Saturday, 4 August 2012

Where the Pioneers Ended Up.

Up early with the White Mountains on our doorstep. Bob had already made a positive start to the day, the suckling piglet had been stuck on the spit and all was in full preparation for his daughter's wedding which was happening in the huge barn his grandfather had built across from our lodge.

We decided it was best to get out early and so we headed for Peggy's Pancake Parlour just up the valley in Sugar Hill for a maple syrup covered, coconut, blueberry and walnut infused start to the day. We met Polly's daughter Nancy, who, now in her late eighties, still drifts around the restaurant telling customers stories and checking on their well being.

'In the depression my father Wilfred, who everybody knew as Sugar Bill needed to find a way of selling his syrup' she explained 'so he started to offer as many pancakes as you can eat for 50 cents, and that way people began to get a taste for his product.'

The start up scheme worked and eighty years later people travel from all over New England for an astonishing breakfast; there's regularly a half hour wait for a place at one of the communal tables.

Sated we headed back down Franconia Notch to the Flume Gorge - a gorgeous three mile hike following the wildly flowing Pemigeswasset river through shaded groves and past still alluring pools. New Hampshire has a more rugged feel compared with Massachusetts and it's no surprise to hear that in the late nineteenth century Boston socialites would regularly travel north to have their photographs taken in front of the many beauty spots found around the Notch.

For the longest time the gorge was home to the Old Man of the Mountain, whose craggy profile stared out across the land, becoming an icon of New Hampshire ruggedness and continuity. Unfortunately the outcrop collapsed in 2003, many here are still in shock.

We headed into Lincoln to see if we could book on to one of the twilight Moose tours that head out into woods and grazing grounds around the town. Unfortunately they were all booked up, but in true New Hampshire style the bus driver gave us our own map and told us where to look.

'The trouble is with the critters is that their hooves don't grip on the tarmac,' he explained 'so when they step out it's like them being on ice. They panic, try to run and before you know it you've got a moose sticking out your bonnet.  The tour bus has light at the level of their eyes, which gives you a fighting chance of picking them out if they're standing in the road. It's a heap harder in a car which is why you gotta take care. We have hundreds of fatalities every year.'

'Human or moose?'


We thanked him for the map and headed back to Franconia to have a look round Robert Frost's farmstead, looking up at the mountains. The poet lived here in the twenties a period of great creativity for him. It's a peaceful place with many of his most famous poems including The Road Not Taken carved onto wooden sheets and displayed in the overgrown garden. Nowadays the house provides a retreat for an annual poet in residence, whose only disturbances are the buzzing bees and the handful of visitors who tread the paths gently in search of a simple understanding and delicate touch.

We headed north and crossed the State line into Vermont, heading for Glover and The Bread and Puppet Theater, near to the Canadian border.

The company were started by the mercurial Peter Schumann in New York way back in the sixties but moved to spacious barns here to the Northeastern Kingdom in 1974. Their basic philosophy that theatre is as essential as eating and that puppets provide a clear expression of our deepest dreams and desires has influenced so many companies and protest movements from the Vietnam War onwards. I remember in the eighties going on CND demos, where huge effigies of Thatcher loomed over the procession.

The Bread and Puppet Theater were one of the real pioneers of Applied Theatre. In taking their art onto the street they looked beyond the idea of conventional show making to suggest that the formation and maintenance of the company itself might provide a rehearsal for a Utopian society. It's an idea that continues to entice imaginative community focused practitioners to this day. Much of the work that Drama St Mary's has done with Spiral over the last few years has an aesthetic link back to here to these Vermont barns.

It's good to know that they're still alive and making theatre. We arrived just after six hoping that they might have something on, but alas the company had just finished rehearsals for the day and were setting up for a barbecue. They let us have a little snoop about and invited us back to see tomorrow's pageant, unfortunately we're heading back towards Boston.

We were close enough to drive up to the border and look briefly over into Canada. Not for us this time, however - it's a whole other adventure. Twilight was drawing on and so, with half an eye out for skating Moose, we drove back to share a pint of celebration home brew with slightly worse for wear Bob back on our New Hampshire farmstead.

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