Vermont’s Smugglers’ Notch may have earned
its name as a favored route for bringing in Canadian contraband, but today the spectacular fall color in this mountain pass makes it a magnet for foliage chasers.
Peak autumn, for me, arrived the moment I plunged my face into a pumpkin pie.
It was early October, one of those bluebird New England days that in the fall are posted on Instagram as feverishly as baby Archie sightings. I was in Maine for the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest and Regatta, an annual event in which gourds are carved and weighed, a pumpkin queen is crowned, and several inventive folks paddle through the harbor in what may be the only pumpkin boat race in the world. Pumpkin fairies and pumpkin go-carts parade down Main Street. It’s silly and fun, and at any other time of year it would border on the ridiculous.
But this was fall in New England.
Which is why I ended up seated at a long table next to 10 others, all of us draped in black plastic trash bags, at the festival’s celebrated pie eating contest. In the kids’ event, two-time champion Zachary Reed had eaten his way to another title, raising his hands triumphantly just before he inhaled the last of his pie. Now it was the grown-ups’ turn to entertain (or disgust?) the few hundred spectators who’d assembled to watch each of us consume, without using our hands, a whole pumpkin pie in the shortest amount of time.
It was a fitting end to the six-day road trip I’d just taken with photographer Mark Fleming. Living out of an RV, we traversed through Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, looking to squeeze maximum autumn from each day. We joined the crowds at country fairs, hiked to mountaintop vistas, took the hairpin turns of Vermont’s Smugglers’ Notch. We picked apples, caught sunrise at one of the most photogenic farms ever, and discovered just how terrifying a haunted corn maze could be. For two native New Englanders whose job it is to tell others how to enjoy fall, we wanted to rediscover the wonder that brings so many visitors to our region for these brief shining weeks.
And also to embrace the fact that in October, at least, it’s OK to stick your face into a whipped cream–slathered pie in public.
For my money, there’s no agricultural fair that quite matches the Fryeburg Fair, which sees more than 300,000 people descending on this western Maine town (population 3,449) during fair week in early October. All manner of farm life is front and center at the fair, which pays homage to rural living while simultaneously turning many of its traditional chores into seat-of-your-pants competitions.
A soft rain falls as Mark and I make our way to the woodmen’s station, where beefy guys with handsaws slice through thick blocks of pine like butter, and show off their ax skills as they vie to chop wood the fastest. Beside me, a woman wearing a black hoodie that reads I’D RATHER OWN A STIHL has her eyes locked on the competition, arms crossed, as participants in the tree felling contest attempt to bring standing logs down onto pumpkin targets a good 20 feet away.
Elsewhere, there are more seemingly manageable games of chance and skill—the chin-up bar, for instance. For five bucks, you can take a shot at hanging on for two minutes. The prize: your choice of a stuffed toy.
“I’m gonna tell you, that ain’t no joke,” a guy in a thick flannel shirt informs me. “I lasted about a minute.” He shakes his head, laughs. “It’s harder than it looks.”
Undeterred, I pay up and grab the bar. I hit the minute mark … and then the bar starts to roll. I strain to hold on. I drop.
Back among the onlookers, I find some are dissecting my failure. “I think if you close your thumbs around the bar you can prevent yourself from rolling,” one man says, between bites of fried dough.
“You’ve done it?” I ask him.
“Nah.” He finishes off his last bite. “Just thinkin’ about it. Right now, I’m just studying the physics of the thing.”
There is more humbling to come.
Under overcast skies and amid the ever-present smell of fried everything (from dough to Oreos), I watch as a group of men take turns throwing an 18-pound anvil. A series of 20-somethings barely hit the 25-foot mark—and still I’m feeling confident when my name is called. I pick up the weight, get a small running start, and let it rip. Or, to be more accurate, let it kerplunk.
“Seventeen feet,” the announcer calls. A few sympathy cheers go up from the crowd.
I suffer the indignity of watching an older man, after pretending he couldn’t keep his balance when picking up the anvil, blow right past my mark. As does a man who looks several years older than him. The only reason I don’t finish last is because of the 81-year-old from Rhode Island who is a little tired from his drive to Maine.
The day does improve. Mark and I eat a pile of hot fries, I win a stuffed turtle at a water gun competition, and we watch a blushing 14-year-old New Hampshire girl accept a blue ribbon for her beautiful 18-month-old bull, Burkie, in the cattle show. In the dairy barn, I listen as a farmer on a stool is holding court. “Two people came in yesterday and went on about our bulls,” he says. “‘They aren’t bulls,’ I told them. ‘They’re cows.’ I mean, how can you not know that?”
It’s a fine start to our journey. But I do wish that anvil had sailed a little farther.
A soggy morning has given way to a soggy afternoon by the time we roll through Bethlehem, New Hampshire, a small town in the western White Mountains that’s known for its antiques shops. Mark and I are on our way to Littleton for pizza and some Belgians at Schilling Beer Company, but our dinner plans get postponed when we see Hundred Acre Wood, a self-described showcase of “antiques and fun junk” that spills out of two barns on Bethlehem’s Main Street.
“We gotta stop,” I tell Mark.
After all, this had already been a day for discovery. On an early-morning scamper up Mount Willard, I found the peak socked in by fog. It was much the same at the nearby Omni Mount Washington Resort, where guests milled about the grand foyer, clutching coffees and peering out the big windows as they waited for a shuttle to the Mount Washington Auto Road. Among them were an English couple on a trip that would take them to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. “We’re going for the full American experience!” the husband declared cheerfully.
From the hotel, Mark and I meandered around North Conway before hitting the road that had now led us to Hundred Acre Wood.
“I named it after the place where I met my wife,” owner Dale Jette tells us. “It was a blustery day. Winnie-the-Pooh, you know?”
Jette, who opened his business 27 years ago, is tall with a deep, gravelly voice. In his right hand he pinches a cigarette, on which he takes the occasional drag as he navigates various topics of discussion: prices, favorite things he’s sold, a Rockwell Kent print he’s still hoping to get his hands on.
Of the items Jette already has in stock—well, there are many. Crystal, cabinets, porcelain fixtures, luggage, doorknobs, tin cans, street signs. Inside one case are glass tubes of oil samples that Gulf Oil salesmen carried around in the 1940s. In one of the barns, 50 or so chairs hang from the ceiling. An old tub sits near the driveway. Raindrops ping away at a collection of pots.
At one point, two visitors from Norway ask about old license plates.
“Over there,” Jette says, directing them to a pair of plastic crates. The Norwegians, one of whom is collecting the plates from all 50 states to hang in his garage, comb through these as if they’re flipping through vintage vinyl. “A lot of New Hampshire,” one man says after a few moments. “I already have it,” the other replies.
“Massachusetts!” his friend exclaims.
“Hold on,” the man says, pulling out his phone. “I need to check my list.” He shakes his head. “Already got it.” Then he sees a Minnesota plate hanging high on the outside of one of the barns. He checks his phone again. “No Minnesota,” he says.
“Could I get that one?” he asks Jette.
Jette looks up. “That’s gonna run you a bit more, but we can get it down for you.”
After the Norwegians leave, Jette scans the property. A story seems ready to surface for how he found every item in that sprawl of “fun junk.”
When we planned our trip, we knew we needed space for the unexpected. To meet people we hadn’t planned on meeting. To discover places we hadn’t planned on visiting.
Like Dale Jette and his Hundred Acre Wood.
Next week, next month, or next year—whenever my mind drifts back to this trip—I’ll know that this was the day Mark and I became bona fide foliage tourists. The seeds were planted in the morning, when hopes for our first sunny day were dashed by clouds and drizzle. We scrapped our zipline excursion at Bretton Woods and pushed on to the Kancamagus Highway, the 34-mile east-west mountain pass between Conway and Lincoln that’s known as New England’s most scenic road.
The Kanc is blessed by what it doesn’t have. No restaurants. No shops. No gas stations. Instead, travelers drop into the middle of the White Mountain National Forest, where the scenery is the only focus. Each year, some 775,000 cars travel this highway—and if you time it wrong in autumn, it can feel as if every single one of them is sharing the road with you.
Fortunately, traffic is light as we begin climbing the Kanc. Scraps of blue sky appear only to be shrouded again by clouds, but we drive on, following like-minded foliage seekers. We take our time, stopping at turnoffs for photos of leafy slopes and valleys. I meet travelers from Italy, China, England—all here to see what I, as a New Hampshire native, have seen my whole life.
“I was here many years ago,” says an older man from Israel, looking wistfully at the Sandwich Range. Then he smiles. “I drove up Mount Washington and got the sticker for my car.”
Farther north, we get a dramatic gain in elevation on the Cannon Aerial Tram, which has hauled tourists to the top of its namesake mountain since 1938. The seven-minute ride takes us to a cloud-soaked peak, and photographer Mark shakes his head with disappointment. There is color out there somewhere, but nothing that we would see today. “Tomorrow,” I tell him. “Maybe tomorrow.” And then I check the forecast. Seventy percent chance of rain.
Well, there’s the promise of Vermont. One of the things for which New England is celebrated is the sheer variety of landscapes that fit into this compact region. All week we see this. At lunch, we’re atop Cannon’s granite peak; two hours later we’re rolling past the sloping pastures, red barns, and white farmhouses that line Vermont’s Route 2. Stretching into the distance are vast expanses of browning cornfields, retired for the year. No bursting reds and bright oranges, but beautiful just the same.
We stop first at Waterbury’s Cold Hollow Cider Mill, whose parking lot is jammed with cars from South Carolina, New York, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. “I hate apple cider,” Mark says as he hops out of the RV, “but I do love cider doughnuts.”
When you step onto the grounds of Cold Hollow, the Vermontiness blasts at you. real live vermonters, a sign promises. And: vermont to the core. Housed in a former dairy barn, Cold Hollow is an apple lover’s Shangri-La. There’s a bakery turning out fresh pies and crisps, as well as the mill that makes fresh cider—from McIntoshes grown on the shores of Lake Champlain—every day on a vintage press. More apple goodies line the shelves: butters, honeys, vinaigrettes, salsas, jellies. There’s a film on cider-making to watch.
But on this cool October day, seemingly everyone is here for the cider doughnuts, which are made by four “doughnut robots” and which topple, fresh from the hot grease, onto a counter in front of everyone, impossible to resist.
At the center of all the action is general manager Jamie Neuman, who takes the crush of visitors in stride. “We’ll make 40,000 doughnuts just for Columbus Day weekend,” he says. “What we have right now is pretty light compared to that.” Then, anticipating the question he gets asked all the time, he adds, “I still eat the doughnuts. Every day. But there’s a point where you have to limit yourself, so you don’t go home smelling like one.”
A counter server hurries past. “Another coach just came in,” she says frantically.
Neuman peers out the window and shrugs his shoulders. A foliage pro.
Our day begins early, with a drive up Route 108 through Smugglers’ Notch State Park. Up and up we climb, along what feels like an ever- narrowing road. At the top we meet one of the park’s nature interpreters, who is in the thick of dealing with foliage visitors.
“You can tell pretty quickly which folks have never been here,” he says. “They always honk when they’re going around the corners. That’s what it says you should do on the Wikipedia page for this place, but nobody who’s from here does it.”
Another sign of newbies: stuck trucks and trailers. On the turn known as the Shark’s Tooth, which gets its name from the rock that juts into the road, larger vehicles have known to founder. “You can see a couple of spots where the rock has been chiseled away to free up somebody,” the interpreter says with a laugh.
Mark and I manage just fine, thank you. I handle the tight turns, he handles the looking-out-the-window part. It’s a team effort.
By early afternoon we arrive in the small town of Peacham. Here in the Northeast Kingdom, defined by villages surrounded by broad swaths of forest, is one of the country’s best fall celebrations. Over the course of a full week the Northeast Kingdom Fall Foliage Festival rolls through the region, with different communities hosting each day. Today is Peacham’s turn.
This town of 732 residents is one of the most photographed in the state, and it’s easy to see why: rolling farmland, crisp white houses, and a steepled church that looks as though it was air-dropped from a Hollywood set. From the town center, a dirt road rises to a hilltop cemetery before dropping down again into lush farmland.
Autumn gives a small town like Peacham the chance to let go of its quiet remoteness and show off a little, to brag about what’s here and what life is like. In the town center, people from as far away as Texas and Kentucky roam and linger. On the patio of the Peacham Café. At the elementary school, where fifth- and sixth-graders serve up lunch. At the craft fair and along the ghost walk. Many festivalgoers are veterans. “I’ve been coming here for 15 years.” “I started visiting in the ’80s.” And: “I can’t imagine fall without coming to Peacham.”
Marne Kies-Dietterich, a retired social worker from Pennsylvania, is one of the regulars. I find her sitting at the visitors table at what is possibly the world’s only snow roller museum, scribbling a note to museum founder Richard Hovey. “I just think this is the best thing in the world,” she says, pumping her fist. Kies-Dietterich had never heard of this part of Vermont until 30 years ago, when she read about it in a magazine. “They were looking for people to help the seniors get ready for winter, so I volunteered,” she recalls. “I started coming during the festival and just got hooked. I come this week every year and go to all the towns.” She laughs. “Most people don’t even know my name—they just know me as the lady from Pennsylvania.”
At the end of the afternoon, Mark and I join Kies-Dietterich and others in the town church basement for the big festival dinner. Heaping pans of pasta keep coming out of the kitchen. “We’re going to cook probably 40 pounds of it tonight,” the supper’s head cook tells me. Bread, salad, and cake and cookies round out the menu.
At the tables, people talk about the season, the winter ahead, and how the rain had maybe held back some of the numbers for this year’s event.
And of course, they talk about next year.
It’s funny the effect that a fine fall day can have on normal human behavior.
In Taftsville, Vermont, I witness a near-pileup after a group of tourists pulled over to photograph a covered bridge. In Marshfield, people snap away at another covered bridge that is, truly, just a covered walking path. At Quechee Gorge, visitors spin like tops as they try to capture panoramics. In Woodstock, a local tells me it’s not uncommon to see grown women pick up leaves from the sidewalk and slip them into their handbags like rare jewelry stones.
But it’s our visit to Sleepy Hollow Farm in Pomfret that shows us just what the Vermont foliage scene means to many people. With its big barns, late-1700s farmhouse, and knack for catching the light just right, Sleepy Hollow is catnip for photographers. In the morning or early evening, the narrow dirt road to the farm may be lined with as many as 20 cars, as shutterbugs hunker down with their tripods.
Mark and I arrive shortly after 6 a.m. It’s still dark. We figured we’d be the first visitors, but we are wrong. Lin Go, a biologist from China who has been living in Boston, is already walking the road to study the setting, waiting for first light. He left Boston at 3 in the morning and planned to move on to Jenne Farm, the other most-photographed property in Vermont, in nearby Reading.
“There is nothing like this in China,” he says. “The colors. I had to get these pictures before I head home.”
Soon, others come: A man from Pennsylvania who gets ribbed for wearing an Orioles jacket in Red Sox country. A group of Vietnamese photographers from southern California. Perhaps most impressive, a young father named Aim who’s driven from Los Angeles with his wife and their three children, including a 3-month-old.
“We go on a long trip when my wife is on maternity leave,” Aim explains. “As soon as the doctor says we can travel, we get in our van and just start driving.”
Already they’ve been on the road for two solid months, living out of a red minivan. “I saw a photo of this farm while we were at Niagara Falls, and I told my wife I had to see it to photograph it,” Aim says, and laughs. “I get the mornings and evenings to shoot, and then I have to put the camera away.”
Mark and I linger at Sleepy Hollow for two hours, and Aim doesn’t leave. Later that morning, I drive by the farm once more and find him packing up. It’s been nearly four hours, and only just now is his family waking up. The best morning light has passed. It’s time to get back on the road.
At times our trip teeters on the ridiculous, with an itinerary whose ambition we didn’t truly appreciate when drawing it up. Yesterday we were in the Northeast Kingdom. This morning we’re in Woodstock. Late tonight we’ll make the long drive through New Hampshire to Maine.
But before we do, we head all the way back to the Northeast Kingdom to Danville’s Patterson Farm, home of the Great Vermont Corn Maze, the largest in New England. It’s a 24-acre mind-bender whose setup includes an underground tunnel and a 28-foot cabin cruiser parked amid the corn. On average, completing it takes nearly three hours. Other mazes celebrate fall; this one dares you to sweat it out.
“You have to arrive before 1 p.m. to do it, because I’m not going to hold your hand to find your way out,” says owner Mike Boudreau.
Over the past several weeks, Boudreau has slept only a few hours a night, because he’s also the architect of one of the most remarkable Halloween destinations in New England. For four nights every October, the farm hosts Dead North, a haunted attraction that takes participants through the fields and into various buildings while costumed characters—some with deformed heads, some with no heads at all—leap out from the dark. All of this, to the sound of death metal raging in the background. Launched in 2001, the production quickly achieved legendary status, and its 2,000 tickets sell out quickly.
Boudreau sports a shaved head and a lean build, which on this day is wrapped in a trench coat stained with fake blood. “I spend the year making stuff I can’t find,” he says—for instance, equipment needed to make a character burst from a grave. After building a suitable contraption, he convinced a friend, a state cop, to play the body. “Each time, we shot him three or four feet in the air and six feet forward,” Boudreau says. “He was exhausted.”
Friends and volunteers build sets, play characters, and make the kinds of noises that, in the dead of night, on a farm at the end of a dirt road, can make a grown man scream. Many, many times, as I discover when Mark and I take the Dead North tour that night.
I keep running into the young woman in front of me. At some point I just give up apologizing; she gives up telling me it’s OK. At other times I try to play it cool and say hi to whoever is jumping out from the dark. But not a single part of me is relaxed. During most of the 40 minutes it takes us to navigate the course, my hands are tight fists, as if I’m ready to fight.
One man emerges from the corn with a revving chainsaw. Later, demented clowns spring to life; a room of spinning kaleidoscope colors makes me dizzy.
Someone creeps up behind Mark and whispers, “Run.”
“AHHHHHH!” he yells, hurtling into me.
When it’s over, Mark and I are … what? Relieved? Excited? Even capable of operating a large vehicle? We have no option regarding the latter: We’re due in Maine for the pumpkin festival and my date with a pie eating contest. So, adrenaline pumping, we drive.
I know people are watching, and I start strong. On the advice of an insider, I use my teeth to flip the pie tin upside down. Then I remove the tin and crash my face into the crust. The first few moments, I eat almost by instinct. Mouth opens, mouth closes.
But soon my drive ebbs, vanishes. I think I may never want to eat pumpkin pie again. Ever. I look up at the sky, bend forward, look at my fellow contestants, then glance over at Mark, who stands among the onlookers. Is he laughing? I try to go in one more time.
In the end, I consume barely half of what becomes a giant mess of whipped cream and pumpkin filling.
It was how the trip had to end: an over-the-top attempt to devour everything before time’s up. Just like autumn. It’s a season of beauty and bounty, but its true allure lies in its brevity. It is so brief, so defined, that we have to make each day count, with fairs and festivals, showy corn mazes, and unusual methods of calorie consumption. That’s the autumn Mark and I set out to discover, and that’s the season we found during our week on the road.
But damn, that was a lot of pie.