Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire was “the” summer destination.
My wife, son, and I are regular travelers to New England and include stops to literary or arts-related sites. We can easily check off Walden Pond and the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts; Edith Wharton’s mansion in the Berkshires; Robert Frost’s New Hampshire farm house; Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius’ New England styled home; and numerous places in historic Boston and Portland.
This time, during our annual trip to Maine, we were making a fast stop at the first national park to be dedicated to an American artist: Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
I was also thinking — as I often do when a journey involves traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike — of the Simon and Garfunkel song “America.” It’s the one with the lyrics that involve “looking for America.”
And, I decided, that is what I doing. I’m going to look for America by going to Saint-Gaudens.
But what I am finding, however, is that this looking is requiring a lot of planning and effort. In fact, it’s requiring a major detour.
That’s because the 195-acre historic site — where Saint-Gaudens had his studios and died — is in a remote area located centrally at the western edge of the Granite State.
I am going to have to go a few hundred miles out of the way to make the visit, and — not wanting to take the back roads from Cornish to Maine or spend the night in New Hampshire — I am stymied in trying to figure a time and cost-saving solution to this one-stop visit. I only want to visit Saint-Gaudens and get on our way — talk about being an American.
Arts-minded Massachusetts friends, however, help me out. They live near the Massachusetts Turnpike and close to a highway that will take us north to Cornish.
They propose that we stay one night with them, go to Cornish the next day, come back and spend another night, and then get on the main highway to Maine.
It’s a good idea that seems to get even better.
Since Cornish is close to Vermont, our friends suggest that we head into its border area and visit the town of Windsor. There we can see and drive through the longest covered bridge in New England: the 499.5 foot Windsor-Cornish Bridge.
Even it if it were 30 feet long, it’s difficult to pass up on something that has a distinction that can easily spice up some summertime recounting with some minor league bragging — “the longest covered bridge in New England!”
But I am ready to pass on it. Saint-Gaudens is only open to 4:30 p.m. each day, and the trip to it was going to run between two and three hours. The park is the destination, not a diner, I remind myself.
Then the deal gets sweeter. A Boston friend chimes in and says that the diner in Windsor has the best apple pie in New England. He and I grew up in the same area of New Jersey and share a regional taste bud and the same no-nonsense approach to using superlatives. So I know this is serious.
Now I am dazzled: the best apple pie, the longest covered bridge, the New England countryside, and the nation’s first great sculptor. My mind is aglow with glossy postcards images. I was, after all, looking for America.
The plan is done and on bright Saturday morning we’re almost there.
“All’s well with the world,” is too light a phrase to describe driving north on I-91 along the bucolic Connecticut River. The hum of the tires is our soundtrack; our talk is about the splendor of the landscape, the quaint signs, and the promise of pies and lunch.
My wife is taking her turn driving and we are now a long time off the major highway where nature rules: no stores, gas stations, or factories.
My teenage son, who has appointed himself our navigator, announces that we are only miles from Windsor.
The clock, however, says that we are further behind schedule than we hoped. And then the bright light that looks like a gas nozzle screams that we need gas.
When I bring it up, my wife, who drives this car regularly, says all is OK for the next several miles, that we would get gas in Windsor, and that I should get my OCD under control.
Then it happens. In playwriting, it is called a reversal, an unexpected direction in the plot. In Vermont it is a hefty policeman leaning out of the window of a car blocking traffic to Windsor.
He gestures toward a back road that leads through the mountains and woods to the town. His bulging eyes and statue-like extended arm and pointing figure says he is in no mood to talk and uninterested in my hopes of getting to view Saint-Gaudens’ sculptures.
Now on winding back roads and hills, my wife tensely weaves through the forest. My son hurriedly unfolds more maps and calls out directions. And I just gaze at the minutes changing on the clock as if it’s a speedometer and swear that the gas warning light is getting brighter and brighter by the second.
Then, after a wandering worthy of a passage in Exodus, the dark trees give way to open fields. Not only are we out of the woods, the tops of Windsor churches seem to beckon us. Our spirits lighten. We say happily that we will get gas, get pie, and get going.
Then reversal two: we’re speeding toward the town when another vehicle zooms past us from the other direction. It takes a second for me to acknowledge that it’s a full-sized man in a kid-sized car when suddenly another man in another little car zips by, then another, and another. Zip. Zip. Zip.
As my brain races to process this oncoming information, I hear myself exclaim, “Oh, no! Shriners!”
Shriners is short for the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, an American-initiated appendage of the Freemasons. It’s a benevolent association that sponsors a hospital and other helpful projects. Shriners are generally great guys.
However, I lived in Atlantic City when the Shriners held their national conventions, and I can attest that Shriners love to have fun, drive their miniature autos, and, if they can, take over a city.
In Atlantic City, guys in Fez caps and tiny cars were everywhere: on the boardwalk, on the beach, on the streets. It was like an invasion.
“This could be a problem,” I say. And instantly, a handwritten sign — “Shrine Games Today” — posted on a pole makes me look like a soothsayer and tells us why another police officer is blocking traffic going into town.
I venture from the car and approach to get some information from the officer — a young man who has perfected speaking in short percussive bursts and providing exasperated stares. From the exchange, I learn an inconvenient truth: between us and the gas station are several hundred Shriners set for a parade.
What about the diner? The bridge? The flick of the cop’s head says that the road before us is the way to all things Windsor. According to him, there are only two ways to get where I want to go: drive back through the gas-less forest or wait for the street to clear.
He also informs me that we can walk down the half-a-mile or so corridor of fun, turn left, and go several blocks to the diner.
I am in a stupor as I stagger back to the car, deliver the news, and announce that we needed to hoof it for lunch. But first we need to park and handily do so in front of what seems the only school in town.
Windsor dubs itself the birthplace of Vermont, and under regular circumstances I’d enjoy a stroll down its streets lined with late-19th century buildings along beautiful flowing river. But today I am just wading through a mob of guys whose hats make them look like extras in the film “Casablanca.”
They also — in their uneven mixtures of milling band members and tiny-car convoys — do not appear to be fixing to head out any time fast, if at all. It’s more like a parade where the viewers do the passing.
As the drivers, going in circles, wave happily and enjoy their day in the sun on Windsor’s main thoroughfare, my family is trudging along with a lone bagpipe player inadvertently following and playing a mournful song.
Now I am thinking less and less of Saint-Gaudens and more and more of the Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini.
At last we arrive at the diner. It’s a time-bleached and weather-worn palace of old counters fragranced by burnt coffee and hot grease. Relieved for the moment, we sit down and hear a waitress shout to an invisible presence, “I’m locking the door.” She looks at my face and announces that they’re closing. People just want to see Shriners, she says.
Not us, I plead. And at last a little Windsor mercy is offered with pie that fortifies us and chit-chat that clues us in: the Shrine Games is an annual fund-raising event that attracts 5,000 people to a town whose population is 4,000. Since no one comes to the diner that day, the staff just closes early. We had slipped in at the last moment.
As pies are chewed and words are heard, I watch the arms of the 1950s era clock slowly move toward 3 and think about the park that is only several miles away and how — rather than being able to stroll the stately grounds and encounter expertly crafted art work — my wife, son, and I are, for all practical purposes, the hostages of guys in small cars. Those picture postcards in my mind are now in the dead letter box.
Then, out of the blue, another reversal, one in our favor. As if she’s been watching a storm outside the diner window, the waitress says, matter-of-factly, “Looks like it’s breaking. The street’s opening. Yeah, traffic is going through.”
It’s our break. Pies are abandoned and money thrown on the counter. In our haste, I describe how we’re retracing our tracks to our getaway car.
“But you’re parked just right around that corner,” the waitress says as if I should have known better. “Just go that way,” she says waving her hand towards a little street across the road and adding that the cop should have told us to just cut through, rather than have us go the long way through the non-moving parade.
We burst out the door, make a run for it up the secret shortcut, and, sure enough, there’s our car, complete with a traffic ticket gleaming brightly on our windshield.
A quick glance says the ticket is for parking in front of a school between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on a Saturday in August during the beloved Shrine Games. But who cares? At this point, I’ll pay anything to escape.
The rest is a blur of screeching tires, the ringing gas pump meter, and the thumping of the car as it races through the covered bridge — as if being chased by the headless horseman or a driverless Shriners car.
Then, at last, an hour later, I — with the faint taste of apple pie on my lips — stand in the beautiful and rolling grounds of Saint-Gaudens Historic Site. As I gaze at the artist’s majestic sculptures of heroic and allegorical figures, a good portion of my neurons are attempting to reconcile what is in front of me with the fresh memory of struggle to escape hundreds of Shriners in a picturesque New England town.
Then as I stand there in a daze, I hear it. Oozing out of my scrambled thoughts is the refrain of the song with the lyrics, “We’ve all come to look for America.”
And I stop, shake my head as if finally getting a message, and realize that my looking is done and it has been found. And in the heart of it all, I smile, shrug, and feel at home.