Bewitched in Massachusetts and Maine

What a surprise. Salem, Massachusetts is a happening place! This was particularly surprising given that the cities we passed through on our way to Salem, which included Revere and Lynn, and which sit on the north side of Boston, are definitely not happening places. They look tired, distressed, and sad. Enter the City of Salem and you discover a city that knows how to market itself. Its downtown area models an old fashioned downtown from fifty years ago, except it is far more congested, thanks to all the tourists flocking in. It can be challenging getting either in or out of Salem.

There are plenty of things for tourists to do in Salem, if you can find a parking space. It is nearly as challenging as finding a parking space in Georgetown. Fortunately, unlike Georgetown, there are several city-provided parking garages. We felt fortunate to snag street parking a few blocks away from The Salem Witch Museum, our destination. The museum turned out to be cheesy and unmemorable, but for $7 a ticket (with our AAA card), it did not matter too much. You get to sit with a hundred or so people in one dark room surrounded by scenes from the Salem Witch Trial of 1692. You hear somber recorded narration while bright lights beam on the scene of interest. Hey, this ain’t Disney World. I rather expected some lame animatronics but you do not get even that. Afterwards there are some unmemorable exhibits in the back and of course the compulsory exit through the gift shop. One of the exhibits connected past incidents with associated catalysts that caused witch-hunts throughout history. One example provided was the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s unleashed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. The exhibit needed updating: September 11, 2001 + George W. Bush = Guantanamo.

If you do not want to take in this witch museum, there are other witch theme related establishments in Salem including a witch dungeon. (None of the alleged witches in Salem had dungeons of course, nor am I aware of any witches that had dungeons outside of fiction, but never mind.) There are also period actors provided by the City of Salem on the Salem Commons to tell you when Bridgette Bishop, the first of nineteen people to die due to superstition and paranoia, is going to be brought into the public square for her trial. I suggest going with this rather than the witch museum as it is likely more entertaining and costs less. If witches are not your thing, you can learn more about Nathaniel Hawthorne, see the House of the Seven Gables or take a tour of Salem Bay. I enjoyed all the dense nineteenth century row houses, mostly well preserved and home to a new generation of eco-friendly urban dwellers.

We thought it might be fun to drive to Portland on U.S. 1 along the Maine coast. What a mistake! This puts you right into snooty resort cities like Ogunquit and Kennebunkport with their associated traffic. Due to the dearth of traffic lights, we were stuck in traffic for close to an hour. We eventually decided that paying for the Maine Turnpike was a much better use of our time. We had only a few glimpses of Portland as we drove through it. Soon we were back on U.S. 1, as it was the only pragmatic way to get to our destination: Boothbay Harbor.

Almost precisely two years ago, I was in Maine on business. A number of us elected to drive down to Boothbay Harbor for dinner, which was no minor matter as our meeting was in Augusta. I was charmed by Boothbay Harbor so it seemed a convenient place to revisit with the family. Rain earlier in the day made the harbor area unnaturally cool, but we enjoyed our fine dinners at the Tugboat Inn anyhow. Afterwards we walked through the many tourist businesses hugging the harbors. There are in fact many picture postcard marinas along Maine’s glorious Atlantic Coast. Boothbay Harbor though is one of the most picturesque. Our hotel was not in the harbor itself. Rather we stayed overnight at The Flagship Inn, which is a few miles inland. Generally, I am not that fond of roadside motels, but this one was surprisingly nice and clean. Unlike the Doubletree hotel in Boston where you have to pay $10 a day for wireless access, the modest Flagship Inn provided reliable and free high quality wireless access for all its patrons.

This morning we drove some more along the Maine coast. U.S. 1 north of Boothbay Harbor offers some spectacular scenery. In particular, the harbor cities of Bath, Rockland and Rockport offer magnificent views of the Gulf of Maine and the Maine coast hugged by myriad sailboats.

When you are from out of town, it is no trivial matter finding a restaurant in Augusta, Maine even if you have a GPS. Thanks to my last trip to Maine, I was somewhat familiar with the layout of Augusta, so we arrived at our destination only fifteen minutes late. We dined with one of my wife’s online friends, her husband and her two young children at a barbeque place in downtown Augusta. The young couple reminded me of my wife and me two decades earlier. Their three-year-old son though was a handful and had to be distracted throughout our time together. I am glad that those years are behind us.

Our home for this night is a Best Western in Franconia, New Hampshire. Getting from Augusta to Franconia was no trivial matter, as there are no direct routes. There was plenty of road construction (including several miles where the pavement was removed and we had to navigate through a rocky construction area) on our route but the scenery along U.S. 2 was often spectacular. Every mile closer to New Hampshire revealed taller mountains. The citizens of Maine must have had a hard time coming up with names for their towns for we passed a cluster of towns named after countries like Mexico and Peru. Mexico, Maine though has little to recommend it and comes with an unwelcome stench from what appears to be a local paper mill. The picturesque Androsco River though flows through Mexico and the adjacent towns that border U.S. 2. This road is definitely one of the less traveled roads in the continental United States, but one of its more bucolic.

Here in Franconia we find an area of New Hampshire overrun with gnats and mosquitoes. We will definitely need the bug spray tomorrow, and we will need to brush them off our clothes and out of our hair before we resume of tour of New England. They lie by the dozens on our windshield. Tomorrow’s final destination: Burlington, Vermont, the last state in New England that I have yet to visit.

Hallowell: the town that time forgot

I am in Augusta, Maine on business. This is my first trip to our most northeastern state. In fact, until this week New England was largely unknown to me. Maine thus far has turned out to be about what I expected: rolling hills, verdant forests, seemingly as many boats as there are people, craggy coastlines, plentiful seafood, and a regional accent that is a bit peculiar. My name Mark, for example comes out “Mahk”.

I have been here about 48 hours. For much of it I have been working, or hanging around with the usual people that come on these trips. We chose Augusta, Maine to meet because one of the members of this group lives here and can host. Augusta though is a comparatively sleepy city by northeastern standards. I am not sure what it did to deserve being the state’s capital. Perhaps its somewhat central location made it a logical place for a state capital. If you are expecting a vibrant capital city, look elsewhere. It reached its prime long ago. Today, it feels more like a sleepy, backwater Southern city, just hillier.

Tonight we drove for dinner a few miles south of Augusta to the small town of Hallowell, on the west bank of the Kennebec River. The state capitol dome can be seen easily above the trees, for it cannot be much more than a mile away. We ate a leisurely dinner at an Italian restaurant, and then strolled through its business district. There was something very peculiar about Hallowell.

It could be peculiar in that it is old. It was founded in the 1762. The buildings look old too. Perhaps “quaint” is a better description. The buildings are solid and largely made of brick. They look a hundred years old or older. It is what passes for the town’s business district.

Aside from feeling quaint, the town mostly feels like it has not kept up with modern times. With the exception of the restaurants and a bar, everything was closed. The businesses generally closed by 5 PM. Some closed at 4 PM.

In Hallowell, they roll up the sidewalks awfully darn early. There is not even a 7 Eleven in this town. Indeed, the complete absence of anything that would resemble a commercial chain is its endearing aspect. There is no Wal-Mart. There is no Starbucks (although there is a coffee shop). There is no Target. There is no Applebees (although we passed one in Augusta). It is a town full of Mom and Pop businesses. It is a place from another time.

I am sure it is not unique but it still seems so very odd. We passed a bar. This was not a fern bar. This was not a bar that also served fish and chips. It was a bar: you came in, you drank and you left. There was not even a pool table.

The Kennebec River passed by peacefully. On the opposite side of the river was not more civilization, simply more woods.

The town is such a contrast to where I live in Northern Virginia. There life is in a constant state of flux, with continual growth being the only constant. In Hallowell, as in much of Maine, life moves at a more serene pace.

So we tarried. We looked at the high water flood marks on the side of one building, with a recent 1987 flood appearing to be the most devastating. We walked down to the boat ramp, watched the river waters pass silently by, and heard the sounds of the summer cicadas. Above us, the stars unfolded in a splendor impossible to see in our light polluted Northern Virginia skies. Mosquitoes occasionally danced along the surface of the water.

What was once so familiar though now seemed strange, and almost alien. Still, I wished for a week or so to keep tarrying in this small town, to get to know its people, and to see if maybe small town life was for me. This small town, like much of Maine, will be worth more of my time when I have more time for it.