Saturday, 26 November 2011

USA Today (11) "I’m on the top of the world"

Bethel – 'Maine's most beautiful mountain village' had burnt its bridges by not having a public telephone (“not in this town”) and by closing up and going to bed at 8pm. 

We were out of there by 9am.

While Bethel may have burnt its bridges it was one of the few places in New England, following Hurricane Irene, not to have washed them all down river. New England is famous for its covered bridges, especially in the fall. As we left Bethel in our wake we spotted a sign to a ‘picturesque bridge’. With a left turn learned from The Dukes of Hazard, I was onto it. 

As we drove the five miles along the winding side road, I held my breath. Would the bridge still be there or would it have been washed away like so many others – and would it indeed be picturesque?

I was on the cusp of purple as we swung round the final corner. Thankfully our bridge had resisted the flood waters and was still straddling the river. 


It looked so rustically perfect nestled in amongst the autumnal trees lining the banks. It transported me back to a bygone age of wagons and buggies – you could almost hear the echoing clatter of hooves on wood and the chatter of children in petticoats and bonnets on their way to church.....


.....And back in the room!

You’ve seen them in the ‘Tour New England in the fall’ adverts in the Sunday supplements. I wanted that perfect picture of a New England covered bridge – and nothing was going to stop me. Not drift wood, boulders, low hanging branches or sinking sand. I may have emerged with twigs in my hair, but I’d got my picture. 



Tris in the mean time was photographing spiders who had made hammocks between the timbers of the bridge.



Our dismal failure to white water raft the day before had made us even more determined to do something spectacular today. Enter ‘super sub’ Mount Washington – the highest mountain in New England. 

We left the state of Maine behind us and said “hello” to New Hampshire, rolling into the town of ‘Twin Mountain’ (not to be confused with ‘Twin Peaks’) to the banging ‘soft rock sounds’ of Jason Donovan?? Well I never!

Mount Washington clearly draws ‘em from many states – today we added Michigan and Ohio to our number plate bingo list.

While it is possible to hike up the mountain (or drive – this is America don’t forget), there was a much more fun mode of transport at our disposal – The Mount Washington Cog Railway. The second steepest railway in the world (thank you Switzerland) which hauls itself up the mountainside with the help of chains and pulleys and – the clue is in the name – a cog wheel, tooth, ratchet type arrangement. 

Built in the 1850’s this crawler clings on to a 37% gradient. I suggest you get your protractor out and measure it. It is insanely steep.

Those crazy Victorians! Who in their right mind thought this would be a good idea? 

Apparently Sylvester Marsh was laughed out of the room when he revealed his proposals to potential backers. “It would be as easy to build a train to the moon” they scoffed. Spurred on by the scorn, a deep desire to ‘show them’ and an immense amount of steam Sly built his railway, complete with a Jacobs Ladder bridge at the steepest point.

The walls of the station at the bottom of the track were covered with black and white prints of the track being built and early pioneers riding the railway into the clouds. 

They showed dirty labourers with grubby faces, thick moustaches and staring eyes careering back down the mountain – sitting inches above the track on tea trays with wheels – and no breaks. It was the fastest way back down the mountain after a hard day’s work. 

Finally it was our turn. Even though our little train was no longer powered by steam (replaced by bio fuel) we still had Casey Jones driving us, complete with dirty stripy dungarees, a beard and engine driver’s hat. Tris had to stop me singing the theme tune.



I’d not really got my head around how steep the gradient was until I tried to stand up and discovered that it was impossible. There aren’t many times in my life I’ve felt like Michael Jackson (other than looking like the Thriller video every morning), but it was like having your feet nailed to the floor. You could bend forward – and keep leaning – and keep leaning – and keep leaning forward until you visibly defied gravity. It made for an excellent calf stretch.



As we gained altitude, the view across The Presidential Range (the mountains are named after US Presidents) was breath taking. Nine times out of ten, the mountains are covered in clouds which mask the view. Not today, it was beautiful, you could see for miles. We were so lucky. I tried to fight it, but the view overwhelmed me and as we climbed up, the tears flooded down.



Higher still – a small part of your brain praying that the brakes don’t fail – until we crossed the highest point on the famous Appalachian Trail.



The mountainside was covered with cairn’s (piles of stones) left by walkers who beamed ecstatically and waved enthusiastically - their faces glowing with the stinging wind. We could see the trail all the way into the hazy distance as it crossed the mountain range. Oooooh - it really made us want to jump off the train that very minute and join them, to roll around for joy in the dirt on the top of the world.




The top of the world housed a strange mix of accommodation. The original ‘Tip Top House’, built in 1853 for intrepid explorers with walls that were 8ft thick contrasted wildly with a large squat concrete creation which looked like something out a James Bond film (the Roger Moor years). Notwithstanding, it did serve a very good hot chocolate and housed public toilets – so I reluctantly forgave its extreme ugliness.

 



When I look back over our whole holiday, ask me what my highlights were – Mount Washington was right up there – quite literally.

Back down to earth, we headed off to Conway in The White Mountains to drive the 34 miles of the Kancamagus Scenic Highway.  

Thwarted – we were turned back by a Trooper! 

Irene had been at it again. Her incontinence had washed out the bridges which meant there was no way through. We were forced to divert. Determined not to be beaten, if we couldn’t reach it from the top, we’d drive south and tackle it from the bottom. Two and a half hours later we were in Lincoln, being turned around by another Trooper. Apparently it wasn’t just the bridges that had been washed away, it was the whole damn highway. Short of hiring a couple of mustangs and John Wayne-ing it across the landslides, there was nothing else we could do but admit defeat and cheer ourselves up in ‘Hamburger Heaven’ and a fudge shop!

We found ourselves in unfamiliar territory, with time on our hands, so resorted to the guidebook for inspiration. 

Here we go again – Russell Pond was bleedin’ miles up National Park Roads. But when we did finally arrive, it was very nice and had excellent toilet facilities (the second ‘top bog’ of the day). Tris went for a swim while I watched and threw a ball for an enthusiastic dog who befriended me - and then showered me with water. 

It’s funny how things work out. It makes you very philosophical about things not running to plan when you are travelling. If something goes wrong then it’s just because there is something else, equally fabulous waiting for you. Had the Kancamagus not been washed away, we never would have found this beautiful spot.

Back at our campsite, the logs were damp and Tris was swearing at them. Over an hour of puffing and blowing and pacing and poking and our campfire was still no further forward. I did ask if I could help but this was clearly ‘mans work’ – dib dib dib!

We made a new friend.
It was dark and I’d drunk three bottles of Autumn ale with pumpkin heads on the label from the Woodstock Inn Brewery. In the absence of fire we’d been unable to cook our steaks (YEE YA Cowboy) and so my beer had fallen on an empty stomach and I was drunkedy drunk. I was also feeling much braver and so made an intervention – with a pile of twigs that I’d collected from the under growth. 

Hurrah for kindling! 

Despite Tris officially declaring the fire to be out, five minutes later and smelling like we’d been living in the smokehouse, we achieved a roaring fire. Fifteen minutes after that we were tucking into Uncle Ben’s rice, steak and onions.

We went over the 1,000 miles mark today. 

Tomorrow this part of our New England adventure draws to a close. Its 130 miles back to Boston where we say goodbye to the Hyundai and move into the final week of our trip. I cannot begin to tell you (though I’ve had a good go) what a fantastic road trip this has been and how proud I am of all we’ve achieved. 

We did the trip I’d planned. 

We achieved ‘the spreadsheet’, which now is no longer a 2-D black and white document. Now the comment boxes are crammed full of notes and pictures and it’s pie charts are filled with blueberries. 


Go us!






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