The Maine Attraction Part II: Inland
Last week I shared my maritime tales of Maine’s shoreline and now allow me to follow up those salty stories with the details of our journey into the scenic core of New England.
Bethel, a small Maine village of 2,500 residents nestled near the New Hampshire border, was our first inland stop. Jason and I strayed from our comfort zone a bit and stayed at a little B&B while in this tiny hamlet. The building was over 100 years old and its age showed. The floors squeaked and the doorknobs didn’t turn so well but there was a feeling of significance in that vintage dwelling. The innkeepers were very hospitable and cheerily made us a delicious breakfast each morning using eggs from their own happy chickens. Sometimes comfort zones are for sissies.
Like our B&B, every part of Bethel spoke history. It was full of antique church spires and homes not much younger than America. Its widespread white clapboard buildings and village greens were lovingly preserved and just plain lovely.
Bethel’s charm wasn’t its only appeal though. It was conveniently close to Grafton Notch, a U-shaped valley carved out by glaciers, which we were eager to explore. Glaciers receded from New England about 14,000 years ago yet their icy influence can still be seen in its rounded mountaintops and pitted rock. Potholes in this region, sculpted by glacial debris, have turned the streams cascading down them into nature’s waterslides over the millennia. These acrobatic rivers frequently twist and jump across their granite platforms, performing a continuous magnificent show.
In the Grafton Notch area we saw a couple such jumps, Screw Auger and Step Falls, and took a hike through some of the oddest terrain I’ve ever stood on. Table Rock, a giant block of granite, was our 2.4-mile destination. To get to it we had to climb a never-ending flight of roughly-hewn rock steps. These giant “stairs” only ceased when the terrain became a jumble of massive boulders, which had to be leapt and scrambled over. Although strenuous, this trek was quite fun and the fantastic views of the Mahoosuc Range from Table Rock would have been worth it regardless.
Upon leaving Bethel, we proceeded west to Stowe, Vermont, famous for its ski resorts and fall leaves. We paused as we passed through New Hampshire to do a short hike in Moose Brook State Park. Our little walk followed Perkins Brook through a quiet mossy forest. The spongy soil was peopled with mushrooms and anything that hadn’t moved recently was covered in swaths of flourishing life. The dappled light filtering through the emerald canopy doubled the green of the ground and brought to mind the realm of fairies.
After that brief intermission, we continued on our way to Stowe, a beautiful drive. The Vermont countryside was dotted with bright weathered barns and hilly pastures, which the dense forests just beyond seemed plotting to reclaim. Stowe was made of the same scenic stuff. In the shadow of Mt. Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak, this quaint little village looked like it hadn’t changed much in many years.
While at Stowe we hiked in nearby Smugglers’ Notch, so called because it’s been a favorite route for sneaking alcohol, people, you name it, into and out of Canada throughout American history. The trails we took to Bingham Falls and Sterling Pond were stunning but crossed by rivulets and trickles so often it seemed that the whole area was part of some makeshift waterway. Along with the views we encountered by using our feet, we caught a ride on the Stowe Mountain Resort gondola and got a cheater’s peek of the panorama from the top of Mt. Mansfield.
Our visit to Stowe’s happened to be the same weekend as their annual British Invasion, a regional British-car show. After gorging on fantastic dinner fare one night, we decided to drive into town but found the road blocked off for the “British Invasion Block Party.” Stowe’s main street was lined with tiny English sports cars and people eating ice cream cones and generally having a good time. We thought we might as well have a good time too so we took to mingling with the jovial throngs. A band was playing some classic rock tunes and soon the crowd started boogying and swinging to the music. Everyone, from children so young they could barely walk to gents so old they could barely walk, joined in the fun. Jason and I also took to grooving on the pavement. Thus, we connected with that friendly community on their small street with the full moon and historic steeples floating above us. It truly felt like something out of a movie.
The last stop in our inland interlude was Franconia, New Hampshire. Franconia, in the midst of the White Mountains, is definitely a blink-and-miss town but enchanting nonetheless. While we didn’t find the foliage in Stowe as impressive as we’d hoped, due to the earliness of the season, the woods around Franconia were smack in the middle of their fall fire. The whole area was ablaze and gorgeous.
We stayed in the “Dream Cottage” at the Sugar Hill Inn our night in Franconia. With a giant fireplace, private sauna and comfy porch swing, it’s a shame we couldn’t just spend the evening slouching in our bungalow but Franconia Notch State Park was not to be missed. This notch’s rugged beauty inspired authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. It inspired us too. Oddly enough, sometimes inspiration feels a lot like a downpour. We hiked to various falls and features along the Pemigewasset River as rain pelted us through an eerie blanket of mist. It was surreal yet soggy.
Before we headed to Boston to catch our flight the next day, we stopped at Frost Place, home of the poet Robert Frost for five years and twenty summers. The spectacular views of the Franconia Notch from his modest farmhouse made Frost’s wooded muses almost tangible.
Although time wasn’t really permitting, after Frost Place we hurriedly explored Flume Gorge, an 800-foot-long chasm created by a plume of lava squishing through a crack and then eroding. I wish we could have enjoyed its lush sheer walls and impressive falls without time constraints but seeing it in a dash was better than not seeing it at all. We rushed back to Boston after our gorge tour with just enough time to not feel panicked about making our flight. Whew!
New England may not be a common vacation destination for those in the west but Jason and I are very glad we’ve roamed its precipitous shores and saturated woods. Compared to visiting Maine and its neighbors, all other holidays are minor.