New England (sorry, no titular inspiration)

Picked up a hire car in Boston and headed on North for some pre-Halloween Salem action, stopping in at a far more terrifying Walmart on the way. Salem wasn’t really scary at all, despite the town’s best efforts to make it so. Wondering where the rumours stemmed from, we checked out the Witch Museum.

Where the chief witch judge lived

Well, what a lot of fuss over a few high-spirited teenagers. Back in 1692, Salem’s largely Puritan population ran itself into a frenzy because the local doctor couldn’t explain why one young lady, belonging to a prominent member of the local society, wasn’t shaking a delirium. Two of the young girls of the house, probably inspired by the voodoo stories of their enslaved housekeeper, told the doctor that it was black magic and that a coven had formed in the town. And the doctor believed it. Que?

A finger was pointed at Giles Corey for inciting the girls to it. He was hailed as a grand wizard.

There are several explanations offered by the modern scientific community, one of the most interesting being that the women said to be exhibiting the hallucinations and delirium of witchcraft were actually tripping from a fungus that is known to grow on wheat. They may have taken it deliberately, we don’t know how they got their kicks, but more likely it would have been ingested when ground and baked into bread.

Anyway, as a result, the town went crazy, threw countless people in jail – men and women – where some were left to die in custody and others were submitted to the kangaroo courts. Poor Giles was crushed under a rock (who went down cursing them all; good man) and 19 and one dog were hung from a local tree. In total 24 people fell victim to the girls’ silly stories until the local elite finally decided that enough was enough and called the place to order. Simple as that.

Giles' memorial stone

The town was almost entirely puritan except for one family who were doing particularly well as merchants. The bloke, I wish I’d noted down his name cos I can’t find it on the net, was accused of witchcraft, thrown in jail and had all his possessions seized. When acquitted, they ‘forget’ to give him all his stuff and money back. Tsk. Enraged, he waited until one of the prominent judges died and robbed his corpse, which he held to ransom until they gave his cash back. Another good man. (To be verified…)

I mean, I don’t know where to start. How this blew up, I know not. Furthermore, it is nothing in comparison to Britain’s witch-hunts. Anywhere between 40 and 100,000 people were bobbed or burnt at the stake, bobbing being particularly cruel since if you drowned you were innocent but dead, and if you floated you were guilty, retrieved and burnt.

Separately, Alexander Graham Bell worked in Salem under his local benefactor (whose kid he taught) while he invented the telephone.

Another famous witch, honoured in Salem

With pumpkin lattes in hand and car-eoke blasting, we headed on North for Portland to crash my cousin’s life and flat for a couple of days. Checked out the lively bar scene of old Portland and enjoyed meeting Tom’s pals, Stateside. It’s a great port city with an active music and arts scene and plenty of students. Always a positive combination.

Me and cousin Tom

The pioneers must have felt right at home in New England, what with the shitty rubbish drizzle that has a tendency to prevail. I remembered as they grey descended the miserable English feeling of being chilled to the bone, slightly damp with soggy feet. On one day, I refused to leave the house, except for to go lap swimming at a bizarre pool. What’s the last thing you want to read on a pool notice board? ‘Those people who may be incontinent must wear appropriate protective clothing.’

I had picked up Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’ at the Harvard bookshop for two reasons: one, it felt appropriate since the book tells of his journey along the Appalachian Way which runs from Georgia right up to Maine; and two, I’m a massive Bill fan cos his writing is hilarious and his was the hand I shook as I graduated from Durham. Not because he happened to be by-standing but because he was (and will be until December) Durham’s Chancellor on account of once writing ‘If you have never been to Durham, go there at once. Take my car. It’s wonderful.’ University authorities were impressed enough by this to make him one of the head honchos.

Turns out that he was inspired to take on this trek when he moved to New Hampshire and discovered it running right past his back door. Whaddya know! I was right by New Hampshire so I popped him a little email asking if I could stop by for tea and a chat. He declined.

On one day we tripped down the coast to see some of the little towns and villages strung along Highway 1, which incidentally can become almost impassable at the height of the autumn tourist season when people come leaf peeping at the blaze of famous colours. Wended our way down to Ogunquit where we went all Westward Ho!* and sat drinking coffee in the car, watching the cold, grey beach. That was until I decided that I had to feel the sand and icy water beneath my feet, and Tim decided he wanted to dunk his testes. Crazy.


Decided to give Tom et al. their sofa back for a few days and headed into the sticks to visit my aunt and uncle. They built a house in the wilds of Maine, complete with hot tub, and have lived there for over 30 years. This is the first time I have visited. Shame on me.

When the house was but a patch of woodland, they lived for a while in a tent. In her occupation as an air hostess, my aunt – let’s call her by name – Joy, was on call and had to keep her uniform pressed and hung on a pole underneath a canopy, doing her make-up and preening on arrival at the airport in Boston. Calls came through to a telephone box nailed to a tree. It sounds deliciously like a primitive form of the Bat Cave.

Settled in a proper bed of my own amid the tranquillity of the woods, we set about exploring. There are bears, moose, coyote, porcupine, racoon, chipmunks, deer and various other exciting animals roaming about. I was holding out for a bear to wander past, but alas, no luck. Instead, I saw most of my wildlife as taxidermy or roadkill. I’m pretty sure that I saw a racoon and porcupine but, if Uncle Mike is to be believed, it was a 4 foot spikey grey squirrel.

As for moose – I’ve never seen anything so big. Well, except for elephants and giraffes and whatnot. Huge things and very stupid. One of the most dangerous creatures on or near the roads since their tiny brains do not induce them to move out of the way when they see the headlights of an approaching car. No, they stand there looking bewildered and sometimes run along the road on the same path as the car.

For drivers, it is every bit as treacherous and you are unlikely to survive a moose crash. The rule is to continue straight if you see a deer (unlucky deer) and swerve for a moose. The height of them – about a horse and a half – means that their eyes don’t reflect the headlights. Given that they have such a dark pelt, this makes them almost invisible until the last minute. Then, if you do hit it, you merely take its legs out, sending it’s bulk and giant antlers crashing down/through the car at some speed.

Being America, many people are keen on shooting the wildlife in the head. Nipped into one hunting store and saw an incredible array of hunting gear: tree hides, traps, baits, crossbows, guns, meat smoking equipment and more. In the season, casual hikers and their dogs must deck themselves out in blaze orange to avoid becoming a target themselves.

The gang in the sticks

Happy hiker

Kayaking on Long Pond

Aside from searching for wildlife, we also enjoyed kayaking on the local lake, hiking up the hills, cycling into the local village and soaking in the hot tub. For all American assertions to the contrary, there is a sizeable amount of history here dating back as far as the 17th century. As you wander through what appears to be dense woodland, you will see drystone walls that marked the former boundaries of fields when the first pioneer settlers arrived here. You also find small family cemetaries and cellar holes that mark the sites of the old farmsteads, though the wooden houses have long since rotted away. My uncle tells me that the population of Maine in 1860 was greater than it is today. The Pilgrims persevered with the harsh farming conditions up here on the North East coast for a substantial 200 years or so until transport links to the more fecund lands of the mid-West improved to a degree that allowed farmsteads there to supply the East coast. Then they pretty much all shipped out to Kansas, with the exception of a few hardy individuals who are still up here farming potatoes and the odd veggie patch.

Woodland grave

Evenings were spent playing competitive Scattergories, feasting and nipping into town for culture and fun times. One evening we went to see Miss Saigon at the Ogunquit playhouse, a musical that I know all the words to (the first CD at least) but had never seen. Mum and Dad went to see it in London when I was about 7 and brought the CD home which, along with Whitney Houston and Chesney Hawkes, became one of my favourite obsessions. I have a clear memory of singing along at bed time when the radio rentals were having a dinner party and Ma coming upstairs to tell me to pipe down with the squawking.

Another night I tagged along to the self-confessed fogies night with Joy, Mike and their friends. Pints in the Irish pub – didn’t know how into ale the Yanks are; ordering a lager became an ordeal – followed by bowling and a night at the diner where conversation turned to weed crops, water beds and designer vaginas. I had a brilliant time.

Once I had emptied the fridge, larder and vegetable patch, I invited myself up to Thomaston for an authentic lobstering experience with one of Tom’s pals. The coastline of Maine is known for its crustaceans and positively crawling with bugs, as they’re affectionately known. They are both delicious and a barry bargain. $20 will get you a full buttered lobster in a restaurant; it’s more like £60 back at home.

Alex and I arose at 5.30am to head over to the port and meet Captain Kevin. Donned the rather attractive waterproofs and headed for the open water against a pretty dawn backdrop. Set to work getting in the way while the lads pulled the traps, cleaned the buoys, picked the lobsters, rebaited the cages and measured the catch. Those that are too small or too big must be thrown back to keep stocks up and these limits are both strictly adhered to and policed. Had a go at all elements but mostly busied myself banding the lobsters’ claws. Beware the brilliantly named crusher claw which can take a finger off. Did you know that lobsters can grow a claw back if they lose one? Just as well since the lobster fishermen seem to rip them off fairly regularly.

Alex, pre-dawn


Me and a lobster friend

Took a couple back and boiled them in a pot for supper. Nom nom nom. But a word to the wise – don’t watch them die. They wriggle with discomfort for several minutes until their eyes glaze over. At least, I imagine it is discomfort. We spent over an hour debating whether lobsters have feelings.

* The only place in the UK with an exclamation mark in its name and the place that we used to go visit with the wrinklies (that’s you, Grandma and Grandad) when we were kids.

Mini fascinating fact

Courtesy of the Cranberry Marketing Committee: “The cranberry, along with the blueberry and Concord grape, is one of North America’s three native fruits that are commercially grown. Cran berries were first used by Native Americans who discovered the wild berry’s versatility as a food, fabric dye and healing agent…. The name ‘cranberry’ derives from the Pilgrim name for the fruit, ‘craneberry’, so called because the small, pink blossoms that appear in spring resemble the head and bill of a Sandhill Crane. European settles adopted the Native American uses for the fruit and found the berry a valuable bartering tool. American whalers and mariners carried cranberries, which are full of Vitamin C, on their voyages to prevent scurvy.”

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