Soft landing

The Thinker by Rodin

There is no question about it: Massachusetts is lovely in the spring. Many areas can say the same thing, of course. Moving further north has reminded me of what I gave up when I moved to the Mid Atlantic. One thing was the lilac bush. Make that a million lilac bushes. There was the occasional lilac bush in my old neighborhood, but they are native here in the north, they are everywhere and whether you like it or not they heavily perfume the air for several weeks. If you don’t like their smell you either have to tolerate it or stay indoors.

And speaking of indoors, here in Western Massachusetts you can be indoors and outdoors at the same time. That’s because most of the time in the spring and summer you can and should open the windows for most of the day. And if you do, this time of year you will smell lilacs. Most of the time there is a gentle wind blowing, usually from the northwest. It is a healthy air, not air pumped full of sulfur dioxide and other nasty chemicals typical of the Midwest power plants that blew air toward my old neighborhood. It’s largely clean, pure and invigorating.

It’s beginning to occur to me that my old environment shaped the man I am. Mostly I shuttled in a car from place to place, from one indoor environment to another. Now most of the time the windows are open, at least a crack. It is like infinite lungfuls of health are continuously surging through our home. I am naturally happier because my environment is more attuned to what is natural for me. So far there have been no ozone days to worry about. With little in the way of automobile congestion or carbon emitting power plants, when it does get hot it feels more tolerable.

And it has gotten hot around here, well, at least very warm. We approached 90 one day, and had one uncomfortable week when temperatures ascended into the high 80s most days. We turned on the window air conditioner in our apartment to find it wasn’t really cooling. Fortunately the landlord replaced it the following day. If we use the air conditioner, it tends to be later in the day. Usually by sundown it has cooled enough to reopen the windows, and usually there is a breeze to let in.

Yes, environment does shape who you are. That’s clear to me. The Washington D.C. region was hyper-kinetic, traffic clogged and overly educated. I became somewhat hyper-kinetic and overly educated just to keep up with the Joneses. Here in Easthampton, Massachusetts its much more laid back. I haven’t encountered an angry person yet. This is not Boston. People here are pleasant, nice and friendly but not plastic. For the most part they are simple but good people simply enjoying this ride called life.

Their friendliness is natural but somehow I feel somewhat reticent to accept it. Our second Sunday we made an appearance at the local Unitarian Universalist church and we overwhelmed with their graciousness and friendliness. Even before the service started we were introduced to two sets of future neighbors from our soon to be 55+ community. We got to know them better in the social hour after service. Within a day we were on the community’s mailing list, and invitations started coming in. With all residents 55+, they are mostly retired or partially retired. They have plenty of time on their hands. So perhaps that explained their seemingly excessive curiosity about us. We don’t actually live in our new 55+ community yet because our house is under construction. But after attending several community events, it’s like we are already living there. With about forty houses everyone knows everyone else and everyone knows our name: we have an instant set of new friends. There is a book club for the women that my wife attended. There is a guy’s night out while women are attending the book club. There I got to meet many of the men in the community around a big table at Roberto’s, a local pizza place. There is even a knitting group that my wife went to; similar to the one she used to attend. Most recently there was a wine tasting event that we attended. Strangely I won the competition although I don’t have much of a wine palate. The bottle of Pinot Noir that I won will come in handy when we officially move in and we invite the neighbors over for a house warming.

If only we could move in, but it still looks like it won’t be for a few months. I biked up to the neighborhood in Florence today on the excuse to get our mail (we’re having mail sent there). There are little else but clean bike trails between here and there, trails that are often covered under a canopy of green leaves. Our soon to be next door neighbors greeted me by name by the mail kiosk. They know us better than we know them. It will take time to associate all their faces with names.

In the meantime I’ve been invited to join their biking club, which includes regular bike trips to Westhampton for bagels and breakfast. Our house to be is mostly a shell, but the outer walls are up and the roof is on. Most recently the electrical wiring was roughed into place, but largely construction is not going as quickly as we would like. Our very small apartment here in Easthampton is feeling claustrophobic. As much as my wife and I love each other, we are seeing too much of each other. The place is too small to have friends over. The kitchen seats only two, and there is no dining room. We want our house finished, our house on the hill, overlooking a park with Mount Tom framing the south. We want our stuff out of storage and a couple of new cats wandering around it to make it home.

Meanwhile I have consulting and programming projects to keep me busy. I am often on the bike trails, averaging fifteen miles or so per trip. Easthampton is not without its charms or its amenities. My wife has become attached to its Tasty Top ice cream stand. We are both discovering the charms of downtown Northampton, including its library, the Tuesday Farmers Market and its lovely downtown. (The library includes probably the smallest presidential library ever: the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library. President Coolidge was a former resident and mayor of Northampton.) Its downtown includes two stores of note: Thornes Marketplace (a sort of mini-mall) and Faces (a very eclectic store with mostly funny and offbeat items). Chain stores are few around here but there are many restaurants of superior quality and diversity. Most businesses are independently owned, and at least in downtown Northampton they all seem to be prospering.

Our first winter here will perhaps expose an ugly side to this area. Overall it remains lovely, charming, pleasant and friendly. It will take a few years to have informed opinions about our new neighborhood and our neighbors. Right now it satisfies our need for a quieter lifestyle, some city amenities, the best parts of New England, and a feeling of closeness to nature.

Don’t be the roadkill on the global climate change super highway

The Thinker by Rodin

Most Americans are comfortably in denial about global climate change. In some places, like in the Florida state government, saying the phrases global warming or global climate change may get you in trouble. Governor Tim Scott doesn’t believe it’s happening and doesn’t want to hear his minions utter these naughty words. His overwhelmingly Republican legislature is happy to back him up. Meanwhile, in places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where rising sea levels are already happening, city and county officials are funding mitigation strategies to minimize flooding that is already underway. A king tide can pull ocean water onto streets at certain times of the year when the earth is closest to the sun and the moon is closest to the earth. Meanwhile, condos keep going up along Florida’s coasts.

My sister lives in Hollywood near Fort Lauderdale. She has the typical ranch house. Despite having a house on concrete blocks, twice in the last few years her house has flooded. Like most of her neighbors, she loves living in Florida and particularly near the coast. Her boat is parked at a local marina. Retirement is on her horizon. She is not stupid and understands that rising sea levels are already affecting her and it will be more of a problem in their future. Her retirement plans, such as they are, are to move inland to Arcadia, where the cost of living is very cheap and the elevation is 57 feet above sea level, which it at least higher than Hollywood’s 9 feet.

Perhaps that will work for her. As sea levels rise, it will be harder to get goods to places like Arcadia. In general there will be a lot of people along Florida’s coasts slowly coming to grasp the magnitude of climate change events underway. It’s not hard to predict more dikes and heightened sand dunes along the coasts as a coping mechanism. It’s not hard to figure out who will eventually win: Mother Nature. Rick Scott may want to deny it, but you can’t change chemistry or pretend it’s not happening. Add more carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, and the atmosphere will warm, ice will melt and sea levels will rise. I’ve urged my sister to move out of Florida altogether, or if she must live in Florida to pick a place like Tallahassee where the elevation gets as high as 203 feet.

Meanwhile, California is trying to grasp with the magnitude of its issues, which is driven by global climate change, which was triggered by global warming. It’s not news to read they are about a decade into a steadily worsening drought. Only 5% of the normal snowpack fell in the mountains this year. Governor Jerry Brown, who does acknowledge global climate change, is trying to ration water but there are lots of legal exemptions. California is browning up, but it’s hardly alone in the west. Much of its population is in real risk of having their taps run dry in the next few years. In some places in California, it already has as wells run dry.

As Bachman-Turner Overdrive sang: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” To grasp the future, look at what is happening today in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost daily there are heartbreaking stories of refugees fleeing Africa and the east coast of the Mediterranean for Europe, and many are drowning at sea when their boats capsize or are deliberately sunk. It’s true that a lot of these refugees are escaping war or political unrest, and overpopulation in that area is also straining resources, which is contributing to their poverty and desperation. But climate change is certainly a factor there as well and some believe provided the fuel for wars in Syria. When it becomes sufficiently painful, people will use whatever resources they have to move from poverty to wealth and from war to peace. Thousands have already perished at sea but still they come despite the risks. As climate change worsens we’ll see this problem only get worse, and it will drive a lot of war and conflict. As sea levels rise people will simply vote with their feet and move to higher elevations, causing political instability and turmoil.

Global climate change is inescapable, but that doesn’t mean a lot of it cannot be mitigated. My wife and I are now residents of Massachusetts and were formerly residents of Northern Virginia. Nestled now in mountainous western Massachusetts, we are strategically positioned to minimize the effects of global climate change on our lives. The one comment we invariably got when we disclosed we were moving north was, “But you are supposed to move south when you retire.”

That’s the old rules. In 36 years of living in Northern Virginia we have already witnessed climate change (not to mention explosive growth). What were once native plantings in our area are no longer suited for the new climate reality. They are now considered native further north. We’ve seen temperatures rising in general and more frequent severe weather. Life was a lot more bearable in Northern Virginia in 1984 when I first moved to Reston than 31 years later. New England is changing too. It’s becoming the new Mid-Atlantic, with more severe weather and higher temperatures. It will get into the eighties up here this week, and it’s only the first week of May.

We made a conscious decision not to retire out west, at least not to those areas that are already impacted by climate change, which is most of the west. Their problems are only exacerbated by population growth. California is very vulnerable, but it is hardly alone. Most of the population of the southwest survives due to the largess of the Colorado River, which on average is recording reduced streamflow every year. The Colorado River is typically dry before it hits the Pacific Ocean, all due to human usage.

That’s not a problem out here in western Massachusetts, at least not yet. We’re nowhere near the coast, so coastal storms will affect us less, although the last few years around here have seen record snowfalls. Water is in abundant supply and there are huge reservoirs to supplement the supply during droughts. We are close to local farms as well as major interstates. Not coincidentally we are not too far from major cities like New York and Boston, so we can enjoy their amenities as we age.

In short, our retirement choices were built around the reality of global climate change to maximize our happiness and to reduce our costs and vulnerabilities due to climate change. We have chosen to be proactive about this obvious problem rather than stick our heads in the sand like Rick Scott is doing.

We will all be impacted by climate change, and I suspect the majority will be severely impacted eventually. I can and do advocate for changes to reduce the rate of global warming. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who sees the future and plans to profit from it by offering batteries to power the home encourage me. In the new neighborhood we will call home when our house constructed is finished, about half the homes already have solar panels. I expect within a few years we will as well, with the eventual goal of going off-grid if we can. Massachusetts agrees as well, and offers generous credits for those interested in solar power and reducing energy usage. Don’t expect Rick Scott to do anything this intelligent for his citizens.

Human nature being what it is, most of us will live in ignorance or choose denial about global climate change until it is too late. By then it will be far more costly to do something about it than it is today. In the case of my sister in Florida, I’ve urged her to sell her house now. It’s not practical for her at the moment since she is not retired, but now she can get full price for her house. As the reality of global climate change settles in down there, it’s going to lower everyone’s home prices. Eventually these properties will be worthless and much of her net worth could be irretrievably lost.

I don’t want her to become roadkill on the global climate change superhighway. I don’t want you too either. It is time to get past the self-destructive denial on the issue, and plan your lives to minimize its impact. It’s coming at you and it will change everything but unfortunately it’s hard to see because it seems so abstract and nebulous. But it’s coming nonetheless.

Be prepared.

Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard

The Thinker by Rodin

Sorry for the delay in posting. It takes time to travel places when on vacation, time to visit them, time to drive back home, time to unpack and time to reestablish some normalcy at home. The latter won’t happen until Tuesday when our refrigerator will be repaired. It died on us during our 12-day vacation.

In 2009, I got a free business trip to Cape Cod, more specifically to Woods Hole on the cape’s south end. I liked what I saw of Woods Hole and Falmouth to its north. My wife had never been to the cape, so it seemed like a good way station on our way back home. We drove from the Acadia National Park in Maine to Falmouth on Tuesday, a rather monotonous drive mostly along I-95. The most direct way to the cape for us was through Boston. The Big Dig under Boston Harbor was supposedly to relieve the traffic congestion. Considering what we endured about 3 PM on a Tuesday, it must have been even more hellish before the Big Dig. Congestion in downtown Boston added about an hour to our trip.

Falmouth though remains charming, just less so in the height of tourist season. Parking downtown is hard to find this time of year but we managed to find some parking not too far from The Quarterdeck, a restaurant like most in the area specializing in seafood. The Quarterdeck is built to look a bit like an old sailing ship, although you won’t mistake it for a real quarterdeck. Some of the wood used in construction though reputedly came from ships constructed in the 16th century. So in that sense it’s historic, and the food was as good and pricey as I remembered it. What were missing were the regulars at the bar. I guess there were too many tourists this time of year for them to bother. So perhaps Falmouth is best enjoyed outside the tourist season.

Our Wednesday destination was Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts known as the playground for the rich and famous. In fact, it was very much in the news on Wednesday because President Obama was vacationing on the island. In addition, Hillary Clinton was visiting. This plus frequent squalls and high winds kept the skies cloudy, the winds brisk and the pavement mostly dancing with raindrops. It was the only mostly rainy day of our vacation, so we didn’t complain much.

Getting to the island though is a hassle. You can’t just drive to Woods Hole and catch a ferry. There is virtually no place to park there, so you park in lots near and around Falmouth instead, and pay $13 a day for the privilege, plus you purchase ferry tickets modestly priced at $8 a trip. It is technically possible to take your car to the island, but this time of year it requires making reservations months in advance. It didn’t bother us too much because the bus system is decent and it costs only $7 for a day pass anywhere on the island.

What did bother us were the weather and the traffic congestion it caused. Ferries normally dock at three different ports, but due to high seas from the rain and wind they all went into Vineyard Haven instead, which clogged the roads as people had to redirect to it. Having the president and former secretary of state on the island probably didn’t help either. So we spent much of the afternoon in the rain on a bus stuck in traffic, or waiting at a bus shelter in Edgartown. We needed our stiff umbrellas but there was not much we could do or see in Edgartown. Buses were not arriving on time. It looked like we should just head back to Vineyard Haven and go back to our hotel.

For a change though my wife was the one with more wanderlust, so she persuaded me to wait for the series of buses that took us to the far western side of the island, known as Aquinnah. Near the tip is Gay Head and its “painted” cliffs which were breathtaking. We also got a break from the rain by the time we arrived around 4 PM. It was more than the cliffs that was invigorating: it was also the stiff, moist breeze and the shimmer of a partially obscured sun on the water.

Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard
Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard

As for the Vineyard itself, if you go through the hassle of getting there you can understand its appeal. First, it is viney. I did not see any grape vines, but it is a lushly green island with many bumps in elevation that don’t quite qualify as hills. Second, it’s an island so it is not easily accessible, thus it feels both cut off and safe. Third, it’s obvious that mostly those with money live on the island. Towns like Edgartown are full of Gingerbread houses, most of which look rented out, surrounded by downtowns full of mostly one of a kind stores and curiosity shops. And of course there are pricey houses, many on bluffs with huge yards that resemble plantations, and President Obama and family were likely on one of them. Prices were roughly fifty percent higher than on the mainland as well. We didn’t even try to rent a hotel room there. We might have been able to rent one if we had $300 or more a night to drop there. It was less than half of that for our hotel on Falmouth. The island also has beaches, but also lakes, seawalls and an airport. So in spite of the weather, it was worth going to. Simply the view of the sea from Gay Head justified the time and expense.

And that was pretty much our vacation, sans a very long, traffic-clogged trip home on Thursday and the discovery that someone had broken into our house while we were gone, someone who clearly had a house key, which made the burglary more curious as only three people we trust have a house key. No doors were busted in. Only some jewelry was taken which had more sentimental than monetary value, but it was a loss nonetheless. It must have happened in the late evening after my daughter had gone to work (she works nights). Police were called, dust prints from a hand were found on our comforter and our dresser drawers were ruffled through. We’ve never had an incident like this before, and it’s more than a little creepy. The locks will be changed on Monday.

Now my retirement starts in earnest. On Friday morning, I had to go to the store to pick up a few essentials for breakfast. I watched a long parade of cars go by our street, likely mostly working people off to a 9 to 5 job. Not me. Now I am just a guy with a busted refrigerator, a looted house and a lot of bills to pay. But hey, I’m retired!

Retirement options

The Thinker by Rodin

No gold watch upon my retirement, but likely an early afternoon party at work with sheet cake and punch in a conference room. This is sort of expected and it is nice. There is a lot of paperwork when you retire from the federal government, but perhaps the most onerous part of it is sifting through all the choices. Our retirement system has evolved over many years into a complex labyrinth. You almost need a degree in retirement management to handle the complexity of it all.

The hardest retirement decision is figuring out whether you can really afford to retire. That took many years of work with a financial adviser. Some part of the decision was made for me. Stocks did great last year, lessening my need to hang around. In any event, on August 1st I should be officially a retiree and a private citizen again, free to run for public office should I choose, and with no need to worry about accidentally investing in energy stocks.

Gone also will be certain benefits that come with being employed, like a health savings account. It allows you to pay for medical expenses with pre-tax dollars. It’s not so much the tax savings that I’ll miss, but having some system automatically paying most of our voluminous deductibles. A lot of this will now have to be done personally, involving time and hassle. Well, I guess being retired I should have more of it.

Except like most retirees, I won’t be quite retired. To start, I’ll teach two courses at the local community college, and likely two more the following semester. Something work-like but not full time work will be good to feel engaged and part of the world. But I don’t just want to teach again. I also want to learn. On my list of things to do is take a couple of courses, including one on how to write apps. I don’t know what kind of apps I will write in retirement. With luck they will bring in some income. I’m hoping to find an underserved and specialty market. If you only sell a thousand copies of your app, does it matter if you can get a hundred dollars each? The popular apps have been pretty much been written, along with dozens of variants of each. In any event with a pension and investment income, I’ll have a roof over my head and food on the table, so whether I succeed or fail writing apps doesn’t matter much.

This blog has satisfied my itch for writing. I am trying to decide if retirement will be the excuse I need to write something more creative and enduring, i.e. a book. We all have a novel in us. I probably have a lot of them. I just hate to write something that won’t be marketed. Since my daughter has an agent, perhaps I could shamelessly use her connection with her agent to get my novel read.

For me, retirement probably won’t be a lot of leisure. Rather it will provide a financial floor to explore pursuits that time, energy and the grinding business of maintaining a standard of living largely did not allow me to pursue. So, yes, there will be work but I am hoping it will be more part time work. I hope it won’t be something I get too passionate about. Passionate work can become wholly consuming, which might mean sixteen hour days happily sitting in front of my computer banging out code. I will need more time outdoors instead. I will want to have the leisure to take daily walks, perhaps with a dog on the end of a leash. I will want companionship.

For the next year or so a lot of my time will be consumed by the business of relocation. I’ve run the numbers and not only does relocation agree with me in midlife in general, but it’s a financially savvy move as well. This is true if you end up somewhere with an overall lower cost of living and with enough things to do to feel engaged and part of the community. I feel the need to be closer to nature again, as I was in my youth. I imagine something I haven’t done regularly in forty years: walking outside my house, looking at the night sky and seeing the Milky Way visible and splayed across the sky.

We’ve been studying western Massachusetts for a year now and the Pioneer Valley (Amherst/Northampton area) in particular. It looks like it has all we are looking for, although finding the right house will be a challenge. It helps to have zillow.com as a resource and when surveying potential communities to use Google Street Maps to get a reality check. Right now the city of Easthampton, Massachusetts looks particularly inviting. It is close enough to Northampton to be close to its amenities, but it is not overrun with students. There are five colleges in the Pioneer Valley, and some like the University of Massachusetts in Amherst have a reputation for problems with boisterous and drunken students. Choose your neighborhood with care, we’ve been warned. In general though crime is not a problem. The crime index for the area is incredibly low.

Easthampton is a very small city. Some would characterize it as a town or even a village. It has around 16,000 residents. It sits next door to Mt. Tom which offers convenient nature trails and scenic views from about a thousand feet above sea level. Easthampton is picturesque, just not as snooty or expensive as nearby Northampton.

We’ll go back this summer to focus on specific neighborhoods, but our brief tour of Easthampton last year was encouraging. It’s an old fashioned city with a small but real downtown full of local businesses. It comes with beautiful parks and even city managed cemeteries. After I pass this world, I think my ashes would be happy at Brookside Cemetery (assuming there are any remaining plots), overlooking White Brook and Nashawannuk Pond.

Easthampton is big enough to be a distinctive community with its own character, but not big enough to have be overrun by national chains. The are no Applebees in Easthampton that I can find, although there is a nice little breakfast place, locally owned and managed called The Silver Spoon that looks inviting based on reviews. You actually have to go to Northampton if you want to shop at Wal-Mart. Should I take an interest in local politics, it would be easy enough. The area’s less attractive areas, the cities of Holyoke, Springfield and Chicopee, are conveniently on the other side of Mt. Tom.

As for homes built for us retirees, there are a couple of condo communities, but only a couple. One in particular on the south side of the city looks very upscale. These condos are basically single family houses with a common wall. The condo fee takes care of pesky chores like shoveling snow and mowing grass. 55+ communities typically come with a master bedroom on the main level and accessible facilities built in. They anticipate the day when you will need to live on one level. It’s called aging in place, which sounds much better than aging in a nursing home. But they often have other levels as well, where guests can sleep and where my office will be located. As for nature, it is literally in the backyard. A bike trail is just blocks away.

The logistics of buying and selling our house are pretty daunting, as I have not moved a household such distances before. It will have to be done professionally. Fortunately our house is largely in shape to market and I’ll have time to work on it being “retired”. It’s clear that we can buy with cash from the sale of our house pretty much any house on the market in Western Massachusetts. So we’ll pocket a lot of equity, add it to our portfolio and hopefully use it to do more traveling.

The grandparent joke is, “If I had known how much fun it was to be a grandparent, I would have started as one.” I suspect retirement will be a lot like this. If you are fortunate to retire, you may be able to do it right. We’ll find out.

Life in the Hampshires

The Thinker by Rodin

Two days and two nights in the Northampton, Massachusetts area has left me with mixed feelings about the place. My feelings are mostly effusive, thankfully, but no community meets all the checkboxes for a perfect community, and Northampton has a few tiny minuses. Curiously its “minuses” reveal more about me and what make me uncomfortable than they do about the community. What makes me a tad uncomfortable about an otherwise beautiful mountainous area of Western Massachusetts? In the case of Northampton, it’s its obvious lack of ethnic diversity. People there largely look a lot like me: white, prosperous middle class just twenty or more years younger than I am. There are some Asians, and I saw some Hispanics and one Muslim woman covered except for her face. Otherwise, it was an all-White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) paradise. Maybe the protestant in WASP can be left out. There are churches in Northampton, but many of them have been converted to other uses. Six Catholic churches have collapsed into one church. The community strikes me as an overly educated lot, not surprising as Hampshire County is overrun with colleges for its relatively small population. The University of Massachusetts across the Connecticut River in Amherst is the heavyweight college, but there are also lesser known private universities such as Hampshire College (where a niece went) and Smith College. Consequently they have little need these days for traditional religion. Sundays instead are genuine days of rest, and generally far away from a church. It is a good day to commune with nature, and there is plenty of nature readily at hand. So it is a good community for those into spirituality but not so much religion. Soak in the fresh air, let the natural sound of wind rustling through leaves fill you with peace, and enjoy the smell of honeysuckle and midsummer flowers in the air instead.

Connecticut River near Northampton, MA (Holyoke MA)
Connecticut River near Northampton, MA (Holyoke MA)

Those darn hippies have basically taken over Hampshire County. Curiously, those darn hippies have done a great job of it, modeling the sort of society we should become everywhere. In some ways those hippies are downright conservative. One of them in a guy named Craig, who runs the B&B we stayed at. He is a passionate community activist and organizer, and passionate about Hampshire County in particular. He did not know we were looking at retirement areas until we arrived. He spent over two hours the next morning driving us around, showing us almost every housing option available, and giving us invaluable insight into the culture and values of the hippies that reinvigorated this area. They are conservative in the sense that they hate to tear down anything so up have gone the historic districts instead. They work closely with developers to restore old houses, keeping the character of a community a hundred years earlier. Their work is quite impressive. Northampton is just beautiful: a community anyone who lives there can be proud of, closely knitted, walkable, bikeable (lots of bike trails, and bike paths on the major roads), with natural areas interwoven into traditional neighborhoods.

Looking west from Mount Tom, MA toward Easthampton
Looking west from Mount Tom, MA toward Easthampton

Northampton only gets funky downtown. There it becomes Mayberry if it were overrun with flower children and their descendants. All sorts of boutique shops and excellent restaurants can be found downtown. It’s a popular place to be, and draws not just people from the immediate area but from much further out. Which takes me to one of the other things I don’t like about Northampton. It reminds me too much of Georgetown, the well-moneyed historic district in Washington, D.C. where, like Northampton, it’s impossible to find a parking space. People are just drawn to it. It is a combustible mixture of old and new, melded together somehow into something unique that Madison Avenue would like to manufacture, but cannot.

That is because real communities like this cannot be installed. They work when the people come together and decide to push their values, and do so over many decades. The mostly white teenagers hanging out downtown with pierced nostrils, the incense filled boutiques with naughty T-shirts and novelties, are a result of a community that sets standards where people can breathe a little bit, and it’s okay. While there may be a lack of ethnic diversity in and around Northampton, you can’t say the same about its cultural diversity. There are more lesbians in Northampton than in any other place of its size in the country. Your sexual orientation or lack of it, your love of pierced nostrils makes you utterly common. Everyone sort of sees past it.

An oh, the scenery! The Connecticut River winds through the county. It is a beautiful river, lined with green shores and capped with green mountains, odd only in the sense that they run east to west instead of north to south. This is the richest farmland in the country, for those who want to farm it, and there are plenty of farms in the area. Large tracks of land have been purchased so they will always be farmland. As in other communities like Boulder, Colorado, other areas have been purchased to be forever natural. Those darn hippies show their conservative side: nature is beautiful and precious and they won’t let anyone mess with it. The result in an area that is intoxicating in a good way: peaceful, natural, community-focused and healthy. In short, it is a compelling area for us to consider retiring to, made much more compelling by its relatively low real estate prices. Granted, many of the houses are a hundred years old or more, and more than a few need substantial renovation. But where else can you enjoy such unique combination of people and nature at such a low price? These houses generally sell for between $250,000 and $350,000. It’s a great value, but what make it a best value are not the affordable housing prices, but the community.

We spent our two nights in Florence, a village just to the west of Northampton. Curiously I found Florence more compelling than Northampton. I have a limited ability to appreciate boutiques and vast numbers of ethnic restaurants, although it is nice to know they are there should I want them. Florence on the other hand felt more real. It is a community with its own compelling history, including Sojourner Truth, who tried to create a utopian society in Florence. Florence, as well as Northampton, has liberal religious values that go back to the Underground Railroad, where it was a popular way station. It stitches itself together with neighboring villages through bike paths, ordinances, veterans’ hospitals, old houses with big verandas and high walkability scores. For most of life’s necessities you don’t need to get in a car. You simply walk or bike to it. This includes sublime pleasures like having breakfast at Miss Florence’s Diner, with the 60’s juke box at the table and a deliciously simple western omelet for breakfast with two pieces of multigrain toast with butter hanging off the side of the plate.

In short, Northampton and the various *hampton communities that nestle nearby, including Florence, Easthampton, Amherst and Hadley offer a compelling lure for those looking for authenticity in a community, in spite of its lack of ethnic diversity. Those babbling brooks, winding roads, old mills (many of which are being restored and repurposed) present a compelling package for those of you out there hungering for home, like quite possibly my wife and me.

Mount Washington and beyond

The Thinker by Rodin

It takes a different kind of railroad to push a train up a thirty-seven percent grade. Specifically, it takes a cog railroad. Aside from the normal rails on the track, a cog railroad has a third rail between the tracks with steel bars about four inches long and a few inches apart. The cogwheel attached to the locomotive’s engine fit nicely between the bars. At full steam, you make at best a couple miles an hour ascending the side of a mountain.

The railway in question is undoubtedly one of the more eclectic rail lines in the country. Some twenty years ago, we took the Cass Scenic Railroad from Cass, West Virginia to the top of Bald Knob. We thought its eleven percent grade was impressive. However, it has nothing on the Mount Washington Cog Railway. You board your railcar at a depot about six miles from Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.

So in a way it is amazing that in a bit more than an hour its locomotive has pushed us and sixty or so fellow passengers from the base station some four thousand feet above sea level to the summit of Mount Washington, which is at 6,288 feet. Mount Washington happens to be the highest mountain in New England. The tree line rapidly disappears as cog by cog you ascend the mountain. With each cog, you can feel a ka-chink, which makes for a noisy journey. Our coal powered train put an impressive amount of environmentally incorrect dark smoke into the atmosphere. Progress though is coming to this railway, which started in 1869 and has locomotives going back to its beginning still in service. One of the locomotives runs on biodiesel fuel.

We were lucky with the weather. It was a partly cloudy day, however there were clouds just below the summit, which somewhat obscured our views. The Appalachian Trail cuts across Mount Washington’s summit. We saw some backpackers, but most of them appeared to be tourists only willing to hike a few miles across this rocky and largely vegetative-free part of the trail. If you do not want to pay more than sixty dollars a ticket to ascend Mount Washington on the railway, you can also drive your car up to the summit. The mountain is the home of an observatory as well as a weather station, which once registered a surreal wind gust of 231 miles an hour. In addition to the observatory and weather station, there are places to buy a meal and the compulsory gift shop. I was glad we paid for the train ride, which took close to three hours round trip. You cannot get an experience like this from a car.

Mount Washington thus was literally the high point of our trip, sandwiched about midway in our vacation. I almost feel compelled to say that our vacation was all downhill from here but that was not the case. The mountain was less than forty miles to the Connecticut River, which separates New Hampshire from Vermont.

Vermont was lush, verdant and as intensely green in August as Ireland is in the spring. Vermont feels surreal, being too bucolic to feel real, yet there we were, surrounded by gently rolling hills, pastoral meadows, cows, some horses and not many people. The Queens Anne Lace is plentiful along the sides of its roads in August. Vermont is not big enough to have any place that feels like a metropolis, with Burlington (where we spent on night) coming the closest. We drove through Montpelier, its state capitol, which feels more like a village than a city. The shining golden dome of its state capitol sits within blocks of some of the most decrepit housing in the state. In many ways, Vermont reminds me of Utah. It is mostly rural and overwhelmingly white. No doubt, there are people of color here somewhere, but you have to look hard. As with Utah, its citizens proved to be welcoming and hospitable.

Vermont is more recently known as the state that made Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream famous. Since it was on our way, we stopped in Waterbury and spent $3 a ticket for a tour of its factory. The factory is a surprisingly big draw in Vermont, pulling in hundreds of tourists, many of them children. We could not have picked a better summer day to visit. Cheerful summer help directed us to parking spots on the lawn. Ben & Jerry sold the business years ago, but it still feels very much like they own it. Believing that a business should give back to the community, seven percent of its pretax profits still go to charity. There were long lines to get to their ice cream cone counter where you could order any of their exotic flavors including oddities like Chunky Monkey. The tour itself included a few short videos and an observation booth that looks down onto their production floor. Other than the free samples given out at the end of the tour, the tour itself was not very memorable but nonetheless fun in a quirky sort of way. The casual and fun attitude of its employees was quite evident and welcome.

Our stay in Vermont included a fabulous suite at a Mainstay Inn overlooking Lake Champlain. We could see sailboats anchored in a nearby bay and the blue green Adirondack Mountains ascending in the west. It would be hard to pick any location with a more impressive view. We also turned out to be only a couple blocks from Pauline’s Café where you can dine on exceptional food at the cost of $15 to $25 an entrée.

Friday morning we left Burlington and drove south along U.S. 7, stopping for a while in Bennington, Vermont. We stopped to see the impressive Bennington Battle Monument, a 306-foot high stone monument to the militias that fought the British in 1777. It looks something like a slightly scaled down Washington Monument, only much more accessible. Tickets to the observation tower are only two dollars each and are available at the gift shop. Inside the base of the monument, there is a mini museum that you can tour at no charge.

Our Friday evening plans included a concert at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts deep in the Berkshires. Tanglewood is the official summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, to save some money during the overpriced summer season, I picked a hotel about thirty miles away in East Greenbush, New York. This made commuting to Tanglewood, not to mention finding the place, challenging. It was worth the hassle. Wolf Trap Farm Park near Washington D.C. is clearly modeled on Tanglewood. Our concert was in “The Shed”, actually a very large open-air pavilion where lawn seats were available for less than $10. There we heard two pieces of 19th century French classical music.

The first was Saint-Saens Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor featuring the soloist Janine Jansen. She turned out to be worth the price of admission and then some, giving a spirited and full body interpretation of this work. It was followed by a symphony I have listened to many times but never heard performed live, Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Our conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos had his work cut out for him because this is exceptionally challenging music to conduct with its wide breadth and frequent discordant portions of the score. The Boston Symphony Orchestra proved they were worthy of their reputation as a first class orchestra. The weather was cool but comfortable. This was our daughter’s first live classical music concert.

Our final vacation event today required us to head back to the Berkshires to a town called Stockbridge, just a few miles from Tanglewood. The town hosts an annual theater festival, similar in some ways to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival held annually in Stratford, Ontario. We attended two plays there in 2005. Like Lenox, which hosts Tanglewood, Stockbridge is a too perfect example of a New England town. To live there it helps to be independently wealthy. We saw Samuel Beckett’s classic 1953 play Waiting for Godot, still as befuddling and existential as it was in 1953, at the Unicorn Theater, a small venue that probably seats no more than one hundred fifty. The director tried to liven it up with a bit of humor for American audiences, which helped to make endurable what is really a very bleak play. This play was a stretch for all of us and worth seeing once for the experience. Once is probably enough for a lifetime.

Tonight we are holed up at a Microtel Inn in Middleburg, New York. The hotel is hosting a large group of Hassidic Jews, which is making for an interesting cultural experience. Hassidic Jews have children who behave very much like everyone else, judging from their screaming as they run up and down the hallway. We return to our home and our cat tomorrow afternoon.

Bewitched in Massachusetts and Maine

The Thinker by Rodin

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.