There is something exclusive about a road trip. The informality of it itself is just too comforting. It is like stopping at that street stall or the food market for a bite to eat as opposed to being seated in a formal affair of a restaurant. Now there is nothing wrong with dressing up and hitting the fancy spots in town once awhile, but casual places – they appeal to your innie hippie. Nobody gives a hoot about anything except for no-nonsense good nosh. Road trips mark a similar note of freedom – from the harassing dictates of air travel. Take off your belt sir, those shoes ma’am, that watch please and where are you prancing off in the jacket? That has to come off too, you nitwit.
So we embarked on a road trip. Paul Theroux deems it to be the ‘better way, a truer way, the old way’. In our first road trip since we moved to the US, we set off from our quiet quarter in New Jersey for the wholesome mountains in the north-east of the country. We had our eyes on Vermont which I had gushed over as maple country earlier – I know the affront I cause you Canadians. I also appreciate that you can hold a hand over your heart and bear it with interjections of incredulity. Blame it upon the Abenakis, the Native American tribes in that part of the country. They hit upon it with the random strike of a tomahawk into a sugar maple tree trunk. So the story goes. Warmed by the spring sun the tree yielded sap from the cut and of course a clever chief wife gathered it in a birch bark container. She poured it over food cooking away in a pot and found a veneer of sweet stickiness later. The result? The chief’s wife was putty in its fluid hands – just like I am.
In those days, there were no seaports near Vermont to import sugar. These tribes had to depend upon the yield of the land and there it was – liquid gold waiting to be tapped out. From there onto our breakfast plates at greasy diners. Now how can anyone complain? The arteries might but today’s not their day.
We carried on down the open highway beneath skies that were grey. Gradually they acquired a clear blue tone, broad brush strokes of white streaming across them as in a painting. Past us sped by gangs of hurly burly Harley motorcyclists, mountain ranges melted into each other in a symphony of green in the Catskills, the broad Hudson snaked by cities modern and old in upstate New York, Saratoga Springs, Albany, Troy, Schenectady. Semi-dried up creeks. Rivers with Native American names added an old-world touch. Yes even before the ‘Old World’ must have chanced upon what they deemed as the ‘New’. Rustic barns and silos showed up. I find myself particularly charmed by the iconic American Gambrel barn. I can picture life within its walls. Lofty ceiling. Cosy, quaint vibes. Lace curtains and old teapots. Piles of scones and cucumber sandwiches with pitchers of iced tea. Grubby hands and happy faces.
Then just before we entered Vermont, we hit gold. The last town within the precincts of Rensselaer County in New York is a small town called Hoosick. By the Hoosic River. Once there would have been the Mahicans here in the 17th century. It is a land replete with memories, awash with history, stories of Mahicans who were the Eastern Algonquian tribes, the Iroquois who fought with the Mahicans and their French allies for control over the beaver fur trade, of battles between British and American forces at the Walloomsac river, and so many more that I do not know of.
Hoosick is a capsule of Americana. There stands an antique store at the crossroads of the town that looks as aged as the old couple who own it. White hair, rosy cheeks, frail bodies and keen minds. That store induced nostalgia. Old China sets pegged at throwaway prices, vintage model train engines and railroads, bunches of sepia-toned photos lying in baskets…they make you wonder about the people who owned them. Their lives, ambitions, dreams. So many stories tucked into those objects. And then a voice asking me not to dawdle. ‘Just get out already. I want to reach Manchester soon.’ My beloved. I stayed inside dawdling even more thoroughly if one can do that. And I grumbled to the old man. At which he warned Adi, ‘Now you do not want to be doing that. There will be burnt toast tomorrow.’ Adi sighed. ‘If only you knew, I get no toast.’
I did bag a coffee table book on Norman Rockwell that had a few names scrawled inside in blue ink. Four girls had gifted it to Gert in January 1974 for his birthday. Happy as a clam I pranced out of the shop after a chat with the old man about New Jersey – I confess, he talked about old roads and things that we had no idea about – and after salivating over a cornucopia of marshmallow treats, fat round cookies, Amish goodies and black bear figurines declaring, why they are just fluffy, not fat, we were geared up to be taken over by the immense green beauty called Vermont.
P.S.: Do drop by at Lumber Jack’s for a taste of their maple latte and maple drizzled fried-egg-bacon-cheese-muffins. The battle of the senses over which wins it – sweet or salty – will surely trump every other thought for the moment. You might find yourself happier than a possum digging into a sweet potato.