misadventure

Maybe the reason I like to travel is that I’ve got an almost complete lack of long-term memory. Or at least a selective one. The next time I set off on a “let’s leave the day unplanned and see what materializes” lark, I certainly won’t remember that the last time I tried it, I found myself lost on the twisty backroads of the Cape Ann peninsula some time after midnight squinting through a downpour that made me wonder if my dying GPS-phone weren’t in fact correct in its insistence that I was at sea, three miles off the coast of Rockport.

“Recalculating…” it would say every three minutes, “…proceed 2.8 miles west to Lighthouse Drive…”

The plan was simple, if ambitious. I was flying into Boston on Tuesday evening and wasn’t due in Hanover until the following night. I’d take the interval as a chance to have dinner in Boston, then drive north a bit and find a Motel 6 or the like to spend the evening so that I could wake up early and explore Rockport, Glouchester and the coast the next morning.

Dinner, chosen randomly from the uncountably many italian restaurants in the North End, was, oh, “adequate”. The luck of the draw, I guess. But I had to go with the sure thing at Caffe Vittorio for a post-prandial draw. Fifteen years ago, when I lived here as a postdoc, I hadn’t developed a taste for coffee, and in spite of my (then-apparently-exorbitant student salary) had to watch my spending. But today I could waltz in, pick a back corner table among the chrome and cut glass, and order my customary cappuccino.

This part was good. CV didn’t serve up those exquisitely ornate little concoctions of carefully-layered coffee-crema with empemeral barista-art adorning each cup – this was a hearty cup overflowing with rich sloppy foam, blessed with a gratuitous (and effective) halo of powdered chocolate administered at three paces. Heartwarming.

The evening was young, so I caught the red line out to Harvard Square to stir up a few old ghosts. Tuesday was open-mic night at Passim’s – guaranteed to be a mix of the sublime and unbearable. And it was. The unkempt but earnest boy with a blue guitar segued from what could only be called “Wookie Jazz” to a haunting Palauan love song. The lanky blonde from Minnesota evoked Iris Dement with two banjo tunes, followed by a trio of creative haircuts that tried to revive Yoko Ono’s if-I’m-screaming-it-must-be-art period.

With any open mic, there comes a point when you’re only there to be polite. Since I wasn’t actually in line to perform anything (I seemed to be the only person in the house without a guitar on hand) I didn’t feel shy about bailing when I’d reached that point, and bailed for a walk through “the yard” itself.

Definite October weather. Fallen leaves and effervescent students swirling along paths between the dour stone dorms and illuminated wooden steeples. Light rain as the clock tower tolled ten. Yeah, I liked this part, too. Each step called back a memory from what seems like another lifetime. Has it really been 25 years since I first wandered these paths?

We were down from Dartmouth for the weekend our freshman year – “Harvard Weekend”, it was called. There was to be a football game, much drinking, and Harvard babes. Well, there was football, at least. No idea who won, of course – it’s the sort of thing that, in retrospect always seems much less important than it did at the time.

Here was the John Harvard statue where Tito and I posed, taking turns scaling it and making vaguely untoward gestures above the disapprobation of passing Harvard students. And here was the science center – still open and unlocked 24 hours a day. The steps came back to me as I traced them. Here was the hallway, but that can’t have been the same couch. I’d gotten separated from my friends – I don’t remember now where I’d been planning to sleep back then (no doubt with a Harvard girl) – but after the evening had run its inevitable course, the couch had looked like my most inviting option.

Fortunately (though with a touch of foreshadowing), I had better options tonight: Back to the rental car, and northward. My plan was still to wander Rockport and Glouchester in the morning, so I figured I’ll headed north that way and, as I said, grab a room at a Motel 6 or the like where the main road breaks off.

[A look at the clock] It’s getting late, so I’m going to be brief and prosaic on this part: I passed a couple of suitable stops on the outskirts of Boston, but my GPS-phone (aka “the infernal device”) indicated that there were plenty of other prospects closer to my destination. It was pretty late, and raining pretty heavily by the time I reached the outskirts of Rockport, so I pulled in at the first “vacancy” sign. The “Vista Inn”. No answer at the door. I tried the next place, with the same result. Went back to the infernal device and grabbed phone numbers for all the places within easy striking distances. No joy. I did manage to reach the night manager at one, who informed me that “most places around here close up around nine or so. We’ve got empty rooms, but y’see, I can’t actually check you in, because the office is closed. Good luck…”

After almost an hour of this (recall that it’s about midnight and still raining), I decide to retreat back to the interstate. Problem is that Rockport is a maze of twisty turny passages, all alike. I fired up the infernal device again for directions, and it assured me that I’m somewhere out to sea, but would be glad to assist once I reached land. “Recalculating….” I kept driving, sure I’d been through this particular intersection at least twice before.

I finally found a sign to 128 south and stumbled into familiar (in a good way) territory to get myself out of Dodge in as straight a line as the roads will allow. A half hour down the road, near Salem, I saw the “Day’s Inn” sign just in time to careen across two lanes and catch the exit. They were open, done up in the inevitable Halloween excess (“I hate this holiday,” the night manager confides), and I managed to stumbled into my mostly adequate room as the clock ticked past 1.

There’s more, of course – “Dan” in the room next to me was checking his voicemail on speakerphone (“Hiya snookums – I miss you sooooo much,” “Hey Dan, it’s Billy – make sure you check off the Frobnoster account from the…”) while channel surfing the videoporn. But with a pillow over my head and 2500 miles under my belt today, that disappeared pretty quickly

(next morning)

Up to Hanover or back out to Rockport? Oh, I guess I’m incurable: back out 128 and 127 to the coast. The clouds are lifting, but not clearing, as I descended the maze of roads – so much less confusing in daylight – and pulled up at harborside in time for breakfast.

Two weeks ago, running the coast trail out to Vancouver’s Shipwreck Beach, I wove my way through redwoods and down wooden steps to dutifully dip my toes in the North Pacific. It must be that incurable need for balance that brought me out through the narrow trinketshop lanes of Bearskin Neck out to Rockport’s eastern breakwater. A pose at land’s end (captured by a passing stranger), then an ambling return, peering in at too-vivid oilcolor seascapes and polished ammonites overflowing from every shop window.

Still no breakfast yet, but I felt I was done at that point, and eager to get on the road. I found a mid-block bakery with fresh streudel to go, and (newly covered with crumbs and powdered sugar) hit the road again.

Next stop: Hampton Airfield. Another old haunt. Used to have the Skyranger annual inspections done there – they were the only place around that really understood the old tube-and-fabric antiques out here.

An obligatory stop at the diner adjoining Hampton’s grass strip, graced as always by Luscombes and J-3 Cubs, and filled with people who loved this sort of thing and could sit, talk and watch all day if they wanted to. Or longer, in the case of the old salts who now made this place their home away from home.

I’d been hoping to sneak in an hour of flight time in one of the Cubs; I’ve flown a lot of different aircraft, but never the one that all non-pilots evoke to mean “those little airplanes.” Alas, noone was available to take me until late afternoon, when I’d promised to be in Hanover. So after a little more hangar flying, I bid the gang adieu and headed up the autumn-tinged road to dear old Dartmouth.

It’s got to get a lot worse than this if I’m ever going to learn my lesson. It’s now less than a day later, and if I hadn’t written down the night’s frustrations, all I’d remember was how beautifully forlorn the backroads of Rockport looked at midnight in the rain, and how I jumped two feet straight up when the wind caught that Halloween scarecrow posted at the shuttered door of the Vista Inn. Yeah, that was funny. I guess.

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