Friday, July 30, 2010


The Adirondacks Forest Preserve is one of those rare things a government did right, sort of like the U.S.  National Parks. In this case it was the NY state legislature that decided to preserve about 6-million acres in upstate New York. The park is an equal mix of public and private land and it is made up of 42 mountains over 4,000 feet in elevation, 2,800 lakes and ponds, and tens of thousands of brooks and streams, some of them including spectacular rapids and waterfalls. Our base for a few days has been a campground in Wilmington, NY, which is down the road from Whiteface Mountain, the scene of the Alpine events in the 1932 and 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics. Other venues such as ski jumps and the bobsled track are still used as a training site for the US Olympic team. The arena here was the scene of the famous Miracle on Ice during the 1980 Olympics.

As it happens, we got here a day after the Lake Placid Ironman Triathalon, and its a good thing it was the day after because the bike race went right past the campground and the road was closed all day on the day of the race.


We spent most of one day exploring the awesome Ausable Chasm near Plattsburgh. This is a 2 mile long gorge with incredible water falls and rapids. Although parts of it can be seen from a bridge on a public highway, the Chasm tour is a privately owned operation that bills itself as the oldest tourist attraction in the country. The tour, which is self-guided, is well worth the cost of admission.


The trail through the gorge is made safe with walkways, stairs and bridges. Twice in the history of place as a developed tourist attraction, high water destroyed the walkways which had to be rebuilt. The tour through the chasm has several options including a lantern-lit cave tour, and a less strenuous rim trail which avoids a lot of the stairs, but also avoids a lot of the views.

The tour we selected included a final sectiDSC_0352on floating downstream in a rubber raft. Another option was tubing down the same section of the river, but since we weren’t wearing bathing suits we took the raft trip. It’s not the Snake or Colorado River rapids, more of a leisurely float between the cliffs, but it did provide a different perspective of the chasm and the Ausable River. By the way, the Ausable is one of the major rivers through the northeastern part of the park and there are many picturesque spots visible from the highway.

And speaking of highways, as we entered the park from I-87, our GPS voice kept calling the state  highway we were on “nice highway 86.”  I couldn’t understand why the Tom-Tom thought the highway was nice until I took a closer look at the screen. The text said nys highway 86, for New York State highway 86. Tom apparently pronounced nys: nice.  Nice.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Lake Champlain

We zipped across Vermont to Grand Isle, which is one of the Lake Champlain Islands in the lake locals like to think of as an almost Great Lake. The northern end of Lake Champlain snugs up against the Quebec border. The islands are all on the upper end of the Vermont side of the lake. DSC_0321 The campground we stayed at is called the Lake Champlain Adult Campground and when we mentioned the name to one of our friends she got a funny look on her face and said “adult campground?” I guess she was thinking more along the lines of adult bookstores, but in this case it just refers to the fact that the campground doesn’t permit families with kids – so its very quiet. If you look closely in the space between the truck and camper, you’ll see the lake.

The Lake Champlain Islands are really wonderful and quite surprising. We figured there would be  a lot of boating activity there, but we had no idea we would find lush and productive farms on the islands. There are also a number of decent inns and restaurants on the islands and even for non RVers this would make a great place for a quiet summer vacation.

Other than driving around Vermont’s beautiful countryside, we also visited the famous Vermont Country Store, which was about 100 miles from the campground. We had lunch there and bought a jar of no sugar added apple butter. We probably would have been better off buying it from the catalog.

Access to the islands is from bridges near the south end and at the north end, which is about 100 yards froDSC_0330m the Canadian border. There is also a little  ferry that runs between Grand Isle, VT and Plattsburgh, NY. Now we’re off to the Adirondacks. And we’re not taking the ferry.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Shakers, Waterfalls and Moosie

We visited the Shaker Village in Canterbury, NH which had actual Shakers living there until the 1990’s. I’ve known very little about the Shakers, other than they make nice chairs, so the visit here was interesting. During the mid 18th century, a Christian sect was started by Sister Ann in England as a spinoff of the Quakers. Since they believed that the second coming of Christ had occurred, apparently in the form of Sister Ann, they were not a very popular religion, so Ann took her flock to the New World, known for religious freedom, sort of.


They eventually established about a dozen and a half communities in several states including the one in Canterbury. These were really cult-like communes – self-sufficient, but open to outsiders. There’s a story about “Winter Shakers” who were poor local folks who came into the communities to “try out” the religion and lifestyle for a while. This seemed to happen mostly in the cold months of winter, and the guests were fed and housed with grace, even though the community knew they were there basically because they needed food and shelter during those frigid months. Most left with the coming of spring.

The Shakers also had a strong belief in equality between men and women – equality, but separation. Men and women, even married couples who entered the community, lived separately. They used separate doors to enter the community buildings, slept in separate sections of the dwelling houses, ate separately in the same dining rooms, and were allowed to speak to each other only in officially sanctioned “union meetings.”

Oh, and they were also celibate, which may explain why there are so few Shakers left. The sleeping floors in the buildings which served as dormitories had walls between the men’s and women’s sides, accessed by separate stair cases. The elders in each building were on a different floor. The leading male elder’s chamber was right across the hall from the leading female elder’s chamber. No wall there. What’s up with that?

New Hampshire has several neat gorges, complete with waterfalls. DSC_0308 The biggest and most popular (so popular the state charges an admission) is the Flume in Franconia Notch State Park. The others are smaller, but just as picturesque, although to get to some of them you need to take a hike.

There are apparently a lot of mooses (I know the plural of moose is moose, but it just sounds wrong. Frankly, I prefer meese.) in New Hampshire because there are a lot of signs in the northern part of the state warning drivers to “Brake for Moose” and “Moose Crossing Next 6 Miles”. We’ve driven hundreds of miles in this state and seen just one moose. She was in a spot where I couldn’t safely stop to take a picture, so the picture of the stuffed moose in the Franconia Notch Visitor’s Center will have to do.DSC_0293I don’t think it’s a real moose.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Castle in the Clouds

When first built in 1914 this place was called “Lucknow” but later on it could have been renamed “Luck? No!” More on that later.

A gentleman by the name of Thomas Plant, who was sort of the Jimmy Choo of his day (a major manufacturer of ladies shoes), thought having a home in the New Hampshire mountains would be nice, so he bought 6600 acres which included 5 mountain peaks and a couple of waterfalls.DSC_0273  These are the Falls of Song, but when we were there, I didn’t hear anyone singing.

Anyhow, the arts and crafts house isn’t really a castle, at least by Vanderbilt and Hearst standards, but it is a nice big  house on top of a mountain with a great view of Lake Winnipesaukee. The local preservationists run the place as a tourist attraction to raise money for restoration.  Some of the furnishings are original Plant pieces.


Mr. Plant was a self-made millionaire, starting as a factory worker in a shoe factory, then beginning his own shoemaking business which became the biggest in the country at the time. His factory was said to be the largest factory (I guess it was a Plant plant) of any kind in the US during the period.DSC_0277

The view from the backyard includes the lake, which is several miles away. The original estate included a big chunk of lakefront property which was eventually sold, lakefront property being what it is. DSC_0279

Mr. Plant had a “secret room” in the house, which wasn’t really a secret, but was somewhat hidden behind a secret door in the wainscoting. If the stories are true, Mr. Plant barely had to duck to get through that door, and when he was in there he was not to be disturbed. The second Mrs. Plant, by the way, was 6’1”.

Mr. Plant was apparently very good at making women’s shoes, but at investing, not so much. He bought $750,000 worth of Russian stocks just before the Russian revolution – so the stocks became worthless. Then he invested what money he had left in sugar, and the crop failed, leaving Mr. Plant virtually penniless.  The house was auctioned off and the new owners allowed Plant to continue living there. After Plant’s death at 37 or 38, the house became a privately owned tourist attraction, and eventually was taken over by the local preservation society. About 1000 acres was sold off, so the current property is about 5500 acres.

Friday, July 16, 2010

North of Boston

First stop, Salem. We’re told that Wicca is a common religious practice here, and that any resident you pass in the street might be a witch. Since they don’t dress in black and wear pointed hats, I couldn’t tell. And I should know, since I once interviewed Margaret Hamilton.

The Salem Witch Museum is a series of narrated dioramas explaining the Salem Witch Trials in the late 1600’s, which didn’t involve any real witches and was the source of the phrase “witch hunt.” Too bad for the dozen or so folks executed as witches before the silly girls who accused them said “just kidding.”

The legend of witches in New England grew out of midwifery. Midwives were apparently seen as a challenge to some of the religious leaders of the time, so rumors spread. The Museum also spends some of its exhibit space explaining Wicca, which is a naturalist type of belief system and doesn’t involve devil worship. Then again, the Museum may be run by people with an interest in dispelling the devil worship thing, but I’m just a skeptic.


We also visited Gloucester, MA for a  whale watch tour. Gloucester is a working fishing town which we have visited a couple of times before. The whale watch was pretty good, we saw several hump back whales fairly close to the boat. We’re a bit spoiled, however, because the first whale watch we went on out of Gloucester several years ago was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

On that trip the whales literally rubbed up against the boat, swam under the boat, and rolled on their sides right next to the boat so they could look at us. It was DSC_0255wonderful. I really think some enterprising whale was running human watching tours. But as I said, on this trip the whales were close but not that close.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Addendum To Dead People...

I forgot to mention the family we met while touring Lizzie Borden's house. They were a couple from far southwestern Virginia and their son of about 11 or 12. They were on a driving trip along the east coast. They were very nice, but a bit, um, a bit unsophisticated on the finer points of travel. We helped them out as best we could, but my favorite questions had to do with Boston. "Is Boston a big city?" they asked. "Is there anything to do there?" We gave them some suggestions, and mentioned there might be some historical aspects of the city they might find interesting.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Rich People’s Houses, Dead People’s Houses

We’re on the road again, this time for a grand tour of New England. First stop was Newport, RI, where we visited a couple of the “cottages” in which the wealthy New York families of the gilded age spent the summer months away from the heat of the city. If they had been in Newport this week, they would have surely abandoned the cottages and headed further north. Just like at home, the temperature was in the high 90s and even over 100 on Wednesday. I think I’ve sweated off 10 pounds since we left home.

The biggest and gaudiest house here is The Breakers, which was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt, and it proves there used to be real money in railroads, especially if you owned them. No photos are permitted inside,DSC_0211 so the exterior shot will have to do, but we were told the term “conspicuous consumption” was coined during this period of the late 19th century, and apparently old Corny really knew how to consume conspicuously. But the tour told us that the Vandy family were just regular folks in many ways. They liked to have fun, played practical jokes on each other and even  slid down the grand staircase on serving trays…silver, no doubt.

One detail of the house pretty much sums it up – the library walls are constructed of platinum panels.

A much more interesting house tour was through a B and B in Fall River, MA.  You may remember the song:

Yesterday in old Fall River, Mr. Andrew Borden died. And they got his daughter Lizzie on a charge of homicide. Some folks say she didn't do it, and others say of course she did. But they all agree Miss Lizzie B. was a problem kind of kid.

Cause you can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts. Not even if it's planned as a surprise No, you can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts. You know how neighbors love to criticize.

She got him on the sofa where he'd gone to take a snooze. And I hope he went to heaven 'cause he wasn't wearing shoes. Lizzie kinda rearranged him with a hatchet so they say. Then she got her mother in that same old-fashioned way!

DSC_0219 Yep, the house where Lizzie allegedly did the foul deeds in 1892 is open as a museum and bed and breakfast. The tour took us through all the rooms, including the room in which Andrew was chopped, and the guest room upstairs where Lizzie’s step mother was killed. And by the way, the song was wrong, Mr. Borden died with his shoes on, as you can see in the photo.




The tour guide, who works as the cook in the house, was very knowledgeable about the case and the trial. The crime scene photos are on display in the very rooms where they were taken, and although the Borden furniture is long gone, the place is furnished with pieces that look a lot like the originals. Lizzie was acquitted of the crime, after spending a long time in jail awaiting trial, but it is very likely she did it.

DSC_0232 Guests who spend the night in Andrew’s former bedroom often leave some change on the dresser in the hopes he, who was known to be a penny-pincher, will be enticed to return for a visit. The tour guide said that as far as he knows, Andrew, or more likely, Andrew’s ghost, has never made an appearance.

A bonus of the tour was a glimpse of autopsy photos, including the skulls of Mr. & Mrs. B. after the medical examinerDSC_0221 had removed all of the soft stuff. Ouch!

One minor problem en route to Fall River. Our Tom Tom GPS stopped working – dead as a, dead as Andrew Borden. So we had to rely on a map (ugh) to get there. I have a spare GPS I bought for Penny a couple of years ago, but she never even opened the box. So I set it up,( it took hours to download current maps and updates) and plugged it in to the cigar lighter (I have no idea why they call it that. Maybe real truck drivin’ men smoke cigars.) in the truck. In about half and hour it was dead too. So this got me thinking. I plugged my phone into the lighter socket, and it didn’t charge. Turned out the lighter socket is dead, not either GPS. I figured it was a fuse, but it turns out the lighter fuse is located under the hood of the truck behind the coolant reservoir in a spot that requires a mechanic to get to.  Fortunately, the truck has a second power point, so we’ve now got Tom plugged in there and I’ll have the lighter socket fixed the next time the truck is serviced.

Now we’re in Salisbury, MA and over the next few days we’ll be taking a whale watch tour out of Gloucester, and visit some witches in Salem.