Monday, October 24, 2005

Moonlighting in Vermont

Another weekend, another road trip. This time up to the North-Eastern United States to see the Fall colours.

Day 0

No flights to catch this time. What a relief. Sitting in the NJ Transit train, chuckling over the New Yorker article on Sarah Silverman (who is a goddess in every sense of the word!). Get to Newark Penn station at exactly 7:06 pm (as scheduled). Feel very good about myself. Such accuracy. Such pin-point precision.

Forty minutes, one 16 oz cup of coffee, one Snickers bar, two tours of Newark Penn station, six suspicious glances from station police and three almost stumbles over running brats later, I'm still at the station. Very pained. This waiting at airports / stations thing is starting to take on the dimensions of a tradition, of self-definition. "Grandpa, grandpa, what did you do in the Great War? I stood outside the station and waited." Very pained (did I say that already?). Consider strangling V and T when they finally arrive, Beethoven blaring blithely from the car stereo. Actually start to pull out belt of raincoat as they wax eloquent about awesome South Indian meal they had and which, it seems, was the reason for their delay. Then discover that they've brought me some food. Thoughts of homicide disappear amid loud munching sounds from the back seat as I make steady progress through a monster helping of chicken biryani. It's a robust and bracing biryani, the kind where the cook believes that liberal quantities of chilli powder are a valid substitute for more delicate seasoning. Half way through the meal I discover that V and T haven't bothered to bring any water. My mouth is burning with the spice. I consider sticking my tongue out of the window. I think I may have abandoned the strangling idea too hastily. Then I make the important discovery that the best way to deal with spicy food is to have more of it, thus temporarily drowning out the burning sensation. This means that I now have justification to stuff my face further, carefully ignoring the nagging thought at the back of my head that suggests that this technique may not be entirely sustainable.

Three hours of driving and we're in Saratoga Springs. The temperature outside is now about 38 F (3 C). And it's going to get colder as the trip progresses. Begin to realise that one light raincoat and a thin sweater may not be quite sufficient. Oh well.

Day 1

Off at dawn. Starting from Saratoga Springs we drive up to Lake George, where a winding, tree-lined road skirts the edge of the lake. The first light of morning shimmers on the water. All around us tiny private roads dart off into the forest, like shy animals taking cover. It's early still, and the landscape seems empty and waiting, like a set carefully laid out, in preparation for the day's performance. There is a sense of anticipation in the air here, as if a great battle hung in the balance, and these tiny townships waited for news, waited for the armies of Fall to come marching home, their livery glistening in the sun.

We stop at a tiny cafe at the lake's edge, grab a quick breakfast of bagels and muffins and scrambled eggs. In the quiet of this village morning, our enthusiastic urgency seems alien, as if we were intruders from some planet where time ran faster. We finish our coffees, head out. The road is a temptress now, promising breathtaking vistas of the lake at every corner, then affording us little more than a flash of water, before drawing a veil of trees across the sight. As we head north, the colour of the leaves changes reluctantly, like the colouring of a bruise. Before we are quite aware of it, the leaves around us have changed from light green to yellow and then to dark orange. Here and there, a tree explodes into the colour of flame, it colours vivid against the green of its compatriots.

Half an hour later, we are at Lake Champlain. We park our car, go down to the lake's edge. The water is transparent here, the stillness at the bottom seems other-wordly, ghost like, as though the spirits of those who were absent rose to the surface to greet us. Behind us, far away in the distance, the Adirondack mountains (such a beautiful name) rise blue into the mist. We drive along the edge of the lake, accompanied by a single railroad track that measures the quiet dignity of its parallels against the great stretches of open water.

On our way we stumble upon Ausable Chasm - a sudden rift in the land where sheer walls of rock plunge hundreds of feet to the bottom of a narrow gorge hollowed out by the river. The landscape here is almost alpine. Waterfalls pour themselves into the gorge, graceful as swans. Rainbows dance in the rising spray. We walk across a quaint stone bridge and look down on a watermill, looking for all the world like a tiny castle, completely unphased by the fury of the river tearing into the rock all around it. The trees here are golden and orange and flaming red. It's a scene straight out of a fairy tale.

Further north, we stop at a sweet little roadside bakery, pick up fresh scones and cookies (and some of the best Cappucino I've had in a long time). The stereo is playing Bismillah Khan. The shehnai swoops and peaks with the control of a true master; as we listen, the music takes over, we close our eyes, hang suspended in its shrill, swooning universe, in the endless labyrinth of its variations.

Our drive north ends at Rouse's Point - which is on the border between the US and Canada. Here a great bridge shoots across the water in a low arc, taking us to the islands that lie in the centre of Lake Champlain. Gulls wheel around us as we get off on the edge of the lake, practise skipping stones across its surface. Our road leads down through these islands now, stunning views appear on either side. The sun is out in earnest, and on both sides of us the lake gleams a shimmering blue. White clouds stretch away into the distance. Small, low meadows of brilliant green stretch away on either side of the road, their edges lined with trees that have turned gold and crimson with the Fall. This is a landscape that Gauguin could have painted.

Coming down from the Champlain Islands, we stop at Burlington for lunch. With the nose of a true-bred bloodhound we make our way to an intersection that boasts cuisine from all across the world - Indian, Caribbean, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Thai - there's even an Irish pub! We pick Thai.

An hour later we're headed out to the Green Mountain National Forest. The stereo plays Gundecha Bandhu now, the formal lines of the dhrupad folded carefully together, the sound as mellow as the landscape we are driving through. Distances are larger here, the world has opened up. The highway is lined with a myriad colours. Everywhere we look, one tree or another flounces forward, like a young girl at a wedding, showing off her finery. The scene dazzles with excess.

Halfway down, we decide to take a small side road into the forest. It is the best decision we make the entire trip. Here the fall colours close in, so that we drive through tunnels of flaming yellows and golds, falling leaves drifting lazily through the air towards our windshield. There are not individual trees now, there is just this blur of vivid colour that we exist in, the light exploding electric all around us. We are away from the highway now, signs of civilisation have died out [1], there is no traffic. This is El Dorado, land of Gold. As we drive through the flaming forest, I think of Hopkins: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God./ It will flame out, like shining from shook foil".

By the time we get to the other side of the mountains though, the richness of the foliage has died out. The trees here are stripped, almost bare. (I think of Frost: "The desolate, deserted trees / The faded earth, the heavy sky / These beauties she so truly sees / She thinks I have no eye for these / And vexes me for reasons why"). The clouds have turned darker now, and as we exit the forest and make our way towards New Hampshire, a light drizzle begins to fall. We drive for a while along the banks of the Black River. The scene would be beautiful if it weren't raining - the wide, swift river flowing relentlessly forward, its banks lined with maroon and crimson trees.

By the time we cross over into New Hampshire night has fallen. We drive to Concord, listening to Jasraj sing Om Namo Bhagwate Vasudeva for twenty five minutes, only to find ourselves in a drab, wind-swept town. The temperature is in the mid-30s now (1-2 C), the rain is an endless drizzle - it's a miserable evening. We manage to find an Indian restaurant (thanks mostly to T's eagle eyes), so feel honour bound to eat there even though they have run out of dal and the dishes, when they come, are all bathed in the same violently red sauce. Meal over, we retire to our hotel, turn in, planning to make an early start the next day.

Day 2

Sunday does not start well. It's raining buckets now and it's shiveringly cold outside. As we drive out of Concord, the sun refuses to put in an appearance, so that we end up driving through what would have been some truly breath-taking scenery, but now seems faded, dull. Breakfast is coffee and doughnuts at the local Dunkin Donuts - the only thing we can find open at 7 o clock in the morning on a Sunday. As the rain dies out, we make a few desultory stops on the way, pausing to admire the odd stream or a scenic panorama, but our heart isn't really in it. Every where we go, the world seems flooded this morning, small brooks run foaming at the mouth, fields and meadows lie sodden and water-logged. Small, anonymous lakes swell their pregnant bellies at us. By the time we get back to Vermont, the suspicion is beginning to grow on us that the day is turning out to be, literally, a washout.

Fortunately, Vermont has some surprises to offer. As we head into some high country, we are amazed to see a thin layer of snow covering the ground. This is fresh snow, it shines white and glorious from the earth (I think of Frost again: "And the ground almost all covered up with snow / But a few weeds and stubble showing last") and lies lightly upon the branches of the trees. The contrast is thrilling - all around us the gold and orange of the fall leaves underline the blank purity of the snow, while higher up in the mountains the snowflakes lie sprinkled over the tops of the pines like frosting on a cake, so that the entire picture reminds one of illustrations from Christmas Card. Here and there a small lake breaks through the forest, affording us sacred glimpses of winter wonderlands, the inverted image of a log cabin set between the pines reflected in a lake as still as a mirror. The land here has a palimpsest like quality, it is as though we have chanced upon the re-writing of the seasons.

We stop at a high point, make our way gingerly through the freshly fallen snow (flakes drift down around us, the temperature is below freezing now) to look out on the great valley spreading below us and the mountains crouched in the distance, bracing themselves for winter. This is a particularly fascinating sight because it is entirely unexpected - as our shivering bodies in their thin coats bear witness, we did not expect to see snow this early in the year. Coming down from the hills, Sarah Vaughan sings Moonlight in Vermont on the stereo. There is the same magic in the air now, the same sense of something tranquil and drifting and idyllic.

By the time we get down to the plains the rain has stopped and the sky is lighter though still overcast. As we drive towards Bennington, through alleys lined with golden trees that wind through sparse, puritan little hamlets, past little country graveyards and small monuments to the dead of many different wars, I am reminded of Lowell:

On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

At Bennington, a massive 306' stone obelisk rises defiantly into the cloudy sky, dominating the landscape with its presence. Past it, as if finally liberated from the tyranny of the hills, the land opens out into great fields of dark, brooding green. Spectacular vistas roll away on either side of us, great breathing plains of grass, from which low hills rise like the crest of some sleeping animal, their trees feathered with an infinity of colour. This is the scene as Pisarro would have painted it, or Seurat - the foliage rich and deep and textured, like a tapestry of painstaking colour.

It is impossible to describe in words, how exquisite these colours are - the very range of shades is enough to dazzle you. From the lightest of greenish yellows, to sunny blonde and flaming gold, and on to blazing orange and delicately veined crimson and brooding maroon. Here and there, we catch snatches of violet, of magenta. Some trees seem made entirely of brush strokes, others have the delicate weblike complexity of something structured and infinitely branching, still others have the dense, almost opaque presence of something stamped into the air itself. Now and then there is that rare tree where the leaves look as if the sunlight had simply stuck to them, so that the leaves are both green and fiery red at the same time.

Our drive up north through Vermont brings us back to Lake Champlain. This time we cross over at Crown Point where a historic old fort still stands. We wander around the fort for a while, admiring the contrast of its sparse, almost skeletal structure against the lush green of the meadows around and the sizzling orange of the foliage on the distant hills. There is a bitter wind coming off the lake here, the cold cuts into us like a knife. By the time we get back to the car, our teeth are chattering, and we are beginning to understand where the expression 'cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey' comes from.

T and V have a severe case of deja vu by now. Apparently they drove through this part of the country exactly a year ago on another fall colours trip. When they see the same Subway they ate at the last time around, they gag in protest so that we end up eating undercooked pasta and some really crummy sandwiches in a pub somewhere in upstate New York. It is time to head back to New York now. We hit the interstate and set off back. It has been a good trip all in all - the weather has not been the best, but we've seen some wonderful sights and have a pleasant, if not overwhelming sense of satisfaction. We sit back and prepare to relax on the long drive home.
Nature, however has other plans. Just outside Albany the sky finally clears up and we begin to see the first hints of sunshine. As we look around us now, we realise that some of the richest, most spectacular fall colours have been waiting for us right here, on the I-87 down to New York city. The trouble is that we're tired now, and also a little jaded. As the stereo plays the third movement to Beethoven's 9th and the sun comes streaming through the clouds, we exert ourselves to admire the the kaleidoscopic wonders flashing past on either side, but the glory of the sight leaves no real impression. The sky is gorgeous though. As the clouds disappear, thin patches of blue wear through the cloud cover, and you can actually see each individual sunbeam streaming down from heaven. The effect is transcendent, almost biblical.

Three hours of driving and we're within striking distance of New York City. That's when the jams begin. Stranded in a glacier of traffic, we crawl forward at the pace of a snail - it takes us 45 minutes to travel a distance of ten miles. By the time we get to Manhattan we're burnt out, exhausted.

V and T head home. For me, though, the journey is still not over. I still have a two and a half hour trip back to Philly to make. I get to Penn Station, grab a muffin and a large cappucino for dinner. The station is really crowded - the frequency of trains is really low, and there are loads of people heading back to the suburbs after a weekend in NYC. I sit on the floor, my back to a pillar, my legs stretched out, listening to my iPod and watching the people go by. Couples holding hands, tired looking executives, their ties loosened, clearly frustrated with having spent the day working, college students with large backpacks headed back to their dorms, the occassional traveller, strolley in tow, looking hopelessly lost. The station hums like a great machine, alive with the intricate and interlocking gears of humanity. A pigeon flaps down to the floor in front of me. It does not belong here, it has flown in by mistake and now flutters around anxiously, trying to find a way out. I feel a terrible sense of kinship with the pigeon. When the platform is announced, I get up slowly, walk down to where the train waits, go all the way to the end of the platform and climb in. As I sink into my seat, Louis Armstrong is singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. I am ready to head back home.


[1] The one thing that's painful about the North East is how densely populated it is. It's almost impossible to get away from signs of civilisation.

[2] As you've probably figured out by now, the trip was a major Indian Classical fest as well - this is all thanks to T who's been loading copious amounts Hindustani and Carnatic classical on his iPod and felt that he had to show off.


TDREC said...

I am insulted that you did not mention my singing along with Jasraj, Gundechas, Girija, Bhimesen and Dagars.

I don't know about you, but I enjoyed that particular aspect a lot.

I guess all great performers have to go through the process of contending with philistine pillow stuffers.

Heh Heh said...

Go on this way, my friend, and you will soon be found breaking off into Carnatic vocals in the subway, much like you know who. Be prepared for the "I'm not with him" calls then.

What next? air-mridangam??

Falstaff said...

tdrec: My apologies. For those of you who may be interested, let me say that tdrec is an artist to watch (preferably through a pair of high power binoculars, with cotton stuffed in your ears), an up and coming (and, as Best Western call centre employees will vouch, exceedingly long) name whose rendition of virtually any raga (preferably accompanied by a pillow stuffed firmly into his mouth) is liable to move strong men to tears (and that's even when he hasn't been eating garlic spaghetti).

meditativerose said...

sigh ... I wonder how a nice girl like me ends up associating with psycho freaks like you guys ...

though hwsnbf, I think tdrec's very much a wannabe psycho ... won't be breaking into song in public anytime soon .. esp given his impending descent into marriagedom ;)

Mrudula said...

Wonderful! I love your trip.

Heh Heh said...

nice (nīs) pronunciation
adj., nic·er, nic·est.

1. Pleasing and agreeable in nature: had a nice time.
2. Having a pleasant or attractive appearance: a nice dress; a nice face.
3. Exhibiting courtesy and politeness: a nice gesture.
4. Of good character and reputation; respectable.
5. Overdelicate or fastidious; fussy.

While I might, in a good mood, even agree that some of these definitions might be applied to you without distorting reality too much, one of them certainly does not apply. Guess which one.

Hint: It's in italics

Falstaff said...

HWSNBF: Pleasing and agreeable in nature? Pleasant or attractive appearance? Exhibiting courtesty or politeness? You've got to be kidding me.

Now definition 5 - that I agree applies.

absolutely clueless said...

wat!!!! overdelicate!!!!
have u never seen her eat?!?!?!?!?!

Falstaff said...

Clueless: Good point. Right, strike that one off as well.

meditativerose said...

Now now Falstaff ... you shouldn't be jealous just because HWSNBF has better taste and judgement when it comes to women than you do ;)

oh wait ...

anyway, HWSNBF ... all the definitions don't need to apply, only one does :)

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