For many people, summer unofficially begins on the Memorial Day holiday weekend, but I like to get a head start - especially because I am usually in the Northeast this time of year.
From the Jersey shore (sadly, still struggling to recover from Sandy) to the coast of Maine, the upcoming three-day holiday will bring endless traffic, clogged restaurants and scarce hotel rooms. I make it a point never to have to cross a toll bridge on the Friday or Monday evening of a summer holiday weekend. If you have experienced the George Washington Bridge at such times, you understand why.
So Linda and I try to start our summers a week early, as we did this past weekend in Vermont. This tiny space on the calendar, sandwiched between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, is like a dress rehearsal. The snow is gone, the mud is (mostly) gone, and seasonal enterprises like Dana’s restaurant at the Quechee Gorge (a favorite haunt for pancakes with maple syrup) are open for business. Newly hired employees are still trying to find their way around, but things tend to run smoothly without the pressure of holiday crowds. Restaurants and innkeepers, coming off a six- or eight-week drought after the end of ski season, are eager for customers.
About 30 minutes’ drive from Quechee, the tiny village of Fairlee, Vt., sits alongside the Connecticut River, just off Interstate 91 some 90 miles north of the Massachusetts line. Fairlee is the home of one of the last-remaining drive-in movie theaters in this part of the world. Though I have not done it myself, I understand that if you book a room at the adjacent motel, you can view the movie out your window. Last weekend’s features were “Iron Man 3” and “Wreck-It Ralph.” You might need that motel bed if you go for one of the double features. In Vermont around the summer solstice, it does not get dark enough to start drive-in pictures until about 9 p.m.
The drive-in is struggling to stay in business. That’s hardly a surprise, considering how few drive-ins remain, but in this case the problem is not a customer shortage. It is that the drive-in’s old 35-millimeter projector is fast becoming a museum piece. A new digital projector, already required for many of the latest Hollywood releases, will soon become a practical necessity. The drive-in is appealing for customers to help it raise the $70,000 or so that a new projector would cost.
We visited Fairlee, as we usually do, on our summer kickoff tour this weekend, but we were not there for the drive-in. We stopped at the tiny Fairlee Diner to fortify ourselves for an afternoon’s hiking. The diner offers one of the better slices of chocolate cream pie in the Upper Valley, which is what residents on either side of the Connecticut River call this region. It also features friendly, warm service, the sort you find in a tiny place where the staff knows half the customers by name and most of the rest, including me, by sight. Each time we go to the diner, I remark how I like the “Fairlee friendly” service to my wife. Each time, she rolls her eyes in response. It’s worth the trip just for that.
But a trip to the diner also gives me a chance to catch up with a couple of old friends I have never met: Tom and Atticus.
Tom Ryan is a former newspaper editor from Newburyport, Mass., who now lives in the nearby White Mountains of New Hampshire. Atticus is his eight-pound miniature schnauzer. Together they have become regional celebrities, widely known across New England, thanks largely to a column Ryan writes for the Northcountry News.
I always pick up a free copy of the Northcountry News at the diner, and I always read Ryan’s latest installment of “The Adventures of Tom and Atticus.” He has recounted how he, a middle-aged, not-terribly-athletic man, and his tiny dog (getting on in years and going blind) have hiked all four dozen of the White Mountain peaks that exceed 4,000 feet, as well as many other places. His columns are not so much about mountaineering exploits as about the interesting two- and four-legged characters they encounter on the trail, and about the bond between man, domestic beast and nature that infuses outdoor life.
Two years ago, Ryan collected many of his columns into a book, “Following Atticus,” which brought the pair more fame. The book’s publication led to a review in Boston Magazine and appearances on public television. But I prefer to observe Tom and Atticus in their natural habitat, on the pages of the Northcountry News.
The News is what my old journalism bosses disparagingly called a “shopper.” It is free, and it pays for itself the old-fashioned newspaper way, by selling ads. In most places, this revenue has mostly dried up, as competition from the Internet takes most of the classified business and an increasing share of display ads. But the Northcountry News is, I suspect, different - a must-read bulletin board for area residents and visitors, and a place advertisers can turn with the knowledge that there is an audience that genuinely pays attention to the paper’s content.
Tom and Atticus are part of the paper’s family and a big part of its appeal, just like this week’s cover photo of a bear “family” newly emerged from hibernation. The caption reminded the region’s residents to secure their trash cans and bird feeders (besides which, there really is no need to feed birds in the summer) and, above all, not to feed the bears. “A fed bear, usually ends up a dead bear,” the paper warned. “So if you respect our wildlife, and wish it to live, please do not feed them.”
If you make it to the Fairlee Diner, and it is not a Sunday, drive a few miles farther north to Bradford, Vt., and visit Farm-Way to see what a New England general store has become in the 21st century. Family-run, and proud to be 43 percent solar-powered (this is Vermont, after all), Farm-Way has everything from clothes and shoes to kayaks and La-Z-Boys. They will deliver to most of the region and ship anywhere. Coffee and donuts are free on Saturdays.
I can’t say the first weekend of summer is like coming home. Much as I like northern New England, my home is elsewhere; I only know most of my Vermont neighbors and vendors by sight, rather than by name. But just like Tom and Atticus, Linda and I always find new hills to explore and new personalities to meet. The diner never seems to run out of pie, and the reception is always Fairlee-nice. If it sounds hokey, feel free to roll your eyes.