Friday, August 1, 2008

Day 14: With Aunt Laura in Connecticut

July 28: New York to New Jersey to Easton and New London, Connecticut

Soundtrack: Beatles, One; New Haven radio

When John Steinbeck began his 1960 tour of the United States that he describes in Travels With Charley, he crossed long Island Sound on this very boat and worried about the nuclear submarines of an earlier day.
William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways

The nature of parking on East 27th Street decreed that we move the HHR by nine in the morning, so Laura, Laura and I packed in our duffles and cooler and headed out through the tunnels, one jump ahead of the meter readers. We promptly got lost in Jersey. After going too far west and then too far south, we finally connected with the road to Connecticut. Clouds gathered and full-scale rain hit by the time we had crossed the state line. In the picturesque town of Greenwich, we checked the public library for a restroom and the location of Anne Baxter’s grave, supposedly in Easton, Connecticut where she had lived for a short time with her last husband, David Klee. We found one but not the other, although we got directions to the Easton Cemetery. We headed north on gray highways through the little town. The rain intensified, and we nearly missed the entrance to the graveyard in the downpour.
There were puddles on the gravel road between the graves as we pulled in, scouting for tombstones engraved with the name KLEE. With a loud drumming on the wet lawn, a doe leapt up suddenly from grazing on the cemetery grass and bounded toward the brook beyond the trees; Charlie’s totem animal again. We got out umbrellas and walked up and down the rows, soaking our shoes, finding nothing but the sad tombstone of a boy named Bobby who died at 22, decorated with his toy cars. Charlie had no grave, only a circle of stones in his beloved “meadow,” the former Red Car Right-of-Way and the vegetable immortality of being scattered in two beautiful urban parks.
After slogging around in Easton Cemetery for half an hour, we finally had to give up. (Further investigation after Sister Laura got back to her office computer and consulted imdb reveled that Anne Baxter really was buried at Taliesen and somehow we had missed her.) We worked our way south to the coast 95 and red highway 1 that wove parallel to it, closer to the ocean. In and out of rain, Laura Anne drove the Interstate while I scanned the maps for a prospective peak experience. Like Steinbeck, we skirted the larger towns, in this case Bridgeport and New Haven and looked for someplace quaint. I had never been to New England; though Sister Laura and I had fantasized about retracing H.P. Lovecraft’s steps in Providence, we had decided the rail trip was too expensive several years before. What I knew of New England was strictly from literature: besides Lovecraft, I'd read a lot of Hawthorne and Melville and Washington Irving, so naturally there was a certain gothic bias to my perception. I knew there should be bright shorelines and sailing and lobster and seaside cottages, et cetera, and maybe we would find some.
Leaving the 95, we turned south on a road that promised these things, but it all seemed like Anywhere, U.S.A., winding lanes with ordinary houses and no quaint bed and breakfasts to be found. Billboards on the Interstate weren’t much help and as it grew dark we finally settled on a Hampton Inn next to a broad inlet called that promised at least a view of water. We couldn’t really see the Thames for the trees, so we decided to cross the 95 again to check out the Atlantic.
When we consulted Travels With Charley later that evening, to see if we were on the right track we realized that we were just outside of New London, the town where Steinbeck had talked to a young sailor about nuclear submarines. Headed south toward the coast for dinner, we passed the vestiges of naval installations, still in evidence after 40 years. There were no peak experiences, no lobster, but we had good seafood at a local joint over the water, watching the reflected lights and planning ahead to witch-hunting in Salem. Lovecraft notwithstanding, we would follow Steinbeck’s example and bypass the eldritch lure of populous Providence and Boston for the charm of the little whaling towns up the shore.