I’m back on the East Coast to take my 83-year-old mother to my father’s 65th West Point reunion. I’ve spent a lot of time living on the East Coast including four years of college at Mount Holyoke. I enjoyed my time there, but, since I spent a stint in Tucson Arizona as a seventh grader, I knew I was at heart, a Westerner. So I was interested to see how I’d react to being back East, especially viewing it through the lens I use to view the West. If you’ve been hanging around this blog long enough, you know I love road trips. Since I flew into Boston and had to get myself to West Point, New York, I assumed I’d just hop in my rental car and follow my usual road trip modus operandi. Not so fast. The East Coast, as I should have remembered, is very very different from the West.
My first challenge was finding my usual type of travel route — meandering back roads that ideally pass historic sites or follow historic paths. I did find a few scenic byways on the map, but they were way out of my way. In the end, I defaulted to the Mass Turnpike, not at all the kind of road I usually travel. But it did prove interesting. It seems to speed past just about everything and in the middle of nothing. Most of the exits lead you to “travel plazas” that are combination rest stops and fast food malls. I was hoping for small New England classic diners. I had to settle for Papa Gino’s and Dunkin Donuts. Speaking of Dunkin Donuts. Is there one on literally every corner in New England? Granted the West Coast runs on espresso, the East Coast seems to run on Dunkin Donuts. So pervasive are they, I started to think, if they could be repurposed every November as polling places, no one would ever be disenfranchised. Because you couldn’t walk out of any home in New England and step ten paces without reaching one.
Anyway, on to the Mass Pike. I began applying the observation skills to the landscape that I do in the West. Sorry Massachusetts, you came up short. Perhaps the comparison is unfair at this particular point since the West Coast (thanks, El Niño!) is much more lush than the East Coast right now. While Massachusetts and Connecticut are just emerging out of winter, the West Coast is in the middle of a huge once in a decade flowering. Another thing I enjoy looking at as I speed down the road is the topography. Which is not as easy in New England as it is in the West. I’d forgotten how scrubby the trees and foliage are here — testament to very rocky, poor soil. Sure, we have rocky fragile soil in the West, but, as a backdrop, we have fantastic multi-colored bluffs, cliffs and canyons. But, I was on a turnpike, so I determined to enjoy what the turnpike had to offer. The most interesting thing was a rest stop detour near Worcester where I met dozens of Boy Scouts on a camp out. Seems they were headed to a campground just off the turnpike, so not exactly wilderness, but kudos for getting somewhat off the grid. It was also interesting to be reminded of the unique force that is a posse of young teenage boys. A huge pack of them was ahead of me walking into the rest stop, and like a plague of locusts, they picked the vending machines clean. It takes a lot of calories to be a teenage boy.
One thing I’ve noticed about the West is that the scenery seems to change dramatically almost as soon as you hit the state line. Between Massachusetts and Connecticut I noticed no change. I assumed the whole trip would be homegeneous. Then I hit the Hudson River Valley of New York. Almost from the moment I passed the Welcome to New York sign, the landscape became instantly lusher and more mountainous. Since my frame of reference is usually shaped by movies, I immediately flashed back to that old gothic mystery flick Dragonwyck with Vincent Price as a murderous Hudson River Dutch aristocratic land owner and Gene Tierney as the wife he terrorizes. I got very excited when I got to Yorktown, thinking I’d be coming upon loads of “George Washington slept here” signs and historical markers — and you know I break for all historical markers. However, I quickly learned, after pulling into the local Methodist Church parking lot to Google, that I was in the wrong Yorktown. The right Yorktown was in Virginia.
Not to fear. I was headed to the United States Military Academy at West Point that, before it was a college, was an important fortification on the Hudson. So I planned to bump into a lot of historical markers. However, I hadn’t planned on how long it would take to check into the Thayer Hotel on a major West Point reunion weekend. If you are trying to get a desk clerk to help you and you are competing against a bunch of retired military officers who know how to command attention, you are going to lose. By the time I got my key and checked in, I was starving — having eaten nothing but a watery cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee all day. So, instead of a quick tour of West Point — which I’ll take with the alums later anyway, I stumbled into the General George Patton Tavern for some sort of sustenance. There I contemplated the Hudson from the tavern windows and wondered two things: why wasn’t the tavern named after famous local innkeeper Benny Havens and why does West Point — which has historical markers on every square inch of property — have nothing commemorating the infamous Egg Nog Riots of 1826. This was an eggnog fueled riot — led by that old trouble-maker Jefferson Davis of Confederacy fame. If you read the linked article, you’ll find Davis was one of the ringleaders who secured the rum from the famous Benny Havens Tavern as well as the cream from a surrounding dairy. He was in the thick of the partying but had the luck to pass out in his room before the authorities showed up and cracked down. I have a particularly affinity for the Eggnog Riot as one of my distant ancestors, Ethan Allen Hitchcock (grandson of famous Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen) was the faculty member who discovered the drunken brawl and broke it up. He bounced 19 cadets for the fracas, but old Jefferson Davis, asleep in a pool of his own vomit, escaped to drink again.
I am pleased to report that, although there were many former cadets in the General Patton Tavern, no one was drinking egg nog and all were behaving as officers and gentlemen.