Leaf People | On the Road With a Leaf-Peeping Bus Tour

A week on a guided foliage tour shows off not only New England but a bit of human nature, too.

By Ian Aldrich

Aug 24 2017


A leaf peeper’s map of New England.

Photo Credit : Andrew DeGraff

A leaf peeper's map of New England.

It’s at the Sugar Hill Meetinghouse, on the western edge of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, that we finally find autumn. For nearly a week we’ve been on its trail, investigators looking for clues as to where peak color might be hiding: a row of changing maples on a quiet country road, a rush of crisp morning air. But the New England season of our imagination had proved elusive. It was just up the highway, or maybe a few towns away.

In Woodstock, Vermont, a store clerk looked dismissively at a batch of autumn postcards. “Those pictures are just enhanced,” she said, shaking her head. “I live 45 minutes north, and up there the leaves are amazing.”

But were they?

It was early October, and I was starting to have doubts. The search had begun some five days before, when our group of 44 met in a hotel conference room in Boston for wine and cheese to kick off a weeklong guided bus trip through New England with Connecticut-based tour operator Tauck. From there our journey took us around the city, then south to Hartford before charging north into Vermont and New Hampshire. Maybe we’re too early, some wondered. Or possibly it’s just not a great year for color, others said.

And then we discover the quiet village of Sugar Hill. All the boxes are checked: The white clapboard meetinghouse decked out with pumpkins and browning corn stalks. The near-peaking maples on the front lawn. The blue-sky day. The tidy farmhouse across the street. Nothing—not the private tour of Fenway Park, the free cheese and crackers at the Vermont Country Store, or the stroll through Revolutionary War sites in Lexington and Concord—elicited the excitement this tiny green sparks in my fellow travelers.

I stay in my seat and watch the others take in the moment. One couple does a quick dance, several people pose for photos with the trees, one woman actually hugs one of the maples. On the steps of the meetinghouse, a round of selfies is produced. There is euphoria in the air. I understand the jubilation; after so many days, I feel some of it myself.

Following a solid 10 minutes of picture-taking, the crew begins to file back onto the bus. “That’s the best selfie I’ve ever taken,” says a woman from Florida, pausing in the aisle to look at her phone. She laughs with approval. “That’s so good.”

* * * *

According to my own rough calculations, something like 17.2 trillion visitors pour into New England every September and October. Or maybe it just feels that way. They clog small-town centers, snap pictures of leaves, and snatch up tiny bottles of maple syrup, covered-bridge photos, and T-shirts that say Champion Leaf Peeper. Some visit on their own, but many more come via organized tours. I’ve spent most of my life in New England, and every autumn I watch with curiosity the motor coaches that roll through my hometown in southwest New Hampshire. Big questions, important questions, come to mind: What compels a person to travel for a week on a bus full of strangers? Are people still speaking to each other at the end of the journey? What are the bathroom-break situations like? I wanted some answers, and so I turned to Tauck, which has been leading foliage trips since 1925, to get them.

My journey begins on a Saturday night in a Boston hotel conference room, where I meet our guide, Gloria Swanson Ream, and my 43 fellow travelers. I am the only New Englander among the group and, at age 43, its youngest member by a good 15 to 20 years. It’s a varied bunch I’ve joined. There’s a North Carolina couple, Thomas Trahey, a cardiologist, and his wife, Arabella, an orthodontist; though they’d visited Maine many years ago, this would be their first extensive New England trip. There are two longtime college friends, Cora Hill of Texas and Barbara Danforth of Washington state, both widows in their eighties. “We wanted an excuse to travel together,” says Danforth, laughing. I meet Sharon Tyson of Arizona and her friend Karen Kuehnis of Nevada, who’ve turned to traveling to heal from the recent deaths of their husbands. 

California claims the most representatives. There are the Turners, Randy and Polly, who are marking a 50th wedding anniversary, and at the other end of the spectrum are Tom and Teresa Tighe, who are still in the early years of their marriage. Dennis and Sharon Araki are also with us, along with Sharon’s cousin Stan Higashi.

Another couple hailing from the Golden State are Louis and Sharon DeLeon. Both former teachers, they’re celebrating Sharon’s recent retirement. “My parents did this same trip 25 years ago and couldn’t stop talking about it,” Louis tells the group. “She kept badgering me to go, and I’d say, ‘I don’t know, Mom. There are other places besides New England that I want to see.’ Then last winter I was looking for trips”—and here he simulates flipping through a notebook—“and I found this Tauck tour my folks had taken all those years ago. Here we are.”

On and on the stories go. Only a few in the room, like me, have never taken an organized trip before. Others speak in glowing terms of past journeys, many with Tauck. “I did the Scandinavia trip.” “I went to Italy.” “I was in South Africa a couple of years ago.” They are connoisseurs of this kind of travel: organized, history-laden, upscale. They talk the way an expert might discuss fine wine or chocolate. The mention of competing tour operators elicits groans.

“You get what you pay for,” one man tells me at dinner later. “The hotels aren’t as good and not all the meals are covered. This”—he sweeps his hand across the dining room as though presenting a palace—“is first-class all the way.”

If there’s an expert on Tauck travel among the group, it’s Gilbert Pohl, an 82-year-old retiree from Chicago. A short man with a full head of gray hair, a toothy smile, and a wardrobe that leans heavily on perfectly ironed shirts, Pohl tells me over dinner that he’s taken 48 Tauck trips.

“Actually,” Ream interrupts, “we counted and it’s more like 64.”

“Wow,” he says. “I must be old.”

Pohl’s memories of his first trip, however, are far from foggy. It was early fall in 1964 when he embarked on a two-week excursion that took him around New England and then north to Nova Scotia.

“It cost me just $600,” he says, then adds with a smile, “Plus, I met a girl. It was a good trip.”


* * * *

Fenway Park glistens in the morning sun. The ballpark is just hours removed from the outpouring of public affection that accompanied David Ortiz’s final regular-season home game, and workers are hosing down the seats and manicuring the grounds for the upcoming playoff tilt against the Cleveland Indians.

It’s Monday, and Tauck has lined up a private tour of the century-old ballpark. There are several sports fans in our group, and as we turn onto Lans-downe Street a collective “oooohhh” circulates around the bus. Inside Fenway, we climb to the Green Monster seats, trek through the press box, pass a hallway series of black-and-white photos of legendary players, and duck into a small Red Sox museum. Some marvel at the coziness of the park—but not all.

“Look at those seats,” says Pohl, shaking his head. “I’d rather just stay at home and watch it on the big screen.”

In the concourse, Sharon Tyson leans against a giant 34. “Now, whose number is this?” she asks.

“Big Papi’s!” someone shouts out.

“OK,” she says, fumbling for her smartphone. “I’m going to post a picture of it tonight for my nephew. He’s a big baseball fan.”

At the museum, Harold Lutz of St. Louis watches a clip of his Cardinals beating the Red Sox in the 1967 World Series. “Come on,” says his wife, Mathilda. “We have to go.”

He holds up his hand and scrunches his face. “Just give me a second,” he says. “I just want to see them win one more time.”

Pohl approaches Barbara Danforth and her longtime friend Cora Hill, who stand near a display of 1920 baseballs.

“Have you figured out who the oldest one on the trip is?” he asks, placing his hand on Danforth’s shoulder.

“I think I got it,” says Danforth, who’s 86. “Both of you are 82, right?”

They nod. “But what about that couple?” Danforth asks, pointing to Frank and Ingrid Schroeder of Minnesota, who are gingerly making their way across the room. “I checked with him and he said he started working in ’53, so if you do the math he may be older.”

Danforth watches the Schroeders for a moment. “Eh, I doubt it. I think I may still have it.”

* * * *

We are on the trail of Paul Revere’s midnight ride. It’s late morning, still Monday, and we are blazing down the Mass. Pike toward Lexington. The afternoon’s itinerary is heavy on colonial history. As we roll up to the Battle Green, downtown Lexington looks like a theme park. Cars and buses nose through the congested pedestrian scene. A few oblivious visitors wander into the road for a better camera angle of the green’s minuteman statue.

“The other way! The other way!” a man instructs a friend who’s taking a shot of him and his family.

A woman in a colonial-era dress leads a small group through the events of the history-changing battle. A young family tags behind, their 6-year-old boy clutching a mound of cotton candy. Stately maples with only early signs of color frame the scene. Across the way at the visitors center, tourists pick through postcards, hats, and books with titles like George vs. George, Why Don’t You Get a Horse, Sam Adams? and Will You Sign Here, John Hancock?

An hour in Lexington is all we need. Back on the bus, Ream resumes her position at the front, clutching a microphone and often standing to face her audience. She’s equal parts emcee and teacher, moving seamlessly from logistical details (bathroom locations are important) to historical tidbits and back again. Sometimes she leans against a seat as she talks; other times she straddles the aisle with the agility of a surfer as the bus makes turns. Her history is succinct—a CliffsNotes version of the region, to be sure—but she keeps it a story, knowing where to amplify the funny and when to dive into some interesting trivia. At one point, the topic of George Washington comes up, and someone in the back asks the name of his horse. A brief pause follows. “Nelson,” she finally answers, and laughs. “You thought you could trick me, huh?”

Ream’s work is an act of sorts, and her onstage partner is the tour’s bus driver, Ryszard Drozdzal. The two have worked together for six years, and Drozdzal, whose speech still carries a heavy accent from his native Poland, can practically finish her sentences. “If you don’t tell the joke about the bales of hay and the marshmallows, I’m not driving anymore,” he tells her as we pass a stretch of Vermont farmland.

Their knack for playing off each other keeps the tone light. Ream informs us that Drozdzal was once New England’s champion moose-caller. “What do you think, Ryszard? Do you think you can perform for the group?” she asks during a rest stop.

“I guess this one time,” he says. He bashfully gets up from his seat, takes a deep breath as he holds the microphone, and launches into his call. “Here, moosey, moosey, moosey,” he says. “Here, moosey, moosey, moosey.” The bus erupts with laughter.

“Oh, he just gets better with age,” Ream says to us. Then she turns to Drozdzal. “Who were the judges, exactly?”

Ream’s ease in her role masks its intensity. The trips are a relentless run of logistics and problem solving. A resident of Phoenix, she has led tours for Tauck for more than 30 years and works all over the world, but come autumn she’s largely anchored in her native New England. It’s not uncommon for her to lead up to four consecutive weeklong trips, saying good-bye to one group on a Saturday afternoon in Boston and welcoming a new one just a few hours later.

With Ream’s job comes a lot of questions. About New England history. About gluten-free options for lunch. About a hotel room’s weak hot water. And, of course, about foliage. On our trip, the autumn color is scarce in southern New England, and while visits to the Hartford homes of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe are met with enthusiasm, by Tuesday there’s a restlessness to push into the heart of the region. As the bus heads north into Vermont, the mood lightens. The air is cooler, and as we ride through small towns like Chester and Ludlow, the sense begins to deepen that we’re in the New England many of us have come for.

Just a few miles from our hotel for the evening, the Hawk Mountain Inn and Resort in Plymouth, we stop at the Green Mountain Sugar House. While owner Doug Rose leads most of us on a tour of how he makes maple syrup, Louis DeLeon takes a seat in a rocker in front of the store and chats up some travelers from another tour group. When we emerge from the evaporator room, DeLeon shares the news he’s heard.

“I was speaking with a fella who just came from up north, and he said the White Mountains are on fire,” he says, opening his hands wide.

* * * *

It’s Thursday, late morning, and downtown Woodstock is thick with buses, cars, and pedestrians jostling for space. Main Street is virtually a wide sidewalk, as tourists, most of them wearing name tags, crisscross the road with little regard for the drivers. It’s like spring break for senior citizens.

“You a resident?” one man asks me, a bit desperately, shortly after I get off the bus. “I’m trying to find another ice cream store, because the line at the one over there”—he motions down the street—“is just ridiculous.”

Outside F.H. Gillingham & Sons, a famous country store with all the fixings, two men are killing time waiting for their wives. “I got that Black & Decker battery on that drill, and boy, it just goes,” says one to his friend, who wears a black Route 66 hat pulled down on his head. Inside, people wander the aisles in search of wall prints, maple candies, and cider doughnuts. “Do you have any T-shirts that just say Vermont?” an older woman asks a clerk, who responds with a patient smile, “Look in the back.” Nearby, another woman is pawing through prints. “I don’t want anything with fancy edges,” she says to herself.

In front of the Woodstock Inn, a black bus rumbles to life and its passengers begin filing back aboard. “How’s your trip going?” someone asks a father and his teenage son.

Both beam. “We’re from Texas and we love the colors,” the dad responds. “You don’t see these kinds of colors back home.”

Asked where they’re headed next, father and son look at each other and shrug. “You know,” says the dad, “I don’t really know!” And he bursts into a hearty laugh.

There’s a kindred spirit in all this that we feel on our bus, too. When we pull into Woodstock, it’s our fifth full day, yet there’s little indication that anyone is road-weary. Oh sure, there’s been grumbling about a hotel’s hot-water situation, and some complaints about how long a restaurant took to serve us, but overall there’s a camaraderie and awe for the New England we’re seeing.

There’s even a sense of looking out for one another. When Cora Hill finds it too difficult to navigate the grounds at Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock, she requests a wheelchair. Dennis and Sharon Araki then take turns pushing her around the property to make sure she doesn’t miss what the rest of the group is experiencing.

A day after our visit to Woodstock, we’re in New Hampshire, motoring through the White Mountains and Franconia Notch, which is alive with the reds and yellows of maple and beech. Dipping south, we stop at Canterbury Shaker Village. A deep-blue October sky hangs overhead, and after a lunch at the museum café we take a tour of the grounds, ducking into barns, workshops, and the church building.

Sharon Tyson eyes the horse-drawn washing machine the Shakers invented. “I don’t know,” she quips, “it doesn’t seem like you could really be a princess here.”

“What are you talking about?” her friend Karen Kuehnis says. “You would love it.”

As we step out of the schoolhouse at the end of the tour, most of the group heads toward the bus. There’s a two-hour ride in front of us, to Cape Neddick, Maine, and our final destination, the Cliff House resort. But Cora Hill and Barbara Danforth, the old college friends, hang back a little.

They move toward the edge of the big front lawn that’s lined with maples whose tops are just starting to turn orange. Beyond, a sun-drenched pasture drops down to the road.

“I want to remember this,” says Hill, who is walking with two canes to the row of trees. It’s not an easy stroll—the lawn is uneven in spots—and she takes her time. But she moves with determination, and Danforth is at her side the entire time. This is their first trip to New England together. When they reach the maples, they stand silently for a moment, just looking.

In two days, Hill and Danforth will rent a car in Boston and drive to northern Vermont to continue their New England journey on their own. “My husband and I traveled a lot,” says Hill, walking the long lawn back to the bus. “After he died, I wanted to keep doing it. I didn’t want to slow down. Doing the things that I love, seeing new things—it’s what keeps me going.”

The Cape Neddick "Nubble" Light in York, Maine is a tourist favorite.

* * * *

I came into this trip a bit dubious of what such tours offered. I suspected that the New England they presented was merely a regional quick-hit bucket list. Here’s a covered bridge. There’s a small-town meetinghouse. Now let’s eat a lobster dinner. Have pictures taken in front of a Maine lighthouse. Where was the room for spontaneity? For fun? For surprises?

But as we got further into the week, I saw something different. On many vacations, we are often solo actors. We eat at the same restaurants as other travelers, swim in the same pools, go back to the same kinds of hotel rooms. Typically there’s little engagement with strangers—there’s no incentive to engage. When you’re thrown together with a bunch of strangers on a bus, however, there’s no choice but to socialize. You’re exploring together. You’re seeing places and meeting people for the first time together. There’s a shared experience to draw from, and it can deepen the meaning of what you’re seeing.

And what we did see was probably more diverse than what many of us could have planned for ourselves. For every covered-bridge photo op and general-store visit, there were museums and historical properties, too. In Walpole, New Hampshire, we watched parts of Ken Burns’s new Vietnam War documentary at his Florentine Films studio. In Vermont, we sat for a lecture on the history of the New England landscape. In Boston, we spent part of an afternoon on a foodie tour of the city.

“[Back home] we’ve got history, places from the 1850s, but nothing from 300 years ago,” says Randy Turner, the Californian celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary. “We had thought about doing something like this on our own, but then a friend told us that wouldn’t be a good idea. Even with GPS, there are all those narrow roads. You’re still bound to get lost. You blink, and the town has passed by. And seeing these roads, traveling around like we have, I see that he was right.”

Our final stop on the trip is the Cliff House, on the southern Maine coast. It’s Friday afternoon when we arrive, and after a few days in the mountains and countryside it feels good to arrive at the open, rocky coast. There is space and a warm ocean breeze. A couple of us stand above the water and watch 80-year-old Stan Higashi nimbly scramble over the rocks and down to the sea, where he splashes his hand around.

“How is it?” somebody shouts.

“Really nice,” he says, turning back with a big grin.

Nearing the end, there is no consensus on how we all feel. Some, like Gilbert Pohl, the retiree from Chicago, are up for more traveling. Tomorrow he will hop onto a different bus in Boston to go to New York City. “I want to catch some shows and look at the architecture,” he says.

Others, though, are tired and ready to head home. “It’s been great, but I want to get back,” says Lynn Haurie of Virginia. “I think I hit the wall this morning. I feel like I’ve worn these clothes already.”

We say our good-byes that night over a lobster dinner, and in the morning we step onto the bus one last time. The ride back to Boston is quiet. A few are playing games on their tablets. One woman is looking over finances. “Looks like they received the deposit for our 2018 Alaska trip,” she tells her husband. “We are signed up.”

Outside Boston, the traffic thickens on I-95’s northbound lanes. It’s a Saturday morning, and people are escaping to Maine and New Hampshire.

“Look at the leaf peepers,” says Tom Trahey, the North Carolina cardiologist. Then he catches himself, and laughs. “I mean, fellow leaf peepers.” 

SEE MORE: 5 Favorite New England Fall Foliage Tours