Stockbridge, Massachusetts, is one of the most adorable places on earth. “Picturesque” is not only eminently applicable, but also exceedingly appropriate, as it is the town in which Norman Rockwell did many of his paintings. Many of the citizens of Stockbridge were asked to model for Norman, and some still live there today. The main street, which is the subject of one of his more famous paintings, is unchanged in every respect save that one of the buildings has changed ownership, and another is now a Yankee Candle store (not that the outside is any different.) Every year for Christmas, I understand they keep all cars off the main street, and park several old antique models in front of the stores to replicate the scene in the painting. They even have a steeply-priced Norman Rockwell museum.
My favorite feature of the town is easily the Red Lion Inn. It is the large, white building at the far right of the painting. It is nearly three hundred years old, made of wood, and much more impressive than I would have thought a building of its age in America could be. I am so used to older buildings in America being rather shabby when compared to one of a similar age in Europe, and certainly it is no palace. But that said, it is charming, and grand, and I am not sure where I could go to find a similar building in anywhere but America. In this respect, it is very much like maple syrup.
The Red Lion Inn has an adjoining tavern called the Lion’s Den which reminded me of nothing so much as The Eagle and Child, the pub I so deeply enjoyed while visiting my friend in Oxford. Small, dimly lit, and warm, I could easily have pictured Tolkien, Lewis, and the other Inklings clustered round one of the wooden tables. (I have a vague image in my mind of polished wood, warped and worn smooth by age till it has gained a dark, comforting air of familiarity. I am not sure if this image applies to either tavern, or both.)
My party of road-trippers and I had hoped to have a small meal there, but our plans were tragically foiled. After waiting half an hour for a table, the waitress informed us (with a great deal of embarrassment) that there had been a water main break, and they had to close the kitchens. This was a cruel disappointment, and we vowed to come back the next day when the main was fixed to make up for our loss, but it never worked out. The tavern did not open till late, and we had to leave town. It is now one of my life goals to come back to Stockbridge someday, rent a room at the Red Lion Inn, and have a bowl of New England Clam Chowder at the Lion’s Den, complete with a good beer, and perhaps a slice of apple pie.
Other notable highlights from Stockbridge include a trip to the General Store, where, to my great delight, I was able to purchase some maple sugar candy at last. I shared some with my fellow travelers, and finished it off on our way out of town. It was very expensive, and I was afraid it would melt and be ruined if not eaten quickly. We camped one night at October Forest State Park, and I am sure it would have been a very delightful camp ground, only we never saw much of it. We set our tent up in the dark, intending to stay two nights, and the first went well enough. I was cold, and unused to camping, and I heard coyotes howling in the distance, but I was dry enough. However, the wood was too wet in the morning to start a fire, and we ended up at Beth’s grandmother’s house for breakfast. She insisted we stay with her the next night rather than go camping again. We had not planned on doing this, as she had recently recovered from major heart surgery, but she insisted, so then we had to take the tent down in the dark, and that was the end of camping in Massachusetts.
We went on a beautiful hike down a trail known as Ice Glen, because ice remains frozen in many of the caves created by tumbled boulders well into the summer. Climbing around on the rocks was somewhat scary at first, and then positively delightful. I rather felt as if I were in Narnia, which is always a good feeling to have. One of our party nearly stepped on a hedgehog. We had found its quills scattered across our trail earlier in the day, so perhaps we ought to have expected it. Afterward, we stopped by the Stockbridge library, which is cute and quaint in every good way. There was a second floor with a balcony, and the walls there were all lined with books. There was even a window seat and armchairs. I very much like window seats. There isn’t a better place to read than a window seat.
The last thing we did before leaving Stockbridge was to get lunch at the Main Street Café. Beth and I were both interested in the same two sandwiches, so we each ordered one, and then swapped halves. I don’t remember what they were anymore, but I believe one involved apples and hummus, the other involved avocado, and both were grilled. My brothers will groan, but I enjoyed both (although I would have added more seasonings.) The best part about the meal was our drink.
I happened to notice a little sign in the corner written in chalk which mentioned “hot, spiced apple cider,” so I naturally ordered a mug. I am pretty sure they ran the stuff through a milk steamer, because when they brought it out, there was a fine foam coating the surface. I don’t believe I have ever tasted better apple cider in my life. In fact, I would define the height of apple cider glory to be what I had at that café: hot, frothy, just the right amount of cinnamon and nutmeg, perhaps a few cloves, and throughout, the rich, powerful life-blood of the apple itself. Save in pie, I do not believe fruit has ever attained a more noble end.
We had home-made ice cream for dessert. There was a rather long list of possible flavors, but it did not take long for me to spot the very two I wanted most. I was in the mood for seasonal flavors, and once I spotted pumpkin, I very nearly told myself not to look further, for fear of being sidetracked by one of my more usual favorites. But only two down on the list from pumpkin was another rarity: maple-walnut, and I knew deep in my heart that the only solution was to have a scoop of each. The flavors even complimented each other. Apparently, my companions were of the same mind, for each of them, seeing my choice, resolved upon the same, and in the end we purchased four orders of double-scoop ice creams, each half pumpkin, and half maple-walnut.
Early autumn is my favorite time of the year. The crisp coolness of the air is exhilarating to me. I look forward to the opportunity to don scarves, gloves, and caps, to wrap up tightly in a blanket at night and feel warm and cozy without fearing the biting chill of life outside, and to drinking tea in comfort, neither uncomfortable with its warmth, nor clinging to the hot mug as a means to keep fingers from freezing. The leaves change color, and the skies are chilly, blue, and clear one last time before winter sets in. Autumn puts me in mind of apple orchards, and donuts. And when you add to this hot, spiced cider, and ice cream that comes in both pumpkin and maple-walnut flavors, my heart is near full to bursting with happiness.