On the Fourth of July, as part of my nascent and ongoing search for America, we went to my mom’s hometown of Woodsville for the largest parade in New Hampshire. The town itself is pretty dinky–a main drag with some restaurants and gift shops, an old train station converted to a plant nursery, three blinking yellow lights next to the WalMart which moved in to siphon money out of the local economy–but you’d be amazed at the crowds of people turning out for the event. “I don’t know where the hell all those people come from,” my Uncle Bob said. He entered the parade on his tractor and came bumbling down the street toward the bridge over the Connecticut River and on into Vermont.
We saw more than tractors, as the pictures can attest. There were the requisite shriners in their tiny motor cars, the clowns and motocyclists wheeling uncomfortably close to the children lining the streets grabbing candy, a whole battery of military trucks, local elder brass bands and men in the VFW regalia, politicians in the convertibles and firetrucks from all the surrounding towns. Continue reading
He pulled the fish out of that there water.
Traveling with my older brother Greg is always…interesting. When he, his girlfriend Jordan, and my mom picked me up in Burlington, it didn’t take long for Greg, in the driver’s seat through the green mountains, to lean his head to me in the backseat and say, “I’ve got to tell you what I did.”
“Oh boy,” the ladies said. I put down my smartphone and gave him my attention.
“I caught a trout out of the river below Aunt Judy’s house, and I cut it open and cleaned it right there, and I pulled out its heart, and it was still beating, and I popped it in my mouth and swallowed it.” Continue reading
I’ve made it to Alburg, Vermont, on Lake Champlain (home of the Loch Ness Monster’s cousin Champ), just south of the Canadian border. The people I’ve met–beside extended family gathered at uncle Dave’s lake house–are a mix of French-Canadians, tye-dyed hippies, and rural Vermonteers. The land is relatively flat this far north of Burlington. I can see hilly New York with its wind turbines from across the lake.
Last night we sat on the back deck beneath the stars and a bright moon marveling at how the one cove before us is only a small portion of the vast complex of islands, deltas, and waterways that make up Lake Champlain. According to my uncle, the lake is 12 miles wide and 120 miles long (“1×10″ I smartly said), 300 feet at its deepest parts down by Burlington.
If you like authors and history, you should subscribe to Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac.” He sends a pretty good poem along with entertaining paragraphs about whichever author’s birthday it is or any anniversaries of important inventions and innovations to your email every day.
Today Keillor and his staff sent a long blurb about this being the day on which Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act in 1956. While the comprehensive highway system opened up travel across the U.S. and better prepared us to defend against foreign invasions, the superhighway system created a whole new culture where motorists looked at billboards instead of scenery and fast food chains found footing.
Recognize that setting? Have you seen the video?
Months ago while scheming up Haney on the Train, I pulled up the Amtrak rail map and saw that, since the Amtrak no longer runs through Tallahassee, I’d probably have to depart from my hometown of Orlando. But then I’d have to leave my car there and, with the limited number of travel legs on my rail pass, I probably wouldn’t make it back. So I’d have Aimee drop me off in Jacksonville and pick me up in New Orleans. Well, isn’t that annoying?
Partly to avoid all that inconvenience, and partly because I wanted to see my folks in New England anyway, I ended up with a flight from Tallahassee to Burlington (with two layovers). I’m scheduled to pick up my pass in Boston now and take my first train trip from there to NYC. At the end of the journey, Aimee will still drive to pick me up in New Orleans.
Trying to butt in to the conversation on my left, and feeling pretty well in a free state of mind from the strong beer, hot sun, and humidity, I asked Dale where he was from.
“Gainesville,” he said. “Right outside of Gainesville.”
But Stan steered him back on course. “Say Dale, what kind of edible mushrooms do you find in the wild?”
Sandwiched in by these conversations, I clutched my beer with both hands and started making connections in my head. My best friend Joe growing up, who was born three days before me and lived a block around the corner, had moved to Gainesville while I was finishing high school, waiting to enroll in community college–what we called “13th and 14th grades”. We drifted apart, Joe falling in with a group of earthy people I didn’t know from somewhere outside of Orlando with whom he led a life of experimentation and took up the acoustic guitar; meanwhile I got my act together, took up golf, and got into a good four-year college. Not to say my decisions were in any way superior. In fact, I always envied Joe for casting aside the demands of his parents and teachers, for hurtling his young self head on into risk and danger, for embodying the antiauthoritarian precepts I idealized.
Continued from Part 1
Having finished our second round, we got up to explore the park. I had seen a couple girls in bathing suits with inner tubes walking through the crowd so I led us in that direction, we were so hot, just to look at the water and fantasize about getting in. When we reached the Suwannee and its dark, tannic waters, we saw a dozen or so people swimming beneath an “Alligators No Swimming” sign. One woman remarked, “I guess the alligators ain’t allowed to swim in there.” Up the granite steps and across a wooden boardwalk a thin man with glasses and a long beard played guitar to an attentive group of festival goers. He launched into a song he’d written about growing up on the Winter Park chain of lakes, near where I grew up, and Dog Island, his boyhood Mecca and where, as I told Aimee walking back up the trail, my high school buddies and I used to throw keg parties in the palm brush and sand.
So many Florida place names—the Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee, Blue Springs—popped up in the folk songs and even I, a first-generation Floridian from the urban sprawl of Orlando, felt some spiritual kinship to the land and its well of stories running deep and bubbling up from some obscure aquifer like the pure, cold water of the Florida springs.
On a steamy Saturday in May, Aimee and I took a day trip about 100 miles east down I-10 from Tallahassee to the Florida Folk Festival at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs. It’s the longest continually held music festival in the country, and at 60 years old this year, it’s only slightly younger than its headliner, Arlo Guthrie. We found the State Park full of straw hats and cowboy boots, sweet southern folk music and dusty trails, and an eclectic crowd of baby-boomers clinging steadfast to their heritage and wizened romantics marveling at the years gone by.
This picture says it all.
Immediately when we walked in the park, I saw the carillon tower towering over the festival. Beneath its high bell chambers the Florida State Fiddlers Association was having their annual meeting, and a woman on the stage in the makeshift pavilion told a story about a great fiddle player who competed in a blind fiddle contest with the added challenge of having a bee land on his nose during the competition. According to the woman, the man said after the contest, “I came in second to a 10-year-old girl from Texas who didn’t have no bee on her nose.”
I chuckled while Aimee studied the map of the park then we ambled further on to another tent where a man was pulling stories from the judge. “He’s so well liked around here,” the interviewer said, “that even the people he’s convicted think highly of him.” Continue reading