My original intent was to travel the route, looking for elements that would have been present in the 1930’s or the 1950’s, when my mother would have traveled it. I changed my mind.
Nostalgia is easy to write. Early on my trip I passed an ice-cream stand, long unused, with grass growing in the parking lot and letters missing from the sign. It’s a simple mattter to evoke a bygone era – pick any one, really: merely describe a family with small children, or a “guy bringing his girl” to this place. Get the period details right - the clothes, the make of car, and what was playing on the radio correct and you can have folks misting up in moments. I used to go to Andy’s in the 50’s myself. They had only five or six flavors then, but I think the ice cream was better…
There are writers and storytellers who do this well by giving added value. Garrison Keillor is best known, but if it were all that difficult, do you think he could produce a new one every week for that long? James Lileks does it best, not only because he evokes an era well, but because he does accurate research. You might remember him as the author of Mommy Knows Worst, a collection of bad parenting advice from the 50’s, or his analysis of the creepy falling-panty drawings of Art Frahm in the 50’s. Me, I like the Institute of Official Cheer. I have wasted hours there.
Missing letters on signs have been a nostalgist’s signal of decay since Lanford Wilson’s drama HOT L BALTIMORE in the 70’s. Hotels are especial targets, as their very names evoke the era of their heyday. I took photos of the Firebird Motel, on the Manchester/Hooksett line, because it was typical of the 50’s, and has this great name. I have no particular associations with it beyond driving past it – nor the Kozy 7, the Sunset, or the Dolly Dimple. They were likely respectable enough in their day, became dumps, and are now managed by nice Asian couples who are trying to resurrect them as best they can.
My other association with them is that guys used to rent those to bring their prom dates to. But neither of my prom dates, nor any even potential prom dates, were "that sort of girl" when I was going with them. They became that sort of girl about a year later, of course, but by then it was too late. For me, that is.
Between the motels and the restaurants, I found I was taking picture after picture of deterioration. But that’s not the spirit of the place, then or now, it’s just the natural course of inexpensively-made buildings when you come back 50-80 years later. It’s only depressing if you want it to be. No echoes of Ozymandias here. The faded grandeur of more elegant and imposing buildings may be worth noting – though I am less sure of even that since I took this trip. Things have their time.
I have always found those cute roadside cabins attractive. I can’t recall we ever stayed at one, so they aren’t part of my history, but I took pictures of the surviving versions and tried to imagine staying there. What’s to imagine? They’re small. They’re old. They are essentially wooden tents. They’ll have an odd smell, and you won’t have enough room to move around. These did have an advantage that no other cabins had, however.
They were right behind that magical souvenir shop with the totem pole, the beaded belts, and the rubber tomahawks.
Nostalgia is overrated. Much like staring into the embers of a fire; we aren’t really thinking deep and wise thoughts reflecting on the past, we just feel like we are. Garnish with wine or other alcohol. Serves 6 (decades).
I press on. What did we see on our trip, now that we don’t have to answer What did we learn today? Here's a good example of wasted time: I had spent hours online and at the library, trying to figure out whether Old Route 28 ran above the river or below it beyond Suncook. Had I driven there, I would have found out immediately.
I saw old farms. Even more than now, it was family farm country then – dairy, poultry, produce. A few newer roads have names like Pheasant Run, so those lands near the Suncook River are being put to suburban use today.
Up closer to the lakes, the old summer cottages were either grand or shacks. I dropped in at the boy’s camp I went to and had loved for years - until I became a junior counselor and saw behind the curtain. I suddenly understood why the campers who were arrogant, athletic jerks won so many of the awards. Because the counselors were arrogant athletic jerks and preferred them. My uncle had gone to the camp a generation before me – I saw his name above my bunk when I was a scared 6-year-old in the Red Squirrel cabin - and my brother went many of the same years I did, so I briefly worried that Mi-te-na might overwhelm me with nostalgia in spite of myself. Not to worry. I was pretty sick of the whole endeavor long before I got there, and one of the new recreation areas was named after the biggest jerk of a camper when I worked there. Rather minimal temptation to reverie and sighing.
Of course, I was a prize jerk myself then, and he’s probably improved greatly from when he was 14, so I should hold my criticism lightly.
Additional note: My friend Mike Crossin and I hitchhiked up Route 28 in 1969 from camp, while we were working there as junior counselors. We headed up to the YWCA camp about an hour north, where I had a girlfriend. It was an adventure that eventually included being stranded on an island across from the camp and having to swim out before dawn. (And yes, this was one of those girlfriends who became "that sort of girl" about a year later. Well, that guy was an old friend, and they married and seemed to have settled into a nice life, so I guess it all worked out fine.)
Yes, I was sick of this whole trip by then, all my own fault. Started late, the onion rings at the Brick House were terrible, and the camera was on the wrong setting. The Circle 9 Ranch turned out to be from 1966, I had decided my original plan was stupid, and I could not positively identify the old family camp when I got there. The 160 year-old country store in Chichester did make its own doughnuts, but what is that? None of my family had ever stopped there, because the trip was too short, even in the 20’s. Two hours max. We went straight through.
I should have stopped for a drink, preferably somewhere that someone in the family had stopped for a drink before. There is nothing remotely like that there. I could have gone to friend Dave’s nearby, and likely received a fine drink, or more than one. And recovered my good mood. And stayed until dusk and had to cancel the rest of the trip. Pressing grimly and dutifully on, I did wonder why doing something I wanted was so irritating.
Part 8 will include long-lost relatives, and likely be the end.