TO see New England in all its shimmering purity, prismlike splendor, and aristocratic bearing, go to Deerfield, in north-central Massachusetts. With its famous and expensive prep school, Deerfield Academy; its white eighteenth-century frame houses; and fourteen little museums that are advertised by the least obtrusive of signs and run by soft-spoken and prosperous-looking elderly women, this austere New England town screams "good taste" and whispers "money." Indeed, I have found that most people who know about Deerfield know about it through the prep school, meaning that they have some tie to those who can spend $22,000 a year on a high school education.
But my favorite place in Deerfield is the cemetery, with graves dating back to the late 1600s, before the Founding Fathers were born, when Deerfield was the northwestern outpost of settlement in New England. The victims of a particularly gruesome Indian massacre, in 1704, are buried in mass graves -- big mounds, actually. In no other spot in the United States have I felt such an organic, oppressive sense of history as alongside these horrible mounds, whose silent screams create a link with the past that is rare on such a newly settled continent.
Forget Williamsburg and other reconstructed old towns -- they're gentle theme parks. Deerfield is the genuine article. It could almost belong to Europe, with its record of atrocities and suggestion of class distinctions. Here the process of American culture's separation from its European antecedents becomes palpable. A real travel experience should make the traveler a bit uneasy. Deerfield does that to me.
I MAY be the only person who wishes he'd gone to Harvard not for the academics but for the shopping. I don't mean bargain hunting in Harvard Square boutiques. A ritual of my trips to Boston is to spend Saturday afternoon in Cambridge with my friend Milo Miles, the pop-music critic, looking for used books and records -- or sometimes just looking at them. Exhibited on the wall of Stereo Jack's, a jazz specialty store in Porter Square, on my last visit there, for example (and priced well beyond my means), was an original pressing of Cecil Taylor's 1973 LP Indent, on Taylor's own label -- an item so rare it might as well have been one of a kind. On Milo's recommendation, I stopped in at the bookstore Wordsworth recently to buy a copy of Air Guitar, a collection of essays on popular culture by the art critic Dave Hickey. In his introduction (or "overture,"as he calls it) Hickey defends the buying and selling of art by arguing that academics -- not shopkeepers or consumers -- are the ones whose relationship to art tends to be proprietary. For Hickey, "little stores" are places where ideas and information are freely exchanged, along with merchandise; their staff members are eager to answer your questions not just to close a sale but because they love talking about what they're selling.
This perfectly describes the atmosphere in such shops as Stereo Jack's, Cheapo's (an R&B and oldies store in Central Square), and Kate's Mystery Books (as genteel an outlet for pulp fiction as one could ever imagine). There are stores like this in every city, usually clustered in former bohemian enclaves that are under siege by Starbuck's, The Gap, Tower Records, and teenagers disenchanted with suburban malls. The difference in Cambridge is the shadow cast by a great university, which virtually guarantees a more esoteric selection of goods, and also prevents a middle-aged popular-culture obsessive like myself from feeling out of place. The young hordes around Harvard Square probably mistake me for a professor, unless they think I'm a cop.
I CAN'T imagine why Merchant and Ivory, or other filmmakers mining the Gilded Age, haven't discovered the Hill-Stead Museum, whose six white columns dominate a hilltop in the studied New England perfection of Farmington, Connecticut. It's a dream of an Edwardian house -- what Edith Wharton would have built if she'd had the money. (Her own estate, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts, is far more modest.) Wharton's friend Henry James visited Hill-Stead, and called the house "an exquisite palace of peace, and light and harmony." Any visitor is struck by the serenity of the rambling white Colonial Revival house -- and by the small but extraordinary collection of Impressionist paintings assembled by Alfred Atmore Pope, who made a fortune in iron. Pope chose genteel Farmington as the site for his retirement house to please his daughter and only child, Theodate, who had been a student at Miss Porter's School there.
The contents were mostly bought by Pope, but the house and its notable gardens were shaped by his daughter. As a young woman, Theodate changed her name (to her grandmother's) from the prosaic Effie she had been christened, because it seemed more serious. She was a suffragette, one of the country's first successful female architects, and a survivor of the Lusitania, on which she was sailing to a meeting of psychics. In what could not have been an easy collaboration, the fledgling architect worked with the gloried firm of McKim, Mead and White to design the house. Theodate married at forty-nine, three years after her father died, and lived at Hill-Stead until her death, in 1946. Her will stipulated that the house become a museum and that nothing be moved or lent -- or labeled.
As a teenager, I spent many hours hanging back on group tours of the house, waiting to be left alone in the drawing rooms to watch the late-afternoon sun hit the two Monet Haystacks, hung opposite each other, or to study the Degas jockeys hanging over the dining-room fireplace, or to stare at the red sash that provides almost the only color in Manet's gorgeous The Guitar Player, which is a portrait of Victorine Meurent, the model for Olympia and Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Of course I dreamt of what it would be like to live there, which must be what Theodate Riddle had in mind: by turning the house into a museum she doubtless intended to show the public her own, persuasive definition of the way to live.
"AMERICA'S Stonehenge," in North Salem, New Hampshire, looks nothing like the circle of monoliths on Salisbury Plain, but resembles it in age and ambiguity. The requirements for enjoying a visit there are simple: a liking for old stones and speculation, the guidebook available at the entrance lodge, a flashlight for peering into niches, and sturdy footgear. The trails around the site are, as trails go, in the boulevard class, but the interior of the main structure has been scraped and sifted down to rough bedrock. That structure cascades down the slope of what was formerly called Mystery Hill, in a complex of vaguely rectangular enclosures incorrectly attributed to an early, presumably lunatic settler named Pattee and to Irish monks on the run from Vikings. Forty years of archaeological investigation, organized by Robert Stone, who acquired the area in 1957, have turned up charcoal carbon-dated to 2000 B.C. and located peripheral boulders marking the sunrise on solstices, equinoxes, and a number of other dates. The place was a Neolithic calendar, and after viewing it all the visitor can sit on a handy hummock and consider what has been learned of its makers.
They were sky watchers and timekeepers. They dressed stone with stone tools, cut a drainage system into the bedrock before building (it still works), and positioned huge boulders precisely where they wanted them. They built walls that have survived 4,000 years of earth-quakes, vandalism, and New England winters. But who were they? Where did they come from -- or go? Did the clever acoustic rig deliver oracles, orders, ritual formulas? Did the apparent sacrificial stone drip blood or libations of primordial root beer? The surrounding woods rustle, the birds chirp, crows call, the voices of other visitors drift on the breeze, and the questions remain as unanswerable as what song the Sirens sang. It is a fine place to indulge the imagination, knowing that although one's fancies cannot be proved right, it is unlikely that they will soon be proved wrong.
ALMOST a century ago a little rich girl named Electra Havemeyer bought a cigar-store Indian for $15 and got one of the servants to haul it home in a wagon. Her cultured, discriminating parents were horrified, but in fact the incident only went to show how strongly their daughter took after them. Passionate art lovers, the Havemeyers would one day help the Metropolitan Museum of Art to make something of itself, bequeathing it nearly 2,000 paintings and objects. Electra, in her turn, would found her own museum -- the Shelburne Museum, in Shelburne, Vermont, just south of Burlington -- to display a collection of what is by now 80,000 items of folk art and such. Carousel animals and miniature circuses, quilts and dolls, farm tools and doctors' paraphernalia and musical instruments and decoys -- what whimsical or instructive or simply charming category of Americana doesn't the Shelburne Museum have? As the years went by, Electra's ambitions grew bolder and bolder. She elaborated a transportation theme, acquiring carriages and sleighs, a stagecoach inn, a railroad station complete with locomotive and posh private rail car, a lighthouse, and even a huge steamboat that had once plied nearby Lake Champlain. She had entire buildings hauled in: an old schoolhouse, a general store, houses, a sawmill, a meetinghouse, a covered bridge. Even after her death and the death of her husband, James Watson Webb, the museum continued to grow: their children arranged for six rooms from the Webbs' Park Avenue apartment to be reconstructed in precise detail, right down to hanging the paintings, by Rembrandt, Degas, Cassatt, Whistler, Monet, Manet, that a generation before had gone to Electra instead of to the Met.
Not far from the museum, prettily sited on Lake Champlain, is Shelburne Farms, long ago the estate of Electra's in-laws and now a tourist attraction in its own right. In warm weather it comes alive as a much-beloved hotel, with a thousand acres of grounds perfected by Frederick Law Olmsted.
Newport, Rhode Island, and its stupefyingly over-the-top mansions tell a compelling story of America's robber barons. Shelburne's story dates from that era too, but it's funnier, more welcoming, and more heartwarming.
NO one location will do. Many times and places have combined to embody my ideal New England scene. It always comes down to an island in summer, perhaps Martha's Vineyard, perhaps Vinalhaven or Mount Desert or elsewhere in Penobscot Bay. I find myself walking, early in the morning, soon after dawn, along a path where the vegetation has closed in and fans over my head. The birds are moving in the branches. I can hear chickadees, song sparrows, yellowthroat warblers, goldfinches. Sunlight filters greenly down through the still-crisp leaves. In the distance surf rumbles. Beneath my feet the soil is moist, dark, and yielding, and the air stings my nostrils with the scent of blossoms and salt.
I hope to walk unhurriedly through these mixed alders and swamp maples and, as I round a turn, emerge into a grove of acacias where the sun can penetrate more easily through the leaves to dry the dew on the white sand that begins to purr beneath my feet. The smell of the acacias, faint but sure, greets me and hints with this sifted and nitrogenized soil that there might once have been a habitation near -- a frame house, a well, a flower garden -- even though nothing new has been built here for a century or two. A pair of mourning doves flies up, wings whistling faintly. The surf continues to murmur in the distance as I emerge into full sunlight, but no habitation stands nearby. That clinches it: my favorite place no longer exists unimproved in New England. If it did, I would not think of telling you where it lies.
ACADIA National Park, rugged and insular, a glacier-carved pendant hung from the silver coast of Maine, is one of the smallest of America's national parks and at the same time one of the most visited (it ranks No. 7 out of 376) -- a combination that to some might seem like fair warning: stay away if you dislike crowds.
In this case, though, the statistics are deceptive. Yes, you will often find lines of cars on Acadia's loop road and knots of tourists at the service nodes. But most of these visitors remain wheeled and sedentary. Set off up one of the park's dozen or so mountains from any trailhead, and with each foot of elevation the population diminishes exponentially. After fifty yards you will seem to be alone in a landscape of ascending forest that eventually yields to the bare granitic dome crowning every summit. The domes give Acadia's location its name, Mount Desert Island (from the French monts désert), and ensure that the views extend unobstructed to all points of the compass. A briny wind blows steadily, and on clement days a climber can't help turning to face it with eyes closed and arms outstretched -- the universal zephyrtropic impulse. In the sheltered lowlands between the mountains lie grassy meadows and stands of birch and small lakes dug and filled by the Ice Age.
The highest of the mountains is Cadillac (1,530 feet), and it is also the only one with a road to the top, bringing travelers in buses and RVs. Hiking up Cadillac, my family and I know we're near the summit when we encounter the advance guard of those who have ambled down the trails from the snack shop and parking lot -- children with ice cream cones, usually. They seem to us like exotic shorebirds, and we seem to ourselves like oceangoing travelers who have at last approached port after a long and dangerous passage. The advance guard greets us, we imagine, with respect and awe as we stride from below with our steadfast gazes and sturdy boots. We do not tell them that we are creatures much like them, and they do not follow us long enough to see that we, too, eat our ice cream one lick at a time.
Phoebe-Lou Adams is a staff writer for The Atlantic; Francis Davis is a contributing editor; Peter Davison is the poetry editor; Robert D. Kaplan is a contributing editor; Corby Kummer is a senior editor; Nicholas Lemann is The Atlantic's national correspondent; Cullen Murphy is the managing editor; Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor.
Photographs of McCoy Stadium by Jed Wilcox. Photograph of The Shelburne Museum by Ken Burris, courtesy of The Shelburne Museum.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1998; New England Places; Volume 281, No. 5; pages 46 - 52.