Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.
Horace Greeley was an American author and newspaper editor during the mid 1800s. Greeley greatly supported the idea of westward expansion and, after President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which gave settlers willing to move West large plots of public land provided they stayed for at least five years, encouraged Civil War veterans to take advantage of it. Like most Americans in the 19th century, Greeley believed in Manifest Destiny, that it was the mission and purpose of Americans to expand and settle across all of North America. He believed that Americans had the intrinsic qualities of fortitude, resolve, and grit necessary to thrive in the west, and that those willing could find fertile farmland to help ease the growing problems of poverty and unemployment troubling the big cities on the Eastern coast. He said other things about people from the East coast, but they can’t always be right, right?
I went West this week in search of destiny, too. Sort of. I actually went North. And then East. Like, way way North and then a good bit of East. To Vermont, which isn’t exactly Oklahoma. But then from Vermont I traveled to New Hampshire! Which, admittedly, when you look at it from a geographical point of view, is also East. So for some unknown reason for quite a long time and long distance, I was going the wrong way. My friends can attest that my sense of geography has never been the strongest. But for once the sidetracking and the backtracking didn’t frustrate me. I wasn’t upset or angry. In fact, I have to say that those two hours I spent going West today were some of the best two hours of driving I’ve ever experienced. I spent a happy, awe-inspiring two hours on Vermont’s scenic, sprawling, beautiful Route 9 West.
After a good night’s rest, I was on the road bright and early, heading out at 7am this morning. I wouldn’t have to be at my first stop until 9am, so I had plenty of time as I set out. One thing you have to realize way up north here in Vermont and New Hampshire is that there isn’t much room for things. These were some of the earliest and first settled areas of the colonial times, so many of the old roads still stand. What might have been fine for smaller horse drawn carriages has over time resulted in long stretches of single lane highways winding through forests and up and down mountains. In fact most of my driving this morning was almost exclusively on mountain roads, with varying stretches of either long gradual inclines and declines and sharp, steep climbs and drops. Just driving the roads themselves was fantastic. It’s times like these I miss my old car. A six-cylinder sedan with squirrely front wheel drive would have been aggressive and reckless on these winding paths. Instead I had my Subaru Forester, a safe and responsible grippy four-wheel drive. Yeah, unfortunately, no matter how much I tried, I never felt unsafe or like I had to wrestle my car to grip the road. Too bad. These roads are also heavily unmonitored, as there’s no room for a cop car to hide, and since Interstates are so much more convenient and spacious, they’re practically empty. I was living out my rally car dreams, racing as fast as I could go. Route 9W is a beautiful and unpredictable road. You’re constantly winding left and right, never seeing more than two turns ahead of or behind you. At some points there are even hairpin turns. As you’re carving your way through the mountains of Vermont you are treated to high towering bridges, low roads running right by the river, and literal cliffside paths keeping you no more than a few feet from the edge. As a road, Route 9 West is to me one of the absolute best to drive in America in terms of quality of pavement (even with the harsh weather and seasons of the Northeast, these rarely used roads don’t see much wear and tear from tires, heavy trucks, or salt), design (long, graceful, elegant curves, sharp banks, a variety of incline, and with bridges, cliffs, and rivers a great mix of driving elements), and overall pleasure to drive (no car traffic at all, no stop signs or lights, and with a speed limit of 50, it’s already pretty generous). For car enthusiasts, your so-called ‘gear heads’ or ‘petrol heads’, I would already recommend Vermont Route 9 West solely for the road itself.
But there’s so much more! Oh, is there just so much more. It had rained the night before, and there was still a slight mist in the air when I left this morning. The roads were still dry and not at all slick, but the entire forest, and it seemed like I was driving through an endless expanse of forest, had that glistening shining fresh mist quality. The woods seemed alive and as you went further and further up the mountain, a beautiful gray fog started to blanket certain spots. Just a few isolated areas where it felt like you were literally driving through clouds. The fog hung suspended, frozen in mid air, wisps of smoke so vivid they were like white fingers reaching out in the middle of the road. As it was cooler in the shade of the trees and with the rain still on the branches I drove with my windows down, enjoying the fresh mountain air and that smell of forest spring rain. Whereas I normally entertain myself on long drives with cheesy dance music and songs I sing *cough*screamandbutcher* to, on this drive I listened to the soft steady roll of my tires on damp road. I saw, either from above on bridges or right beside me at potentially hazardously low sections of highway, wide and mighty and expansive rivers twist and turn and grow and shrink until they were just streams and brooks and I could see the jagged rocks of the river bed. At certain scenic overlooks you could just view over the edge of the road more and more mountain peaks and endless forest. It was sight and smell and sound like you wouldn’t believe. Rolling blankets of mist and fog, sunshine peeking through pockets of trees, running waters, smooth pavement, the smell of rain on leaves. I was half expecting to drive right into the forest in Princess Mononoke or My Neighbor Totoro.
And here’s the most surprising part of this beautiful and thrilling road. Up in the mountains, lost in the mist and fog, surrounded by trees, you’re not alone. I mentioned before that there are a few gorgeous scenic overlooks. Well they’re all connected on what I have to believe are some fairly popular and well known hiking trails. With nary a single driver to be found, I must have encountered a good handful of hikers. Some were walking along the road, others were paused at the various overlooks, still it was nice to see other people enjoying this beautiful area, albeit they have their way and I prefer mine. I’ll admit at a few overlooks I was tempted to stop and take a moment to take it all in and snap a few photos. But I did have a final destination to get to. These would not be the meanderings of a drive for pleasure. (Which is very different from a drive of pleasure, mind you.) Still you felt a little connection with these people as you passed them, knowing that of everything in the world, you are at the very least similar in your appreciation of that moment, that setting, that experience. And I also happened to need gas, and stopped at a little gas station right on the edge of the road, still a good ways away from reconnecting to any major highways or interstates. You know those gas stations. Local, friendly, and this one in particular was run by the very lovely Davenport family. I got to spend some time speaking with one of the owners, a young woman actually. I was surprised when she came out to meet me as I was starting to pump my gas. I’m not used to full service stations outside of New Jersey and yet there she was, not only filling my car but wiping the windshield and checking the oil. I swear that forest really is magic, because she must have stepped out of the 1950s. She laughed at my confusion and said that a lot of people who stop by from way way way out of town are surprised to find a full service station. I was already out of the car and wanted to stretch my legs anyways, so we chatted for a bit. And then she looked at me and asked ‘are you from the Philippines by any chance?’
Well, yes, yes I am. Now how in the middle of Narnia did you figure that out.
Turns out, her grandfather was in the military, and was stationed in the Philippines in the 1910s. She grew up reading the letters her grandfather sent to her father about the beautiful islands and the extremely rural lands and natives. She believes her grandfather was stationed in Iloilo, which would make sense as it was an economic and military center for the Spanish and the United States. She told me how fascinated she was by the descriptions and how she’d grown up always wanting to visit and see for herself the places her grandfather had been to and wrote to her father about. I told her to train herself by sitting in a tiny chair for twenty three hours. But that it would be totally worth it, and that she’d be spoiled for choice in terms of islands and exoticness. It was just a nice surprise to have that thread of a story to grasp at so far from well, anywhere really. But as I pulled out of the gas station it was fun to think here is a family run business that’s been there forever, run by third generation, dreaming about the Philippines and the history and legacy of a family. Route 9 West just kept giving and giving.
As most of you know, I have to travel a lot for my job. Most of it is usually by car. Sometimes I get lucky, and I get a break from ‘highway hypnosis’ with these ventures into smaller roads. Sometimes I get to see more than just barrier walls and metal signs. But never for as long as I had on this road, and never with such an impact. There’s something really beautiful and magical about Route 9 West in Vermont. It’s more than just a fun road to drive. Or a beautiful place to look at. If you’re like me, you’re going to quickly realize that there is more than just a journey to be had here. There are stories. And if you’re not like me and still want to go, I’ll drive you.
Jerel says, ‘Go West, young man, go West’.