This is the Trash Monster. He was one of the first New England residents we encountered on our trip.
We left Philadelphia on Saturday morning with the intention of driving to Portland, Maine, the first stop on our New England tour.
As we weaved our way along the Atlantic Coast up I-95, though, we had two realization: (1) there are a lot of small towns between Philadelphia and Maine that neither of us has been to, and (2) Fourth of July weekend may not be the best time to start a road trip through popular tourist destinations.
We attempted pit stops in Mystic, Connecticut and Newport, Rhode Island, expecting to spend an hour or two in each, soak in the sea salt air and maritime (and counterculture) history, and be on our merry way. We did not, however, account for the steep price of admission to the entire town of Mystic, or the utter dearth of parking in Newport. Dejected, we got back into the car and continued on to Providence with plans to get a bite to eat and spend the night with Brent’s sister and her family just outside of Boston.
I loved Providence – the red brick building faces, the grassy parks, the art galleries and coffee shops that lined the main street, the unmistakable feel of a small post-industrial city making a comeback. I loved Providence until I discovered we’d driven through the entire town and had gotten back on I-95 without realizing it!
On the plus side, Day 1 of our trip introduced us to Bill Bryson, who kept us company during our journey via book-on-cd, regaling us with stories of through-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Day 1 also brought me to Rhode Island, the only New England state I’d never visited, and offered us a glimpse into Brent’s mom’s spectacular gyrating dance moves, via a wedding video his sister and brother-in-law shared with us.
When we awoke Tuesday morning, we continued on our way to Portland, stopping briefly to pick up a copy of Lonely Planet New England off exit 23A of I-95 in Massachusetts. I mention the exact location only to warn you to stay away from the Market Basket grocery store down the street from the Barnes and Noble. Stay far far away. For no real reason either of us could articulate, both Brent and I left the store deciding that this was the worst grocery shopping venture either of us had ever experienced. Ever.
Once in Portland, we found a room at the Maine Motel Inn, a dive-ish site on Route 1 in South Portland that reminded Brent of Psycho and me of No Country for Old Men, and then made our way into the city to catch the Portland Sea Dogs-Reading Phillies game. We splurged on Box Seats ($9 a pop) and sat through 4.5 innings before deciding that a baseball game where we don’t know any of the players or care that much about either of the teams wasn’t all that exciting. The Trash Monster, in fact, was one of the highlights of the game.
The Phillies did end up winning, though, making our in-attendance tally of New England-Philly sports events a 3-3 tie. (but only because Brent counts the Patriots-Eagles game we watched while he was in the hospital, when the Patriots pulled it out in the end… the best part was, Brent was hooked up the all sorts of monitors, so I could see his heart rate rise each time the Eagles made a good play!).
We split up for the afternoon – me to go for a run around the back cove, Brent to explore the city by bike – and then went to the Old Port in search of dinner. Having lived in Portland, I have a pretty good sense of the restaurant scene in the city (I read once that it has the second most restaurants per capita in the country to San Francisco), but I was pleasantly surprised to discover a new hole-in-the-wall, a Thai restaurant with the best tom yum soup this side of Bangkok. Following the flavor-filled affair, we attempted the unthinkable: finding a bar in New England that would put on the US Olympic swimming trials while the Red Sox were playing the Yankees.
Fore Play, a sports bar that has been completely overhauled since I left Portland in 2004, offered us refuge and, according to Brent, the best Guinness ever brewed.
It’s been nearly five years since I lived in Portland, a year and a half since I last visited, and the city’s changing. Most of it is probably imperceptible to the casual observer, but I was palpable to me, and even more to those who live there. Developers are moving in. Great local haunts are closing in favor of day spas and fancy restaurants. When I was a student there, there was certainly a divide between those who’d grown up in the city and those who were moving in – “Fuck the Yuppies” signs could be seen in pockets and some were pushing for chain-store culture. Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks had recently made their way to the Old Port.
Now, gone are the Granny’s Burritos and Sophia’s Gallery and Flatbread, the Wild Oats and the Natural Grocer. As Whole Foods and Cold Stone Creamery have moved in, the city seems to be becoming increasingly divided, between native and visitor, working-class and (for lack of a more creative word) yuppie, fisherman and businessman. I was one of the visitors when I lived there. And still, it leaves me sad.
Back to Fore Play…
We sat at a small table in the corner, watching the trials and attempting to read Bob Costas’ lips to discern what was going on as Red Sox mania blared in the foreground (Brent was in heaven). We missed the big event of the night – Dara Torres, 41, making the Olympic team in her second event of the trials and setting an American record to boot – but we saw some awesome track and field runs.
We awoke yesterday morning (untouched by both Norman Bates and Anton Chigurh) and had the best day of the trip so far. After leaving our car by the Casco Bay Bridge, we clipped into our pedals and set off for a 31-mile bike ride along the South Portland/Cape Elizabeth/Scarborough coast, visiting light houses and rocky coasts, bobbing and weaving down mild mountain biking trails, and cruising the rolling hills, taking in the sweet smells of strawberry patches, punctuated every so often by a jolt of salty sea air. It was fantastic.
We got back to Portland mid-day and after a quick lunch at Flatbread Company, visited some old friends (the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, where I spent six months studying creative nonfiction writing, and Warden Dilworth, Brent’s high school history teacher who had relocated to Portland nearly a decade before).
And what about those plans to work 10 hours a week on my dissertation as we travel? So far, I’ve read one book, briefly started going through the New York Times archives online, and had a lovely conversation with the son of one of the more prominent characters in my story – none other than Mayor Richardson Dilworth. Seems that Brent’s teacher (the son) had encountered many names that will be sprinkled throughout the narrative. He was happy to hear that his dad was on the right side of integration!
Last night we had dinner in Gloucester, MA (Brent splurged on diner-ish prime rib), up the street from the Crow’s Nest, made famous in the film The Perfect Storm, before continuing on to Salem, MA, where we awoke this morning and are presently preparing for a day filled with witch sightings.
Oh, and we’ve come up with two book ideas since leaving Philadelphia on Monday. Brent’s decided that we’re going to collaborate on a travel guide about biking America’s cities. And I’m thinking that my next project will to be explore how the imagery of the Salem Witch Trials has been used and co-opted over the last two centuries, and what those who have employed it have sought to evoke.
Traveling through New England with a bike geek and a history nerd…