It all began with a simple question: What experiences would make for the most unforgettable foliage trip through New England?
Apple picking, sure. A drive down a famed foliage route like the Kancamagus, you bet. But also: Church suppers. Corn mazes. Old-school roadside diners. Small-town football games. Penny candy.
By the time we at Yankee had finished our list, it had shaped up as a kind of fantastic scavenger hunt — one that was so much fun we couldn’t resist trying it ourselves. So two of our most intrepid staffers, deputy editor Ian Aldrich and senior photographer Mark Fleming, are hitting the road this fall to see how many classic New England foliage experiences they can squeeze into a week while driving through towns big and small in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Yankee Fall Foliage Road Trip Updates
Day 1 | October 1, 2018
Maine’s Fryeburg Fair can be a humbling place.
On day one of my weeklong foliage journey with Yankee’s senior photographer, Mark Fleming, I was confronted head-on with a sobering fact: I’m really a lousy anvil thrower. I learned this just after lunch, under overcast skies and amid the ever-present smell of fried everything (dough, fries, and Oreos, for example), as a small crowd gathered to watch a group of men take turns throwing an 18-pound weight.
I had watched with interest and a bit of overconfidence as a series of 20-somethings barely managed to hit the 25-foot mark. When my name was finally called, I picked up the anvil. My confidence didn’t dip a bit. I got a small running start, hit the line, and let it rip. And it was at that precise moment of release that I knew my arrogance had been unwarranted. The chunk of iron didn’t gain much ground clearance and toppled just a short distance in front of me.
“Seventeen feet,” the announcer called. A few sympathy cheers emerged from the crowd.
The ensuing lineup of competitors only hardened the blow. An older man pretending he could barely keep his balance when he picked up the weight blew past my mark. So did a man who looked several years older than him. The only reason I didn’t finish dead last was because the 81-year-old from Rhode Island appeared a little tired from his drive to Maine.
So began my day at the Fryeburg Fair and my weeklong journey with Mark Fleming through the New England autumn. The day got better, to be sure. I got to eat a pile of hot fries, won a stuffed turtle at a water gun competition, watched a beautiful 18-month-old bull take top prize in a cattle show, and witnessed a few veteran woodsmen expertly chop down standing logs so that they landed with a precision on small pumpkins. You’d be surprised at the thrill of seeing such skill. I know I was.
And I suspect there will be even better days to come too. Our trip will be an exercise in all things New England autumn: a haunted corn maze, a townwide fall festival in a postcard-perfect Vermont town, a hike in the New Hampshire White Mountains, and one amazing pumpkin celebration on the Maine coast. We’ll drive through notches and along country roads. I may even enter a pie eating contest. And yes, there will be foliage. It’s early October, we’re up north, and the colors have already started to show.
I’m looking forward to all of it.
But boy, I wish that anvil had sailed a little farther.
Day 2 | October 2, 2018
Bethlehem, New Hampshire
A soggy morning had given way to a soggy afternoon by the time we rolled through Bethlehem, a small town in the western section of New Hampshire’s White Mountains region that has become acclaimed over the years for its preponderance of antiques shops. Mark and I were on our way to Littleton for a little beer and a lot of pizza at Schilling Beer Co., but our dinner plans got postponed when we passed Hundred Acre Wood, a sprawling showcase of self-described “antiques and fun junk” that spilled out of two barns and into the yard it shares with a large farmhouse on Bethlehem’s Main Street.
“We gotta stop,” I told Mark, turning the RV around.
This was, after all, a day for discovery. Thick clouds had shrouded the mountains and a cool rain had tempered any excitement to find big foliage color. On an early-morning scamper up Mount Willard, I’d found the peak socked in by low-hanging clouds. About an hour before, at the nearby Omni Mount Washington Resort, guests had milled about the grand foyer, clutching coffees and peering out the big windows as they waited to reboard their tour bus for a trip to Mount Washington’s peak. Many wondered if they would get a chance to take in those famous views.
Mark and I knew better than to expect any kind of bluebird day. So we meandered. Into North Conway for a late breakfast. Back to the Mount Washington for some cold-weather porch time. Then deep into the western Whites.
Which is how we landed at Hundred Acre Wood. “I named it after the place where I met my wife,” owner Dale Jette explained to me. “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 that is both authoritative and assuring. In his right hand he pinched a cigarette, from which he sporadically took drags as he navigated different topics of discussion, including prices, favorite things he’d sold, and a Rockwell Kent print he was still hoping to get his hands on.
Of the items he already had in stock — well, there were many. Crystal, cabinets, porcelain fixtures, luggage, doorknobs, tin cans, and street signs, for example. Inside one case resided glass tubes of sample oil that Gulf Oil salesmen carried around in the 1940s. Upstairs, in one of the barns, 50 or so chairs hung from the ceiling. An old tub sat near the driveway. Raindrops pinged away at a collection of pots.
At one point, two visitors from Norway stopped in to ask about old license plates. “Over there,” Jette said, directing them to a pair of plastic crates. The men combed through them as if they were flipping through old vinyl. “A lot of New Hampshire stuff,” one of them said after a few moments. “I already have it.” His goal, he later explained, was to collect all 50 states and hang the plates on a wall inside his garage.
“Massachusetts!” his friend exclaimed.
“Hold on,” the man said, pulling out his phone. “I need to check my list.” He peered at his device and then shook his head. “Already got it.”
Just then someone directed him to a Minnesota plate that hung high on the outside of one of the barns. The man looked at his phone again. “No Minnesota. Could I get that one?” he exclaimed to Jette, who was talking to a buddy.
The owner looked up. “That’s gonna run you a bit more, but we can get it down for you.”
After the two Norwegians left, Jette scanned the property. A story seemed ready to surface for every item that in his possession. I could have stayed there all afternoon, rooting around in that sprawl of “fun junk” and listening to Jette talk about how he’d found it. When Mark and I planned our trip, we’d decided to not overbuild our itinerary. 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.
Day 3 | October 3, 2018
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 the hopes for our first sunny day were quickly dashed by cloud cover and on-again, off-again sprinkles. “Not exactly a day for a canopy tour,” I told Mark, who needed no convincing to reject the prospect of exposing his camera equipment to the rain during a two-hour zipline excursion at Bretton Woods.
Instead, we pushed back to North Conway for breakfast and then made our way to the Kancamagus Highway for a 34-mile stretch of intermittent views of mountains and waters. Hopes were raised and hopes were dashed as scraps of blue sky appeared and then were shrouded by cloud cover.
But we drove on, following other like-minded foliage seekers. We stopped at turnoffs for photos and then hopped back into our RV to make good time to the next scenic stop for another round of shots of valleys and slopes. We interspersed ourselves among the others, who’d traveled much longer distances — Italy, China, England — to see these same spots that we merely had to document.
Farther north, we boarded the Cannon Aerial Tram for a seven-minute ride to a cloud-soaked peak. With each new stop, and the same familiar dense cloud cover, Mark just shook his head with disappointment. Atop the Cannon lookout tower, the reality finally sank in: There was color out there, somewhere, but nothing that we would see today. “Tomorrow,” I told Mark. “Maybe tomorrow.” And then I checked the forecast. Seventy percent chance of rain.
So we pushed on again, this time leaving New Hampshire for Vermont and the promise of cider doughnuts at Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury. Yes, dammit. If we were going to be tourists, we were going to go all in.
Cold Hollow did not disappoint. The parking was jammed with cars whose plates read South Carolina, New York, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. “Real Live Vermonters,” a sign promised. And: “Vermont to the Core.”
Apple jellies and butters lined the shelves. Excited visitors scooped up pies and ciders. There was a film on cider making to watch. And while the place seemingly teemed with tourists, general manager Jamie Neuman shrugged it off. Over Columbus Day weekend, the place would truly burst at the seams. “We’ll make 40,000 doughnuts just for those three days,” he told me. “What we have right now is pretty light compared to that.”
Just then, one of his counter servers hurried past him. “Another coach just came in,” she said. Her boss just smiled.
Mark and I let Jamie tend to his new customers and took our dozen doughnuts outside. There on a big porch, among a scattering of other leaf peepers, we sat and ate our treats.
And I’ll tell you this: Being a tourist never tasted so good.
Day 4 | October 4, 2018
Some days begin better than others.
At about 4 this morning I got up to go to the bathroom. In my groggy state I’d forgotten that the handle on the RV’s bathroom door had been uncooperative. Opening the door was tricky — and almost impossible when you’re actually in the bathroom. I forgot, closed myself in, and then quickly realized what I’d done.
As I pulled and yanked on the door, I repeated a simple mantra: Don’t wake up Mark. Don’t wake up Mark. I should have tried harder. As the sound of the door banging in the frame grew louder, it was inevitable where this story was headed.
“You stuck again?” Mark asked.
By again, he meant this had happened before. Right off the bat after we pulled into Fryeburg, I’d found myself secluded in what felt like the tiniest room in the world. “Yeah,” I said sheepishly. “It looks that way.”
“Hold on,” Mark said, jumping down from his bunk. A few seconds later I was a free man. So, no, not the way I wanted to start the day. But thankfully the rest of it turned out much better.
You see, today we went all in on Vermont. It was the full experience. There was a memorable drive up Route 108 through Smugglers’ Notch State Park. Up and up we climbed, along a seemingly narrowing road. At the top we met one of the park’s nature interpreters, a young guy named Matt, who was in the thick of dealing with foliage visitors.
“You can tell pretty quickly who are the folks who’ve never been here,” he told us. “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: stuck trucks and trailers. Around an especially challenging turn known as Shark’s Tooth, which gets its name for the rock that juts into the road, trucks and trailers have known to founder. “You can see a couple of spots where the rock has been chiseled away to free up the vehicle,” Matt said.
We managed just fine, thank you very much. I handled the tight turns, Mark handled the looking-out-the-window part. It was a team effort.
By early afternoon we were in the Northeast Kingdom and parking our RV in the small town of Peacham, often cited as the most photographed town in the state. It’s easy to see why. Rolling farmland, crisp white houses, a steepled church that looks like it was air-dropped from a Hollywood set, and the views. Oh, the views. We got spun around a few times on account of the recommendations on where to take the best scenics.
It didn’t hurt that there was color. We had noticed the shift as we moved farther north. Forests and mountainsides crackled with oranges and reds. It wasn’t peak, but it was awfully close. Even better, it wasn’t cloudy.
We had come north for one specific reason: the Northeast Kingdom Fall Foliage Festival, considered one of the best autumn events in New England. There’s the setting (small towns), the activities (the schedule is jam-packed), and the duration. It’s a weeklong affair that makes its home in a different town each day. Today was Peacham’s turn.
While Mark handled the pictures, I roamed the town. I went to the craft fair in the upstairs of the town hall, had a latte at the Peacham Café, chatted up the director of the festival’s ghost tour, and visited quite possibly the only museum in the world dedicated solely to snow rollers. In between I strolled dirt roads, made my way around a hilltop cemetery, and took in a small concert.
I was not alone. People from as far away as England, Texas, and Kentucky were doing the same. Some were first-time visitors, others were veteran festivalgoers. “I’ve been coming here for 15 years.” “I started visiting in the ’80s.” “I can’t imagine fall without coming to Peacham.” I heard those kinds of things a lot. Apparently the place gets in you, and you don’t want to let it go.
I got it. At the end of the afternoon, I crowded into the church basement with locals and out-of-towners for the town’s big dinner. Heaping pans of pasta kept coming out of the kitchen. “We’re going to cook probably 40 pounds of it tonight,” the supper’s head cook told me. Bread, salad, and a variety of cakes and cookies rounded out the menu. There was talk about the season, the winter to come, and how the rain had maybe held back some of the numbers for this year’s event.When we finished our eating and talking, we said our good-byes and chatted about returning for next year’s festival.
I’m already looking forward to it.
Day 5 | October 5, 2018
We’ve learned a few things about our RV on this trip. The glove compartment door doesn’t stay shut, for example. The radio’s sound is terrible. You never really get used to exactly how wide the thing is. And the shower—it’s, well, kind of small. I took my first in-vehicle shower this morning and got a glimpse into what André the Giant’s life must have been like.
The day itself was one of those spectacular October days that get celebrated in foliage brochures. There were emerging colors and the kind of rich, deep-blue sky that one couple from Michigan told me they never see in their hometown.
The combination of fine foliage and beautiful weather can bring out an excitement and silliness not normally seen in other months of the year. In Taftsville, Vermont, I witnessed a near pileup after a group of tourists pulled over to photograph the town’s covered bridge. In Woodstock, pedestrians seemed out of tune with the traffic that moved up and down the downtown streets. At Quechee Gorge, visitors spun like tops as they tried to capture panoramics of the setting.
But it was our visit to Sleepy Hollow Farm in Pomfret that showed us just what the Vermont foliage scene means to many people. The property sits on a dirt road that climbs out of Woodstock and is lined with old maples and other farms. At the top of one hill, the road flattens for a stretch and sitting below it, in valley of pastures, you’ll find Sleepy Hollow. With its big barns, late-1700s farmhouse, and the way the light hits it just right, Sleepy Hollow is catnip for visiting photographers. On a prime fall morning or early evening, as many as 20 cars may line the road, with shutterbugs hunkered down on the other side of it with their tripods.
Mark and I arrived in the dark, just after 6 a.m. I figured we’d be the first ones there, but that was a wildly uninformed guess. Lin Go, a biologist from China who has spent the past year living in Boston, was already situated. When we arrived, he was walking up and down the road studying the scene, waiting for the first light to emerge. He was clad in a black winter jacket and on his back he wore a large camera pack. He’d left Boston at 3 in the morning to be here and then planned to move on to Jenne Farm in nearby Reading, another popular spot for photographers.
“There is nothing like this in China,” he said, watching the first light emerge. “The colors. I had to get these pictures before I head home.”
As he waited, others came: A man from Pennsylvania who took a slight ribbing for wearing an Orioles jacket in Red Sox country. A group of Vietnamese photographers who’d traveled as a club from their homes in southern California. A young father named Aim who’d driven from Los Angeles with his wife and their three young children, including a 3-month-old.
“We go on a long trip when my wife is on maternity leave,” Aim explained to me. “As soon as the doctor says we can travel, we get in our van and just start driving.”
They’d essentially been on the road for two solid months, seeing much of the East and living out of a red minivan. It put any gripes Mark and I had about our much larger RV into perspective. “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 said, and laughed. “I get the mornings and evenings to shoot and then I have to put the camera away.”
Mark and I stayed at Sleepy Hollow for a good two hours, and Aim was there for much of it. Later that morning I went by the farm one last time, and Aim was just packing up. He’d been there close to four hours. The good morning light had finally passed and it was time for him to get back on the road.
“I got some good stuff, I think,” he said. “Such a beautiful spot.”
After leaving Woodstock on Friday afternoon, Mark and I cruised north again, this time to the Northeast Kingdom town of Danville, home of the Great Vermont Corn Maze. This 24-acre patch of farmland is New England’s largest maze and on average takes visitors close to three hours to complete. The setup includes an underground tunnel and a 28-foot cabin cruiser fixed above the corn.
“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,” the farm and maze’s owner, Mike Boudreau, told me.
Mark and I had come not to get lost, though, but rather to get the bejesus scared out of us. For four nights every October, Boudreau hosts Dead North, a haunted attraction that takes participants through the corn maze and into various buildings as different costumed characters — some with deformed heads, some with no heads at all — jump out from the dark. All of this while you march to the sound of death metal raging in the background. The terrifyingly terrific production has achieved legendary status up north and its 2,000 tickets sell out quickly.
Friends and volunteers all chip in: building sets, playing characters, making the kind of noises that in the dark of night, on a farm, some three miles at the end of a network of dirt roads, can easily make a grown man scream. In my case, many, many times. Sometimes I tried to play it cool and just say hi to whoever was trying to terrify me.
“What are you doing?” Mark asked at one point.
“Just trying to diffuse the situation,” I explained.
For most of the 40 minutes I spent making my way through the course, I held my hands up, as if I were ready to box. At one point a man emerged from the corn with a revving chainsaw. Demented clowns came to life in one area; a room of spinning kaleidoscope colors threw our balance off in another. In the cornfield a character quietly came up behind Mark and simply whispered, “Run.”
“Ahhhhh,” he yelled, running into me.
Endorphins pumping, Mark and I hopped back into the RV after completing the haunted course and pushed east, toward Augusta, Maine. We rumbled through the White Mountains and through a scattering of small towns in western Maine. It was just past 1 in the morning when we arrived at our lodging place for the night: a Walmart parking lot.
Day 6 | October 6, 2018
Early the next morning we launched our day by grabbing breakfast at Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro. Then, after sampling a few Macouns at Hope Orchards, we headed south to Damariscotta and its famous Pumpkinfest.
There are themed festivals, and then there’s what you find in Damariscotta. Over the course of several days, the mighty autumn gourd is celebrated with events such as a pumpkin carving show, the crowning of a pumpkin queen, a pumpkin dessert contest, a pumpkin weigh-in, and a pumpkin regatta that courses through the town harbor.
We had come specifically for the parade and the pie eating contest. As some 5,000 visitors looked on, monster trucks, classic cars, unicyclists, pumpkin fairies, pumpkin go-carts, fire engines, and bagpipers all rolled down Route 1.
I was there and I wasn’t. You see, I was slated to compete in the pie eating contest immediately afterward. As we planned this trip, it had been one of the events I looked forward to the most. But as a few hundred people assembled to watch a selected crew gorge, hands free, on a single pie as fast as they could, I began having second thoughts.
“I’ve done the hot dog eating contest in Thomaston, Maine, the last couple of years,” one of my competitors told me. “That was hard.” He paused, then looked back at me. “And kind of gross.”
A younger guy standing next to us put on a brave face. “I got this,” he informed us. “I’m gonna win.”
Nearby, a recent winner, a 20-year-old Damariscotta woman named Deja, also expressed confidence. “I’m ready,” she told me.
As I slipped on a black garbage bag and stared down at a pie coated with a thick layer of whipped cream, I clearly wasn’t ready. I looked up at Mark, who flashed an amused smile. If I had been expecting a little bit of sympathy from my copilot, I wasn’t finding it.
I have to say, I started out OK. Following the advice of an insider, I began by flipping the tray over with my teeth so the crust base was facing up. Then I removed the tray and smashed my face in. Those first few moments moved quickly. I ate, came up for air, then ate some more. This isn’t so bad, I thought. But about a third of the way through, I hit a wall. I looked up at the sky, bent forward, looked up and down the table at my fellow contestants — anything to distract from the task at hand. Then I went in for some more.
But not that much more. I finished maybe a little more than half the pie before I tapped out. Forget pride, or the blue ribbon that awaited the champion eater. In fact, there could have been a million dollars awaiting the winner and I couldn’t have eaten any more.
I groaned on the way back to the RV, a bit delirious and more than a little curious about when I might actually be hungry again.
“I’m ready to go home,” I told Mark. He was in complete agreement.
So we pointed our big vehicle south, and that’s where we headed.
Meet the Road-Trippers
Ian Aldrich: A native New Englander, Ian has worked and freelanced for Yankee for the past decade. He writes feature stories and helps manage the magazine’s up-front section, “First Light.” His stories have ranged from exploring the community impact from a church poisoning in a small town in northern Maine to dissecting the difficulties facing Nantucket around its problems with erosion. Ian is also an accomplished photographer and produces online videos for NewEngland.com. In addition to his connection to Yankee, Ian worked as a senior editor of Cincinnati Magazine for several years.
Follow Ian on Twitter @ialdrich and on Instagram @aldrichian.
Mark Fleming: An award-winning photographer and director, Mark has spent nearly two decades in the photography industry. A graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology’s photojournalism program, he served as director of photography for Down East before joining Yankee in 2016 as senior photographer. A self-professed geek, Mark loves History Channel documentaries, keeps back editions of National Geographic for reference material, and can quote nearly every line from Jaws. He makes a point to try any local beer he can get his hands on and attempts to mitigate the resulting calories by dodging traffic on his road bike.
Follow Mark on Twitter @mfphoto and on Instagram @mfphoto.