Arts, Entertainment, Living

Town of White Churches

Saturday, 25 September 2010 02:40 PM Written by

LANCASTER, N.H. -- Lancaster Motor Inn

Steinbeck passed through this town on the Vermont border twice on his long loop to the top of Maine and back -- once going east on US 2 exactly 50 years ago this weekend and again a week later heading west.

He no doubt noticed the town's surfeit of white churches. DSC_1947_copy

I can see at least five on US 2 from the venerable and welcoming Lancaster Motor Inn, where I am sitting in their lobby borrowing their wi-fi service after a fine $8 breakfast of steak and eggs; a local says 13 or 14 churches serve the town's 3,200 souls/sinners.

Driving through St. Johnsbury, Vt., on my way here was a disappointment. I was hoping to stop at one of the dozens of hip Internet cafes I imagined would be open in "St. Jay's" downtown at 7 a.m.

Instead I had to quickly turn right/east on US 2 and travel through a dingy light industrial district that included the Maple Grove Farms of Vermont's "plant" with attached Gift Shop and Maple Museum.


US 2 was a fast smooth ride. At one point I was doing 65 mph and being pushed from behind by a guy pulling a racing car on a trailer.

Nothing -- mostly nothing. That's all  there was except for the gorgeous scenery. Few humans were to be seen on or off the road. 

A few mobile homes and trailers came and went. Their snowmobiles and pickup trucks were seductively parked by the side of the road, hung with "For Sale" signs.

Mostly it was mountains and woods and yellow and orange and red and green leaves and an occasional "Moose" warning sign. 

Not long before I hit Lancaster and the NH border, I turned a bend on US 2 and found the first screaming evidence that politics and the upcoming off-year elections were important to some folks 'round he-ah.FOUR_POLITICAL_SIGNS

The front yard of this partisan's farm had it all.

Not only did his driveway have a display of pumpkins for sale -- as did half of the Vermontians who live on US 5 and US 2. But he had carefully posted a dozen political signs along the side of the curve.

If there was any doubt where his sympathies lay, his hand-lettered sign made it clear:



Lancaster's main drag -- US 2 -- was busier than it must be on a Sunday morning when townspeople are pouring into all the white churches.

At 9 a.m. a flea market was setting up on the grass next to the old brick courthouse. Among the sellers of maple syrup and organic vegetables and gluten-free breadstuff was Gerry Gallick, 52.

Gallick, the second person I talked to, could be a poster-victim for the current economic downturn.

He was putting his color photographs and calendars on display, but he was not really a photographer by choice. He was a civil engineer, a former cop, a former truck driver, a musician, a poet -- and now a photographer.GERRYFROMPITT

He lost his engineering job in January and can talk your ear off about all the jobs he's looked for since but didn't get. 

He's been rejected because he's too old or over-qualified and so he's trying to make a living selling his big color photos of the magnificent local stuff that he said God has made -- the mountains and woods and fauna.

I struck up a conversation with Gallick when I spotted one of his panoramic photos -- the one taken of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington.

Yes, like Mike from Sag Harbor and others I am destined to meet in the next weeks, he's from the 'burgh -- 31 years removed.

He grew up in Forest Hills, went to Churchill High School and is living in God's Country, right where he wants to be.

Miraculously, we found each other and neither of us was wearing a stitch of Steelers black and gold.


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Sleeping by the River

Saturday, 25 September 2010 12:03 PM Written by

LANCASTER, N.H. -- Lancaster Motor Inn lobby

After passing on the opportunity last night to spend $70 for a box with one locked window in a mom & pop motel in mid-Vermont, I pushed up US 5 north.

The fat yellow rising moon, the dark mountains of New Hampshire and the Connecticut River were on my right as I drove toward St. Johnsbury, Vt., and the intersection with US 2 east.

The GPS girl kept trying to get me to leave the river valley and take I-91, which parallels US 5, but I stuck to the Steinbeck Highway and its little towns and big dark empty spaces. 

By 10, minutes after my wife Trudi's phone call to me dropped, I pulled over into a small turnout by some trees in the middle of nowhere. I decided to try to get some sleep in my "bed," which is made of six This End Up sofa cushions that fit perfectly when the RAV4's back seats are down.

I locked myself in, crawled in the back and hung up the Velcro-equipped "blackout curtains" fashioned by my wife.

Once the spooks were put to rest and I got used to the occasional car buzzing past, I slept almost straight through till dawn.

At 6 the light showed me what a perfect spot I had accidentally chosen.SLEEPINVERMONTRAV_copy

I was not 30 feet from the wooded edge of the Connecticut River, which was silent as a pond.


I figure I had seven hours of good sleep -- twice what I had been getting in motels or on Sag Harbor's lighted pier.

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John Hammond coming to Calliope

Friday, 24 September 2010 08:11 PM Written by

There's one good show coming up this weekend that's worth mentioning -- John Hammond is opening the new season of the Acoustic Masters Series for Calliope tomorrow night (Saturday) at the Carnegie Lecture Hall.

Hammond years ago stopped being just an imitator, and now, as a purveyor and preserver of great old blues, has become one of the bluesman he channels.

The show starts at 7:30; the opening act is Daryl Fleming and David Bernabo.

Here's a video of Hammond:

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Ghost farm

Friday, 24 September 2010 05:40 PM Written by

DEERFIELD, MASS. -- Eaglebrook School  

I bet there's not a better or more beautiful middle school in America than Eaglebrook.

Its campus hangs on the side of a low mountain overlooking the historic village of Deerfield on US 5 north not 25 miles from Vermont.

It's not your run-of-the mill public middle school. It's private and exclusive and so pricy that if you have to ask what a year's tuition and room and board costs, you're not rich enough to send your heir there.DSC_1839

Its nearly 250-boy student body, one quarter of them day students, fork over Harvard-level annual fees that would stagger a movie star.

Along with many future successful businessmen and scholars, Michael Douglas, actor Kurt's son, went there.

Michael was present in 1960 when Steinbeck pulled in with his pickup-camper hybrid to see his son John, who was 13 or 14. 

In those days, former headmaster Stuart Chase told me, Steinbeck would have found schoolboys outfitted in identical Navy blue blazers and thick-striped school ties.

Today's students don't dress so formally, Chase said. But they aren't allowed to ruin the school's pre-prep school milieu with bluejeans, torn pants or un-collared shirts.

Chase wasn't running Eaglebrook when Steinbeck arrived from Sag Harbor on Friday evening, Sept. 23, 1960. Since it was too late to see his son, Steinbeck says in "Travels With Charley," he drove up to the top of the mountain and "found a dairy, bought some milk, and asked permission to camp under an apple tree."

Chase, whose father preceded him as Eaglebrook headmaster and whose son succeeded him eight years ago, gave me directions to the apple orchard. He also told me how time and uninterested heirs had turned a thriving farm into the abandoned and overgrown white hulk it is today.DSC_1852

Climbing the road above Eaglebrook I twisted my way through the dense woods to the top and found the apple orchard right where Chase said it would be. 

He called it a "skeleton" of an orchard and that's what it was. The trees were still there.

They were thick and tall and old and gnarly and heavy with red apples -- apples that were not being harvested, polished and sold but were providing a feast for the local insect population.

The trees that weren't surrounded by weeds and golden rod were being strangled by rose bushes and grape vines. Rotting fruit on the ground made the orchard smell like apple juice.


The gate to the former orchard was invitingly off its hinges and lying flat in the low jungle. I drove my RAV4 through the opening in the heavy stone wall and parked/posed it under what could have been the same very large apple tree Steinbeck camped under.


Unlike Steinbeck, however, there was no dairy man with a Ph.D. in mathematics to shoot the breeze with while I swatted bugs and tried not to stand too long in the shag carpet of baby poison ivy plants.

Humans had lost control of the orchard and nature was slowly reasserting itself on the rest of the place.

Steinbeck could probably have written a novelette about the process. 

The big beautiful (white) farmhouse and the (white) dairy barn, looked fine and prosperous. It was as if one day someone just dropped a water hose or closed a barn door and drove to Boston.


It almost looked like someone could come in, cut the grass, throw a switch and get back to dairy farming in a week or so. Almost.







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Where is BlueNotes?

Friday, 24 September 2010 01:55 PM Written by

Where is, or more correctly, was BlueNotes?

Even though no one has really asked, I feel like I should explain my absence over the past few days. After Tuesday night's storm that whipped overtop the World Headquarters in Mt. Lebanon, our cable service and internet disappeared until just a few hours ago.

It was like we had all just disappeared, since without the internet, how can we tell if anything is happening? Without e-mail, we got no invitations to hook up with married women in Finleyville. Without Facebook, we didn't know who our friends are. We were were forced into reading things like newspapers (remember them?) and even books. Where the words are all spelled out and sentences are formed completely and correctly. OMG! OTH! (Oh, the humanity!)

But we did listen to some tasty new blues CDs that we'll be writing about soon. All is right with the world again.

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Empty, Pretty and Rich

Friday, 24 September 2010 08:15 AM Written by


Steinbeck’s first stop in the fall of 1960 was the Eaglebrook School, the boarding school in Deerfield, Mass., that his youngest son John was attending.

Steinbeck didn’t divulge much about his visit to Eaglebrook in “Charley.” He said he got there too late on Sept. 23 (a Friday in 1960) to rouse his son, so he drove to the top of a hill nearby and camped overnight on a farm under an apple tree.

Though he actually stayed in the Deerfield metro area until Sunday afternoon, he said in the book that he visited with his son the next day and then drove north into Vermont.

Before I do the same, I’ll drive over to Eaglebrook’s campus and check it out.

Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy the luxurious amenities of the Days Inn I treated myself to last night to make up for my night sleeping on Sag Harbor's Long Pier in the back of my RAV4.

The nicest part of my $71 stay here so far? – the generous wall plugs that have replenished the juice in all my batteries.

Road Report: The drive from East Hartford to here on Connecticut state routes 85 and 2 and then on two-lane US 5 reminded me yet again just how empty America is and how rich it is.

US 5 north pierces some small towns like Enfield, Conn., – founded in 1683. Then it leads to Massachusetts college towns like Springfield, Holyoke and Northampton, where the spectacular historic downtown buildings, the thriving retail scene and the sidewalk mobs of young people on a Thursday night at 8 were surreal.


Mostly, though, US 5 was undeveloped and timeless. The “Purple Heart Memorial Highway” made Connecticut look as un-peopled as Long Island and Pennsylvania.

And when there were houses along the road – and there were hundreds -- they were usually big, white, pre-Teddy Roosevelt-looking beauties on large and perfectly landscaped lots. 

Steinbeck may or may not have noticed this impressive gauntlet of affluence. But he would have passed 99 percent of the same homes I saw as he drove to Deerfield, which is about 160 road miles from Sag Harbor.

A fuzzy picture of a typical house that I snapped as I drove by:



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TV Q&A: 'V,' 'Wendy Williams Show,' WTAE's 'Viewpoint 4'

Friday, 24 September 2010 02:00 AM Written by
TV Q&A with Rob Owen
Submit questions for a future column.

This week's TV Q&A (after the "Read more" jump below) responds to questions about "V," "The Wendy Williams Show" and WTAE's "Viewpoint 4." As always, thanks for reading, and keep the questions coming.
Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV writer

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Island-hopping, Ferry-jumping

Thursday, 23 September 2010 04:10 PM Written by


It hasn't been easy getting this far inland.

I was up before dawn after sleeping in my RAV4 on the Sag Harbor pier, trying to blend in with all the yachts berthed nearby.


Let's pretend I got five hours of actual sleep. A local told me it was a good and safe place -- i.e., I wouldn't be arrested or run out of town -- and he was right.

The idea of any crime going on Sag Harbor -- other than felonious BMW-envy -- is absurd. I never saw a cop while I was there. Of course I was in town less than 18 hours.

 I went back to Steinbeck's house at dawn to see if anyone was there and to take a picture of my idling RAV4 in the driveway. 


It was like visiting a quiet, perfectly landscaped museum at the end of a well-disguised private lane, which is exactly what it is.

An hour later I had to go back to Steinbeck's for a photo shoot with a local photographer from the Southampton Express.

The paper is doing a little feature on me and my madness written by Mike White, a guy I talked to but never met ("Blogger will retrace Steinbeck's travels 50 years later," Sept. 28).

Ready to roll: Steinbeck's front door. Southampton Express photo.



Ferrying to the Mainland:

I missed my first ferry from Sag Harbor to Shelter Island, so I never had a prayer of catching the big ferry from Orient Point to Connecticut at 10 a.m.

Steinbeck, like my co-voyagers, was no doubt a pro at the island-hopping and ferry-jumping it takes to escape the expensive end of Long Island, but I was a total rookie.

 It was a pretty cool sea journey for a landlubber. Two silent but swift 10-minute crossings on and off Shelter Island with about 15 other vehicles. Then the 90-minute trip on the Cross Sound Ferry from Orient Point across Long Island Sound to Connecticut.

I had to drive about 16 miles between ferries. Virtually every home or berry farm I sped past on land was pre-1960-old, classy, rural and picture perfect.

 It was a pricy escape from Long Island -- $12 and $9 for the local trips on the small ferries and $49 for the long ride to New London, which 1,000 cars would be making today.

Those steep prices would tax even the average wealthy hamptonite. But commuters get a week's worth of roundtrips for $22, a nice deal for rich people that’s probably subsidized by some government public transit agency somewhere.

 On Steinbeck's watery way to New London aboard "the clanking iron ferry boat," he said he saw submarines surfacing nearby and met a sailor on leave -- a nuclear submariner, to be exact. They talked about the nuclear subs that were then filling up the docks at the U.S. naval base in New London on the Thames River.

 Like so many Americans in those scary Cold War days, Steinbeck was not fond of the U.S./Soviet strategy of mutual assured destruction, part of which involved building a fleet of Polaris-firing nuclear subs. He didn’t like subs, either, because despite their beauty they were “designed for destruction” and “armed with mass murder.”

 I didn't see any subs or sailors. But as I waited with about 90 other vehicles to drive into the empty open belly of the Susan Anne I met Blaize Zabel, 20.


A high school dropout, he looked tough with his big forearms, black T-shirt and shorts and cross tattoo. But he turned out to be an incredibly nice kid. He was on his way back to his home in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and said he hoped he would have enough money for the Greyhound Bus fare.

I took his picture and gave him the same crazy advice I tell all young people (under 30), including my own kids Billie, Joe and Lucy -- go to L.A. and see what happens. It's been a good move for millions of migrants, including me in the late 1970s.

L.A.’s not as lovable or affordable as it was in the 1980s, but it’s still a la-la land of opportunities. If it isn't a place for you, you'll find out soon enough. Then you can go back home to your hometown, which you'll have decided isn't so bogus after all

For about two minutes of video of this day's travels and my meeting with John Woestendiek and Ace, click.
On the ferry I also met a 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter, John Woestendiek, 57, formerly of the Baltimore Sun and Philly Inquirer.

John is now the owner-operator of and, two dog-oriented web sites. Ace, his Rotweiller/Akita/Chow/pitbull mutt of 130 pounds, was traveling with him.

He's been on the road for several months already, mostly down South, and he decided it would be cool for him and Ace to start following Steinbeck and Charley's trail exactly 50 years later. He's doing dog-related things as he goes.

John genuflected at Steinbeck's house at dawn, too. He slept last night unmolested by the law behind a business called Sleepies in one of the Hamptons, sprawled across the front seat of his red Jeep Liberty. DSC_1826

Ace, 6, was so big and friendly he made me wish I had a dog along too -- for about four seconds.

Ace provides security and unconditional love but consumes the back of John's Jeep. We exchanged info, took pictures of each other and agreed our paths will probably cross again either in Maine or Montana.

Now -- at 4 p.m. -- I'm writing this at a McDonald's somewhere north of East Hartford on US 5.

I'm on the route I presume Steinbeck took to Deerfield, Mass., home of the Eaglebrook School (where actor Michael Douglas matriculated).

On state Route 85 from New London was the kind of healthy commercial development that Steinbeck never saw -- a mega-car-dealership complex with strange car names  like Hyundai and Subaru.

It gave way quickly to a rural countryside and still-green woods. And the roadside was loosely strung with old white houses and barns and roadhouse restaurants and fruit stands that look like they were there in 1960 to watch Steinbeck whiz past.

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