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Thursday, April 5, 2012

(14th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Night Vision"

Song: Moonlight Mile
Album: Sticky Fingers
Released: April, 1971

The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is aptly named.  The region is roughly defined as the three rural counties (Essex, Caledonia, and Orleans) that geographically dig into northernmost New Hampshire, stretching from the small city of St. Johnsbury at the southern end to the even smaller city of Newport at the Canadian border.  It’s a magnificent place.  The Kingdom has escaped many a traveler’s destination by being tucked on the backside of the White Mountains and connecting Southern New England to very little of known quality further to the northeast (though some of us know better than that).  Its rolling hills are enchanted and extraordinary. 

I’ve had the luxury of travelling through this Shangri-La of a region a handful of times over the past four or five years for work-related excursions to Sherbrooke, Quebec, a mid-size French-speaking city about an hour or so over the border.  On several of these business trips I have taken up the benevolent offer of a USGS colleague to crash at his getaway cabin in the tiny village of West Glover, smack dab in the heart of the Kingdom.  Words cannot describe the views from this log cabin, which is perched on one of those prior-mentioned rolling hills.  Walking down the long driveway takes you to the Parker Pie, one of the most hip venues I’ve had the pleasure to visit in all my years of exploration.  Folks travel to “The Pie” from miles around by taking one of two winding country roads into West Glover.  Musicians go out of their way to perform there as well.  I’ve often told my colleague friend that putting it all together, cabin, “Pie”, and setting he has found a rustic version of the Promised Land.

At night, the Northeast Kingdom is pitch black, with very little in the way of man-made light inhibiting a view of the sky overhead, allowing the stars to take full control of the situation.  The Milky Way is easily spotted on a cloudless evening, as is Venus, Mars, Jupiter, both Dippers, and any number of other constellations (most of which I could not name without the aid of an iPhone stargazing app).  These views of the night sky are poignant from many vantage points; not the least being large stretches of Vermont’s highway system, where you can often find yourself above the horizon, including much of Route 91 which winds its way through The Kingdom.  This can make a night ride just as awe inspiring as a day ride, particularly when the moon lights the sky, mountains silhouetted all around as you weave your way through the tapestry of stars:  A lasting image of those evening drives from Sherbrooke Quebec down to West Glover.  How else to enter a dreamscape?

I got silence on my radio
Let the air waves flow
Let the air waves flow

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Among the many perks related to meeting Nancy was getting to know the North Shore, that region of the State where Massachusetts gets to round out its national image a bit to include that more gruff, hockey-centric, Dunkin Donuts, blue collar, “How we doing?” persona we all know and love.  Medford, Malden, Everett, Saugus, Melrose, Wakefield, Stoneham, Wilmington, Billerica, Reading, and of course, Woburn:  They were all included in this process of discovery.  If I were not a well-rounded, true-blue Massachusetts boy by the time I met Nancy, I became one soon after. 

In our earliest years of dating (’84, ’85), I was living back in Franklin on the South Shore side of the State. It was a time of transition for me, trying to find my path from college to career:  Mom and Dad, open arms as always, welcoming me back to home as I made attempts in fits and starts at figuring ways to climb that ladder of success.  And so, I relied heavily on my wheels for my earliest memories with Nancy, driving the hour long stretch, Franklin to Woburn, and back on any given weekday.  The miles clocked must have been impressive, as I believe I got to the point where I could have made the trek in my sleep (which I may just have done once or twice).  Of course, it was all worth it:  We all must go through our trials and tribulations in the courting game, yes?

Most of my driving back from Woburn was, of course, late at night.  The nice part of it was that the roads were free of heavy traffic, allowing for the unusual experience of cruising Route 128 at a good clip.  From there it was the Mass Pike to exit 13 to Speen Street in Framingham, to Route 27 through Sherborn, Route 115 into Millis, 109 into Medway and the back roads to Franklin.  A time for quiet contemplation or radio play after a magical evening out and about with my then future bride.

I am just living to be lying by your side
But I’m just about a moonlight mile on down the road
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The largest vehicle I have ever driven was a massive Winnebago.  I did this during a trip to Prince Edward Island (PEI) with Nancy, Mom, Dad, Jen, Dale, Fred, Kip, Joe, Mon, Amy and Pat in the summer of 1990, taking turns at the wheel with several other family members.  It was intense driving, because this was a formidable vehicle:  Although there were 11 of us, there was space to roam around; or take in a card game at the kitchen table; or dig for food and drink in the refrigerator; or sit in several other locations to enjoy the scenery; or use the bathroom.  A travelling road show, that’s what it felt like. In hindsight, I think it was, as the belly laughs and inside jokes were many.  The primary reason for our journey, however, was a family reunion with Mom’s extended family:  Seeing the homeland and home of my grandfather’s youth; the type of ancestry connection I would recommend to anyone.

Back then, the only way onto PEI was by ferry (you can now reach it via the 8 mile long Confederation Bridge):  All part of the adventure in this super-sized motor home.  A rental car on the island relieved our reliance on the Winnebago a bit, allowing for easier errands and side trips.  On one of these errands, Dale and I followed a townie to the local “bootlegger” after the beer store locked up in front of us as we sprinted toward the door in a valiant but failed effort to beat closing time.  Another side trip included a visit to a sandy beach; a brief respite from the hustle and bustle.  Mostly, however, it was all for one and one for all, which included a very memorable photo-op visit to “Steeves Mountain”, a private park in New Brunswick on the way up (which has since closed).

The most intense stretch of driving for me was in the middle of the night through a remote part of Maine: Route 9, from Bangor to the border town of Calais.  Most everyone was sleeping (or very quiet), including a few family members on the bunk above me.  It was quite a mental burden driving that beast of a vehicle on such a long, dark, narrow thruway.  Keep clear of the road-side drainage ditches!  How often did I repeat that to myself?

In the window there's a face you know
Don't the nights pass slow
Don't the nights pass slow

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About a month ago, during the kid’s winter break, the family and I took a day trip out to North Adams.  I had not made this trek in quite some time, though I had every intention of doing so for at least a few years.  As with every trip to North Adams, the place was sure to bring back a unique set of memories, and it did not disappoint, as I flashed back over and over while shuttling the family around the various haunts where I lived and learned for three years. 

What did surprise me though was the flashback of feelings during the ride out, on the Mohawk Trail.  Most of the flashbacks were associated with my freshman year, when I would make the occasional trip back to Eastern Massachusetts in my Lincoln Mercury Capri.  These forays back east helped to make the adjustment a bit easier that year, but the ride back to North Adams on a Sunday nite sometimes negated the value of these weekend trips, as the feeling of solitude often settled over me.  The Trail can do this to you at night, as it winds its way along first the Millers River (with flow) and then the Deerfield River (against flow):  Railroad, river, and road all weaving in synchronized fashion through the valleys beneath the Berkshires. 

As the hills got higher, the railroad would disappear, ultimately finding its way into the infamous Hoosic Tunnel, and later emerging in North Adams on the other end of the high peaks (the tunnel entrance in the opposite direction was a stone’s throw from one of my off-campus housing units).  The Trail would continue its wind uphill, soon losing the river as well.  Up and up it went, finally hitting a series of far ranging masterful views to take in, even at night, and then beginning the descent into North Adams via Hairpin Turn.  Though I did not realize it at the time, each one of those trips back to school was an invaluable growing experience, a time for inner soul searching and often prayer.

My dreams is fading down the railway line
I’m just about a moonlight mile down the road

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Montreal can be a pretty darn fun place, especially for a na├»ve crew of bozos in their late teens making an overnight trip to catch a Canadiens hockey game.  So was the case for myself and three other North Adams sophomores (TH 1-ers) on a cold day in the winter of 1981-82.  We had made the drive to Burlington Vermont in my car very early that day from western Massachusetts with the intent of having Mac join us from there (Mac attended St Michaels College in Burlington) for the extra leg to Montreal.  The plan was to get tickets to the game, enjoy a few more late-night hours in the big city, and then head back to Burlington (for a no-doubt short-night of sleep) before returning to North Adams the following day.  As it turned out, an unfortunate twist of fate meant that Mac could not join us, finding his hands tied with another last-minute visitor from home,  so a classmate of his volunteered to fill in as we made our way further north.

Fun times can often be enhanced when you have no idea what you are in for (hence the bozo reference).  And everything was a surprise to us on that trip:  Getting lost on Lake Champlain; finding Montreal despite our linguistic deficiencies ; finding the Forum; arriving on time; our shocking ability to get tickets to the sold-out game; the well-dressed fans; a chance encounter with Yvan Cournoyer; roaming the streets late night; making our way home.  But we pulled it all off, and then some.

Back in the car, I lost almost everyone to sleep by the time we crossed the St Lawrence River.  Kurt hung in there for a while, but soon he was comatose as well.  I’d been here before, alone with my thoughts on a long night ride (see prior Mohawk Trail story), and so I chauffeured on, putting up with the chuckling border police as they shined their flashlights into my car on the faces of all the snoring bozos around me (I can’t imagine those border police chuckling now).  They almost seemed impressed by my duties, as I mentioned to them that I was the only one of us that knew how to drive a stick shift, and that I had been driving all day.  By the time we finally made our way into our Burlington host’s apartment, the daylight was emerging all around.

Oh I’m sleeping under strange strange skies
Just another mad mad day on the road
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Of all the travelling I’ve been blessed to be able to do, the place that gave me the most remote, isolated sense about it was Newfoundland, which I’ve had the pleasure of having visited twice now with my family (and hope to do so more in the future).  Both trips were via ferry ride from Cape Bretton Island on the top of Nova Scotia.  The first of these two trips was to the closer western side of “The Rock”, where we disembarked in the wee-early hours at the small village of Port aux Basques after a 9-hour overnighter.  The thing about landing on the sprawling western end of Newfoundland (as opposed to the eastern end which includes the capital of St. Johns on the more compact Avalon Peninsula) is that to get anywhere, you still have a lot of driving to do.

And a lot of driving we did, starting out with that early dawn drive out of Port aux Basques.  Once again, I found myself with a car full of sleepers (not bozos this time!) soon after disembarking the ferry.  But, as with all the other times mentioned here, this gave me a chance to reflect and in this case, plan ahead for the splendid scenery that would be Gros Morne National Park, fjords, Twillingate and massive offshore icebergs.  This early stretch also gave me the chance to witness that true final thrust of the Appalachian Range, several peaks which were surprisingly impressive in their grandeur.  Charlotte was able to summarize the entire experience later, back on Cape Bretton Island, when she told us she had seen a poster on the return ferry which read “You can’t be any further from Disney than you are right now”.

Looking at our video footage I can still recall the feeling I had when the ferry entered into that foggy Port aux Basques harbor, surrounded by small homes, some of which appeared precariously perched on chunks of rocky outcrop.  The feeling was one of “I can’t believe I’m here” which was unlike any other.  It was a feeling of truly being in a “newly found land”.  Perhaps it had something to do with the fog, or the distance, or the precarious looking housing, or the chill in the early morning air, or a strange familiarity.  Whatever it was, it’s still hard to believe I was there.

Made a rag pile of my shiny clothes
Gonna warm my bones
Gonna warm my bones
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It’s been many years since I pulled an all nighter.  Back in the day, the tail end of one of these would often include breakfast, which tended to make for strange bedfellows:  Early risers, 3rd shifters, and diehards.  These encounters led to fascinating conversation with the other clientele, waitresses, and cooks.  “What did you do last night?”  “Oh, I remember when….”  “To be young again” …and so on.  It’s always interesting the situations you can stumble into when you allow yourself to step out of the normal routine.

The nicest thing about predawn-opening breakfast haunts (which are few and far between) is that they would bring you that much closer to sunrise if you had it in you to want to catch one.  And when Boston was the scene of these all nighters (most often the case) the must see sunrise was a quick ride up and over the Tobin Bridge to Revere Beach:  A ‘before you die’ bucket-list event if there ever was one.

Part of that experience is no longer there, that being the elevated expressway through Boston, which has been replaced by the underground “Big Dig” and an <admittedly> much nicer, inter-connected downtown region (the Rose Kennedy Greenway is really coming along).  It was an interesting ride while it existed though, because you had a chance to see the city around you as you sat in traffic.  The rare time the ride was really enjoyable, however was when nobody was on it, which only happened around 4 am on a weekend night, on your way to Revere Beach to see a sunrise.  The roller coaster experience through the high-rises that make up the Government Center region of The Hub would put an amusement park ride to shame. 

I’m hiding baby and I’m dreaming
I’m riding down your moonlight mile
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I recall fondly these late-night/early morning  jaunts, and it’s quite likely I was listening intently to Moonlight Mile with whoever else was in the car (usually Kurt), heading to Revere Beach to start the new day in the best of possible ways.  Moonlight Mile could also have been playing in the Northeast Kingdom; and on the way home from a dinner date in Woburn; and in the Winnebago along that desolate stretch of Route 9 north of Bangor; and on my way back to North Adams along the Mohawk Trail; and while my bozo brethren slept on the way back from a hockey game in Montreal; and just off the ferry onto a newly found land.  When I first started to write this week’s Stepping Stone, I realized right off that my reflections of Moonlight Mile could not be about just any one of these experiences:  It had to be about them all.

As for the song itself (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugYzDqQtdHU), the Rolling Stones caught lightning in a bottle when they recorded this ditty, the original guitar licks of which Keith Richards had recorded and referred to as “Japanese thing”.  The two Micks (Jagger and Taylor) then took it and ran with it, and in the process showed the world that the Stones can reveal a softer underbelly behind the public facade when up to the task.

Happy Easter everyone.

-          Pete

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