Friday, 31 October 2014

Three States and Only One Police Incident!

Constantly travelling, it is difficult to tell whether the weather is changing due to the time of year, or due to the different climatic conditions in the area that you are visiting. Regardless, the weather during our last few days in Boston had been uncharacteristically good for the area at this time of year, tipping over 30°C on at least one day. Sadly this changed on the day that we pulled out of Ash’s driveway, and our drive to the coast was against the background of driving rain and grey skies in all directions. The drive to the end Cape Cod, whilst undoubtedly beautiful, seemed frivolous and unnecessary in view of our depleted budget and limited time in America, and so we decided to drive along the surrounding sections of coastline that didn’t take us so far out of our way. We had now agreed with our shipping agents to drop Jim off at Baltimore docks in thirty days time, and so we had begun, for the first time on this trip, to concern ourselves with how long we were spending in each place.

On the day that we left Boston, we drove along the east facing section of coast, immediately south of the city, starting in Hull, passing through Cohasset, and leaving the coast near Scituate. The coast is rugged and beautiful, and the small villages (and the weather) reminded me of those I might find on the coast of Dorset in the UK. Sadly the unrelenting rain put paid to any chance of a decent walk, an so instead we enjoyed the popular American pastime of driving to beautiful places, stopping for a few minutes without getting out of the vehicle, before continuing on to somewhere else. We spent the night in a quiet area of woodland, and in the morning continued south.

We spent the following day exploring the southern tip of the Massachusetts coastline, stopping for a while in Falmouth and Woods Hole near to the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Both were charming and remained surprisingly unspoilt by the tourist tat that fills the towns further down the cape.

In the afternoon we continued along the coast, before stopping in New Bedford where we spent the night. At around 2am we received our fifth police visit since leaving Canada; we spent a few minutes placating the officers with polite conversation and thankfully were allowed to spend the rest of the night in peace. In the morning we took a short stroll around the docks and town centre, but we were soon ready to move on again. New Bedford has an attractive historic centre, but it is clearly an active port, and like most port towns, it suffers aesthetically.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the city of Providence in Rhode Island, visiting the state capitol and the Browne College campus, and wandering around the grand city centre. Not wishing to endure another interrupted night and a conversation with a police officer at a time that I’d rather be asleep, we moved the truck in the evening to a local Walmart parking lot.

In the morning, not being adjacent to a park in which we could walk Boris, we looked on our map for a large area of green space, and drove the 30 miles to the Arcadia Management Area. It is difficult to assess when looking at a patch of green on our map, how it will turn out in real life. A patch of green is just as likely to be an area of impenetrable and undeveloped forest as it is to be a neatly manicured baseball field. The Arcadia Management Area turned out to be a large expanse of forest and lakes, covered in a massive network of well signed and maintained hiking trails. We easily found a lakeside trailhead from which we could hike, and managed to tire Boris out far more thoroughly than is possible in a city park.

Later in the morning we continued west along the coast, arriving in New Haven, Connecticut in the early afternoon. We hadn’t even finished reversing into our chosen parking spot, when we were approached by a passer-by, curious about our truck. The person we met turned out to be Doug, a great guy who worked at the local fire station, and having chatted for less than five minutes he offered to let us park overnight in the station car park. I have heard of round-the-world cyclists relying on the generosity of the international firefighting community to provide them with a place to pitch their tent and chain their bike, but this was the first time we had been on the receiving end of this generosity. The weekend staff in the fire station were all as welcoming as Doug, and we were offered more hospitality than we felt comfortable accepting.

Our first day in New Haven was marred by torrential rain. We visited the fantastic, and free, Yale Gallery of British Art until it closed, but it was still raining hard when we returned to the street and so we took the opportunity to hide in one of New Haven’s famous pizza restaurants. New Haven has one of the oldest Italian communities in America, and the city is famed for the quality of the pizzas on offer in the Little Italy area. We shunned the huge queues at Pepe’s and instead spent our money at Sally’s, where we ate until we were bloated and uncomfortable. The pizza was perfect, certainly as good as any I’ve eaten in England. We retired early to the truck, enjoying the comfort of having somewhere friendly and secure to park the truck, after having attracted so much police attention when we had parked on the street in this corner of America.

In the morning we drove with Doug to meet his family and grab some breakfast; Naomi and I having spent the night sleeping, and Doug having spent the night awake and on duty. After a great breakfast at a local café, we said our farewells, and once again we left having received more hospitality and kindness than we would ever be likely to receive in a similar situation in Europe; hoping to one day be able to return the benevolence. We drove back into New Haven, and spent the day walking around the historic and charming Yale campus, and exploring the absurdly well-endowed, and also free, Yale Art Gallery. The quality of the art and artefacts on display in the gallery was astonishing, including everything from 3,000 year old Assyrian wall carvings, to abstract paintings, via antique furniture and Sumatran religious artefacts. In almost any other country in the world, the pieces would take pride of place in a national museum in the capital.

In the evening, we drove out to East Rock, a large park surrounding a red stone cliff that affords excellent views of over new Haven. We took a good walk around the park, and watched the sunset over the city and the Long Island Sound.

We spent the night adjacent to the park, and in the morning we continued our drive east and south along the coast, in the direction of New York City.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

How to Attract Police Attention in Massachusetts

Leaving Albany, there were two reasonably direct routes that we could have taken to reach Boston. The fastest route would no doubt have been the I-90 interstate running through the south of Massachusetts, but it is a toll road all the way from Albany, and as well as being expensive, would no doubt have taken us on a route bypassing anything that the west of the state has to offer. Instead we chose to drive down Highway 2, a scenic road that threads its way through a mountainous area at the juncture of New York, Vermont and Massachusetts, before winding through the forested hills that continue to the edge of Boston. The section of the highway on the eastern edge of New York State was particularly steep and twisting, and the slow crawl upwards seemed to continue for longer than the relatively tame altitudes would suggest possible. We stopped for lunch in the picturesque college town of Williamstown, before driving one of the most scenic sections of the road, known as the Mohawk Trail.

Not wishing to drive into Boston during rush hour, we stopped for the night on the outskirts of Fitchburg, electing to complete the remaining 40 miles into Boston in the morning, outside of peak traffic hours. Our night outside a quiet suburban park passed uneventfully, but whilst sitting down to breakfast the following morning, we got a knock on the door from a pair of local police officers. Until re-entering America from Canada, we had managed to drive around 10,000 miles in fourteen states without any unwanted attention from the police, but in the following two weeks we had provoked alarmed responses on three occasions.

On this occasion, the police had been called by someone concerned that our truck looked suspicious, and had been dispatched to check that we were not engaged in anything shady. Even after checking our passports, running our plates, and asking a number of questions, the officers seemed reluctant to leave, and I suspect that they had doubts about whether we were being honest. The police advised us that throughout our stay on the east coast, our truck was likely to attract attention from the law, and explained that Jim’s appearance could be construed as suspicious in view of the high terrorist threat level. I can appreciate the nervousness resulting from the attacks in Boston and New York in (relatively) recent history, but I struggle to see how a large foreign plated motorhome can raise suspicion. I’m not aware of any significant terrorist attack in living memory that has been perpetrated by people not trying their utmost to blend into their surroundings, and certainly can’t see what a terrorist would want with a suburban playing field and dog park. Regardless, we were told that it would be in our interest to warn the police in whichever towns we were visiting, that they should not be surprised if they received concerned calls about our truck.

After finishing our breakfast, we returned to Highway 2, and drove the remaining distance into Boston. Knowing that Boston’s small streets and congested centre would make parking difficult, we elected to find a place to park outside of the centre. Partly to be near to a friend we were visiting, and partly to be situated near to a metro station, we chose to park alongside a playing field in the suburb of Medford. The one-way street was wide enough for us not to cause an obstruction, the neighbours seemed interested in the truck and happy for us to stay, and the street had no parking restrictions posted. As recommended we called the local police station, and spoke to an officer who seemed to think that we would be of no concern. It was therefore a surprise that on our third day parked in Medford, we were ordered to move immediately by two police officers who were passing by. The officers were friendly and polite, and were extremely impressed with the truck and our travels, but still insisted that we move immediately out of their district. Thankfully we had the generosity of our friend Ash to fall back on, and we spent the remainder of our stay in Boston, parked on his driveway.

We ended up spending more than a week visiting Boston and Cambridge, and occupied our time visiting the major tourist attractions, walking around the various neighbourhoods, and eating and drinking well. In particular we ate some great seafood at Legal Sea Food and the Barking Crab, both of which seem enormously popular with locals and tourists.

After a week of the normal overindulgences that seem to go hand in hand with our time in major cities, we were ready to engage in some more wholesome activities, and so we bade farewell to Ash and his unreservedly welcoming housemates, and headed for the coastline south of the city.

The Catskills

Unlike other large expanses of wilderness area in America, the Catskills Park is not designated as a National Park or National Forest. On the whole this doesn’t matter, the area is still covered in a great network of well-maintained trails and trailhead parking lots, and is sufficiently protected to preserve vast areas of unspoilt beauty, but it doesn’t benefit from some of the things which come with ownership by the national parks or forest services. The main issue for visitors to the park, is that there are no visitor centres or rangers to whom you can go for information. Knowing that this would cause us problems when trying to find good places to hike and camp, we bought one of the excellent National Geographic maps of the area from an outdoor shop in Ithaca. The map, when combined with a look on the internet for good hikes in the Catskills, gave us a good idea of the areas with the best hiking and scenery.

There are huge areas of protected public land across the Catskills Park, but all of the five designated wilderness areas, and all of the tallest mountains are in the east side of the park. Unfortunately we were limited in how long we could spend in the area as we had to be in Albany in three days’ time so that Jamie could catch a flight back to Toronto, and so we drove straight through the west side of the Catskills area. We made our first stop at the Rider Hollow trailhead adjacent to the Big Indian Wilderness area, arriving late in the day after a slow but beautiful drive from Ithaca. The trailhead was not signposted at all from the main road, and it was only the marker on or map that told us that there was anything at the end of the narrow road that we crawled down from the tiny town of Hardenburgh. Grateful that we had a map to guide us, we parked in a tiny gravel parking lot nestled in a valley. After making some lunch we had only three hours of daylight left, but not wishing to waste our first day in the park, we started on a circular hike up one side of 1,100m high Balsam Mountain, and down the other.

It felt great to be back in the mountains again, giving our lungs a work-out, and despite the summit of Balsam Mountain being more than three times lower than many of the mountains that we had hiked up in Colorado, the view from the top was stunning, and the feeling of isolation just as strong. Thankfully the coloured trail markers were easy to find throughout our hike, as the sun was well below the horizon by the time we returned to the truck, and darkness was minutes away.

Tent camping is allowed throughout the Catskills wilderness areas, provided tents are pitched at least 150 feet from a trail, road or water source. However with no tents, and the temperatures at night getting close the freezing, we of course elected to sleep in Jim. The Catskills is not blessed with a network of logging or fire tracks like other expanses of wilderness in America, and so there were few places for us to park overnight where we would not be in the way. I suspect that sleeping overnight in a vehicle is not permitted at trailheads, but the parking lot we had stopped in was remote enough that we were not in any ones way, and so we spent our first night in the Catskills parked in the solitude of the Rider Hollow trailhead.