×

Beat the leaf peepers and take a peaceful ride through Vermont

  • The Cornish-Windsor Bridge is more than 450 feet long and connects travelers with the Old Constitution House on the Vermont side and the Saint-Gardens National Historic Site on the New Hampshire side. For The Recorder/Chip Ainsworth

  • Chase Cemetery at the corner of Platt Road and Route 12-A in Cornish, N.H. The 19th-century gravesite is shaded by tall pine trees and bordered by a small white picket fence. FOR THE RECORDER/CHIP AINSWORTH

  • The Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish preserves the homestead and grounds of the famed sculptor who craft a work of Abraham Lincoln using a resident of Cornish as his model for the 16th U.S. President. FOR THE RECORDER/CHIP AINSWORTH

  • Motorists traveling south on the Maxfield Parrish Highway in New Hampshire will round a curve and see Mount Ascutney looming from across the river. The mountain is the site of Vermont’s first state park, built by CCC crews during the Great Depression. FOR THE RECORDER/CHIP AINSWORTH

  • The Cornish-Windsor Bridge is more than 450-feet-long and connects travelers with the Old Constitution House on the Vermont side and the Saint-Gardens National Historic Site on the New Hampshire side. For The Recorder/Chip Ainsworth

  • The Cornish-Windsor Bridge is more than 450-feet-long and connects travelers with the Old Constitution House on the Vermont side and the Saint-Gardens National Historic Site on the New Hampshire side. For The Recorder/Chip Ainsworth



For The Recorder
Friday, September 08, 2017

It won’t be long before Jack Frost comes calling, and one way to beat the leaf peepers from the city is to hop on the Foliage Express and drive north into the color.

In Vermont, the 177-mile drive up the valley corridor from Guilford to the Canada border is a scenic delight. You’ll see no billboards for Shoney’s or Huddle House or any towering sign for cheap gas at a sprawling travel center. There’s only four Walmarts in Vermont (the fewest of any state in the country), and there’s a plethora of historic sites off virtually every exit.

Here’s a 160-mile loop that will take less than four hours to complete, but be prepared if nature calls. There are no rest areas between Brattleboro and Lebanon, N.H., and nary a porta-potty at the parking areas and weigh stations. The only option is to go in the woods, and you’ll quickly realize you’re not the first.

Otherwise, the drive is smooth sailing, provided you go on a weekday, a safe journey with gentle grades and wide sweeping turns.

Our destination is Route 12-A off of I-89 in Lebanon, but if you’re hungry, we can go two exits farther and stop at the King Arthur Bakery on Route 5 south and have a pecan sticky bun, almond croissant or a flaky Napoleon wedged with chocolate and custard. The shelves are filled with waffle and ginger bread mixes, and loyalty shoppers can buy English dishware by Denby and reap $10 for every $100 spent. 

Okay this isn’t the food section, so back in the car.

In the spring and summer, large billowing clouds create shadows that darken the mountain from light green to dark, and in early fall, the leafy canopy explodes into a swirl of red and orange.

The Brattleboro Bridge between Exits 2 and 3 is completed, but 20 miles farther at the Rockingham Bridge over the Williams River won’t be fixed until 2020. Travel is restricted to one lane in both directions, and delays are inevitable on weekends, but this is a weekday trip. If you see brake lights ahead, get off at Exit 5 (Westminster/Bellows Falls) and follow Route 5 north to the I-91 entrance near Springfield.

Unless it’s foggy, you’ll see Mount Ascutney at the 48-mile marker and the summit road to the top of the 3,144-foot mountain is off the next exit. During the Depression, work crews built what was to be Vermont’s first state park, and the granite toilet buildings and ranger’s quarters remain standing, together with camp sites and hiking trails. (The park closes for the season on October 16.)

Less than 25 miles north of Mount Ascutney at the 69-mile marker, we’ll bear right onto Interstate 89, cross the bridge over the Connecticut River and take an immediate right off Exit 20 onto Route 12-A South. 

Persevere through four stoplights and an ugly cluster of chain stores to where the road becomes Maxfield Parrish Highway. You’ll see a sign pointing to Kimball Union Academy, where defense attorney F. Lee Bailey graduated, together with three U.S. Senators.

Stay on Route 12-A past McNamara Dairy and Edgewater Farm to where the tree line clears and the road opens to a panoramic view of Mount Ascutney.

“There are always pretty girls on every city street,” said Maxfield Parrish, “but a man can’t step out of a subway and watch the clouds playing with Mount Ascutney.”

A native Philadelphian, Parrish was born in 1870 to Quaker parents. He studied in Paris, graduated from Haverford College in 1888 and honed his skills at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

In 1898, he moved to Vermont with his wife Lydia and produced graphic artwork from gift cards to Life Magazine covers, including a 1921 portrait of Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall enjoying a cup of tea.

Parrish died in 1966, and while several museums were opened in his honor, they didn’t survive. His fans make do by seeing the vistas that inspired his oil paintings of misty summer mornings and late winter afternoons, when the setting sun casts shadows over thick-trunked maple trees and snow-crusted rocks.

Traveling through the village of Plainfield proper, we pass the Blow-Me-Down Grange, the Blow-Me-Down Farm and Blow-Me-Down Mill, which is set in a gully near what was Woodrow Wilson’s summer home before World War I. 

A few feet from the road, a historical marker describes what had been a thriving artist’s enclave. Cornish Colony 1885-1935: “A group of artists, sculptors and musicians who joined the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and found the area a delightful place to live and work.”

Perhaps prompted by his artistic forebears, J.D. Salinger moved to Cornish in 1955, shortly after “Catcher in the Rye” was published. The house is now owned by Harry Bliss, a cartoonist for the New Yorker Magazine. Exiled author Aleksander Solzhenitsyn lived across the Connecticut River in Cavendish, Vt., but returned to Moscow and died there at age 89 in 2008.

We’ll briefly get off the state highway and onto Mill Road where a sign points to “Covered Bridge No. 23,” built in 1877, 89-feet-long and posted for six tons. The bridge abuts a faded white farmhouse where a big black dog with gray whiskers lies on the grass, too worn to bark or even stand.

A right-hand turn off the bridge leads us past faux colonial homes and pastures teeming with Queen Anne’s Lace to the Chase Cemetery on the corner of 12A. The small graveyard is surrounded by a 3-foot white picket fence and shaded by tall pines and maple trees that are likely as old as the people buried under the crooked tombstones:

 

Susanah,

Wife of

Abijah Williams

Died Dec. 12, 1857

 

Gideon Smith

Died July 19, 1834

Age 60

 

Plinny Pike

Died

Nov. 21, 1861

Age 71

 

Farther up the highway, a sign points to a narrow road leading to Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, where a tour guide tells us more than 40,000 visitors arrive each year.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens came to America from Dublin with his parents. In New York City, he studied classical art and literature, and became a talented and sought-after sculptor.

In 1885, he was commissioned to create a life-size sculpture of Abraham Lincoln. A friend encouraged him to come to Cornish where “there are many Lincoln-shaped men.” He found a resident to pose as Lincoln standing pensively next to a wood chair, looking down with his left hand grasping the lapel of his coat.

More than 100 of Saint-Gaudens’ artworks are on exhibit, and guided tours of his home and the grounds are conducted from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., seven days a week, until the end of October.

On Sept. 16, Saint-Gaudens will host its eighth annual Star Party when the public is invited to gaze through a variety of telescopes aimed at a variety of galaxies, planets and star clusters.

A few miles farther south, we round a bend and see the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge crossing the Connecticut River. It was built for $9,000 the year after the Civil War and repaired 120 years later for $4.45 million. The speed limit is 25 mph, and once we’re on the other side of the 450-foot structure, we’ll have crossed the longest covered bridge in the world.

In Windsor, we’ll take a right onto Route 5 past the Old Constitution House, “The birthplace of Vermont,” as it’s called. It was inside the Windsor Tavern that on July 8, 1777, a constitution was signed that established voting rights, authorized a public school system and made Vermont the first state to prohibit slavery. It’s open seven days a week from now until Oct. 15.

All good things must end, and a few miles farther ahead, we’ll arrive at the I-91 intersection. We can go south and get home before dark, or go back to King Arthur’s for another chocolate eclair.

It’s still early, so what the heck, why not?

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations for decades in the Pioneer Valley.