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Originally 8/30 2010

We find ourselves back home, a touch overwhelmed, this, after a brutal trip north.

We spent the weekend doing a thorough walk through and extended test of all the ‘house’ systems in our new home (2004 Airstream Sprinter Westfalia). Rain brought us in before we finished, but all is functioning well (knock on wood).

Left Orlando last TH a week, mid-afternoon, after a couple of different test drives and system walk throughs, the sale paperwork, and the updating of insurance and AAA. Got as far as a rest area south of Jacksonville on I-95 N and the new to (prideful) us camper/RV would not start. Southern Florida AAA farted around trying to get us a flat bed to haul us to a Freightliner 24 hour service facility north of J’ville. After 3 or 4 hours, AAA tells us we do not qualify for RV service until next MN. Now it is close to midnight, I call around to wreckers and get the new to us camper van on a flatbed ($175.00). I am way weirded out by the height of the camper up on the flatbed going under overpasses at 70 miles per hour. After suffering silent anxiety attacks under the first couple highway bridges, I manage to develop a sense that the driver has done this before and knows what he is doing. After that, the flatbed ride through J’ville well after midnight was visually exceptional: lighted skyscrapers, lit waterfronts, the I95 Bridge over the St. John’s River. All of it lit up with the dark of night as backdrop. The eye of the photographer, but sans the camera, I will return to capture that image.

So … we are at the Freightliner facility by 2 AM and trying to sleep but at the same time be aware, in a chilly overly air-conditioned truckers’ lounge. Morning comes; the night shift leaves and pessimistically wishes us good luck. Everybody and his brother that owns a big truck seems to show up at the same time for service. Lots of truckers are told not until MN after the weekend. Go away.

Way busy place, tons of service bays and tons of technicians with laptops hooked up to way huge diesel truck engines: not my vision of diesel mechanics. Not to be forgotten or overlooked, we maintained a visual and physical presence throughout the morning. By noon, we were in a service bay and having a new battery and alternator installed. ($1,300.00) The 200-amp model alternator that was original equipment was only in stock on a parts’ shelf somewhere in Germany; we left with an adequate but downsized alternator (150-amp). The technician (no longer are they diesel mechanics ??) noted that we are going to need a glow plug and a new glow plug coordinator before cold weather sets in; this as we head for northern New England.

So … we beat feet out of northern Florida driving north on I-95 shell-shocked and wondering what and when the next shoe to drop will be. Slept in a rest area just into the state of Virginia and woke up the next AM to find a crack in the new to us vehicle’s windshield (what sound does a shoe dropping make?) The crack did not seem to be traveling and, we theorized, should not get in the way of the NH state inspection. (Fools)

Wait, there is more: Got to the Manchester Airport long-term parking and dropped Debbie off to get the Element and then meet me in Concord at that Mexican place for the evening meal and a break from driving. I am waiting in Concord when I get a call from Debbie still in Manchester that the Element will not start. After some discussion, she tells me to drive home and she will deal with it and be in touch. She finds a tow guy through Northern NE AAA who, after attempting to charge the battery to no avail, tows her no charge all the way from Manchester to Stan’s Service Center in Conway.
Stan checks out the vehicle the next day and it starts right up no problem.
Needless to say ‘shell-shocked’, the both of us; finally are emerging from our self-imposed protective psychological cocoons today. In the end, the camper van will meet our needs and I am sure it will serve us well but the first road trip was the road trip from hell.


Some while later, in the midst of shooting a bicycle century event in the beauty, rain and mists of Franconia Notch in northern New Hampshire the Element refuses to start once again. Northern New England AAA rode to the rescue. A flatbed ride through Crawford Notch brought us home again to Stan’s Service Center in Conway. You guessed it: once off the flatbed the vehicle starts right up first turn of the key. Go figure.

Postscript II

Some time after returning to Conway from the abortive trip south, I called Northern New England AAA just to check in and give them some feedback. I mentioned that I thought it was poor business practice not to have honored our upgrade in AAA service plan as we sat marooned in a pull off in Florida far far from our New Hampshire home. They must have agreed with me because I got a phone call a day or two later looking for documentation on the flatbed ride bill so Northern New England AAA could reimburse us. They were full of apologies for our Florida AAA experience; seems there are different regions, different clubs and different ways of doing business in the AAA world.

Postscript III

The Element, age and the learning curve conspire once again…

So … we are on our way over to a Mercedes Benz service center on the coast of Maine to have the glow plug issue and the engine unit malfunction light addressed but we are not out of the dooryard yet. I am in the Westfalia backing around in the front yard while Debbie is starting the Element to follow me. Seemingly, out of nowhere she is at the driver side window of the Westy looking up at me in frustration and irritation. The Element will not start for her. We are running late and I am feeling frustrated as well. I bring the camper to a halt and jump out to go start the Element. There has been a pattern of it starting for me but not for Debbie. It will not start for me either this time; but even more unexpectedly as I sit there glancing out of the rear view mirror is a 20 foot long 11 feet high camper van slowly (but not) lumbering into and through my field of vision…

“What the Hell!”

In a BIG man’s flash, a 59-year-old man’s flash, I am out of that Element running around to the driver’s side of the camper. Heading towards the rear of the vehicle, I am not sure what I would have done if I had gotten there; only to have this eight thousand five hundred pound vehicle fetch up against a low New England stonewall and lurch upward and to a stop. Yikes (expletive here): heart pounding, I throw open the front door to realize I left the camper in reverse. At this point in the story, I could make all sorts of feeble and lame explanations about my having driven manual transmission vehicles all my life, and underscore my lack of familiarity with automatic transmissions, but no, that would sound feeble and lame. My heart now beginning to return to a semblance of normalcy I put it in Park and walk around the Westy to see four inches of rear end and side clearance between it and the 48″ circumference I-ain’t-going-no-where pine tree that sits mid rear wheel passenger side. Amazingly, there was no real damage other than a few under body scrapes, a detached rear wheel mudguard and a crushed wastewater tube cap.

Can you say: “Bullet missed!” We did!

31 Oct 2010

Morning Comfort Food ~ Breakfast in Conway, NH

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A lull in the parade of traffic that can be tourism in Conway, New Hampshire, invites me out for my favorite meal, breakfast. My order of choice is Black Coffee, Irish Benedict with my Eggs Fried and Over Hard and my Home Fries White. While an excellent cook in my own right, I appreciate; my breakfast cooked, served up and cleared away by someone else, preferably, but not necessarily, a talkative friend. I do enjoy some spirited repartee along with my eggs and potatoes. Not one to have my nose in the day’s newspaper I will on occasion check my calendar and write out my daily ‘list’ over my breakfast meal. One does not have to be a ‘local’ to have that breakfast experience in Conway, New Hampshire.

The original purveyor, when it comes to breakfast in Conway Village, was the first Conway Cafe located in what is now the Greggston building at the southwestern corner of Pleasant Street and Main Street. The Conway Cafe name and establishment goes back fifty plus years, back to the time of there being a mill in Conway. With a bakery out back, local memories run to honey dipped donuts brought out front by the tray-full still warm. The fresh baked aroma filled the cafe and sealed the deal: the deal being 7 cents each, 60 cents a dozen and day olds for 3 cents.

Bea’s Cafe, run by Steve Chase and Jim Tyrrell, lays claim to the ‘most’ local crowd: tradesmen (and women), high schoolers, families and retirees. You will find Bea’s located in a glass storefront in the Conway Marketplace. (Immediately on ones left after the double set of lights bearing right up Route 16 North) Steve Chase named the restaurant after his grandmother Beatrice Crabtree. One can tell quickly whether Bea’s is crowded. Service is early: 5 AM on with a breakfast counter out back and open restaurant up front. The breakfast-menu price-range runs 5 to 10 bucks. Bea’s is known for a stick-to-your-ribs concoction of sautéed onions and green peppers, bacon chunks and pieces, with diced tomatoes all mixed in with home fried potatoes and topped with melted cheese. Lovingly known as Garden Fries, this dish is morning comfort food served up for a day’s work out of doors in the cold of northern New Hampshire winters. Garden Fries, imitated elsewhere, but just not the same. After 15 years, Bea’s has and will continue to have a loyal and steady following.

All in that same glass storefront building in the Conway Marketplace; what was Weeks became Ellie’s 20 years back, what was Ellie’s is now Bea’s Cafe, 15 years strong. The Cinnamon Tree originated by the Mosher family participated in the feeding of Conway village as well, local and transient alike, in a couple of different locations and a couple of similar editions.

Chinook’s Cafe, EMT/firefighter Laurel Tessier’s business, is backing away from 7 days a week breakfast and lunch offerings, while transitioning towards weekend breakfasts and a lunch and dinner menu throughout the week. Chinook’s is located in the original Kentucky Fried Chicken building. (On the left across from the fire hall, going North on Route 16 through Conway) Laurel and her spirited staff continue to provide the breakfast and lunch tradition for “the sight-seer-passing-through crowd, the eat-outside-on-the-deck crowd, the crunchy-granola crowd and the recently-to-town crowd”, my words. Her words, “an eclectic whole foods-minded crowd”. They serve up the previously mentioned mouth watering Irish Benedict and always have daily breakfast, lunch and soup specials on the board. Can you say sweet potato fries, corn bread, fresh greens…? Spirited repartee is on hand with excellent service; be prepared! Chinook’s opens at 7:30 AM; spend between $7.00 and $10.00 for breakfast and coffee. In a you-heard-it-here first, Chinook’s will very shortly transition itself into The “Two Jakes”. A ‘Jake’ being a Boston term of gritty endearment for a firefighter. Meal and food offerings will be similar with an emphasis on lunch and dinner through out the week, while opening early for the breakfast meal on the weekends.

The new comer in the Conway’s breakfast line-up, the Conway Cafe (further down Route 16 on the left before the lights in Conway), is located in Majestic Theater Block. Local transplant Joe Quirk owns both establishments. The Conway Cafe can fulfill one’s desire to have breakfast at a reasonable hour while seeing a first run movie in a quality viewing room. Breakfast will cost you between $3.50 and $7.00, while the morning movie is an additional $6.00 up until 1 PM.

Breakfast has always had its proper place in the North Country of New Hampshire; ‘first’ among the day’s meals! A tradition of good breakfast food cooked with pride and well served to all is a piece of the village of Conway, New Hampshire.

30 Oct 2010

Evan’s Notch – Route 113 – A Maine Scenic Byway

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Currier and Ives ‘prints’ present themselves in the moment. The reds, oranges and yellows of Fall, the pungent smell of wood smoke from wood stoves taking the chill off the day, or the advancing hues of green with the coming of Spring are all evident in the seasons that book-end the route through the Notch. Find your way to Evan’s Notch via Route 113 N; serpentining along the Maine – New Hampshire border!

Be prepared to take your time, to stop and read, to look and listen; get out of your car, get off your bike. Travel through history; colonial era cemeteries, churches and established family names, original town buildings and farmsteads; that, and the roadside geology, all the while escaping the crowds and traffic. No matter the season, the day traveler will celebrate a visual feast: the stark yet beautiful backwoods New England of old, a marvelous mix of derelict-to-prosperous farms and homesteads with a forested, hill-and-dale drive giving way to wide open vistas of unexpectedly rich farmland, and the time and weather-worn rugged Appalachian Mountains as one’s ultimate destination.

Once experienced, Evan’s Notch via Route 113 becomes the visual yardstick, defining the vision of, rural northern New England.

Route 113, claimed by the State of Maine as a Scenic Byway, leaves the town of Fryeburg as River Street at the corner of Main and River Street (Mile 00.0). The traveler will find no strip-mall development, a la North Conway, for the town of Fryeburg. Grand old New England homes front Main Street with property running ‘forever’ back to the river. The only real excesses the town of Fryeburg seems to allow itself are the Oxford County Fair, better known as the Fryeburg Fair, taking overt in early October and the legions of recreational canoeists that float (party) down the Saco River during the brief New England summer. The traveler leaves town quickly on River Street, over a wooded knoll past the Weston’s well-kept and prosperous brown and tan Rivercroft Farm, crossing the wide sluggish Saco River. The intervale stretches out to the north and the mountains containing our destination form in the distance.

* * *

Let us dispense with some colloquial terminology so the traveler can feel like a New Englander at least, if not yet like a local. A distinctly New England term for a rich flood plain, river bottomland is intervale. In this case, the intervale is that of the Saco River. The Saco River has a couple of courses to run, the ‘old course Saco‘ and the ‘canal river’; more later in our journey. An oxbow lake is usually a crescent-shaped body of standing water formed from a single loop cut off from a meandering river or stream, typically by a flood that allowed the stream to flow through its floodplain (intervale) and bypass the loop. Oxbow can also mean a U-shaped bend in a river or stream, whether or not it is cut off from the main stream. Mountain passes formed by river erosion are ‘V’ shaped and are referred to as just that, a pass. In New England the glaciers’ rivers of ice scraped and shaped both the bottom and sides of existing mountain passes transforming them into ‘U’ shaped notches. Northern New England‘s mountain notches are visually distinctive on its horizon.

* * *

Crossing the Saco and the intervale at Weston’s Bridge brings the traveler into the great state of New Hampshire and past the white and green-roofed Sherman Farm. The traveler following Route 113 N into New Hampshire (Mile 01.2) will turn right at the ‘T’ onto the East Conway Road. Across the intervale, up against the forested mountains the traveler passes many wood framed clapboarded farmstead homes and barns. The strength and length of the winter months prompted northern New England farmers of old to attach their homes to their out buildings and barns such that they would not have to venture out of doors to see to the daily chores. Hence, the rambling farm houses with multiple ells that arrive at the connected barns. Crossing back into Maine, (Mile 02.3) the East Conway Road transforms itself via signpost and a change in state line into the West Fryeburg Road and Route 113 N continues towards Evan’s Notch.

The road floats back and forth between open farmland and wooded hill and dale. The West Fryeburg Cemetery (signed circa 1795) (mile 03.9) contains fenced manicured family plots: Haley, Hutchins, Andrews, Walker, Hardy, Stevens … fences of silver painted iron piping, some of quarried granite; a tidy place, mown and free of past-their- prime flower arrangements. Someone honors this resting place with their time and attention.

The harvest-time traveler passes a farm truck hauling a load of what appear at first glance to be dirt clods, as it disappears in the rear view mirror south, the traveler has to chuckle recognizing the load as harvested potatoes. The forested hill and dale drive gives way to a long 180-degree view of open farmland backed by the mountains. The road runs into the trees up close along sluggish river oxbows. The river appears to have very little or no current.

* * *

The Saco River used to define and own this land and the intervale. The river would flood yearly and enrich the soil but also leave the ground so wet that it could not be farmed early enough given the short northern New England growing season. Different stories abound but one of the more colorful has a group of 1800 era farmers banding together, under the cover of darkness, with multiple oxen teams to plow furrows connecting oxbows in the ‘old course Saco River’ such that a ‘river canal’ was formed. Lo and behold, given the passage of time and more to the point the passage of water, this six mile long ‘river canal’ is now the acknowledged course of the Saco River. The Saco River is 15 miles shorter than its ‘old course’. This allows for successful cultivation of prime intervale land.

* * *

In the midst of the intervale farms of North Fryeburg is the shaded Charles Cemetery (signed circa 1838) (Mile 08.2). Hardwoods stand sentinel over lichen-covered slate and granite head stones from the past in the midst of thriving cornfields. Touching the slate stones, following weather worn groves still makes it difficult to decipher names and dates. Cemeteries always have a palpable presence and this one does not disappoint.  The West Fryeburg Road (Route 113 N) meets Fish Street in the small almost-becoming-a-memory village of North Fryeburg. The dark green and white Universalist Chapel (Mile 08.2), as its name implies, still provides spiritual comfort and guidance  to and for all. The steepled chapel is distinctive in its monochrome plainness among the guardian hard wood trees and the whispering cornfields. Further on the North Fryeburg Cemetery, (signed circa 1819), holds stone silent testimony to McKeens, Walkers, and Smiths; Wileys, Bachelders and Tibbetts. Pete’s Garage, no neon-lit-signage here, offers service and used cars; but seems to be biding its time until the winter snows come and it becomes a mecca for snowmobile enthusiasts

Continuing on Route 113 N the traveler leaves the village of North Fryeburg, Maine crisscrossing back into New Hampshire and the town of Stow (1833) (town line at Mile 09.9). Watch for the hand lettered all askew wooden ‘Fudge for Sale’ sign. Check it out. The road surface continues its smooth effortless meanderings bringing miles of smiles to cyclists of all persuasions. Route 113, in both Maine and New Hampshire, is a well-maintained state road that will bring a smile of approval to any cyclist’s face. The Stow Corner Store (Mile 11.8) deserves a stop, especially if one is in need of an ice cream fix. The ice cream portions offered up bear no relation to reality or to the cones, they stand atop. Bearing right on Route 113 N, the road climbs up on to a forested ridge and proceeds out of the tiny crossroads village. This far out, properties are either over-grown snow-toppled derelicts or a mix of well-kept, well-appointed old and new homes and properties. The older homes and farmsteads demand and get someone’s time, attention and resources in order to remain in such a functional yet truly back-in-the-day state. This is wonderful – a source of regional pride: Northern New England and New Englanders at their best!

Further, on Route 113 N, open farmland gives way to the mountains, no longer in the background. What was once a distant view is now a 270 degree in-your-face presence. Crossing into the town of Chatham (correctly and pointedly pronounced: Chat-Ham) (Town and State Line, Mile 14.9) and back into New Hampshire the mountains and upcoming Notch become the traveler’s focus. The mountains overhwelm. Out of nowhere, brick farmhouses present themselves and the ‘Eastman’ name predominates; chiseled in the cemeteries, painted on the mailboxes and proclaimed on the farmsteads. One, Robert K. Eastman, received a revolutionary war era grant of land on or about 1796. Robert Eastman Sr. proved up that land, sired four sons and four daughters and built a four-chimney brick colonial farmstead. Upon Robert Senior’s death, (or maybe before), the Eastman land grant was divided up among his son’s and daughter’s farming families. The Eastman family name and the brick family farmsteads accompany the traveler up Route 113 N through Chatham. The Chester Eastman Homestead land (Mile 15.7) contained the clay deposit and the kiln, back-in-the-day, to supply the brick for the half dozen or more brick homes in the immediate area. The ‘blue’ clay would have been dug and worked during the summer months, the bricks kilned and ‘burnt’ during the fall, then transported via sled and oxen team when snow was on the ground, and construction would finally begin with the coming of Spring.

Cemeteries abound along Route 113 N through Chatham. A second Charles Cemetery (signed circa 1817) (Mile 17.3) populated by the Eastman surname and seemingly containing the Eastman family patriarch’s grave. Further on the Chandler Cemetery (signed circa 1790) and a stop-and-get-the-camera-out view beckons: a northern New England farmstead, with the locally iconic Baldfaces rising immediately beyond, to the west. Tree line in the White Mountains of New England is roughly 4500 feet above sea level; the Baldface summits are at roughly 3600 feet with treeless open ledgy summits. At the turn of the century, a fire burnt over the Baldfaces and they have remained open and treeless ever since. The loop trail over the treeless summits of the Baldfaces, while spectacular and worthy of the effort, will consume the well-prepared traveler’s entire day.

*  *  *

If intending to hike in the Whites Buy an AMC White Mountain Guide, treat it like the outdoor bible it is. Follow its advice and directives religiously. The Baldface Circle trailhead (Mile 17.5) offers parking and toilets to the traveler/hiker. About a mile in on the flats of the loop trail up to the summits of the Baldfaces is a side trail to Emerald Pool. Great spot! A hot summer day makes this is a worthy walk with a mountain-stream-water-fall-fed brisk dip at the end.

*  *  *

Evan’s Notch still beckons and the day traveler, continuing on Route 113 N, leaves the woods and once again confronts the White Mountains and Evan’s Notch, enveloping and defining the scenery ahead. Darkening clouds obscure some of the summits, the surrounding low country still sunny and clear. The Notch and mountains seemingly generate their own weather patterns. Basin Camp (Mile 19.7) provides toilet facilities, seasonal camping, and trailheads to access the mountains.

If one has the option and you have not yet put the top down; do so now. Past the seasonal gate and back into the state of Maine, the road tightens down to two lanes, sans the luxury and safety of shoulders. The last brick homestead, the last homestead period, going into the Notch, is the Brickett Place (Mile 20.0). White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) crews are  painstakingly restoring the historical structure. Stop for a quick look. A hardwood and pine mix canopies the road up into the Notch. Openings in the canopy of leaves and branches reveal blue sky and the granite rock walls of the Notch. Depending on the season of the year, the light filtering through the canopy is a haze of many hued greens or reds, golds, greens and yellows. A consistent steady ear-popping climb will have the traveler powering down if on a motorcycle or running back and forth through the gearbox if in a roadster. While there is the temptation not to, pay close attention to the roadway. The twisting and turning, the bouncing with the frost heaves lasting well into the driving season, and the tightness of the roadway all conspire to make the driving a challenging pleasure for the traveler. The views alternate between the near and far; making for a constant mixing of visual input, like the flickering of an old movie. The birch and beech trunks become exclamation points amongst the seasonal color.

Nearing the height of land the canopy of leaves and branches thins out some giving way to the much-anticipated long views. Turnouts on both sides of the road are available just below the height of land (Mile 21.9). Check out the long sought panoramic view back through the New Hampshire-Maine countryside just traversed, intervale, mountains and notch. Just a touch further into the Notch (Mile 22.3) is a tighter back-from-whence-the-traveler-has-come view as well as a view up and into the Notch, catching the precipitous granite ledges, the head craning heights, the nesting falcon, the tightness of the Notch walls, the colors in Fall, the roaring of spring freshets, the wildness that is Evan’s Notch. At this point, the traveler is near a watershed point: waters will either travel north to the Androscoggin River and the Atlantic Ocean at Merrymeeting Bay, Brunswick, Maine or south to the Saco River, its intervale and the Atlantic Ocean at Saco, Maine.

From this point on, Route 113 N, feels like Evan’s Notch, the ‘other side’. There is a marked and palpable change in the surroundings: maybe it’s shadow, maybe it’s the quality of the light, maybe the canopy has changed, maybe it is the Notch making it’s own weather, … or it is wilderness.

A high country bog (Mile 23.2) deserves a pause. A small turn out is on the left as the grassy wetland first presents itself; be on the lookout here (Mile 23.2) or you may miss a true opportunity. Stop, scramble down the small embankment. Look and listen; observe near and far. Pick your way through the tall grasses, choosing a dry path. At this point, running waters proclaim themselves, heard but not seen. The water runs well underfoot, the vegetation an anchored floating mat. Venture further; dark pools will present themselves. Lone pines, some alive and some dead, join the long stemmed grasses among the beaver backed pools of water. On the outskirts of this grassy wet land, are the mixed hardwoods rising on the dry land slope. Further in a beaver lodge rises above the grasses. At this point, it is becoming noticeably wet under foot. Feet are being suctioned, momentarily held. The water gurgles up around both feet. Go much further and water will breach one’s shoe tops. The traveler returns up the embankment to the roadway. Being out and immersed in the Notch’s surroundings, rooted in the Notch itself, is good, even if only briefly.

Passing another seasonal gate, the roadway roughens up and begins its descent. The mixed pine hardwood surroundings are darker, with the canopy covering the road once again. Dark shadows flicker, the light now from behind. The roadway winds down quickly, not losing as much elevation as it gained coming up. The traveler pass Hastings Camp (Mile 27.2) The Fire Road (FR) to Wild River presents itself (Mile 27.5). The Wild River area is now a Federally designated Wilderness Area. This is affecting its use and access, a mixed blessing.

Route 113 N levels off beyond the Wild River FR leaving the WMNF behind. Wilderness views back up and down the Wild River valley abound. Route 113 N is now a smooth well kept recently paved surface; no longer a seasonal national forest road. Route 2 running East and West confronts the traveler with choices: Go east to the town of Bethel, Maine, and find food and drink. Go west to Gorham, New Hampshire then heading back south to the crowds of the Conways (more food and drink) via Route 16 and Crawford’s Notch.

This traveler will choose to return via Evan’s Notch, if only to see how the change in direction and time of day reorients the entire experience.

29 Oct 2010