I first meet Scotty Johnston at Boston’s Omni Parker House hotel, the gathering place for Tauck’s “Classic New England” foliage tour. He’s been around, beginning with Tauck as a tour guide about 50 years ago. With his white beard and hair, Scotty is a dead ringer for Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. For the next few days he’ll guide me in our SUV, as we shadow the motor coach carrying foliage seekers from around the country and the world. We know there’ll be times when I need to stop and explore while the tour drives ahead, so Scotty, who knows the route as well as his own hometown, will be my bridge.
Our first stop is Lexington Green, to soak in the echoes of the American Revolution. We continue west to Concord and Orchard House, home of Louisa May Alcott, then on to beautiful, historic Monument Street and the Old North Bridge. Now, I traveled this road for 25 years with my children. Did we ever stop to visit the Old North Bridge? No. On this day the air is clear, and the trees are washed in autumn color. History and leaves make a potent combination.
The “scenic route” is something most people avoid. I usually do. It takes too long; it’s crowded and congested. But as we make our way up to Salem, Massachusetts, I begin to understand what the draw is. It’s Columbus Day weekend, and Salem teems with visitors. Scotty and I stroll the streets, brimming with open markets and a fall-festival atmosphere.
A woman approaches us in period dress. In colonial English she informs us of a reenactment soon in the town center. We wend our way through the city, saving the best for last: tree-lined Chestnut Street. Scotty’s passion is historic architecture, which he shares with great enthusiasm, pointing out lovely old sea captains’ homes.
Leaving Salem, Scotty takes the wheel, and we follow the bus tour from the coastal towns north of Boston on our way to the coastal towns of New Hampshire and southern Maine. All of these destinations hold personal memories that have shaped my life and the lives of my children: Essex (and Woodman’s fried clams) … Ipswich … antiquing for props after a long day at the beach, where 22 years ago, I felt the first twinges of labor before the birth of my second daughter. There’s a unique fall smell in the air in these coastal towns. It’s salty, mixed with a weathered fishermen’s culture, textured by the vast painterly marshes. It’s evocative and compelling.
We continue up a craggy stretch of New Hampshire coastline, just north of Salisbury, Massachusetts, that I’ve never seen before. The sun is fading past summer shacks, closed for the season. The sea is washing over sandy beaches and bare picnic tables. The sky turns a shade of purple that only this transitional season produces, soft against the cool snap in the air. I can’t believe this is only the first day, and we still have a bit to go before reaching Portsmouth, our evening destination. What a day!
Coming into Wallis Sands, Scotty mentions that we’re approaching a stretch of his favorite homes overlooking the sea: magnificent summer “cottages,” built in the decades when industrialists were creating huge financial empires. As we make our way into Portsmouth, we almost drive past an old church with a multitude of pumpkins on the front lawn. Scotty glances at me. In the last light of October 11, I have to try: We won’t see another display of pumpkins that measures up to that one. Lucky.
After breakfast we load up our gear and head out into the chill, driving north to famous Nubble Light on Cape Neddick, outside York, Maine. The sun pokes through a steel-gray autumn sky, creating the perfect atmosphere to see this classic setting. With Scotty at the wheel, I notice two little girls perched on an “outlook” platform, stretching on tippy-toes to peer through the bulky metal viewing binoculars. With camera in hand, I scramble to discreetly exit the SUV. This is my unexpected gift at Nubble Light.
In Portland, Maine, the tour divides, with half the visitors going on a walking tour of this historic city, while the others board Captain Tom Martin’s “lobstah” boat, the Lucky Catch, to head out into Casco Bay. Scotty and I join the walking group down narrow harbor streets. The day is clear and crisp as we eventually find our way back to the pier to meet the boat. We all swap places, and now the walkers scramble aboard to learn a little about the work of lobstering.
The payoff comes at lunch at a wonderful outdoor spot perched right on the harbor. This is my opportunity to photograph Maine lobster, steamers, “chowdah,” lobster rolls, coleslaw, and blueberry pie. I order all of them–just for documentation, of course.
Sated at last, we depart the city of Portland, heading northwest toward the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As we drive from sea level up to the higher elevations, the fall color intensifies.
Near dusk, we find ourselves driving through the vibrantly colored foliage of oak and maple trees, contrasted against the majestic evergreens, and on to the cozy accommodations of our hotel, the majestic Omni Mount Washington Resort at Bretton Woods.
We make plans to meet in the lobby at 6:30 a.m. to catch the first light of day–usually the clearest and most compelling light.
In the early-morning darkness, we enter a village surrounded by mountains and rocky streams, hugged by turning trees. The sun rises over the Presidential Range, the snow-capped summit of Mount Washington poking up through the clouds. The sky is changing rapidly from purple through shades of pink and delicate blue. Heading southeast into North Conway, Scotty shares a story about Arthur Tauck’s car breaking down on the road with a double flat tire in front of Cannell’s Country Store one time in the late 1920s. A gentleman named Ray Cannell owned it; he befriended Tauck.
“In those days it wasn’t easy to find tires or service stations along the way, and it required a long drive to find replacements before the tour could continue,” Scotty explains. “But Ray made it happen and Arthur never forgot his kindness.” For years afterward, Tauck tours always stopped to patronize the shop.
Jackson, New Hampshire, north of Conway, is one of the prettiest mountain villages you’ll ever see. Standing on an old stone bridge, gazing down to the stream below, we notice a great blue heron perched on a rock. We try to be as inconspicuous as possible as I take one shot after another: another gifted moment.
Heading north again, the day gets even better, as we climb the Mount Washington Auto Road. Neither of us has ever been to the top. As the road twists upward, our guide tells us that he’s awaiting word on his two-way radio whether the weather will let us proceed to the summit. As we climb, the foliage below contrasts dramatically with the evergreens and the cold, rocky terrain of the high elevation.
Finally, word arrives: We can reach the top. No one has been to the summit in nearly a week. We’re the first, and the sky is so clear we can see 100 miles due east, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s like being on the tundra, or the moon, with rime ice covering everything. It’s quite spectacular to go from a crisp, sunny, colorful autumn day to this, the summit, all in about 30 minutes. Nice afternoon at the office!
Scotty and I chat about this experience the rest of the day. We stop to shoot as we travel through the notches on our way west. We pass Twin Mountain, Bethlehem, Littleton. We stop at a covered bridge and at The Brick Store, in Bath, the oldest emporium in New Hampshire (established 1790). The owner, Nancy Lusby, is making her famous fudge. Leaf peepers are stopping by. High-school kids are selling pumpkins to raise money.
An overcast sky follows us the rest of the way southwest into Vermont. Once again, I pass through villages that are so familiar from years of family outings. When we turn onto Route 100A, heading for the Hawk Inn in Plymouth, I flash back to where I once lost my brakes in the dead of winter, driving down an incline with my 10-year-old beside me.
It’s been a day of old and new memories. After dinner, exhaustion wins, and I’m down for the count.
5:30 a.m. I open the curtains to a blanket of fresh snow, the season’s first here. A white cover over the foliage creates an indelible image.
The day begins with homemade granola, banana pancakes, orange juice, scrambled eggs, bacon, and fresh coffee. I have to shoot the food–it’s part of the assignment, and I always fulfill the assignment! With snow turning to drizzle, we hit the road toward Calvin Coolidge’s family homestead, a State Historic Site, just down the road. Scotty tells me that it was right here in Vermont that Coolidge learned of President Harding’s death and was actually sworn in as president by his father, a notary public, right “over there in that house.”
En route northeast to Billings Farm in Woodstock, we stop time and again to photograph cows, horses, and farmstands. After the long weekend, the tourists have departed, and we’re free to enjoy less congested views. Billings is a century-old working farm that’s also a beautiful museum. Susan Power, a gracious and informative guide, escorts us around the property. I’m struck that everyone we meet is so passionate about their work. Across the road from the farm is the home of Mary and Laurance Rockefeller, the last owners of Billings Farm, whose summer residence is now part of Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park.
We’ll spend our final day making our way down to the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, or what Scotty calls “the place where Arthur Tauck was first inspired to begin a touring company.”
The skies are once again clear and blue against the yellow, red, and golden leaves, which have now nudged past peak. There’s an expression I’ve picked up along the way: “Eventually the trees will go twiggy. That’s when we know we’ve turned the corner.”
After a cozy lunch at The Williams Inn in Williamstown, Scotty organizes a little photo shoot of the coach and its travelers from
Australia, Great Britain, and various Western states. He boards the bus and thanks everyone for letting us tag along on their tour; then we bid them all farewell. As the tour drives south to the town of Stockbridge and a stop at the Norman Rockwell Museum, we head east down the Mohawk Trail to get our final shots. We’ve saved the end for getting to the beginning, when in 1924 Arthur Tauck, the traveling salesman, was making his rounds in his Studebaker, peddling his coin trays (his own invention) to bankers in remote New England towns. As he drove this winding route, admiring its beauty, he wished that he had a few guests along with whom to share it, figuring that people would gladly travel here if only they had a guide. Thus the seed was planted, and Tauck tours were born.
Tauck advertised his first guided tour in a local New Jersey paper in 1925. The one-week excursion cost $69 per person, all meals and accommodations included; six people took him up on his offer. Everything I saw on this trip was different from that one, of course–except the chill mornings, the warming sun, the shimmering leaves.
For details on Tauck World Discovery itineraries, including the “Classic New England” tour,visit: tauck.com. For a slide show of additional fall photos, plus a list of resources for visitor information on the places and venues described here, go to: YankeeFoliage.com