Follow Will: Facebook Twitter

A Yankee Notebook

September 22, 2014


KEENE VALLEY, NY -- We left Keene Valley, Mother and I, in the middle of winter over 53 years ago, and have never been back, except for visits and hunting season.  All the people we knew then are either dead or gone away.  Still, it’s where we began our married life.  Memories of what we used to be, the birth of our first child, and the work that sustained us are thick all around us in the little village.  As we pass different houses, we mention not who lives there, but who used to live there.  I notice our conversation becoming quieter in the car.

We lived forty years in the town of Hanover, and what a pain it was to get here from there: up the Interstate to Bethel; take your pick of gaps through the Green Mountains; through the congestion of Middlebury to the lake plain and across the bridge at Chimney Point; through Port Henry and Mineville and over the famous Tracy Road to the Boquet River headwaters; up and over a glacial dam and into the north-flowing Ausable River watershed; then down into the home valley at last.  During hunting season, it was a Friday night ritual whose consummation made it pure joy.

Not anymore.  Interstate 89, only a couple of miles from our current house in Montpelier, plows through the Green Mountains at water level and follows the Winooski River downstream.  We get off at Richmond, sneak through a two-mile-long dirt-road shortcut, and arrive at the ferry dock in just over an hour.  Ahead of us to the west, looming ever higher as we cross the lake, rise the bulky granite giants of the Adirondacks.  Memories haunt almost every summit.

During the days we lived here, a local group held an annual sports car hill climb on a winding mountain road five miles away, in Keene.  Naturally, we attended; there was little enough to do in the village, even during the summer when the folks from away were in full cry.  Besides, we were personally interested.  Our transportation at the time was a roaring old Jaguar XKMC120 roadster, somewhat tired from a few seasons at Watkins Glen, but still potent.  I didn’t enter it in the hill climb; I couldn’t have afforded to repair any damage to it.  So we just watched as race-tuned MGs tackled the humpbacked bridge and sharp bend just beyond.  There were homemade race cars, too, an exotic D Jaguar, and a lovely J-2 Allard-Cadillac that usually took home the bacon.  One poor guy brought his Volvo 1800 (Remember Roger Moore as the Saint?), which looked sexy, but took the hill not much faster than a VW Beetle.  Afterward, we all went back to the rest of our weekend and drove a little faster for the next few days, until reality settled in again.

The hill climb weekend eventually petered out; but about four years ago a local couple conceived the idea of a reunion and a ceremonial climb featuring the surviving cars of fifty years ago.  It’s apparently caught on, and this weekend Mother and I (mostly I; she wouldn’t know a Dodge from a Delahaye) have used it as an excuse to come visit the cradle of our relationship.

It’s a long climb – about 1000 feet – from Elizabethtown to the crest of Spruce Hill, a wide, smooth highway that hardly hints at its predecessor, which half a century ago challenged us to cover its ten miles in ten minutes.  At the top, the high peaks suddenly open before you, shouldering to the horizon.  From there, it’s a quick drop down to the flat floor of the valley, during which Mother’s Prius generates enough electricity to power us for a few miles at the bottom.

The local landing strip is only half a mile from the foot of the hill.  We could see colored metal gleaming in the sun, and there they were.  It was a mixed bag of old sports cars: a lovely Morgan with the windscreen folded flat and a tonneau cover adding still more sleekness; a new Aston Martin convertible (James Bond on vacation); a lonely Porsche; several MGAs and Bs; the Allard-Cadillac from 50 years ago, essentially a big American engine on wheels; and sitting rather aloof, the same model and year of Jaguar we’d owned when we first moved here.  It was beautiful.  But seeing it was like meeting an old, old sweetheart and remembering a necessary sadness.

A very odd-looking yellow car trundled into the yard, dragging its muffler a scant two inches above the pavement.  A Saab Sonett, it clearly had been primped and tuned in a hurry just to get here: the bad dream of a Swedish designer yearning to be Italian.  Nobody bothered even looking at the Corvettes, except the one with the glass body like a flying saucer.

I stood around with the groups of aficionados staring at engines and describing how they’d brought their cars slowly back from the brink of extinction.  Suddenly there was a roar behind us, like a motorcycle gang arriving at a rally.  We all turned, and into the yard and across the grass bounced the first of the annual Bugatti Rally cars.  Rumbling relics of the 20s and 30s, they each held two people close side by side; they’d have been driver and mechanic in the old days, shouting at each other over the noise of the engine. They had hand brakes: a lever outside the cockpit by the driver’s right hand that didn’t work well at all.  We jumped out of the way.  The drivers, in leather helmets and goggles, channeling ancient champions, climbed stiffly out of their cramped cockpits and removed gloves, goggles, and helmets.  I noticed they all had ear plugs.

The fancy Bugattis rumbled in next, huge saloons gleaming impossibly bright in the faint sun.  Among them was a Delahaye (you’ve got to google the name to appreciate its fantastic appearance), looking like a blue-winged teal at a mallard convention.  Some opened their hoods for inspection, but it was strictly do-not-touch.  Then, at a signal, almost every car in the lot fired up and rolled off toward Keene to take some ceremonial runs up the old hill.  Mother and I looked at each other, suddenly felt our age, and nodded:  “Let’s see if we can make the four o’clock ferry.”

Photo by Willem lange