Let me say that again. Whew. I am home, finally, after an almost three-week trip up to New England and back again. In that time I took a two-day novel research trip to Massachusetts, attended my last residency as a graduate student in the MFA in Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, graduated (hallelujah!), and traveled back down the Eastern seaboard from Montpelier, Vermont to Brevard, North Carolina–a literary and history pilgrimage I’ll never forget.
In other news, we’re lucky we made it back alive. Five nights in the same B&B and hotel room as a 4 year-old and 14 month-old is enough to make even Super Girl say, “I give!”
As promised, I’m going to detail the trip here. Since I already talked about most of Day 1 of my Literary Pilgrimage, now it’s on to the the second half of Day 1 and Day 2. Buckle up: I ain’t scared to pack a lot in.
“Life is my college. May I graduate well, and earn some honors!” ~ Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott
So, after arriving at Orchard House (home of the Alcotts, and where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women), I scooted inside just in time to join the last tour of the day. Our guide: a delightfully warm and interesting woman with an encyclopedic knowledge of Orchard House and its inhabitants–and also an obvious love of the Alcott family.
Speaking of love: One of the first things I noticed upon entering the kitchen of Orchard House, with its wide, wood-planked floors, original oven, and low-hanging ceilings, was an overwhelming sense that this was a house full of love. The feeling followed me throughout the tour, settled in around my shoulders like a well-worn quilt made by my grandmother.
Orchard House is a wonder. It dates, historians believe, to the late 1600s, and is full of the Alcott family’s personal possessions, including paintings, clothing, and furniture. (The Alcotts lived there from 1858-1877; Louisa wrote Little Women at a desk her father built just for her in the home in 1868.) The Alcotts, who were dear friends of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, were at the forefront of education. They fostered a love of learning, art and imagination in their daughters. Huzzah!
One of the neatest things about this house is May Alcott’s bedroom. The youngest Alcott girl, May was an artist. Her parents encouraged her art, and let her draw over the doors, molding, and walls of her bedroom. Those drawings have been preserved and can still be seen today. On my tour, standing inches from them and smiling, I couldn’t help but think just how much and how little changes in this world. (I’d have taken pictures, but understandably, no photography is allowed inside.)
I left Orchard House and Concord and headed west, towards Hadley, where I checked into my hotel and literally flopped upon the king-sized bed that I had all to myself. I was supposed to write a newspaper column but had been having computer issues, and so I whipped out my map and planned my next day.
Day 2: A Visit to Emily’s House, a Reunion, and up Mount Holyoke
I had big things planned for Day 2. Mainly, I was there to research for my second novel, a work-in-progress set in the year before the Civil War in SC and Massachusetts. My goals for being in the towns of Hadley, Holyoke and Amherst were to research in the Archives at Mt. Holyoke College–my protagonist in Novel 2 is a student at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary in 1860–visit the Emily Dickinson Museum, and meet up with a dear-writer friend whom I hadn’t seen since 2007.
First, a bump in the road. My sporty little white rental car (which I’d taken to calling Kit; there are no good
reasons for this–I just like the name Kit) had low air pressure in the right rear tire. Long story short: No other rentals in the area, had to take it to the tire place, turned out two tires had nails, the only tires available the next town over. And scene.
No, really. That’s how it happened. I was stuck in my hotel room until 11 a.m., when I’d planned to be be-bopping about Amherst and Holyoke all morning. But, it was fixed, and I moved on. Had a lovely visit to the Dickinson Museum, which consists of the gardens/grounds of the Dickinson estate, two houses–including the one Emily lived in and the one built for her brother and his wife by their father. There’s a lot of renovation work being done there, which was interesting. The tour guide was another good one; my guess is the woman is literally a Dickinson scholar, she was that well-versed. (Get it? Well versed?)
I didn’t spend as much time with the Dickinsons as I had with the Alcotts. Emily has always been a bit of a
Looking back at the Dickinson House from the gardens
mystery to me, and I like that about her. I did have a fabulous, nearly private tour. It was just the tour guide, me, and a couple and their daughter, from England. The daughter was lovely, the mother gorgeous, and the father looked like a slightly aging British rock star. They all sported Chuck Taylors, and they were warm and friendly. Which made them so very cool.
After this, I grabbed a sandwich in Amherst at the Black Sheep Deli at the suggestion of my writer-friend, a local. The sandwich was delicious, but the guy behind the counter looked at me as if I’d grown a third eyeball when I ordered. No lie: I had to repeat myself three different times. I guess my Southern accent threw him for a Yankee loop.
The archivist at Mt. Holyoke with whom I’d been corresponding wasn’t there when I’d dropped by the College–and really, it wasn’t her fault, since because of the car troubles I’d arrived much later than planned–so I wandered the campus. The Gothic architecture is really formal, a little dark and cool, but most of it was constructed after my protagonist would’ve been there. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get that writer’s jolt. My advisor at VCFA, Connie May Fowler, warned me things in my novel might take a little unexpected twist, and she was right. But more on that later.
I met up with a dear friend of mine in Holyoke, and we wandered a bit, considered hiking Mt. Holyoke but passed since New England was experiencing a record-breaking heat wave. My friend, Kate, and I had met back in 2007, when we were both writers-in-residence at the now defunct (sigh) Montana Artists Refuge. Basically, we were supposed to be writing but all we did was drive from wilderness area to wilderness area and hike snowy, dangerous trails. It was awesome.
Kate and I had a fabulous dinner in nearby Northampton, then busted out, despite a storm threatening, for a little 1600s town called Deerfield.
We arrived in Historic Deerfield right at dusk. Because of the
impending storm it felt more like night, and the street lamps were already on in the town. Deerfield was founded in the late 1600s, and walking through it is literally like walking through time–most of the houses are museums, and were built between 1730 – 1850. The place was attacked fairly frequently by local Indians, and played a bloody part in King Philip’s War. In 1704, an Indian raid took place in which 50 people were killed and over 100 marched off to captivity in Canada.
Suffice to say, when Kate and I walked those empty streets with our umbrellas, a gentle rain falling in the eerie quiet, it was palpably unsettling.
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Coming soon, Day 3: On to Montpelier & the Vermont College of Fine Arts!