In the early hours of Saturday morning we crossed the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge into New York State. Our goal was, as Arenda put it, modifying a quote from a famous book, to “tread the path of literature that doth to Portsmouth lead.” That path was the path of the Ox-Cart Man, who many years ago carted the handmade goods of his family to the seaside market in Portsmouth, where he sold them to buy supplies for the following year.
It isn’t clear from the story to which of the eight American Portsmouths the Ox-Cart Man walks, so there was some contextual geographical work to be done. In the first place, the period is too early to be happening anywhere other than the Atlantic coast. This cuts the number of candidates in half. The town in the story is a sizeable market town, so this excludes the small North Carolina settlement. It must be admitted that each of the three remaining cities, in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Virginia, do match the scant criteria from the story. I decided against the Virginia Portsmouth, though, because parts of the story are quite snowy. That, and there’s a decidedly New England-like feel to things. I also decided against the Rhode Island Portsmouth because the Ox-Cart Man journeys across mountainous terrain, and there are no mountains in the vicinity of Rhode Island. This left the New Hampshire Portsmouth, and this is where we went.
You cross New York State on the I-90, one of the handful of interstates that crosses the whole of the fruited plain from sea to shining sea. You would begin at Seattle and end at Boston, or vice verse, of course, but neither of the termini is significant to this trip. That being said, there are stretches in the western half of New York that remind you of the drive from Vancouver south to Seattle. The Cayuga River, for example, looks a lot like the Snohomish, and the stretches of farmland aren’t all that different from the Skagit River valley. So you do need to remind yourself that you’re ten states away and driving in the wrong direction.
There’s a Lockheed Martin complex at Syracuse, and as you drive past the radar domes, army trucks, and weapons plants you get a sense of SR-71 awesomeness and think to yourself, ’Merica. This is also the point at which the kids start protesting, having been up since 4:30, and when the first three songs of U2’s The Unforgettable Fire don’t calm them down, you resign yourself to readjusting your auditory comfort levels. Eventually, though, at the height of your ten-month-old daughter’s rather emotional appeal, your three-year-old son dozes off. Your daughter realizes that she’s lost her audience, and gives herself up to sleep as well. There’s peace and quiet, and you go back to thinking about D.A.R.Y.L.
Driving Highway 7 northeast from Albany into Vermont feels vaguely familiar, as you’ve driven it once before, on your honeymoon. Although it was six years ago there are things you remember quite clearly, like the “Home of Uncle Sam” sign in Troy, New York, and the following view from a Highway 9 lookout in Vermont:
You get to your campsite in Exeter, New Hampshire, some thirteen hours after you left Hamilton. The drive itself was 9 ½ hours, but there were the necessary lunch, dinner, and playground stops that are all unspoken conditions of the deal you made with your kids. It’s a private campground, so your neighbours have built decks around their camp trailers and they show up on the camp map as “seasonal.” You ended up with your tent in the seasonal section, but it was the last available site in the campground. All things considered, we were camping in the north woods, and you’re a boor if you complain about that:
The campground was twenty minutes from the Atlantic coast. Arenda had recently visited the Art Gallery of Hamilton and viewed an exhibit of seaside paintings by William Blair Bruce. She remarked how such plain features as ocean and sky can still be so evocative, and we were blessed to behold this beauty ourselves:
We visited the Strawbery Banke museum. Portsmouth was once called Strawbery Banke, spelt like that, and a number of original buildings have been preserved:
From the days when men knew how to do more than just push buttons:
The current town of Portsmouth:
A few miles south of Portsmouth is the beach town of Hampton. Our tour guide in Portsmouth’s Moffat-Ladd House called Hampton “ticky-tacky,” which by her expression was clearly meant pejoratively. Here it is as the night-helm descends: