There’s no better way to experience new places than to do so with those who know them best. That’s what we did over the course of a week as we traversed New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.
Mike and Monique shared with us their love of the gardens and sculptures at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire. We enjoyed with Michelle and Dennis a wonderful campfire amid a forest sparkling with fireflies in the hills of Vermont. And Marty and Jan took us to one of the best farmers markets we’ve experienced and together we conjured a locally sourced feast for 10 in Maine.
It’s going to be a tough week to beat!
Mike and Monique’s camp house is perched on the edge of Rand Pond near Lake Sunapee. The water is clear, the reflections vivid.
Mike retired last year as administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, which is how we met. Monique grew up in Belgium not far from where Georges was born. The four of us enjoyed a delightful dinner together on the porch.
It wasn’t far the next day to the national historic site in Cornish, a lovely oasis of sculpture and painting tucked deep into the forest along the Connecticut River. It commemorates the work of American artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
More than a hundred Saint-Gaudens works are on exhibit. Two of the most arresting are two of the largest, both exquisitely displayed in expansive outdoor presentations befitting – and accentuating – their grandeur.
Perhaps the most famous is the Shaw Memorial, which was unveiled on Boston Common in 1897 and commemorates Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the first unit of African-American volunteers raised in the north during the Civil War.
It took Gaudens 14 years to complete the piece.
Saint-Gaudens was the first acclaimed American artist to accord realism to his black subjects, portraying them without the derogatory or stereotyped features common to this era.
He was an admirer of Abraham Lincoln. His images of the president are breathtaking. Here’s one presentation.
And here’s another.
I’ll include this second shot of the bust, with G, so you get a sense of its scale.
G and I would never have experienced the beauty of this monument, created by the artist’s widow after the turn of the century to honor her husband’s work, were it not for Mike and Monique.
Saint-Gaudens’ Diana also is famous. It stood atop the tower of Madison Square Garden for 32 years beginning in 1893. The 1894 model is on display here.
And I was particularly taken by the plaster bust of John Hay, long of special interest to me. Hay was President Lincoln’s personal secretary and later served as Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. An eye-witness recorder of many of the era’s seminal events, Hay played a special role in shaping the country’s history.
Here’s a view of the grounds from the artist’s home, which is just up from his studio. As you can tell, it was a glorious day – warm in the 70s and sunny….
Soon we headed to Vermont and passed over the Connecticut River via the Cornish-Windsor Bridge, built in 1866. According to the sign, it is (or was as of 1966) the longest covered bridge in the United States.
True confession: We neither walked our horses nor paid the $2 fine. (It did make me think of those Madison County landmarks, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep….)
A couple of hours later – after many a hill and dale – we rolled into Westminster West and up a hard-packed dirt road to the rambling farmhouse that friends and authors Michelle and Dennis renovated 10 years ago and have lived in ever since.
When they’re not crafting best-selling novels and mysteries, these Boston-area transplants are accomplished gardeners. Here’s Dennis amid the flowers. (Not visible in this photo are the herbs, radishes, chives, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, peppers, onion, etc….)
The four of us, plus four-legged Ralph, took a walk up the narrow lane that links a half dozen homes hidden amid the forest. One of the neighbors is a woman in her 70s who lives alone and would, understandably, like to trade her truck for a smaller, more manageable car – but can’t seem to find one that will carry both her kayak and her canoe.
Gotta love those Vermonters.
Visiting from LA were Michelle’s sister, her husband, and their 13-year-old daughter. Tessa and Ian are also quite accomplished. She’s an award-winning filmmaker and television director; together they write film and TV scripts. Lucy is a lovely young lady, unusually articulate and with creative fashion sense.
We shared a delicious dinner together on the screened porch. G marveled at the long, wood-plank table in the dining room, handcrafted by Dennis from discarded antiques. We discussed the nature of heartbreak, the importance of family, the beauty of the natural world.
We also worried about the conceit of the Trump administration and its many fingers of deceit and destruction.
Later, we donned jackets and carried blankets out onto the hill behind the house. At first the only light seemed to be the bonfire, with its flames licking at our feet. Then came the stars, with the Big Dipper and Milky Way bold and bright.
Finally, came the lightning bugs – a few over the tall grass at first, then hundreds of tiny flickering lights amid the forest behind.
That’s Tessa in the corner, Michelle in the middle and me in the chair – with lap-warming Ralph. Together we all told stories, shared dreams and gave thanks for being together.
The next afternoon, we headed to Marty and Jan’s in Brunswick. We knew we’d entered Maine when the Deer Crossing road signs began alternating with the Moose Crossing signs.
We arrived in time for a delightful home-cooked dinner featuring Jan’s special fresh black-pepper pea soup and lobster pasta.
I can’t seem to get enough lobster. I’ve had it hot, cold, plain, complicated – and everything in between. If I could I’d worship at the altar of this red-shelled crustacean.
I confess that much of what I knew about Maine before this adventure came from an airy old television series. Anybody remember “Murder, She Wrote” starring Angela Lansbury? (Can’t you just hear the typewriter keys clicking away to the theme music?) Total fiction, yes, but an engaging series that taught me about the independent and live-and-let-live mentality of Mainers.
Another lesson: Never refer to a person from elsewhere in New England as a “Down-easter” – even if they’re from (down) south of Maine. This is how mystery writer Jessica Fletcher in the series solved a particular murder; she unmasked as a fraud a suspect who claimed to be a native of Maine but who used the term to refer to somebody from Boston – which a true Mainer would never do. (A down-easter refers to somebody from the far-eastern reaches of northern Maine, formerly reachable only by sailors sailing *down* against the prevailing winds from the southwest.)
But there’s more to Maine than moose, lobster and Jessica Fletcher.
It has great farmers markets. We spent nearly two hours on a Saturday at the one in Brunswick sponsored by the land trust, where we bought everything from fresh oysters, mussels and chicken thighs to six kinds of wild mushrooms, four fresh cheeses, two breads, almond croissants, flowers, radishes, strawberries, squash and spinach.
Let the preparation begin.
These Atlantic oysters were smaller and their shells more delicate than the Gulf oysters we’re accustomed to. They were delicious.
Here’s the fresh spinach base preparation for les oeufs en meurette (poached eggs in a red-wine lemon sauce).
And the eggs waiting to be poached….
The free-range chicken thighs simmered nicely on the stove.
With the six kinds of wild mushrooms waiting patiently to be sautéed and stirred in just before serving….
Responsible for this delectable meal? Georges and Marty.
My photo of the final presentation doesn’t really do it justice. Trust me when I say this was truly one of the best meals G has ever made.
This was dessert, post-flambé. (For flambé technique, see video in the post previous to this one regarding cousins and lighthouses….)
And we enjoyed it with an eclectic group of warm and fascinating people. In addition to Marty, a retired entertainment lawyer and business executive with a passion for piano, and Jan, a leader-volunteer with interests ranging from music theater and libraries to historic preservation and land conservation:
• Jack is the former president of International Paper in Russia and a Russian scholar.
• Lorna is a foodie, patron of the Bowdoin International Music Festival and an avid gardener.
• Henry is a restauranteur/caterer, formerly the guest services manager for the president of Bowdoin College.
• Marty is a master-teacher of piano and a performing/recording pianist, highly sought-after as an accompanist by performers ranging from opera to cabaret.
• Jonathon is an Episcopal priest and warm Humanist.
• Ruth is a retired high school guidance counselor, nature lover and accomplished golfer.
We talked about everything from religion and golf to travel, food, politics and adventure. It was a shame the dinner had to come to an end; the evening’s evocative energy is with us still….
The next day we added considerably to our wildlife-sightings list. A couple of snowshoe hare grew increasingly bold in lunch-munching in the flower garden, for example, and I learned that these tan-colored hoppers with the giant rear legs like kangaroos turn completely white in the wintertime.
We also spotted at the feeders blue jays, a rose-breasted grosbeak, a flicker, Northern cardinals, towhees, a female bluebird and a ruby-throated hummingbird. That’s not counting the six big turkeys that marched across the driveway in the mid afternoon.
And we reveled it some pretty delicious leftovers with our hosts.
As the evening lengthened, we talked about how each of us met our spouse, the challenges of inter-denominational marriage, raising kids, organized and unorganized religion, life, timing, passions and the Golden Rule.
What else is there?
The aperitif gave way to a main course of skate – yes, that’s leftover lobster pasta on top.
And just about the best bottle of wine imaginable.