From the weathered mountaintops of the Appalachians to the bountiful sea, stories of a native people and a young democracy are tucked away in the quiet villages, small towns and country roads of New England.
Day 1 - Shelburne Falls to White River Junction
The start of this living history lesson is Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. After the retreat of the glaciers, the Deerfield River crashed dramatically over what was then called Salmon Falls. The Mohawks and Penobscots met here in the 1700s and agreed to share the land in a fishing treaty. The treaty applied to "the area within one day's journey," a distance that was much less then than it is now. Subsequent generations throttled the river with a hydroelectric dam, constricting its flow and revealing the effects of thousands of years of rushing, tumbling and falling water. Just below the dam, the rocks have been smoothed and carved by the patient, relentless river. In the heat of summer, locals and visitors alike seek relief in the "glacial potholes" filled with cool river water.
Northward, hemmed in by gentle hillsides, the asphalt winds like a lazy river through intimate valleys of thinly settled farmland. It's a peaceful morning and northern Massachusetts segues into southern Vermont with little fanfare.
The road runs through Whitingham, a hamlet that appears unremarkable except for the information disclosed on a small roadside plaque. Brigham Young, an early leader of the Latter Day Saints and the man who led them to the salt lakes of Utah was born here in 1801. Imagining the arc of his life, from his birth in this still quiet country village to leading the Mormon exodus by covered wagon to the Salt Lake Valley, makes motorcycle journeys like this feel quaint and trivial in comparison. But maybe that's part of why we do it, to be humbled and inspired by what we see.
The road descends into Bennington, which has a college-town-on-summer-vacation atmosphere. It's the third-largest town in the state, which is hard to believe until you discover that only Wyoming has fewer people than Vermont. The route heads north and the vista expands. The valleys broaden and the hills become mountains. The gray skies that menaced us earlier in the day have cleared, and large cumulus clouds punctuate an otherwise blue sky. A collection of outlet shops and latte joints marks the outskirts of Manchester, with luxury SUVs with out-of-state plates careening from one to the other. This crass commercialization in the middle of an otherwise tranquil day is a little unsettling, but you can't really blame a town for doing what it must to make its way in a post-industrial economy. Like other towns, Manchester will continue to evolve and change over time. Change, after all, is the only constant. And Manchester continues to maintain aspects of its small town charm, as seen in the old historic buildings clustered around the town's center.
The route turns right and heads east from Manchester. Vermont, a tall, top-heavy trapezoid, is only 37 miles wide at the Massachusetts line. Here, near Manchester, the state is a little wider, but not by much, and the New Hampshire state line is not far away. Still, the road meanders and the relaxed pace allows time to admire the hills and small towns, the ski mountains with their long swaths of green grass, and the quintessential New England that Robert Frost celebrated in his poetry. At Bellows Falls, I cross the Connecticut River to North Walpole, New Hampshire, and then turn north on I-91. I dance along the border until I land in White River Junction, Vermont. At the confluence of the White and Connecticut Rivers, White River Junction is a throwback to earlier times. The entire downtown of this unincorporated village is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district. Walking beside the simple, sturdy brick buildings, the clean shop windows, and along the tidy, intimate streets gives one a sense of what urban life was like at the turn of the 20th century. The train station and two rail lines define the northeast edge of the town and along with the two rivers and two nearby interstates represent the three generations of transportation that helped shape the country. It seems like a good place to stop for the night, so I do, leaving the mountains of New Hampshire for tomorrow.