Sept. 26, Putnam, Conn. – This journey of the absurd has been spiraling down, down, down all week. An hour ago, at a travel center off Exit 71 on Interstate 84, somewhere in Connecticut, it nearly crashed.
For 48 hours, I’ve been chasing my tail like a mad dog.
I am tired and spent and bereft of inspiration.
I’ve crossed between Massachusetts and Connecticut so many times in the past two days I’m not sure where the hell I am. I’ve crossed from one state to the other when I intended to, and I’ve done it by accident more than once.
I’ve driven from New Boston to New Hartford and New Hartford back to New Boston. I’ve driven from Sandisfield, Mass., to Norfolk, Conn., and from Colebrook, Conn., to New Boston, Mass.
I’ve left I-84 in Connecticut for Holland, Mass., and I’ve done the same in reverse.
I just looked at the dog-eared map and see that Route 8 between New Boston, Mass., and Winsted, Conn., bears the green-dotted line denoting a scenic route. It is that. The road is shrouded on either side by high cliffs dotted with leaves of many colors.
Tonight, If found myself trying to sleep at 6 p.m., at a truck stop/Shell station/Burger King/Dunkin’ Donuts/Rodeway Inn/Country Pride restaurant.
Gravity pulled me homeward, a week ahead of schedule. I want to go home. I miss my family. I’m tired of being alone.
And so I nearly broke and fled for home.
I held the line. Barely.
Suddenly, reliable wifi had become hard to find. I hit bottom in the Dunkin’ Donuts/Burger King cafeteria. I couldn’t get online. A few minutes earlier, confused by fatigue, I’d somehow gone right past the FedEx sign without seeing it and made it up the driveway until I approached a sign that said all visitors must sign in. It isn’t like I hadn’t been in the same place earlier in the same day.
I clapped the laptop shut and returned to the Behemoth. I climbed onto the bunk, pulled the shades and closed my eyes. Nothing doing. My mind raced.
I wavered and thought of home.
Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t quit, not with one week left. I had traveled too many miles, squandered too much money and spent too much time away from my first-grader to quit now. I had to finish this out, for better or, more likely, worse.
I left the Exit 71 Travel Center and veered onto the east-bound ramp of I-84, just as I had done this morning, when I started the day 86 miles from Boston.
I feel like the event’s of the week have galloped away from me. My mind reels with images of Wil Robertson’s barn in Meredith, N.H., to Bob Ziegler’s antique emporium in Colebrook, Conn., to Dick Hodgdon’s salvage yard in Ascutney, Vermont, to a legless man named Roger in the Rite Aid in Claremont, N.H.
Last night I went back to visit Bob Ziegler at his antique compound. We had a nice conversation, and he took me for a ride in his 1945 U.S. Army jeep. No seat belts, no doors, no safety features whatsoever. But more about that at another time.
He invited me to stay at another of his properties, this one way way up on a mountain across the border in Sandisfield, Mass. His directions were impeccable. I had intended to return to the library in New Hartford and look for Larry the skirt-wearing musical prodigy, but I was tired and figured I might just pass out when I got there.
I made it fine. I heated some pita bread and ate some hummus, without much enthusiasm. I was in bed by 8. But I couldn’t sleep.
I got kind of freaked out by the lonesomeness of it all. Maybe it was the thought of Bob’s asshole son-in-law, who happens to be a Sandisfield cop. And got to thinking Bob said “nobody will bother you” one too many times, and I started to worry about someone bothering me.
Bob hates his cop son-in-law. Says he can go fuck himself. Bob says he has a gangster customer, a “real-life gangster” in his 80s. I guess he bitched about his son-in-law to his octogenarian gangster buddy one day.
“He says, ‘You want me to have him whacked?'” Bob told me. “I said, ‘What do you mean by that? You mean whack him upside the head, or, you know, have him whacked?’
“He says, ‘it might cost you $300, but I can have him whacked.'”
Well, Bob didn’t go for that deal. But my mind reeled with pictures of mob hitmen and violent cops.
I couldn’t sleep anyway, so I put on my shoes and got the hell out of there. I drove down the mountain toward Colebrook, Conn. When I reached bottom, I turned right and drove into Massachusetts.
Once again, I did an about-face. I was almost to Hartford when I turned off and followed a sign to 84. I guessed there must be a rest area off the interstate somewhere not to far away. In 45 minutes I was there. In another 15 I was asleep.
I slept fine. A light rain tapped on the metal above my head and soothed my nerves. When I awoke, I felt good enough to be fooled into thinking I was refreshed and ready for action.
I stopped at the Exit 71 complex to get some gas, then got on 84 east toward Boston. I bailed off 84 just shy of the state line. Soon I was in the rural Massachusetts hamlet of Holland. The road, I think it’s just called the Holland Road, twists and turns and curves around the shoreline of Lake Siog.
I saw a man standing in a boat, casting his line. I wondered if he’d taken Friday off to do a little fishing. I wondered what it must be like, to have a job, and then take time away from it to do things that make you happy.
I had no idea where I’m going, which was supposed to be the central conceit of this journey. Now I found my uncomfortable with the whole scenario.
I kept on the road until it dumped me out onto U.S. 20. I drove west until I realized I was driving west, then turned around and drove east. Eventually I hit Sturbridge. I remember visiting the Old Sturbridge Village with my family as a kid.
No disrespect to my father, may he rest in peace, or my long-suffering mother, but I don’t know why any parent would take a kid to Old Sturbridge Village.
After walking about the gift shop and book store for a half hour, I didn’t understand its appeal any better than I did as a kid.
Of course, I declined the $24 museum admission. Had I paid the fare and done the tourist thing, maybe it would’ve softened my jaundiced perspective and made a dent in my fortress of ignorance. I’m guessing it only would’ve provided me more evidence to support my feeling on the subject of Old Sturbridge Village.
If I could dismiss it so roundly after 30 minutes, imagine what I could’ve done are 90. I needed postcards, but at 69 cents, they were the most expensive and least aesthetically pleasing I’d seen.
The gift shoppe is full of Colonial kitsch. Matronly dresses made of thin cotton sell for $99. Tri-corner hats for kids, only $10. Cheap plastic rifles go for $25. Jesus Christ with a maxed-out credit card, I don’t get it.
The kids ran wild around the gift shop, bored out of their poor, developing brains. Parents got testy, as parents will when kids get bored.
My favorite item was the Old Sturbridge Village cookbook. Fork over $2o, and you can try your hand at such mouth-watering recipes as “Turkey” and “Broiled Fish” and “Poached Fish” and “Mince Meat to be Served on Toast.”
I probably have missed the whole point, and I like to think I’m not a total ignoramus when it comes to history. This just seems like history dressed up in cartoonish colonial regalia just to wheedle a few more bucks out of the masses.
I walked out, wondering if I had it all wrong. A middle-aged couple shuffled slowly along the walk in my direction. As we crossed paths, the woman looked toward her man, smiled hopefully and said, “I think this was a good idea.”
Boy, the mental gymnastics people perform to convince themselves that red is blue. It sounded like they were in the middle of the worst vacation ever, that they’d been at each other’s throats for days, and they came to Old Sturbridge Village to find peace.
And so I wandered on down the road, which in this case was U.S. 20 east. When it looked like construction was about to tie traffic in a knot, I turned onto Massachusetts 56 north for Leicester, which made me think of my old, beloved cat. Leicester is in Worcester County, which might lead the country in pronunciation problems.
As the day heated up, the roads began to clog. Eventually I turned onto 9 east and landed in Worcester proper. I think I hit every red light between Sturbridge and Worcester. I stopped at the McDonald’s on Main Street, but found no place to plug in.
I was at a dead end. I didn’t know which way to turn. Then I did the most amazing thing.
Desperate to escape the stop-and-go madness of the Leicester-Worcester corridor, and knowing it would only get worse as I drew nearer Boston, I turned around and retraced my path. I drove past Danker Square in Worcester, where a determined man worked the sidewalk along the westbound lane. His cardboard placard advertised him as homeless and included an obligatory “God Bless You.” I suppose this a good marketing ploy, but it always turns me off.
I considered parking at the adjacent Price Chopper, visiting with him and asking a few routine questions. Just what had brought him to this situation? How much did he made an hour? Was he truly homeless, or just industrious?
I’ll never know, because I turned left and drove past him for the second time in one afternoon. I passed by Zorba’s Greek Taverna again, and then Our Lady of Angels. Classes were letting out for the week at the Gates Lane School. Nearby intersections flooded with buses and exuberant kids, snarling traffic and ratcheting up my frustration.
I made it back to Leicester, turning left onto 56 south just ahead of Uncle Sam’s Pizza. Had I not been in the death grip of hopelessness, I should’ve stopped in and discussed the brotherhood of Uncle Sam.
I recrossed the French River at Oxford. In Charlton, I again passed by O’Malley’s Truck and Auto Body. I had considered visiting O’Malley’s on the first pass. The Behemoth is already overdue for an oil change, and the name O’Malley just sounds like it should belong to a cop on the take in South Boston.
Again, I kept going. There was an orchard somewhere up the road, and I’d had apples on my mind since I bought a pair at Trask Orchard’s stand in Farmington, Maine, two weeks ago.
I made the short detour off 20 to Charlton Orchards Farm & Winery. Soon I was climbing the driveway, which is lined on both sides by towering oaks. The canopy of shade in the hall of oaks was a balm for my wicked soul.
I drove by roosters and chickens and turkeys until the road leveled off and ended in the parking area. I parked and got out, and saw that my ass-end protruded well out onto the dirt drive. I pulled in a bit further, knocking free a couple ripe apples, which fell onto the hood with a thunk and bounced away.
The big attraction now is the U-pick hike through Charlton’s apple orchards. For $20, you get a half-bushel bag and a hand-drawn map. A white-haired man in suspenders stood behind the counter and worked the crowd with an understated joie-de-vivre.
When I got a chance, I told him the U-pick thing seemed kind of unfair. After all, I said, how was a rube like me to tell a good apple from a bad apple?
Nathan Benjamin touched his suspenders and gave me a wry grin.
“I guess you should’ve figured that out before you came in here,” he said. “A good apple is a round with no marks or bruises.”
I liked him immediately. He explained they got hit by a wicked hailstorm a while back, and it did a number on their harvest.
“Just because it has a hail mark, that don’t mean it ain’t a good apple,” he said. “It’s just a second-tier apple. If it don’t go too deep and you can cut it out, then it ain’t a bad apple. If it gets too deep in there, then it goes into the cider mill.”
I bought a half-peck bag for $7.50, then stepped back to allow him to do his thing.
When the crowd thinned again, I asked if he owned the joint.
“Yeah,” he said. “Me and my wife and my son and daughter-in law and grandchildren and the bank and the telephone company and the electrical company. Everybody has a chunk of it.”
The farm’s up for sale. His son Nate, who also makes wine under the Obadiah McIntyre label, injured his leg in a freak accident and is now on disability. Most of the work has fallen to Nathan Sr. and his wife, Patty. They’re finding it hard to keep up.
He doesn’t seem sure he wants to sell, though.
“I don’t know if we’re going to put it back on the market or not, or just kind of downsize a little bit more and stroll along with it,” he said. “It’s our life. If you quit doing what you’re doing and you end up watching television all the time, you’ll probably get fat and die.”
Nathan says he and Patty work 10 or 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week from March until Thanksgiving. On this day, he is deluged with a steady stream of apple-picking customers.
A woman comes in and asks how it all works.
“You gave me all your money,” he said, “and I’ll give you a bag to put your apples in.”
Another woman buys two sodas and a 350-milliliter bottle of strawberry rhubarb wine, then balks at the 750-ml bottle of blackberry wine when she learns it’s $28. I mean, I wouldn’t pay $28 for a bottle of blackberry wine, either. But she did it with a brusqueness that made me feel a little bad for old Nathan.
“He (Nate Jr.) makes all the wine out of the fruit on the farm,” he said after she left. “It’s strictly fruit that makes the wine. It ain’t water and some flavor that makes the wine.”
He said the wine in question, named “Black Gold,” has garnered many medals on the contest circuit.
The Black Gold incident nudged me off the fence and into buying a $15 bottle of plum wine. I noted the message on the back label, which says this place was born to fulfill Nathan Sr.’s dream, and asked about that.
“I worked on a farm in Connecticut for over 30 years,” he said. “And then I left there when the old gentleman was getting older and it wasn’t going anywhere and he didn’t want nobody to take it over. We did landscaping and firewood for quite a while. Then we found this place, so here we are.”
Nathan Benjamin is a tough man not to like. Somehow he got talking about how him and his wife are huge fans of bluegrass musician Rhonda Vincent, aka the “Mandolin Mama.” For years they got in the habit of dropping off Obadiah McIntyre wines at the Indiana State Fair and then driving to Queen City, Mo., for the Sally Mountain Bluegrass Festival over the Fourth of July weekend.
Patty came in bearing a pie concealed by a paper bag. He said they are scheduled for a farmers market in Wakefield tomorrow morning. He still had a lot of apple-packing to do tonight.
Farming is something that came upon him naturally.
“My folks used to work on the farm and as a kid I was always there,” he said. “I went to trade school to be a carpenter. I graduated and worked at a furniture factory in Webster. After a year of driving my mother’s car back and forth, she said you can’t have the car no more. I went to the farm and got a job while I was looking for another job. I worked there for a couple of months and then a job came up and I was going to leave, and he offered me more money and a place to stay.
“So we spent our life there. We got married 1959 and we raised the kids there and it was nice. I worked a lot of hours when I had to, and we didn’t make a lot of money, but it was nice.”
The phone rang again. Someone wanted to know if they have bacon. No, he said. They have steaks and hamburger meat and stew meat, but no pork. I asked if the raise their own beef. I’d heard him warn more than one apple-picker to steer clear of the electric fence that keeps the cow from straying.
“We did,” he said. “We had a heard of about 40 head of Herefords. Then my son, with his leg on disability, he can’t even drive a tractor. Me and Patty’s been doing a lot of it. We hire some help, but it took time to do the cows. It took us away from other things. We have 40 acres of hay up on the hill we had to cut. It was too much, and that was one of the ways we downsized. We got rid of all the cows and the calves we had last year. The kids kept one cow, it had a bullmcalf, and we just sold the bull calf.”
Patty gave him a look, and I know he’s got to start packing apples. I asked a parting question, about the unpredictability of the weather that makes the farmer’s life a perpetual roll of the dice.
Hail, tornadoes, hurricanes. Too little rain or too much rain. So much can go wrong.
“You never know when it’s gonna be,” he said. “You never know. Cold weather that comes down from Canada when it’s 90 here, when they meet, that’s when you end up with a hailstorm. Some of the orchards further east of us got nailed a couple times. Fortunately, we only got it the one time. It did a lot of damage. We had a real light crop this year.
“That’s part of life. That’s part of farming.”
I wished Nathan Benjamin the best of luck and thanked him for his time, and continued on my wayward route.