Connecticut. I knew it was one of the first 13 colonies. I knew it was adjacent to New York, and understood it was part of an amorphous mass called New England. I knew it was small. But my first real interest probably came from reading “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain. What did this state look like?
To get there, I crossed over a bit of New York, saving the bigger states for later when I made my return trip down the neck of America. Since I was running out of money, I decided to gobble up a bunch of smaller states first, and even combine a few of them (cheat) into one week, in an effort to retrieve some lost time.
After some creative routing off the freeway, I found a safe frontage road state sign and dutifully performed my border dance. To liven it up, I wore Mickey Mouse gloves I’d picked up in Florida several months before, waved to a few bemused passing cars, and tried to ignore the guy who pulled-over to film me with his iPhone.
The Connecticut Visitor’s Center was closed, so I grabbed a picnic table and looked at my atlas. I figured I’d aim for New Haven and Yale, the alma mater of my uncle, and the location of the world’s first hamburger. The Yale campus was composed mostly of gray stone with turrets, ornate carvings of pilgrims shooting Indians, and fountains. I wandered through the empty echoing dining halls, students with back-packs were strewn across the green lawns; I peered into a few coffee-shops, poked into Urban-Outfitters, and perused an Apple store, waiting for 10am to roll around and the famous burger restaurant, just a few short blocks away, to open. But my plans were foiled, it was closed, locked-up, shut for business, and my breakfast consisted of a soggy slice of pizza instead.
The state was so small I’d decided to zig-zag, bouncing down to New Haven, up to Providence, back down to Essex, and across to Mystic. Everything seemed about 40 minutes away from each other. When I entered Providence, the sky was heavy with rain. I parked the Chief downtown and tried to talk a guard into letting me into the Athaneam Art Museum for a Wyeth exhibition. Foiled again, closed on Tuesdays. He suggested I hit the library for its gun collection, where I found myself funneled into a riotous knot of uninterested school children. From there I planned to walk to Mark Twain’s house but it was raining and I, of course, forgot my umbrella. So I jogged through the park under the gold-roofed capitol building and returned dripping to the car.
Author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house was right next door but only available for private tours. I walked past and into an Asian restaurant perched incongruously on the edge of the Mark Twain museum. I avoided the bookstore, opting instead to spend the money on a guided tour of his house.
Each room had a distinctive character, much of it filled with souvenirs from the couple’s extensive travels. There was a lot of wood, and the walls shimmered with painted stenciled patterns. The Twain home was made to entertain, containing various sitting rooms and a jungle filled atrium where their kids played hide-and-seek. Our guide told us about the famous author’s time in Virginia City and San Francisco, how he was considered one of the nation’s first stand-up comedians, his move to Connecticut and marriage, followed by his bouts of drinking, and the tragic loss of his children.
That evening over Dorito tacos, I found myself talking to the manager of Taco Bell. From Ohio, the manager moved to Connecticut only a few years prior. He said the people here were noticeably different. Retired from business he’d returned because he liked it, but admitted he was also waiting for his pension. Quietly beside him sat another Taco Bell worker from Nigeria. He said the winter here was really mild this year, but they had horrible ice-storms a few years back leaving the region without electricity for 5 days. Every hotel was full. The freeze came so early in the season that the trees hadn’t lost their leaves, and the thick ice toppled electric wires. People collected at Taco Bell just for warmth and food. The manager regretted they didn’t have any WiFi then; I regretted they didn’t have any now. But the chain would offer it nationally by this October. Before I left, they let me take their picture.
The next day I drove through beautiful country on the way to Essex, making a spontaneous stop at Gillette Castle, an idiosyncratic edifice of piled stones that looked like it belonged on the moors of Scotland, especially with the mists rising up from the Connecticut River. The grounds were an explosion of green. I padded over the trails to the ponds, listened to the surrounding birds and water dripping like percussion from the branches. On the way out, roads led past Nathan Hale’s school house, red barns dotted fields carved from the verdant forest
Essex was a river port town complete with a park gazebo. A silver sky blended into the gray river. I bought a turkey sandwich from a Bolivian lady and chatted with her about her country, walked through a boatyard full of masts, and the small quaint shops packed with maritime merchandise. The homes and lawns coincided with my image of what New England must be. Kids played on the dock near the water; I talked to a man fishing alone at its end. A single shiny fish lay in his bucket. He’d grown up in the area, and was fascinated by reptiles, a hobby of his. He told me to visit Litchfield in the Northwestern part of the state, saying it was some of the most beautiful country he’d seen. I doubted if I could make it.
With afternoon to spare, I would check out the famous Foxwoods Casino on a local Indian reservation; among the most successful in the country. It was a mammoth structure of ringing machines, conferences rooms, and restaurant halls full of people with fanny packs. It didn’t take me long to make the circuit and sling-shot back to the Chief. I drove over a slender bridge and prowled around New London at sunset, before settling into a Walmart in Mystic for the night.
I pretend to exercise frequently but I don’t. On the rare occasions I do, I like to believe it’s the beginning of a sequence I’ll maintain. Generally, the sequence doesn’t last for long. But this morning I actually got up to do it. I found a park on my Nav and pulled into its nearly empty parking lot, ready to punish my muscles. Half-way through a set on the jungle gym, someone called my attention. A man in glasses approached and asked what I was doing. Pull-ups I said. He told me I was on the grounds of an elementary school and that they didn’t know who I was. I peered over his shoulders to see the school windows full of small faces peering back. I apologized, sometimes I didn’t pay attention; I thought it was a park. I smiled and said I understood why a swarthy man in a van on school property might cause concern. We shook hands and I left. So much for exercising. But to my surprise I actually found another park and finished my routine, with visions of doing it again the next day. Post work-out hunger soon set in, so I headed deeper into Mystic for its famous pizza and breakfast.
Julia Roberts wasn’t there, but the pizza was good. Mystic was a hilly town of pretty streets and houses. A bridge opened over the dark blue river to let the sailboats pass. I was lured into a bookstore, talked to the staff and exchanged recommendations. This led me to buying a pair of books and heading to the water to read. The sun was out, the air smelled like the beginning of summer. Returning to the Chief, I opened the sky-lights, rolled down the windows, and pointed his nose towards Rhode Island.