Friday, May 27, 2016

A Salem Secret

If you add a few line breaks, the directions read like a poem:

close to the town line,  
just before the yellow sign, 
there is a parking area on the right. 
look for a solitary telephone pole. 
trailhead is close
to the metal barrier.

I have driven past this trailhead - actually an almost imperceptible gap between the trees by the side of the road - too many times to count.

I have never come close to imagining that anyone might voluntarily park their car there, beside Route 85, and set off on foot in search of a brook and a trail and some secret woods.

To be honest, these woods are not really secret. This preserve is listed right there with the other properties on the website of the Salem Land Trust.

But then again, I have driven past most of those properties countless times too, completely unaware that anyone had blazed trails through them.

"Big Brook Gorge" sounds dramatic, but the walk I took on the red trail, described as:

mild gradual hill,
scenic along Big Brook

was nothing more than a short stroll among the trees.

But as I write that, it seems an unfair and incorrect way to talk about this place.

It's true that there's nothing spectacular or particularly unique about this preserve, but what it has - and what so many other land trust properties in so many other towns across the state have - is something essentially Connecticut: stone walls, tall trees, green leaves, ancient boulders, birds singing, water flowing, and a blue sky if it's a good day.

As trails go, this one is entirely average. Lots of people would probably call it boring. But sometimes, especially when it seems everyone is only talking about what's wrong with Connecticut, it's nice to remember that if you live in a place where this kind of setting is considered average and boring, you live in a pretty freaking nice place.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Devil's Hopyard

Connecticut's early Puritan settlers would have banned, shunned, or possibly killed me, but I am endlessly fascinated by them. Much of my interest boils down to how freaking serious they were about it all. Say what you will about their rigidity, intolerance, and capacity for cruelty, but you have to be at least a little amazed by how literally they believed in concepts that now seem bizarre to the point of absurdity. Whenever you think they must have been kidding, or exaggerating, you realize that no: they really meant it. They really believed a witch could use her dark magic to make another woman's butter un-churnable; they really thought it evidence of bestiality when a sow gave birth to a piglet that resembled the man accused.

And though we now smile at place names like Satan's Kingdom State Recreation Area and Devil's Den Preserve, the people who named those spots were not amused. When they spoke of the devil they weren't being cute or metaphorical, they were referring to an actual being with whom you might enter into a compact, and whose hooves could cause round holes to form in the rocks beneath the waterfall at what is now Devil's Hopyard State Park in East Haddam.

I didn't look for these pothole formations (created by stones and eddies, not an angry devil, as the legend says) as I stood beside Chapman Falls. I just watched the Eightmile River glide smoothly along before tumbling sixty feet down and coming to rest again at the bottom of the rocks, glistening black in the sun.

You can do a lot of things at Devil's Hopyard: hiking, camping, fishing, and so on. I'm sure these activities are nice too. But because I haven't done them, I will only suggest that you go and stare at the waterfall. (Park at the first lot you encounter entering the park from the north on Hopyard Road.) Go at a time when the flat rocks below the plunging river won't be crowded with other visitors, and you will be the only one standing on the covered bridge. Listen to the roar of the falls and think about Puritans and devils; or, if you're a normal person, think about whatever it is that normal people think about. I don't know what that might be, but I'm sure Devil's Hopyard is the ideal place to ponder it.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Nutmeg Poisoning

I can't remember the last time I had a normal "weekend"  - freelancers don't really understand the word or the concept - but there's still something a little exciting about Fridays. Don't worry, I'm not going to use the word "Fri-Yay." I'm just going to say happy Friday, and here's another roundup of random Connecticut-themed stuff to read.

-Do you like Connecticut State Parks? You will also like

-If you, like me, are freaking sick of all those so-called "New England lifestyle blogs" that have nothing to do with New England (or lifestyle, for that matter), then Gardenias & Mint, written by two friends who live in Hartford and Boston, is a nice antidote.

-Connecticut real estate porn, Weston edition.

-Connecticut real estate porn, Unnamed Coastal Town edition.

-Connecticut real estate porn, Old Saybrook edition, featuring a lighthouse. 

-Here's a look at state fossils, including ours, a "set of fossilised tracks made around 200 million years ago, by some kind of predator stomping through Connecticut." 

-It's not every day you see Connecticut mentioned in the Times of Israel, and I was certainly not expecting to see Rocky Hill and Wilbur Cross turn up in a long, horrifying, and fascinating article on the "template for the Holocaust" that the Germans perpetrated in early 20th century Africa.   

-If you haven't heard, the U.S. metro area that most closely demographically resembles the U.S.A. as a whole (i.e., the city that should be known as the epitome of "normal America") is... New Haven. Number three on the list? Hartford. 

-And finally, aside from the assertion that Connecticut's "endless landmarks and sights to see" date back only as far as "the late 1800s" (I mean, seriously, what is going on in American schools these days!? I can see history class has been eliminated, but aren't they even teaching these kids to use Google?) you have to like this little piece of content from HuffPo: 25 Reasons Connecticut Is Basically Heaven On Earth.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

5 Classic Connecticut Town Greens

The town green is as New England as unpredictable weather and Dunkin' Donuts coffee, and every Connecticut town - or nearly - has at least one of these grassy areas somewhere within its borders. Some of these greens resemble neglected yards, and others are so small they could be mistaken for traffic islands. The vast majority are pleasant, quiet spots featuring a few statues or war memorials and maybe a historic building or two. But a number of Connecticut's greens are true jewels, preserving centuries of history while thriving as gathering places for locals and attractive destinations for sightseers.

I could have chosen many different greens for this list, but I wanted to stick to the Connecticut Top Fives format, and to concentrate on a handful of very different town green experiences. If you travel to all of these greens, you'll find a distinct atmosphere at each one; if you only visit one, you'll still be pretty much guaranteed a trip that goes way beyond a nice walk in the park.

Guilford (The Pretty Green)

Guilford Green (pictured above) is simply, undeniably, one of those places that make you say "Ooh, pretty." Surrounded by churches, boutiques, historic houses, and eateries, it is the calm yet vibrant center of a completely adorable downtown. As you walk along the many pathways that divide the green, stop at each lamppost and read the small plaques printed with tidbits of Guilford Green-related trivia and history. Special events are held here regularly, but on a normal day the green is populated by people relaxing, working out, or simply navigating from, say, the sweet independent bookstore on one side to Town Hall on the other. Wander away from the green in any direction and you'll be rewarded with a choice of historic sites and endlessly photo-ready views in one of the Constitution State's most charming municipalities.

Guilford Green is bordered by Broad Street, Park Street, Whitfield Street, and Route 146.

New Haven (The City Green)

New Haven's green is one of the best-known examples of a town green that's grown up into a busy urban park. Today, looking at the open space where Yale students mix with tourists, men who seem to spend all day lounging on benches, and residents waiting for the bus, it's hard to imagine these 16 acres as a common area for grazing livestock. But if you can ignore the city noise (or perhaps imagine the cars as cattle?) you'll begin to see the green's past emerge. The historic churches, municipal buildings, and memorials on and around the green tell the stories of what came before. Or ignore the history and simply revel in the activity and diversity that would probably disturb the New Haven Colony's founders to no end. Today, the green is an all-purpose central meeting spot, hosting concerts and festivals. Located in downtown New Haven, it's also a good starting point for exploring the Yale campus or the city's numerous and acclaimed shops and restaurants or notable architecture.

New Haven Green is bordered by Church Street, Chapel Street, Elm Street, and College Street.

Lebanon (The Unspoiled Green)

The Lebanon Green is the closest you can get these days to seeing a town green as it was in ye olden dayes. This mile-long strip is more meadow than manicured lawn, because part of it is still used for agricultural purposes. (Time has moved on slightly in Lebanon, though - the green is no longer used for military drills.) In the summer, visitors strolling around the green can stop along the way at a collection of fascinating museums that explain why this now-sleepy town is so significant in American history. In a state with the slogan "Still Revolutionary," the town of Lebanon is as revolutionary as it gets, and that heritage all centers on the town green. (Don't be surprised if you see people dressed like it's 1781.) If you time your visit correctly, you can also catch the Lebanon Farmers' Market, one of my favorite of the many, many small Connecticut farmers' markets held on the local green.

Lebanon Green is bordered by West Town Street and Trumbull Highway (Route 87.)

Milford (The Long Green)

The emerald rectangle that is the Milford or Broad Street Green seems to go on forever, though it really only goes on for probably four or five (very long) blocks. (I wrote some more about the length of the green and other reasons to visit Milford last summer.) Because of its length and central location, this green has a bit of something for everyone. If you want a monument to look at, a bench to sit on, a place to grab lunch, or an old-fashioned gazebo, you'll find it here. You'll also find plenty of churches, banks, and other mundane institutions on the streets that border the green. Their presence is a reminder of the way the green blends seamlessly into everyday life in Milford. But retreat just a few steps off the sidewalk and onto the grass, and the everyday fades, revealing a sense of escape from the quick pace of this growing city. And when the green is taken over by an event like the annual Arts and Crafts Fair, the everyday disappears entirely, and the atmosphere becomes downright festive.

Broad Street Green is bordered by Broad Street and South Broad Street.

Tolland (The Small-Town Green)

When I first tried to think of the essential small-town green, a various greens kept floating through my mind, sometimes merging confusingly into a utopian town green composite. But as I pondered the question, I kept coming back to Tolland. Tolland's green has a traditional look, but it's also a little quirky. It's a little bit country, and simultaneously a little bit suburban. It always seems to be hosting events or preparing for various happenings whenever I drive past it. And although it feels very local, as if people might notice you're Not From Here if you stopped to get a closer look, it's also surrounded by enough eye-catching historic buildings that, if you explained why you stopped, the locals would surely understand and approve. Perhaps what makes Tolland's green stand out in my head is the way its attractions - like a preserved 18th century house that used to be a tavern and the Old Tolland County Jail and Museum - and even the roads leading up to it, like the Tolland Stage Road, hint at sedate rural Connecticut's intriguing past.

Tolland Green is bordered by Route 195, the Old Post Road, and Tolland Stage Road (Route 74.)

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Wait Is Over

Most people, if asked to imagine a sidewalk situated between some busy train tracks and a nuclear power plant, would picture something pretty unappealing. Those who have been to Niantic recently, however, might conjure up something like this.

The mile-long Niantic Bay Boardwalk, having been under construction for seemingly forever (it was damaged by hurricanes Irene and Sandy) is now finally fully open. That means walkers can access the boardwalk from both Hole-in-the-Wall Beach and Cini Park, and stroll the length of it uninterrupted by orange cones, warning signs, or wire fences.

As you walk along the boardwalk, seagulls strutting below and Acela trains speeding by above, there are signs explaining various facets of Niantic's past and the ecology of the region. There are steps down to the beach, as well, if you want to get off the concrete and onto the sand.

The new boardwalk was built to withstand harsh coastal storms, and there is something inherently New England about the way it encourages visitors to appreciate this area's subtly astonishing beauty - even as commuters whoosh past to more exciting destinations and industry lurks in the distance - while we can, before we're all swept away.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Ocean Beach Park

In last week's post on Waterford Beach Park, I mentioned that that unspoiled stretch of coastline is adjacent to New London's Ocean Beach Park.

I was about to add a link to my previous post about Ocean Beach Park, but to my surprise I discovered that I have never written a post on Ocean Beach Park.

It had appeared here, in some early posts, in the form of a few pictures with vague text. But amazingly, I had never thought to sit down and write an entire post about this popular southeastern Connecticut destination. (I say popular; that's in the summer. In the fall, winter, and spring, this old-fashioned waterfront entertainment spot with soft white "sugar sand" and a lovely wide boardwalk is practically deserted.)

So here it is: I'm writing a post to tell you to go to Ocean Beach Park.

Walk along the boardwalk and you'll see ferries crossing the sound, passing the New London Ledge Light as they come and go.

At both ends of the boardwalk, you can stop and stare out at the horizon, or step onto the sand and walk further.

There's food available (though not in April.)

There's a playground, too.

And a miniature golf course.

There are also amusement park rides. (This is not one of them.)

 And all of it is refreshingly retro.

Looking at this view, you wouldn't think of Robert Moses, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, or Polka festivals, but all three of these figure into Ocean Beach Park's past. (I know this because I once wrote an article called "Fun Facts About Ocean Beach."

As crowded as the park gets during the summers now, it was even more of a scene in its early years.

But once you get out past the boardwalk, everything changes.

This is where the waves of Long Island Sound meet the marshy, sheltered Alewife Cove.

Follow the Alewife Cove Nature Walk, and you'll see a completely different side of this beach.

It's calmer here, and quieter, but it's wilder, too.

Even in the off-season, when the boardwalk is empty, this trail feels emptier still, and practically untouched.

That's not the case, obviously. Though it might feel like you're the first person to have strolled out this way, you are not. Luckily the people who came before you built an observation deck.


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