As I had been travelling around and people had enquired about my schedule, I had attracted many envious comments about arriving in New England in the Fall.
It was the perfect time said everybody with a sigh, almost as if I were proposing to do something mythical. As I had got nearer, others had been surprised to learn that I hadn’t booked anywhere given the time of year that I was going.
Pennsylvania Chip had told me that I’d been lucky to arrive in Wellsboro on a Monday, and that folks had booked up to a year in advance for later in the week. He warned me that it would be even tighter in New England proper.
I had been able to reach Adam’s friend Jon in Massachusetts, so I knew that I was sorted for Saturday evening but I thought that I should try and get booked in somewhere for Friday in Maine. I had tried the previous evening with no joy (unless I was prepared to pay $400 for a suite for the night), but one place had asked me to call back in the morning.
I telephoned them again when I woke up and found myself agreeing to pay $95 plus tax for a single room with a shared bathroom at the Whitehall Inn in Camden. I had tried every number I had for places in Camden and Kennebunkport with no success, and was prepared to believe the implication that I had secured the last available room in Maine for that Friday.
The woman on the phone assured me that it was friendly little hotel, and only a quarter of a mile from the harbor “so I could almost walk in to the town” if I wanted.
I should bloody well think so. A quarter of a mile? The Americans clearly had a strange aspect on the lot of the pedestrian. The woman at the Inn at Roscoe Village had been scandalized when I’d declared my intention to walk the 250 yards up the road to the Warehouse restaurant.
I also needed to arrange my final night on the road in Rhode Island. I wanted to stay at Watch Hill and so I had also tried calling the Inn at Watch Hill the previous evening, but there had been no reply. I gave them another go. Eventually the phone was answered, but the woman was unable to say whether they had any vacancies for Sunday. The person who looked after reservations wasn’t in yet. She suggested I call back again after ten.
I was enjoying not being in the rush first thing that I had previously been accustomed to. Thanks to getting as far as Cooperstown the night before, I only had just over a hundred miles to go before my lunchtime stop in Vermont. I had a leisurely read of the paper and then strolled into town to get some supplies.
I went to look at the Baseball Museum and the shop commemorating the start of the game and which went under the name “Where it all began…” I didn’t go in though. I had been subjected to quite enough sport that I couldn’t follow without voluntarily seeking out more stuff.
It was 10.30 by the time I got back to the hotel, and I had to be out by eleven. The management regarded staying any later as on a par with the misdemeanor of allowing an outsider to use the lavatory, and imposed a similar penalty.
I had just enough time to give Watch Hill another go. This time the woman got quite shirty with me and pointed out that I had to call after eleven. Now it wasn’t so busy, the bookings person didn’t get in until then, and they tended to leave by one. Hey, all I wanted to do was give them my business.
I drove out of town along the lakeside, which was another playground for the rich and indolent. Various folk who looked like they didn’t have to work were gearing up for a day’s sailing or jet-skiing or fishing along its banks. At the Otsego golf course, I passed a sign inviting me to “play one of America’s ten oldest golf courses”.
It didn’t take long to reach Albany and from there it was a fast run up to the state line. The moment I crossed over into Vermont, everything seemed to get greener. Even the vehicle license plates. There were trees for as far as you could see.
I drove through Bennington and up to Manchester, which couldn’t have been more unlike its English namesake. It was like a village-sized country club. But it did have a roundabout, the first that I had encountered on the whole trip.
After I had eaten, I tried the Inn at Watch Hill once more. The same woman answered the phone and, with no apology, informed me that the bookings person had now gone home for the day. It wasn’t very busy at that time of year, you see. It was 1.25 pm.
I suggested that they might find themselves a little more busy if they instituted a system that actually let people make bookings, and promised to call back the following day between eleven and one.
I followed the scenic route up to Middlebury. Vermont was like one big forest, with occasional clearings where the odd building would stand. The road had been cut carefully through it, not in the usual straight through anything that laid in the way American style.
It felt like the place that Robin Hood would hang out if he were alive and in the USA. The problem with such a natural environment was that it lacked any of the infrastructure that I had got used to, and so I arrived at Middlebury with a bladder inflated well beyond my comfort zone.
I parked the car and spent the next twenty minutes dashing around town as fast as I dared move my legs looking for a restroom. Perhaps folk round there had been living among the trees so long that they’d learnt to photosynthesize.
There was no lavatory to be found, and too many people walking their dogs along the riverbank for me to sneak behind a tree. My increasingly frantic behavior was starting to attract attention and so, with my legs locked together above the knee, I tottered back to the car.
I left Middlebury behind, disappointed not to have formed any opinion of it. My eyes had been temporarily blinded by my urgent need for natural relief and had seen only blurs. Salvation suddenly loomed in the shape of a gas station.
I burst into the store promising to buy fuel as soon as I had gone to the bathroom. The contortion on my face must have told the attendant not to argue, as he passed me a key and pointed outside. With the job done, I duly filled up with gas and bought another phone card. I don’t think that they’d had a more grateful customer that year.
One of my guidebooks had a number for the Foxfire, and it looked as if they did accommodation too. I gave them a call. The man who answered seemed surprised to be getting a booking so late in the day. He had to check that I meant this evening three or four times.
He also emphasized that they only had vacancies for this evening and were booked out for the rest of the week. He warned me that the price didn’t include breakfast, but there would be coffee in the morning.
I warned him that I wouldn’t be there until about seven. In the end, I didn’t stop again as I made my way up to Stowe and arrived in the town around 6.30. I hadn’t got used to being in a smaller part of the world and was still looking at my road atlas with the eyes of New Mexico and Wyoming.
I felt disappointed that I’d not made very good use of the additional time that I’d had on my hands that day, but New England generally seemed to be a lot colder and reserved than the rest of the states. It was more like England in terms of temperament, and I’d forgotten how unwelcoming my homeland could be to outsiders.
The Foxfire was a high-class joint, and I again felt a little out of place with my scruffiness. I was greeted by a man called Bob, who turned out to be the owner. He showed me up to my room, which was homely.
He told me that breakfast was included and would be at eight in the morning, which was more than slightly inconsistent with what he’d said on the phone. I asked about dinner, and he said that he could fit me in if I could wait until eight.
I thought that I’d best shave and put on my least creased shirt before going down. The room had no TV, so I was soon downstairs parked on a barstool looking for company.
The barman was a taciturn chap who never told me his name. As he busied himself preparing the drinks orders that the waitresses kept bringing, I managed to squeeze something approaching a conversation out of him. He came originally from Vermont, had worked “all over the US” (although the only place he mentioned specifically was San Francisco) but had recently come back because it was “more calm and relaxed, and the folks more friendly and sincere in these parts”.
He’d never been abroad and was saving that for when he retired as he wanted to see the rest of America while he was still young enough to enjoy it. His next vacation was going to be 45 minutes up the road near Craftsbury in Vermont, where his brother had a cabin. That was about all I managed to get in the hour that we enjoyed together.
I fancied some wine when I was shown into the restaurant. I knew that I could comfortably sink three or four glasses, and thought about ordering a whole bottle. I decided against it in case they called the police. It didn’t look like the done thing in Vermont. It was the sort of place where even farting in the bathroom was probably frowned upon.
The food was unbelievable, not just by the standards of this trip but by any standards that I’d come across anywhere. Although it wasn’t an ideal environment for my purposes, it was a real pleasure to indulge in such culinary luxury. It was unlikely that I was going to meet anyone or have any interesting conversations but, for once, it had almost been worth it.
I went through to the bar for a last glass of wine. The furore of clearing up and cashing in meant that barman couldn’t stop to chat further, so I stepped outside for a cigarette. No smoking is allowed in any place that serves food in Vermont.
By the time I’d finished smoking, there was only one car apart from mine left in the lot. It was 9.25. This other car was an expensive model, and I could only assume that the change of heart about breakfast provision was because some big guns had swung into town and if they were making the effort for them, then I might as well be included.
The lights had all been turned off in the restaurant and, when I went to go back, the front door had been locked. Thankfully, I saw someone inside who had come through to the bathroom and managed to get their attention by tapping on the window. I felt like a naughty schoolboy who had been caught playing truant.
The bar was now closed and I had no choice but to go to my room. It seemed a rum situation to find myself in as I was nowhere near tired enough to go to sleep. The place was now closed and I didn’t even have a TV in my room to gawp at.
If I’d not been drinking and could still drive, I still wouldn’t have been able to go into town because I had no key to let myself back in. The cage was gilded, but I was definitely locked in. I lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling.
I tried reading, but I was counting every page and checking the clock after each paragraph. I had given up by ten, and turned off the light.
The time didn’t pass any faster in the dark, but I eventually fell asleep after what felt like a fortnight.