Since both my wife Polly and I are Capricorns, we tend to plan our trips carefully. No nasty surprises, thank you.
But they come anyway so why not just wander? Let the serendipity flow. That was our guiding principle once we left graduation at Cornell University. For the most part, it worked.
Polly did want to see the area in Connecticut where her mother was born and grew up, so I suggested we get there by way of the north shore of Long Island Sound. We cut off on State 34 east of Danbury and angled down past Yale in New Haven to catch 95E along Long Island Sound. We stopped for a lobster salad at Constantines in Niantic where we had a good view of the Sound and also the Amtrak line between Boston and New York which runs just behind the restaurant. Then we continued east toward Mystic.
Id wanted to tour Mystic Seaport but the restored whaling port closed early and I couldnt persuade the ticket seller to give us a discount on their admission rate for the remaining 40 minutes of their day. We settled for browsing in the gift shop and peering over the fence at the old sailing ships and waterfront. The centerpiece of the port is the three-masted bark "Charles W. Morgan," built at New Bedford, Mass. in 1841. It sailed for 80 years and is now the sole survivor of the 19th century Yankee whaling fleet. We also drove around Mystic and Stonington to see their Colonial houses and churches.
The next morning, Friday, June 4, we went to the Navy Submarine Museum in Groton to tour the USSN Nautilus the worlds first atomic sub, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Using recorded tour phones, we moseyed through the boat, learning interesting facts about it. For example, Nautilus was the first sub with stairs as well as ladders which made it easy to explore. We got an extra treat when we saw a tug bringing an active sub (perhaps the attack sub Memphis) up the Thames River to New London after a patrol at sea.
The museum was also excellent, with displays on submarines all the way back to David Bushnells "Turtle" during the Revolutionary War. Whats more, its free!
We spent the rest of the morning driving through Mohegan territory. (Fenimore Cooper was wrong; the latest not last of the Mohegans are alive and well and have a casino resort and performance venue in central Connecticut!) That afternoon, after a steamed cheeseburger at Blarneys Pub in Willimantic, we explored the town and Mansfield Center where Pollys mother, Daisy Cerveny, was born and grew up.
Wed expected to spend two days or more in the area, but Polly had difficulty finding any traces of the Cervenys, so we decided to move on. We drove to Hartford Saturday where we spent four hours visiting the Mark Twain House and Museum.
The house is a 19-room mansion decorated by Louis Comfort Tiffany where the Clemens family lived from 1874-1891. Here, in a top floor, combination billiard room and office, Sam worked on seven masterpieces, including "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." (Most of the actual writing was done at Quarry Farm near Elmira, N.Y.) Guided tours conduct you through the lavishly decorated rooms.
The museum, which opened in November, 2003, features a video on Mark Twain by noted documentary-maker Ken Burns, changing exhibits about Twains world, a cafeteria and a gift shop. Admission (which includes the house tour) ranges from $8 to $16 and parking is free. Its open year-round from 9:30 to 5:30; closed on Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years (also on Tuesdays January through April).
The House and Museum are on Farmington Avenue west of downtown Hartford in a neighborhood called Nook Farm, where writers and reformers lived in the 19th century. Just across a broad green lawn is the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Toms Cabin," which can also be visited but is a separate admission.
Tucked away in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts is the small village of Stockbridge, where Americas favorite illustrator Norman Rockwell lived the last 25 years of his life. From its people and buildings, he chose the images for his famous "Saturday Evening Post" and "Look" magazine covers.
West of town is the Norman Rockwell Museum, which houses the largest and most significant paintings by Rockwell and also the studio where he created many of them. The Museum is open year-round; but the studio, which sits off by itself, is open May to October. A single admission is charged; and parking is free.
Polly and I visited the site on a rainy Sunday June 6 and had the studio and its docent all to ourselves. Hanging from the studio walls are hats, helmets and other artifacts Rockwell collected. We also learned one of his secrets: he would photograph his subjects, usually Stockbridge residents, in the proper pose, then project slides of the pictures on a reflective window shade over the east window of the studio in order to keep the image large and clear enough.
We also learned that Rockwell had a connection with Mark Twain. In 1935, he illustrated editions of Twains "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn." His were the depictions of Twain characters that I grew up with!
After our visit to the Museum, we stepped into a Rockwell painting by eating lunch at a cafe on the main street of Stockbridge. (He painted it as the shop with the Yule tree in the second floor window for his famous "Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas.)
Despite the drizzly weather, we really enjoyed our visit to Rockwells America. We felt wed reconnected to a better time.
However, the final segment of our trip would resurrect far different eras of America.
NEXT: THE MOHAWK VALLEY AND THE ERIE CANAL