Approximately 2500 miles, nine days, and a flight of rum behind me, I’m comfortably ensconced in a lovely hotel on Duval Street in Key West with my beautiful wife, Cheryl, who joined me yesterday in Miami.
Georgia flew by, but I did manage to swing by Louisville, a small town that served as the capital of the state in the late 18th century. One of the few photos in my WPA guidebook shows four smiling white ladies sitting on the ledge in front of Louisville’s former slave market, notable for being the oldest such structure still standing in the state at the time (1938). The market stands there today, but the town has downplayed its embarrassing people-selling past.
Florida took several days, but I did get a chance to kayak in the mangroves with my kid’s other mom (nice lady; ex-partner) in New Smyrna Beach and eat at the Best Dairy Queen Ever.
More kayaking tomorrow in different mangroves after a stop at the Hemingway House and all those multi-toed kitties one hears so much about.
Gonna be a short one on account of it’s raining, but here’s the gist:
I think Raleigh might be on our short list for retirement locations. Honestly.
The Carolinas are very different from one another. North looks very much like the sleepy coastal towns of New England, what with its colonial era town, quiet rolling tree-lined villages, soft pine needles and antique shops; whereas the South highway (wider) lanes are lined personal injury attorney billboards and road trash.
Downtown Columbia, SC, sports a lovely State House.
I wanted to see the Laurel & Hardy Museum in Harlem, Georgia, but could NOT manage to get there in time, like much of this trip, museum-wise: wrong day, wrong season, wrong hour.
In Augusta, Georgia, tonight, looking forward to bacon in the morning.
I’ve seen some depressed areas on this trip — the dead towns, crumbling three-story homes, rusted out farm equipment in upstate New York and northern Maine; the suddenly terrible roads of Massachusetts after smooth rolling in New Hampshire; Boston’s inner rough spots; parts of the Bronx — but nothing crushes the soul like the endless rolling blight of the housing along Route 1 in Baltimore. Block after block of burnt-out, boarded-up, broken-windowed, brick row-housing, half of which should be torn down, if not for the people living in the other half.
Drunk or drug-addled people, white and black, young and old, stumble diagonally across the four-lane highway. Some sleep in doorways. Some push strollers and steer kids into the one townhouse on the block that doesn’t look like its been shelled. Drive two or three minutes closer to downtown and you’re surrounded by precious, pricey brunch places and boutiques in renovated 18th-century brick gorgeousness.
Baltimore sits about an hour north of our house in Silver Spring, which in turn is only a few miles off Route 1, so I stopped in last night to pet the dogs, wave at the cat, hug my wife, and pack for the southern leg of this trip. This morning I stopped by Vigilante Coffee in Hyattsville, Maryland, took a quick peek at the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, then sat in rush hour traffic for 75 minutes from the upper boundary of Washington, D.C. to the 14th Street Bridge into Northern Virginia. Forgot that Route 1 passes right by the office I don’t have to go into (virtually or otherwise) for several more weeks! Good to have the reminder.
I did notice that the city of Alexandria has finally changed “Jefferson Davis Highway” to “Richmond Highway” in Crystal City and Old Town, but whoever is in charge of that sort of thing hasn’t gotten around to the signage below Fort Belvoir. It stays like that throughout most of the rest of Virginia, except for actual Richmond, which probably picked “Richmond Highway” some time ago.
The road runs through a series of ex-businesses, from print shops to paper companies to this fabulous, bygone tobacco company:
After Cheryl joins me in Miami for the rest of the U.S. 1 portion of the trip, we will be spending a little time in Richmond –a city we love lots and lots — on our way home. But more on that next week.
Meanwhile, the drive from southeastern Virginia into North Carolina winds past several battlefields, and, like most locations of Civil War engagements, feels untouched by time and township — positively bucolic.
I expected to see more identity politics sloganeering out here, but there were far more Trump signs in the north country and I’ve only seen a couple Confederate battle flags on people’s personal property thus far. Virginia does allow patrons to get a Gadsden Flag vanity plate, however, and there have been plenty of those. Still. I am grateful for the open, quiet country peppered here and there with trailer parks, dead gas stations, antique shops, and one-room post offices.
In Wake Forest tonight, heading to Augusta, Georgia, tomorrow.
Pretty, Pretty Things
Horwitz, T. (2013). Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. (Arthur Addison, Narr.) [Audiobook]. Random House Audio.
By the time Route 1 wraps around southern Maine, the roadside is peppered with charming motels with cottages, miniature golf courses, and clam shacks, all of which were closed when I whizzed past them in the wee hours. Coastal Connecticut cares less about the traveller’s convenience than the shopping, grooming, or equestrian needs of its locals. There are auto body shops and teeny strip malls, certainly, but instead of thrift stores and hot dog stands, Connecticut offers waxing, tanning, and yoga studios. Lots of old money here.
Early this morning I passed Old Saybrook, summer home of Katharine Hepburn, whose memory and legacy are preserved by the Katharine Hepburn Arts and Cultural Center, known locally as “The Kate.” I also spotted Herbie the Love Bug on his way to a Beetle gathering, and stopped at a lovely cemetery to do a couple of gravestone rubbings.
Road signs on this section of the highway mark it as either the “Boston Post Road,” the “Old Post Road,” “Boston Road,” or simply “Post Road.” Sometimes it is “North Road,” or, “West U. S. 1,” which, though accurate, is contrary to the highway design scheme. Both interstate highway systems — the original 1926 configuration and the modern interstate scheme — follow the principle that odd-numbered roads will run north-to-south and even-numbered roads, east-to-west.
Based on this map from my WPA book and my experience over these past few days, I’m clumping off Route One into four basic segments:
1) Vacationland: Includes all Maine has to offer for sportsmen, survivalists, presidential retreaters, and run-of-the-mill east coasters who like clams and mini-golf.
2) The Old Boston Post Road: Literally the path forged by European settlers over indigenous peoples’ footpaths to transport goods and news between colonies in New York and New England. I extend this to Washington, DC.
3) Plantation Country: I may split this up between Tobacco lands and Cotton lands. Not Sure yet.
4) Florida: Everything below Jacksonville.
As I drew closer to New York City, the post-war suburban lure became very clear. I’m guessing Darien, Connecticut, was supposed to be where the Blandings built their dream house. The Petries lived in New Rochelle, which is where I got a cruller and more coffee. Cute town.
Things definitely get scruffier closer to the City, particularly in the Bronx, which is where my mother’s parents grew up:
Tomorrow, I finish out the Post Road and get to spend the night in my own bed with my own Cheryl and my own pets. Then off to see how many Jefferson Davis Highways there still are.
Hodgman, J. (2017). Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches. (J. Hodgman, Narr.) [Audiobook]. Penguin Audio.
Potter, H.C. (Dir.) (1948). Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. RKO Radio Pictures.
Memorable Blaxploitation film.
Swift, E. (2011). The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
I hit the part of Maine yesterday where my buddies live, so instead of posting, I visited friends on Boothbay and Arrowsic islands and had a splendid ride in the latter two’s newly-acquired, perfectly practical boat:
There may have been cocktails.
So much of this part of Route 1 gets clogged with tourists from Memorial to Labor Day, and when I go up in season, I try to avoid traveling on it as much as possible. After 18 months of relative seclusion, however, I found the moderate tie-ups yesterday to be something of a relief — a signal that maybe things were returning to normal, even this second week of September.
But it’s not normal. Today is the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and I am approaching the geographical center of this still painful disaster. I tried to avoid coverage of the anniversary, but it’s impossible to drive through this section of Connecticut without being reminded of what these communities went through; what we all went through.
Right now, for example, I am tormenting myself by watching the History Channel’s replay of the day and it’s all terrible and indelible and I remember. I had just come home from a conference in Newark for my new job with Catholic Charities. I still had pictures in my camera of an outing with colleagues at Ellis Island with the Towers in the background — September 10. The next morning I was home in Alexandria, Virginia, sleeping late on the comp day when my partner called to tell me to turn the TV on and see if I could get in touch with my sister in Brooklyn to see if she and her family were OK. It would be a while before I found that out, but while I tried to reach her, I heard the sirens from all directions converging on what turned out to be a conflagration at the Pentagon just a few miles from our house.
Tomorrow I’ll be driving through the parts of Connecticut and New York where many of the first responders and their families lived and where, I am both sorry and proud to say, Catholic Charities had much to do over the ensuing months.
I am glad I got to spend some time with friends yesterday and with my excellent uncle and aunt in Providence today. Such a beautiful day.
On the advice of the friendly motelier at the Aroostook Hospitality Inn in Washburn (not the one in Van Buren), I took what I thought would be a quick detour to the beginning of the Acadian Heritage trail in Dickey. Steve told me I’d be going to the last bit of paved road in the United States before Canada and would get to follow a well-marked, informative self-guided tour of the Acadian experience in Northern Maine. It added a little over an hour in the wrong direction from Fort Kent, but I was up at 6:30 a.m. anyway, so why not?
I can’t say I’m glad I did it, but I’ll never see the beautiful, rugged banks of the St. John River again in my life. The road was paved all the way (maybe I didn’t go far enough) and the historical society with all the deets was closed. By the time I got to Mile Zero, it was a little after 9:00 and just beginning to rain.
And BOY, did it rain! Turns out all the trucks with heavy timber loads that barrel down Route 1 leave subtle ruts in the road like the wagon trails going to and from Walnut Grove. Ruts you don’t notice until they fill up with water and suddenly that little yellow car with the squiggly lines lights up on the dash as if you don’t already know you’re hydroplaning. Once I figured out what was happening I just slipped into the space between the rails, so to speak. No harm, no foul.
Because of the weather, I did not get the chance to take all the pictures I otherwise would have: the remarkable number of abandoned houses, with caved-in roofs or walls folding in on themselves; shacks whose porches are stacked with bags and bags of recyclables; the random outsider art installations, otherwise known as sheds festooned with deliberate crap.
Somewhere between Houlton and Calais (pronounced “Callous”) I caught a break in the weather and passed an old Esso station flanked by rusted cars. Across the street were the remains of a rival Gulf station, also surrounded by rusted cars. Or maybe somebody it’s another art installation…
The proprietress of the motel I’m in tonight explained why the time keeps flipping ahead an hour, then back again. It is also the reason, she apologized, that there aren’t that many TV channels: CANADA. I noticed this up near the mystery trail — also a stone’s throw across a different river to Canada. I’d pass over a bridge and my car would say it was 8:55, while my fitbit said it was 7:55. Then my car would correct itself and my fitbit would be off by an hour. Same here in Robbinston. My room overlooks a rocky, snaily beach that is also a boat launch on the St. Croix River. Just past Navy Island is Passamaquoddy Bay.
Meanwhile, I will be flipping my map to the lower bit of Maine in preparation for tomorrow. Speaking of maps…
Hallelujah, I made it to the Aroostook Hospitality Inn in Washburn *just* before nightfall. Judging by all the warning signs for wandering moose and deer and ATV-ers who should not be operating under the influence, this was fortuitous.
Getting here took literally half a day. I believe I have been through so many Main Streets in the last 12 hours that I could design the perfect Disney Ride for bored suburbanites who will probably never swing through a series of towns with “Corner” in their name. Picture something like the Haunted Mansion ride, only instead of the hansom cab that conveys you, you’re in a three-year-old, four-door sedan of ambiguous origin. The conveyor starts out at 60 miles per hour, but drops to 45 at the first sign of an auto parts store. Two seconds later, your drop another 10 mph at [Somebody’s] Floral & Gift store.
By the time you hit the stone church (St. Mary’s/Ann’s/Patrick’s) you’re crawling at 25 mph and turning first to the Insurance company on one side of the street to the building on the other side with plywood over two windows and one window so dusty you can barely make out the pile of junk stacked to the rafters. There’s a bank. A post office. Maybe a second-hand store. At the gas station with a drive-thru Dunkin’ Donuts you’re up to 35 again. Once you reach the unisex hair salon (or pet groomer) you’re finally at the other end of town! Speed away! Look out for the dead skunk.
Gosh, that sounds just like the GM/Norman Bel Geddes exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair, Futurama, only exactly the opposite. Past-a-palooza?
Well. Tomorrow, I hop up to Fort Kent and finally get this ball rolling. Meanwhile…
Made it up to Ogdensburg early this afternoon, but first I had to get as far down I-81 as possible before my car turned into a Canadian pumpkin. Now I can say I have driven I-81 in its entirety — from just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee to wherever I was today:
On the way up I stopped by the partially defunct Granny’s Motel and Restaurant in Frackville, Pennsylvania, to see a terrifying statue of a pioneer woman holding a homemade pie while a homunculus dragging a rag doll clings to her tush. Then I hit the Inebriates Asylum in Binghamton, New York, before swinging by Recreation Park (in case you weren’t clear on the purpose) to see the gazebo and carousel featured in one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, “Walking Distance.”
I came to this particular town because my father was born in Ogdensburg, as was his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him. Ancestry tells me that at least one of those grandfathers was a cattle dealer. My dad’s dad served in the New York State Assembly as a Republican representing St. Lawrence County from 1939-1944. After that, Grandpa Daniels (that’s what we called him; we weren’t close) worked for the Empire State Chamber of Commerce then the Rockefeller Administration in Albany, which is where my parents met and where I was born.
Like many towns in Upstate New York, Ogdensburg has its tony zones with gorgeous multi-storied homes with turrets, wrap-around porches, slate roofs, and meticulously manicured mini-lawns, buttressed by stone curbs. Not two blocks away you’ll find hard-scrabble, two-story, vinyl-sided houses cordoned off by chain-link fence fragments with broken concrete steps flanked by concrete sidewalks split by the strongest weeds in the world. You can tell that winter has beaten the crap out of Ogdensburg, and though I have yet to see a person smoking, everything smells like Tiparillos.
The Frederic Remington Art Museum is one such fancy manse. Remington grew up in a town called Canton just east of Ogdensburg, but one of his boyhood friends used to live in this house and offered it up to Remington’s widow after he died. She turned it into a museum in the 20s:
By the way, I am spending the night in a ginormous room in an old schoolhouse. You’d think there’d be ghosts, but it’s just styrofoam drop ceiling and couches and chalkboards instead. The owners have done a nice job decking out each room with a presidential theme, because a surprising number of presidents have been to this burg. I am in the Ulysses S. Grant room.
Heading to Maine tomorrow the very long way. More French & Indian War! Can’t wait to hear how it turns out.
My original plan for hitting the first mile of Route 1 was to sneak up on it through Canada. Fort Kent, Maine, is practically Canada. If you Google places to stay near Fort Kent, you’ll see a bunch of lovely motels… in Canada. If you Google a route to Fort Kent, Maine, from where I live in Maryland, the fastest way there requires CANADA.
Back in March, therefore, I expected to approach Ft. Kent from above. First, I’d visit my father’s hometown of Ogdensburg, New York, which sits conveniently along the banks of the St. Lawrence River within spitting distance of Ottawa… if you can spit 60 miles. After a night in Ogdensburg, I’d slip into Ontario and take the excellent Route Transcanadienne to the northern border of Maine.
However, thanks to the Delta variant and the incomprehensible, self-destructive, expertise-eschewing fancies of enough Americans, I will not be risking multiple international border crossings at this time.
I remain curious enough about my paternal ancestry to keep Ogdensburg on the schedule, in spite of it not being even remotely on the way. So rather than toodle through Canada along the St. Lawrence River like Paddle-to-the-Sea, I will now be sidling through northern Vermont and New Hampshire, eventually hooking up with I-95 to Bangor, then up to a snowmobilers’ favorite motel just outside of Washburn, Maine.
Washburn sits an hour south of Fort Kent on a road that is *not* Route 1. Part of the plan: not to double-back at any point along the road if it can be avoided.
I leave tomorrow at pre-dawn! For real-time photos and commentary, follow my progress on Twitter or Instagram.
Preparatory & Ambient References
Anderson, F. (2005). The War that Made America. Simon Vance, Narr. [Audiobook]. Old Saybrook, CT: Tantor Media, Inc.
To listen to in fur-trapping country.
Cooper, J. F. (November 1956.) The Last of the Mohicans. Classics Illustrated (#4). NY: Gilberton Company.
I’m never going to read the actual book.
Holling, H. C. (1941) Paddle-to-the-Sea. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company.
One day, I will recreate this trip not in a canoe.
Schweizer, W. (Director). (2003). Von Werra: German Fighter Pilot. [Film; online video]. Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion AG; Lichtblick Film- und Fernsehproduktion.
Franz von Werra was the only German POW to escape Canada and return to Germany. Rowed to Ogdensburg!
Speare, E. G. (1957) Calico Captive. New York: Houghton-Mifflin Company.
Childhood favorite. Forgot it was about the French and Indian War.
Some twenty years ago, I made the aspirational purchase of two volumes in the American Guide Series, (c. 1938, Federal Writer’s Project of the Works Progress Administration) for imminent — IMMINENT — road trips I planned to take.
It was the cover of The Ocean Highway that gave me the idea in the first place. I wanted to see how well the points of interest defined by the WPA would hold up after 60-ish years, so a few weeks later, I meandered from my home in Alexandria, Virginia to Wilmington, North Carolina along what is mostly U.S. Route 17.
Turns out 65 years can do either absolutely nothing or entirely too much of everything to towns that line a highway.
A memorable experience I fully intended to replicate with the second book, but could not carve out the time to pursue.
U.S. One: Maine to Florida.
Route 1: Every town’s favorite place to put an Arby’s. Or a “gentleman’s” club. Or 10 car dealerships in a row. Where the speed limit, I’m told, can reach up to 50 mph!
I have traveled parts of this road up and down the coast for donkey’s years. I have cursed in summer traffic many a time along Route 1 between Bath and Belfast, Maine.
I have driven my kid to doctors’ appointments and my pets to the vet on Jefferson Davis Highway (U.S. 1 in Alexandria, VA) for a decade. I just took it up to Baltimore this summer to visit the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, in fact. But never have I had the time to drive Route 1 in its entirety.
Well now, thanks to a generous leave program at my job (and the time I put in to earn it), I am taking this dusty-ass book and my dusty old self from the tippy top of Maine to the southernmost point of the continental United States in Key West, Florida. Just in time for hurricane season!
I will NOT be using GPS, but paper maps. Maps from when Route 1 was just about finished (c. 1932). Maps from when Route 1 was just about to become a secondary road (c. 1955). Maps from a couple weeks ago that I got from the AAA up the street. I will be following the actual road signs on the actual road and reading turn-by-turn directions that I previously scrawled on an index card like my mother taught me.
After twenty years of maybe, someday, this trip finally begins September 7, 2021.