Monday, July 4, 2016
On the trail of writing women
My sister Dee and I recently spent five days traveling from Bedford, Indiana through southern New York and Massachusetts. The theme of our trip was "American Women Writers."
We visited Edith Wharton's beloved estate "The Mount" near Lenox, Massachusetts (www.edithwharton.org). I had wanted to visit the Mount for years, having closely studied Wharton's fiction in graduate school. The house and grounds are beautiful, and I confess to being inspired to copy the draperies and the leopard spotted stair runners for my own "castle." We had a nice lunch on the veranda, and at one point I could feel Edith right there next to me, dressed in rustling silks, looking out over her formal gardens and worrying about her husband Teddy, who became more and more mentally unstable during the couple's ten years at the Mount.
Our next woman writer of interest was Emily Dickinson, and we were lucky to secure a wonderful tour of both her family home and the home of her brother Austin Dickinson in Amherst, Massachusetts (emilydickinsonmuseum.org). Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable, and, as there were no children in our group of five, she treated us to some shocking details from the diary of Austin Dickinson's mistress Mabel Todd, as well as recent scholarly speculation on whether or not Emily Dickinson had an affair when she claimed to be seeing an eye doctor in Boston. It was all quite delicious and completely at odds with the popular image of Emily Dickinson, virginal recluse.
The last of the three women authors' houses was Orchard House, Louisa May Alcott's home in Concord, Massachusetts (www.louisamayalcott.org). We had to race a bit by this time, as our rental car was due back that afternoon in Queens, New York, but once more we had a fantastically knowledgeable tour guide who made us feel that we knew the Alcott girls intimately. Our tour group this time included a family of children, which meant we spent more time thinking about the Alcott girls as children and no time at all speculating about their sex lives, which was just fine. One takeaway from this quick stop is that May Alcott, whom we all know as Amy March in Little Women, was an extremely talented classically-trained artist. Her works decorate every room of Orchard House, and it's hard not to feel that the world lost a great talent when she died at age 39, seven weeks after giving birth to her daughter Lulu.
We had only the vaguest of plans when we set out from Bedford. There were many spontaneous stops along the way (several of them involving food, most notably ice cream). We lodged in three equally wonderful, although very different locations: the Old Library B&B in Olean, New York (www.oldlibraryrestaurant.com), Polacce's Family Resort in Catskill, New York (funinthecatskills.com), and the Howarth House B&B in Fitchburg, Massachusetts (www.howarthhouse.com). We booked each one of these from our cell phones--whichever of us wasn't driving was seeking our night's lodging, and I think we both did a wonderful job of finding memorable locations to stay. We took long walks in the morning to explore each place and cement them into our memory. In Amherst we crashed at my niece's group house, which was empty except for a young man from Chicago and his dog. There we got to switch gears a little and fix up the bathroom for my niece's impending senior year at UMass Amherst.
Other noteworthy and serendipitous finds included the Golden Lamb Inn in Lebanon, Ohio (www.goldenlamb.com), where we had a scrumptious lunch and toured the old hotel, the Smuggler's Wharf in Erie, Pennsylvania (smugglerswharfinc.com), which offered a lovely view of Lake Erie and a chance for Dee to recharge her cell phone, and the colonial-era Benjamin Patterson Inn in Corning, New York (http://www.heritagevillagesfl.org/). We enjoyed the view at the Afton Golf Club (www.aftongolf.com), even though neither of us is a golfer. The food was predictable, but the portions were generous; my chicken Caesar salad served as both lunch and dinner.
I flew back home from New York on Friday, feeling as if I had been gone for much longer than five days. Dee and I had so much fun on this trip we have already begun planning our next escape.