Of Road Trips and May Sarton

In the summer of 2008 my husband and I took a wonderful road trip up through the Northeast. Normally our travels mean we get on a plane and go explore some other part of the US or the world. And while the Northeast feels decidedly different than DC and the mid-Atlantic region, it is close enough that we were able to skip the flight and car rental formula in favor of packing up our car and hitting the open road. Having our own vehicle and not being beholden to any schedule or airline luggage restrictions meant we really did have the freedom to do what we pleased. For me this meant stopping in every secondhand bookstore we came across. After two weeks traveling through the Finger Lakes, Adirondacks, and Hudson River Valley in upstate New York, the beautiful Berkshires in western Massachusetts, rural Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, and a final stop in Bucks County, Pennsylvania we arrived back in DC with about 75 more books than when we left.

During our overnight stay in Woodstock, Vermont we came across one of the nicest little bookshops on the whole trip. Pleasant Street Books is in a converted barn behind one of the houses that line the main street through town. It was a great place to spend a rainy afternoon. It had a really nice balance between antiquarian books and good secondhand reading copies and had a friendly, helpful proprietor behind the desk. While we were there I came across a stack of books by May Sarton. I knew the name, and had a vague notion that she was someone I should read, but I didn’t know anything about her. I am not sure why I was initially drawn to these old Norton paperbacks stacked on the floor in front of the shelves. When I started to look through them I noticed they had all been owned by the same person and was intrigued by the notion that whoever Susie was, she liked Sarton well enough to own eight of her books. The descriptions on the back of the books indicated that Sarton had been a bit of a local, having lived for many years in neighboring New Hampshire. It seemed fitting that our Northeast road trip should be commemorated with the purchase of some native literature.

Back in June, Art Durkee over at Dragoncave posted a lovely entry about his pilgrimage to Nelson, New Hampshire to see Sarton’s grave. He has some very striking pictures of Sarton’s milieu that so nourished her over the years.

Among the pile of Sarton were some of her novels and a few of her published journals. I started off by reading The Small Room a novel from 1961 about an academic and administrative crisis at a New England girls college. The second one I read was Kinds of Love, a novel about a long married couple, their friends and family and their relationships in a small New England town. I liked both books quite a bit, although I think The Small Room appealed to me more. It has been about a year since I read them, but I remember them having a kind of cozy but somewhat austere New England setting where nature and the seasons, and small town life are as important as any of characters in defining the books. Later I moved on to a few of her journals beginning with Journal of Solitude and The House by the Sea. I liked those two immensely but will talk about them in context of my most recent Sarton read.

May Sarton was born in 1912 in Belgium but was raised in the United States where she died of breast cancer in 1995 at age 83. Based on her tombstone, Sarton considered herself, above all, a poet. Indeed she published sixteen volumes of poetry but she also published eleven works of autobiographical non-fiction and journals, nineteen novels, and two children’s books.

Plant Dreaming Deep by May Sarton
It is unlike me to read things out of order, but so far I have been skipping around a bit among her autobiographical non-fiction. At first I could put it down to not owning all the necessary volumes to read them in order, but that doesn’t explain why I picked up Plant Dreaming Deep last week, instead of her first autobiographical volume. I can blame that on Wilkie Collins. After reading his fantastic novel The Woman in White, I needed something that was the exact opposite in style and content. Something based more firmly in real life. I needed to sweep up and clear away all of the Victorian drama and intrigue that was littering my psyche. I immediately thought of Sarton as the right tool for the job, and I skipped over her first volume of memoir because its detail was too much about dates and places and events. After so much plot, I wanted something that was pure description.

Plant Dreaming Deep was the perfect solution. It describes Sarton’s first home purchase in 1958 at the age of 46, her process of turning the house and 36 acres into her sanctuary, and her daily life and the people who became her neighbors and friends. This is the volume that begins to tell the tale of Sarton’s life in Nelson, New Hampsire and it was wonderful. This is essentially a poet writing about domestic chores and the joy and pain involved in her daily life. Like two other of her journals that I have read, Journal of Solitude and The House by the Sea, Plant Dreaming Deep is a throwback to a time when the hum of an electric typewriter was considered noisy. She had books, and wood fires, and her garden, and a mailbox full of letters and cards, and friends who came to visit her, and all kinds of other things that makes me want to live in the past. But she also had to deal with drought, black flies, and woodchucks. And among the peace and quiet, as we learn in later journal volumes, she also suffered from debilitating bouts of depression.

With black and white photos sprinkled here and there, Sarton’s journals are perfect for people who love writing, reading, and gardening, or anyone who fantasizes about living a quiet life in a beautiful setting.

Where would you like to transplant yourself, and what do you want to do when you get there?

40 by 40 Update: #29 Go Back to Ithaca for a Long Weekend

(Back in May of 2007 I noticed that a bunch of people in the blogosphere had created lists of 101 things to do in 1001 days. I was intrigued by the notion but felt I needed to change the parameters. So I created my 40 by 40 list. 40 things I wanted to do before I turned 40. Well on August 17th I turn 40, and I need to give $10 to charity for every uncompleted item. So it is time to see how I did.)

29. Go Back to Ithaca for a Long Weekend – COMPLETED
Running Tally: $130.00 to charity.

I loved living in Ithaca for two years while I was a grad student at Cornell. It awakened a latent (and unknown) desire in me to live in a small town. Of course Ithaca isn’t your typical small town. Set in the Finger Lakes region at the bottom tip of Cayuga Lake, Ithaca is about a four and a half hour drive from Manhattan and about the same distance to Toronto. And with Cornell University and Ithaca College in town, there is an intellectual and artistic community that most small towns could only dream of. There are some town and gown issues, and it can get a little too crunchy granola sometimes (the home of the famous Moosewood Restaurant of the cookbook fame), but over all a really nice place. The views from Cornell’s campus are breathtaking and Ithaca has one of the best farmer’s markets anywhere.
Last August on our roadtrip we got to spend a long weekend there visiting our friends Joe and Leslie.

RoadTrip Part III: Ithaca

Our two days in Ithaca were spent mainly showing John my old haunts and spending time with our good friends Joe and Leslie and their perfectly behaved two-year old Nick. They recently re-potted themselves back in Ithaca after 5 years in DC, but I met Leslie while we were in grad school at Cornell. I was more than a little envious of her new life in Ithaca. The older I get the more interested I become in living in a small town with lots of peace and quiet, a vegtable garden, and a low crime rate. Then you throw in the cultural resources of Cornell and you have one great place to live.

I showed John all of my favorite places around town and campus. (Although none of my pictures do justice to the beauty of Cornell’s campus so the one at tip is kind of lackluster.) We also spent lots of time in the Aboretum and Botanic Gardens that are part of the Cornell Plantations and made our way through the Johnson Art Museum. The Johnson has a great collection and an impressive I.M. Pei building that is perched on a hill at the corner of Cornell’s Art’s Quad. It has amazing views of Ithaca, the countryside and the bottom of Cayuga Lake, the largest (I think) of the Finger Lakes. We also had a surprisingly good lunch at the famous Moosewood Restaurant. I say surprisingly because I never really had a good experience there when I lived in Ithaca. The food was really pretty darn yummy.
One of the highlights had to be the Ithaca Farmer’s Market. Housed in a beautiful timber-framed pavilion they not only have amazing local produce for sale but lots of great prepared food as well. Cambodian, Cuban, Japanese…there was even one vendor that had a portable wood-fired pizza oven on the back of a pick-up truck.
Without necessarily meaning to, the first weekend kind of set the tone for the whole trip:
  • Lots of used book browsing and buying. Not having to pack for a flight, our turnk filled up pretty quickly with books.
  • Gardens and Nurseries. John is an avid gardener, and I don’t mind a pretty place to sit and read. The northeast has so many wonderful gardens it was like heaven on earth for John. Plus they have a had a very rainy summer so things were pretty lush pretty much everywhere we went.
  • College Campuses. You will see in future posts that we stopped at quite a few college campuses. In addtion to gardens the northeast is dotted with pretty campuses.
  • Yearning for small town life. I think we really got bitten by the small town bug on this trip. A little too young to start thinking about retirement, we nevertheless talked about wanting to end up in a quiet town or rural area somewhere in the northeast. Ithaca is probably too remote for John’s taste, but the way of life is highly appealing to both of us.
Next installment takes us to the Adirondacks.

RoadTrip Part II: DC to Ithaca

Friday 1 August

States Covered: DC, VA, MD, PA, NY

Our trip started with me picking up John at Dulles Airport as he deplaned from a cross-country flight from San Francisco. Conventional wisdom would have suggested that we wait until Saturday the 2nd to get going on our trip, give the poor man a chance to catch his breath, etc. Nothing doing. I was hell-bent on getting on the road as soon as possible. Americans don’t get enough vacation time, I was going to make every minute count.

By about 4:00 pm we were headed up Route 15. Although the road was only two lanes and little slow, I was overjoyed to avoid the I-95 corridor. The drive in Virginia also passed through some beautiful, rolling hills with horse pastures, vineyards and for a bit, a minimum of sprawl. It was nice to have pretty stuff to look at seeing as John had a little trouble separating himself from his work. He spent the first hour of the trip on his Blackberry tying up a whole lot of loose ends. Later we went through beautful farm country in Maryland and equally beautiful landscapes in Pennsylvania before it got too dark to see anything.

We cheered as we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. A Yankee at heart (and by birth) it felt good to be heading north. (I don’t care much where my ashes are sprinkled when I die, but I must admit that my will makes it clear that it should be in a state or territory that fought on the side of the Union.)

We made great time stopping at Dairy Queen along the way and making Ithaca by about 11:40 pm. As every American must know it ain’t a road trip until you stop at the DQ. Also, having no DQs in DC (why?!) it is hard for me to pass one up…

RoadTrip Part I: The Itinerary

I am too lazy to figure out a good way to keep this all in chronological order without having one giant post that includes everything. So I will stick with my previous method which is to post them in chron order realizing that readers will have to go back and follow the part numbers (or read them in reverse chron order, but that way you might miss something)…

We had a fabulous time taking 17 days to make our way through some of the prettiest countryside in the Northeast. There was a time earlier this year when I felt like a road trip was kind of a boring vacation. Not that I didn’t want to do it, but at work I was planning trips to Italy, Japan, Tahiti, and a hundred other places for other people. A road trip just seemed a bit of a let down. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The whole trip was amazing and we both wish we were still on the road.

So this was the path we took:

1 Aug: DC to Ithaca, New York
2 Aug: Ithaca
3 Aug: Ithaca
4 Aug: Ithaca to Elk Lake in the Adirondacks
5 Aug: Elk Lake
6 Aug: Elk Lake
7 Aug: Elk Lake to Woodstock, Vermont (with a dip into New Hampshire)
8 Aug: Woodstock to Great Barrington, Massachusetts in the Berkshires
9 Aug: Great Barrington
10 Aug: Great Barrington
11 Aug: Great Barrington to Hudson, New York
12 Aug: Hudson to Hyde Park via Connecticut
13 Aug: Hyde Park to Tarrytown, New York
14 Aug: Tarrytown
15 Aug: Tarrytown to Philadelphia
16 Aug: Philadelphia
17 Aug: Philadelphia to DC

It turned out to be about 2,000 miles when all was said and done.