said a reluctant goodbye to Chester and moved on up the highway.

And so went our lovely day in Vermont. You might calculate a “visited” state differently than we do, but if you didn’t have pie, then I say you did your math wrong!

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Her House of Mirth.

We have a thing for author pilgrimages. We tromped to Asheville, N.C. to visit Thomas Wolfe’s home (so central to his masterpiece Look Homeward, Angel); to Key West to visit Ernest Hemingway’s home and his six-toed cats (we also followed him to Petoskey and to Sun Valley) and had a memorable moment in dusty Salinas paying respects to John Steinbeck.

But until now, our favorite of favorites had eluded us. The CE and I discovered Edith Wharton back in the 1980’s and our affection for her has never waned – I think he has read The House of Mirth at least three times, and I fully intend to re-read The Age of Innocence. For us, Edith Wharton defines the Gilded Age, and while Henry James is the go-to for many on that subject, I am of the opinion that Henry (Edith’s close friend and literary rival) falls short by taking too long to unravel his plots. By the time I recently finished The Wings of the Dove, I was ready to do in Milly Theale with my own bare hands. So I am decidedly Team Edith.

So much so that I even spent a precious morning in Paris back in 2011 tracking down Edith’s address on the Rue Varenne, to whence she fled after the irrevocable breakdown of her husband and thus, her marriage.

But that all came later.

What we’ve long longed to see is The Mount, the Berkshires retreat Edith built in 1902 in Lenox, Massachusetts. It was a summer home where she could entertain – Henry James was a frequent guest – but also a place where she could escape the social rigors of her class and, with her little dogs at her side – write, write and write. It was here that she wrote both The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence.

The Mount is somewhat modest compared to other Gilded Age mansions, in keeping with her determined view of it as a place to which she could withdraw. In a 1904 letter to a friend, Edith wrote “How I miss that beautiful white silence that enclosed us at the Mount, & enabled me to possess my soul!”

The tour was 5 star excellent with a wonderfully engaged docent. Since none of Edith’s own furniture occupies the home (she packed it all up and sent it on to Paris when she departed The Mount in 1911) we were actually encouraged to sit on the chairs, which allowed us to experience the rooms as if we were truly Edith’s guests.

Of particular interest was Edith’s library…

and her dining room, where she broke from the tradition of a long grand table in a firm belief that a smaller group at a round table made for a more convivial gathering.

The most significant room, however, is Edith’s bedroom, where she lay in her bed writing each day from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., dropping the finished pages on the floor to be collected and typed.

This is the bucolic view she had from her bedroom:

I think what I love most about Edith Wharton’s books is the way she portrays the small, personal calamities of life that we all experience. She knew of what she wrote. A complicated relationship with her domineering, social-climbing mother was a constant trial for Edith, and led her into a disastrous marriage. Teddy Wharton checked all the boxes – wealthy family and social standing – for Edith’s mother, but his crumbling psyche spelled doom for their relationship. It is now widely believed that Teddy was bi-polar.

Edith’s dogs, pictured above with Teddy, lent the comfort to her days that her marriage could not.

The pups are a prominent and whimsical feature of the house tour:

But whimsy was ultimately in short supply. Just as her masterpiece The House of Mirth ends in tragedy, so did Edith’s time at The Mount. The home she had built as a refuge had to be sold when she left her marriage and decamped to Paris as an independent, self-supporting woman. Our docent told us that Edith never returned to have a look at The Mount, likely because the memories of what she had and lost were too painful.

Edith was never to be happy in love, but she found a measure of happiness in her life in France and was ultimately awarded the French Legion of Honor for her charitable and advocacy work during World War I.

If I could sit at that round dining table at The Mount and invite anyone to dinner, Edith would be at the top of my list.

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Living the Gilded Age Dream.

Those robber baron millionaires of the late nineteenth century left plenty of evidence of their beautiful excesses – there are the “cottages” at Newport, R.I., the Vanderbilt “Biltmore” monstrosity in Asheville, N.C., and any number of Manhattan mansions long since converted to hotels, condominium buildings and even department stores. Bergdorf’s was once – wait for it – a Vanderbilt mansion.

The CE and I have long brushed up against the era in our reading and we’ve taken many a tour, but now the excitement (mine) and mild dread (the CE’s) built as we made our way west to the Berkshires where we would be lodging at Wheatleigh, a bona fide vestige of the Gilded Age nestled in the woods between Lenox and Stockbridge Massachusetts.

The Wheatleigh mansion was built by Henry H. Cook, a New York banker who hit the big time by investing in the Union Pacific railroad. The Italianate mansion, a wedding gift to his daughter, was completed in 1893.

Hence the CE’s dread. He’s perfectly willing to admire relics of the distant past, but spending the night in them is a different story.

Ah, but even he softened a bit as we made our arrival at the lovely entrance.

I refrained from mentioning how similar it looks to its 19th-century self (but couldn’t help but think that it’s a lot better preserved than my 20th-century self.) This is a photo of the very same front entrance in 1893:

The entry opens onto an elegant living room:

While I was taking in the grand setting, the CE began to register the teeniest bit of angst. Because, while Wheatleigh is a very spacious mansion for say, one family, as an inn with just nineteen rooms, the guests are, by definition going to mingle somewhat – well, cozily – with one another and the staff.

The staff has clearly thought this through and for all the happenstance encounters in the hallways and on the grounds, each of them somehow maintains the warmth of an easy familiarity but also the most impeccably perfect distance of professionalism. We were very impressed.

I’d made our reservation almost a year in advance, before that $1.3 trillion giveaway triggered rampant inflation. But even at that time a night at the inn was a pricey proposition for those of us who did not make a killing in the Gilded Age. So when our room heater proved uncooperative and we struggled to decipher the inner thoughts of the shower fixtures…

the CE took the opportunity to remind me of how much he DOES NOT LIKE OLD BUILDINGS. “How much are we paying to stay here???”

“But it’s so beautiful!” I implored.

And the grounds! He had to agree with me about the grounds. Exquisite, and originally designed, of course, by that god walking amidst mortals, Frederick Law Olmstead.

We changed rooms, hoping for a less persnickety heater. Same shower fixtures. But everything else so very lovely. I will always remember The Portico dining room, which doubles as the inn’s breakfast room:

I will especially remember it because when I sat down one morning for coffee I slowly realized that the gentleman bent over his laptop a few tables away from me was none other than actor/comedian/writer/art collector Steve Martin.

Yes. I was tempted. All that coziness and mingling of guests, right? But I restrained myself and pretended to have absolutely no idea who he was.

Since we couldn’t spend the entire day at the inn decoding the shower fixtures or stalking Steve Martin, we went on a field trip to the nearby Norman Rockwell Museum, its walls lined with the Saturday Evening Post covers the CE and I remember from our childhoods.

Especially fun was the docent-led visit to Rockwell’s studio, which was moved to the grounds of the museum in 1986.

Alas, Norman Rockwell is no longer with us, nor is the Gilded Age. It was great fun to visit them both. Some things are lost in the passage of time but lucky for us some traditions remain…and you don’t need to live in a mansion to enjoy them!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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A Thoreau-ly lovely afternoon.

When I planned our trip, I pictured that Sunday stretching out endlessly before us. Surely we would take in every historical and natural amazement between Boston and our destination in the Berkshires.

But somehow we had frittered away the morning…hey, it’s not easy to say farewell to Boston. And then, rooted to the spot at Lexington Green, it was well past noon before we climbed into the car and headed for – where, exactly?

The plan had been to explore Minute Man National Historical Park – at the very least the Visitor’s Center, Concord, the Old North Bridge – but time had slipped away, so we decided to move on a few miles down the road and nearly a century ahead from the Revolutionary War to visit Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau made a different kind of history during his 1845-1847 stay.

Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond gave him status as a pioneer of ecology and he is remembered for his 1854 book Walden; or, Life in the Woods, which chronicles his two-year stay. You may not know much about his passion for Transcendentalism under mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, but you’ve probably heard his famous quote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

He apparently felt sorry for the rest of us because we weren’t enjoying the same view as he did:

I have always pictured Walden Pond as a tiny little tadpole-shaped mud puddle so the real thing was a surprise to me. New Englanders are apparently tougher to impress than the rest of us, and insist of referring to what I would call a full-fledged lake as merely a “pond”.

There is a trail you can hike around the pond (if only we had allowed more time!) and it is also a popular destination for open water swimming. (We chatted a bit with a swimmer about to enter the water – she said the temperature was hovering around 60 degrees Fahrenheit that day! ) Since hypothermia didn’t really appeal to us, we admired Thoreau’s woods

and then climbed back up the hill to view the replica of his cabin:

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” was Thoreau’s strident command, and he lived his philosophy. In a somewhat withering but highly readable New Yorker article on him (October 12, 2015) author Kathryn Schulz observes that in Walden “Thoreau lays out a program of abstinence so thoroughgoing as to make the Dalai Lama look like a Kardashian.”

Despite another of Thoreau’s famous quotes “All good things are wild and free”, the state of Massachusetts charges the hefty sum of $30 per car for out-of-state visitors to Walden Pond ($8 for residents) so you’ll need a Kardashian-sized budget to gaze upon Thoreau’s cabin. It is – grudgingly – worth it.

By now it was mid-afternoon and since we wanted to reach Lenox before dark, I had to greatly splice our drive on Massachusetts 2/2A, otherwise known as the Mohawk Trail. Originally a footpath used by Native American tribes to traverse the sixty-some miles from New York’s Hudson Valley to the hills of western Massachusetts, it is now a famed scenic drive.

We were a bit early for peak fall color, but there was just enough to tantalize us:

Because of time constraints we could not dawdle, but I was especially intrigued when I read about the “Bridge of Flowers” in Shelburne Falls. It did not disappoint!

Move over, NYC High Line – the Bridge of Flowers was created way back in 1929 to transform an obsolete trolley bridge that spanned the Deerfield River into a blooming vision. Even near the end of its season (it is closed from October 31 until April 1) it was lovely:

What a lovely travel day this was, filled with unexpected gifts of history, forest and flowers. A very good day, indeed.

“The question is not what you look at,
but what you see.”

– Henry David Thoreau
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A Revolutionary Moment.

Perhaps we felt so immersed in how historic a city Boston is that we forgot to actually go in search of the history.

We were on the tourist trail, on the art trail, on the retail trail and I, for one, was on the dirty martini trail (my first one ever!) but we completely failed to seek out the famed Freedom Trail.

Chastened, but driven by our itinerary to move on up the road toward our next destination, we decided to make amends by heading toward Minute Man National Historic Park where the American Revolutionary War changed the history of our country – and the world.

It was the early morning of April 19, 1775 when, warned the night before by Paul Revere’s ride, seventy of John Parker’s militiamen gathered on Lexington Green to face 800 British soldiers who had been dispatched by British General Thomas Gage to disarm the militias and confiscate their ammunition.

As the redcoats strode onto the green, Captain Parker ordered his troops to disperse. A shot rang out – it’s source remains disputed – and the British fired on the retreating colonists, ultimately killing eight of them.

George Washington wrote in his diary that this day “the first blood was spilt in the dispute with Great Britain” and it has since gone down in history as “the shot heard ’round the world“. But until I stood on Lexington Green myself, I don’t think I fully comprehended this historic moment.

When we parked our car on the street next to the Green – there were only a handful of visitors that Sunday morning and we more or less had it all to ourselves – I initially regarded the charming, small-ish green town square as an opportunity to put a “check in a box”, a dutiful “I can say I’ve been there”.

But when I actually stood in the spot on the Green where the colonists beheld the oncoming British soldiers, I was unexpectedly moved by the experience. Suddenly, it became real.

I could not begin to imagine the courage it took those outnumbered ragtag militiamen to stand where I did in the dappled shade and face down the British. Captain John Parker’s prophetic admonition to his Minutemen is preserved on this memorial stone placed in the spot where they stood:

Just a few steps across the street from this spot is Buckman Tavern, where we were told the Minutemen gathered liquid courage prior to the fateful encounter:

Inside the museum is a gift shop and a room set up to represent the tavern’s interior as it was on that day:

Seven of the eight men killed on the Green that day are buried beneath this obelisk erected in 1799:

From there the battle spilled to Concord and the road back to Boston. And from there to the perilous, costly war that finally bought our freedom when the British recognized our independence in 1783.

We’ve all (those of us whose school curriculum actually taught history, that is) heard the story so many times it almost seems like a fable. But it felt very, very real to stand on Lexington Green that day and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity. In driving time it was just half an hour from Boston, but it was an experience of almost 250 years in time travel.

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Pretty as a Picture: the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Two days was not enough time to do even Boston proper properly. But we did check one highlight off my list, the Venetian-inspired villa that wealthy collector Isabella Stewart Gardner built as her home in 1899-1901 and left to posterity as a museum.

As you can see, it’s not your average museum. The less charitable among us, namely the CE, insists on referring to it as a “flea market”, which is unfair and untrue, because how many John Singer Sargent paintings do you see in your average flea market?

El Jaleo, 1882 – John Singer Sargent

And likewise, how many Titian masterpieces?

The Rape of Europa – 1560-1562 – Titian

Unlike other museums, which are continually in the process of being edited and curated, this one was the lived-in home of an avid collector, who stipulated in her will that not one item was ever to be changed or moved out of place. Thus, there are enormous panels of fabric stapled to walls and architectural elements affixed amidst priceless paintings in every room. If it all becomes too much, you can always look out a window at the lovely grounds.

Or into the spectacular courtyard:

Isabella Stewart Gardner was born in 1840 into wealth, and then married into greater wealth, granting her an unlimited purse with which to indulge her twin passions of travel and collecting art. I came across mention of her in the recently published The Personal Librarian (Marie Benedict), a somewhat fictionalized biography of Belle da Costa Greene, who was personal librarian to J. P. Morgan. Famed art historian Bernard Berenson was a central figure in both women’s lives, as a business associate to Gardner and illicit lover to Greene.

Along with Sargent and Berenson, writer Henry James was also a part of Gardner’s inner circle. This portrait of him was painted by his nephew, William James, Jr:

Among the “emerging artists” of the day encouraged by Gardner were James McNeill Whistler. His Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, 1865 might be my favorite memory of our visit to the museum:

Gardner’s personal favorite was Christ Carrying the Cross (15015-1510 – Circle of Giovanni Bellini) which leans inauspiciously above a small writing desk – it would be easy to miss entirely!

Amidst the jumble of paintings and artifacts, we occasionally happened upon what appeared to be an empty frame. Had we done our homework before coming to the museum we would have learned about the 1990 theft of thirteen works of art, including Johannes Ver Meer’s The Concert, considered to be the most valuable of any stolen work of art.

There remains a $10 million reward for the unsolved theft, shrouded in mystery and suspected by some to be connected to organized crime figures.

When we return to Boston, as we most assuredly will, the CE has made it clear he wants to visit the nearby Museum of Fine Arts, where I’m sure there’s a place for everything and everything in its place. I want to see it, too – but I’m most definitely going to wander back over to visit Isabella and all her treasures.

Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888 – John Singer Sargent

IF YOU GO: buy your tickets online in advance – people were being turned away the day we were there because of limited capacity.

Come ready to climb stairs – there are lots of them.

And plan on staying for lunch – the café is excellent!

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Boston, by land and by sea.

Those Boston Brahmins must have been ready to clutch their pearls when the likes of the CE and I blew in from California. Luckily, oh so luckily, two dear – and much more refined – friends happened to be visiting the same weekend. Many thanks to Judy and Wendy for making our Boston trip memorable…and for classing us up 🙂

The four of us had a fun dinner at Abe & Louie’s, a steakhouse recommended to me by a former Bostonian as her “very favorite restaurant in Boston”. It is now also my favorite restaurant in Boston!

Next day the CE and I were on our own. We absolutely loved wandering the Boston Public Garden!

Such a gem – I kept saying it seemed like a miniature Central Park. And no wonder! As it turns out, the Boston Public Garden is part of what is known as the “Emerald Necklace”, an 1,100 acre-chain of nine parks all designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in the 1880’s. Olmstead, along with his design partner Calvert Vaux, had designed the magnificence of New York’s Central Park in 1858 and Olmstead’s genius is resplendent in his later work as well.

Olmstead also lent a touch to the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, which was primarily designed by nineeteenth-century architect Arthur Delevan Gilman. We walked it for several blocks, admiring the statuary which includes this grand depiction of Alexander Hamilton:

We reluctantly broke away from the Mall to walk over to Newbury Street, Boston’s charming not-to-be-missed shopping district:

We headed back to the Four Seasons Boston to rest our feet and re-charge. Located right across the street from The Public Garden, it’s an excellent location. Best of all, it features a “vault”, chock-full of candy and snacks that can be accessed by your room key. The CE loved it!

After the candy re-fuel, we explored the city’s historic Beacon Street:

with its lovely brownstones all dressed up for fall…

And then we dipped down the hill to walk along the famed Charles River for a bit. Boston seems like such a great walking city! Well, except for the cobblestones. And, yikes, the snow! I think early October is the perfect time to visit.

We met up with Wendy and Judy the next evening for a fun sunset cruise of Boston Harbor.

Boston is smaller than I’d expected, but has a pretty skyline…

And so much history! We didn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Have to return! Same time next year, Wendy and Judy?

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We’re still fall-ing.

Busy trying to catch all the fall color we can – more next week!

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A change of scenery – and seasons.

I don’t know about you, but we’ve had a bit of a hard time revving up the travel engines after those two years of house arrest. We made a few tentative beginnings by returning to favorite destinations, but no forward progress on the bucket list – until now.

Where are we?

He’s not telling:

How about this hint?

Got it yet?

Okay, then, I’ll make it easy…

Not enough? Okay, I’ll just plain give it away…

Gotta say this is the only guy I know who would wear a Yankees hat…

in BOSTON!

We’re having a wonderful weekend here on the beginning of the “Fall in New England” trip we’ve always planned but never got around to before. Most of the trees are still green, but there was a twenty degree drop in temperature overnight, so I suspect we’ll start seeing more color as we go along. Excited to be heading to new destinations!

Gotta run – we have a full day of sightseeing ahead of us.

“Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.”

– Dalai Lama
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Thwack.

It began in August. Raining acorns. Hundreds of them a day. I was briefly hopeful, having a vague memory that when the oaks drop their acorns early, it signals a harsh winter. I’m all for it raining acorns if that means it might actually rain real rain at some point!

Hope was short-lived. Because all these acorns were green.

According to Farmers’ Almanac, “Acorns, when they’re ready to drop, are typically brown or tan in color. If your trees are shedding acorns prematurely it’s a sign that they are focusing their energy on other things rather than seed production.”

Things like California’s long-term drought, perhaps. The Farmers’ Almanac article goes on to state that “when the acorns are green and dropping early, it indicates the tree is under some kind of weather-related stress.”

The acorn deluge has steadily continued. It’s like having a carpet of marbles underfoot. Thwack thwack thwack as they hit the deck or the roof on the chicken pen with impressive force. I’ve taken to wearing a hat when I’m out under the oaks to cushion the blows. The critters, alas, are on their own.

“Don’t even think about trying to put a silly hat on me!”

As for rain, my hopes around that are, well, dampened, to say the least. In a September 6 article The Sacramento Bee quoted Farmers’ Almanac as predicting “mild temperatures and drier than normal conditions” for California in winter 2022-2023. Adding that Farmers’ Almanac boasts 80%-85% accuracy in their predictions, SacBee points out that these predictions align with experimental long-range forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Paul Ullrich, professor of regional and global climate modeling at the University of California, points to a persistent La Niña condition in the eastern Pacific. SacBee quotes him as expecting that this winter “will be much like the winter seasons for the past three years”, with a prediction of “anywhere from 50% to 75% of normal winter season precipitation.”

There is one sliver of a silver lining. A 2021 study published in PNAS (The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, studied a range of oak species in North America in regard to their resistance to drought. The results suggest that “oaks are far more drought tolerant than has previously been thought”. Nineteen species were studied and even those growing in California’s driest zones were found to have positive safety margins, “indicating that these oak species are not currently at risk.”

Since we essentially live in a small oak forest, this is good news! Still, I wish it would rain…

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