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A Yankee Notebook

November 3, 2014


MONTPELIER – Halloween was a Friday this year. I woke up just as dawn was filtering into our hotel room and wondered briefly where I was. Then I remembered: shore of the Atlantic Ocean in Hampton, New Hampshire. I peeked around. Mother had pulled a chair up to the gliding door to the east-side balcony and was gazing into the murk.

“Come look!” she urged. “The sunrise is like being in space! I can even see the curvature of the earth.” I demurred, and pulled the blanket over my head. I’ve seen a lot of ocean sunrises, doubted she really could see the shape of the earth out there, and hoped she’d started the coffee. But the almost childlike delight and wonder in her voice struck a note that resonated and transported me back 55 years to our beginning. That was what I had found most irresistible in her.

Halloween was our wedding day. It was a Saturday. My father, an Episcopal priest, expected to participate in the service in Virginia – though as a New Yorker he wasn’t licensed to marry anyone there – and that Saturday was the only day he had open in his very busy schedule. He had to be back in Central New York by nine the next morning to conduct the first of his services that day. My bride and I would have to ride back with him and my mother, since my battered old Jaguar was waiting for a new gas tank and was once again temporarily hors de combat.

There’s not much defense a young person can mount against organizational artillery like that, especially when it’s freighted with such sacred prerogatives. So Halloween it was, and afterward we drove all night up old Route 11 (no interstates yet) through staid Virginia and Pennsylvania towns festooned with toilet paper and aglow with jack-o-lanterns. What a honeymoon! I can only imagine what my bride must have been feeling, but through it all she stayed cheerful and apparently ready for whatever might happen next after such a weird beginning. As she always has.

Most years, we get away for a few days at the end of October to celebrate the occasion. The timing is lovely: not yet winter, but right at the start of low season. Our favorite destination has been the limestone hills of southern France, a few miles in from the sea, where we haunt ancient villages, dine elegantly, and where I can hike to my heart’s content on medieval mountain trails while Mother cruises little shops, boulangeries, and big churches.

Other years, it’s easier to head south – the Prius makes it less painful – to Pennsylvania and the Civil War sites of Virginia. When time and money have been tight, the delights of Quebec are but a couple of hours away. This year, for various reasons, even that seemed a bit of a reach, and we were kind of thrashing around trying to come up with something worthy of our 55th.

In early October, on a climb of Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire, I made a new acquaintance, the owner of a seaside hotel in Hampton. One of the friendliest guys I’ve ever met: Richard from the French quarter of Manchester, New Hampshire, married to Annie, from the Atlantic coast of Galway. “If I don’t invite you and your wife down for a couple of days at the Windjammer,” he said, “I don’t dare to go home.” He was driving his wife’s car, registration EIRE, which gave me a pretty good idea what he was talking about. So the day before Halloween we headed for the beach. MapQuest made it about 3 hours’ driving time, almost all interstate.

We’ve nearly always lived upcountry, Mother and I. It’s quieter, less crowded, and we can usually drive at our pace, rather than at those of others. A traffic jam during what rush hour there is, is rarely more than two cycles of waiting for a stoplight. This ill prepares us for the busier parts of New England farther south, where I’m keenly aware of being an almost total rube. The intersection of I-89 and I-93 was stop-and-go for about 15 minutes. Once on I-93, it was devil-take-the-hindmost as we hurtled past the state liquor stores to the toll booths and tried to set up in the correct lanes for the coming exits and splits. In very little time we were headed east toward the ocean.

New Hampshire has only 18 miles of coast in a straight line, but it makes the most of what it has. From the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard at the mouth of the Piscataqua all the way to Seabrook on the Massachusetts border, every inch of shoreline seems packed with expensive real estate and as tightly held as ice cream money in a little kid’s fist. US Route 1-A winds along the shoreline; Route 1, a little farther inland, plows north toward Fort Kent on the Canadian border; just beyond that, I-95 roars north as well, toward New Brunswick at Houlton, Maine. And they’re all busy, even on a Thursday at the beginning of low season.

The Windjammer, an early 19th-century inn much expanded and modernized, and owned by the world’s most engaging couple, seems a bit removed from the hustle. A promenade, protected by a concrete sea wall and resembling the Maleçón in Havana (except for the temperature), runs the length of the beach. It was alive with local walkers, all of whom claimed to rattle off at least three miles a day whenever the weather permitted. Nobody seemed too busy to stop and chat.

We dined out, enduring the usual lack of respect for our august status. It’s been that way for over 50 years now: Here we are trying to celebrate a solemn commitment made long ago, and everybody else, customer and wait staff alike, is dressed as a ghoul, zombie, or witch. But with the view of the ocean, a mattress soft as a cloud, and Annie bringing hot scones, hors d’ouevres, and Irish whiskey a couple of times a day, we managed to get over it. We skipped gratefully out of town just ahead of a strong coastal storm and headed for the hills of Vermont. Another one done.

Photo by Willem lange