A New England Odyssey

Saturday, August 26, 1995

     The view from our room at the Latchis Hotel was better revealed in the morning light. The steep bulk of Wantastiquet Mountain rose across the Connecticut River in New Hampshire. A green steel bridge spans the river, stopping briefly on the island in its middle. The Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, housed in the old train station, stands just south of the bridge. The unattractive aspects of the hotel (hard beds and tile floors) became as nothing when we took our showers. The water simply refused to stay a constant temperature, oscillating between blazing hot and icy cold, although usually the latter. The poor sleep in our hard beds and the long showers spent trying to get hot water combined to make us very late, and it was nearly noon by the time we left the hotel.
     The museum was our first stop, although we lingered briefly in an antique shop across the street from the hotel. One of the more unusual finds there was a wooden “starter” mah-jongg set, which I passed on, despite its small $20 price (Pam convinced me that we’d eventually get a real set). At one point, we lost track of George, and when we caught up with him again, it was down the street at the museum. It seems that he’d stopped in a chinese “deli” and bought himself a sandwich, which he sat outside the museum to eat. Pam and I went on inside the museum, and George joined us when he was finished with his sandwich.
     Unfortunately, the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center is more Art Center than Museum. The building itself is a lovely stone structure with wide doorways and steps. But, its contents are mostly pieces of modern art that we all agreed were uninspiring. They included some kinetic art that was probably built in half-an-hour, a room full of strings that stretched from wall to wall, animal sculptures of wire, and (get this) chainsaws suspended from the ceiling that had knitted covers on them. The museum aspect of the building consisted only of the Estey organ room at the back. At one point in time, the Estey Organ Company was the largest employer in Brattleboro, but (to my knowledge) is long out of business. Several organs are kept at the museum, and they make up the bulk of its “museum” aspect. Also, the “long train-shed” that Lovecraft mentions in “The Whisperer in Darkness” is long gone.
     With the “museum” quickly dispensed with, we walked back to the hotel parking lot to get the car and drive to the library. I had called the library the night before to get their hours, but the recording didn’t state their current hours. Instead, it stated their hours starting in September, after which the library would be open Saturdays from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Arriving at the library we found that they were only open from 9 a.m. until noon currently – so much for getting those Brattleboro Reformer articles I wanted. As a last ditch effort, I called the offices of the Reformer to find that they were closed as well.
     It was only just after noon at this point, and despite having taken care of three locations already (the museum, the library, the Brattleboro Reformer), we hadn’t accomplished much. We went across the street from the library to a small convenience store to get some munchies, and who should come in but Papa Z (the proprietor of Mama and Papa Z’s Family Restaurant). He told us that as he was driving by he’d seen us going into the store and stopped to say hello. George mentioned that he didn’t have a tape yet for Papa Z to copy his tape onto, and said we’d buy one and be there briefly. With that in mind, we headed to the north end of town to the Radio Shack that we thought we’d seen the night before. Sure enough, we located it again and found a pretty large selection of tapes. George picked one out and we stopped off at Mama and Papa Z’s Family Restaurant to drop it off.
     Our next destination was the farmhouse in Guilford that Lovecraft and Vrest Orton rented back in June 1928. I had spoken to Don Burleson about its location at the convention, and although it had been some time since he had last visited it, he remembered that the Dixons now owned it. A couple of nights before I e-mailed a woman at the Brattleboro Chamber of Commerce who worked with two women who had grown up in Guilford. Last night I’d received some e-mail from her that gave us explicit directions to the Dixon house. We drove out into Guilford, past Akley [sic] Road and found the road that the Dixon house was on. Two houses fit the description to some extent, the latter having the doorway that Lovecraft mentions:
The final picture was of the Akeley place itself; a trim white house of two stories and attic, about a century and a quarter old, and with a well-kept lawn and stone-bordered path leading up to a tastefully carved Georgian doorway.
     A woman came out of the second house and asked if she could help us. We explained our interest in Lovecraft, and she introduced herself as Ann Dixon. She asked if we knew Don Burleson, and we mentioned having met Don at the convention. She then pointed out that it had been 12 or more years ago that Don had visited and camped out on her lawn! Reassured that we weren’t ne’er-do-wells, she invited us into her house and gave us the grand tour of it. She showed us the room which she and Don had surmised that the climax of “The Whisperer in Darkness” had taken place.
     Ann, who hadn’t read any Lovecraft until Don appeared on the scene, was chock full of local lore and entertained us for quite some time. She told us that the house was built in the late-1700’s or early-1800’s, and that in the mid-1800s it was occupied by Mila Akeley who was purported to be a “white” witch. Also, she mentioned the Lee house down the road the name of which Lovecraft borrowed for Lee’s Swamp. This probably refers to a swampy area near the end of the road, just below the Lee house. We hated to leave Ann’s company, but we still had to get to Townshend, and Ann had to have dinner ready for her family by 5, which was fast approaching. As we left, she invited us to stay in her home the next time we were in New England, and even suggested that she might attend the next NecronomiCon convention in Providence! What a pleasant lady!
     On our way back through Brattleboro we stopped back at Mama and Papa Z’s Family Restaurant to pick up George’s tape so we could listen to it on our drive out to Newfane, Townshend, and Bald Mountain. We drove northwest out of town along the West River, which had, in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” flooded its banks and carried along peculiar pink corpses... Further up the highway we drove past both covered and the remains of long-demolished bridges.
The quaint, sightly village of Newfane, reached in less than an hour, was our last link with that world which man can definitely call his own by virtue of conquest and complete occupancy.
     The Newfane town green is the most photographed point in New England, and for good reason. On the green are three large, white buildings: the Windham County Courthouse, the Townshend Church, and the Town Meeting Hall. Surrounding the green are other attractive buildings, including the Old Newfane Inn and the Four Columns Inn. When we arrived, we found dozens of people seated at tables set up on the green, having a “Pig Roast.” A large, black roaster sat off to one side belching smoke that smelled absolutely wonderful. Unfortunately, we were in a hurry to climb Bald Mountain before sunset, so we hoped that we’d be able to return before the roast ended at 8.
     We drove further northwest towards Townshend, where we stopped briefly at the Corner General Store to buy film. After a quick picture of the Townshend Post Office (where Henry Akeley would have received and sent his mail), we drove off towards Bald Mountain. At the base of the mountain is a small park and campground which a number of families were camped in. The park has a visitor’s center which also serves as a house to the caretaker.
For some distance back of the house a level stretch of marshy and sparsely wooded land extended, beyond which soared a steep, thichly forested hillside ending in a jagged leafy crest. This latter, I knew, was the summit of Dark Mountain, half way up which we must have climbed already.
     A sign marked the beginning of the 1.7-mile trail up the mountain, so off we went armed with a flashlight, since it would surely be dark soon. The trail was pretty easy at first, but became difficult at times due to its steepness and the approaching darkness. Occasionally, we’d come to trees in front of which were wooden stands with hinged lids. The lid was marked with a question mark, and lifting it revealed the name of the tree (“Grey Ash,” “American Birch,” etc.). Out of over a dozen of these, we never got one right, despite the fact that one was White Ash, which grew in my backyard when I was a boy.
     About halfway up the mountain we realized that the blue marks on the trees, which we had thought were to mark those scheduled for thinning, were actually trail markers. This made the rest of the way much easier, and we were able to follow the trail much more closely. Soon we had to begin using the flashlight, and near the top we found a place marked as “Alder Swamp.” The top of the mountain was exposed to the sky and crowned with a rocky outcropping. Carved into the rock at the highest point were four names (which I don’t recall now) and the year “1934.” We appreciated the view for a while, aided by some signs which pointed towards nearby mountains.
     We then started the long trek back down the mountain in darkness. The sun had set nearly an hour ago, and under the canopy of the trees we were in pitch blackness. We used the flashlight all the way back down, and if it hadn’t been for the blue markings on the trees we simply wouldn’t have made it. Although the trip up had been tiring, the going was much easier this time, and we arrived at the bottom in far less time. Very hungry by now, we drove back through Newfane, but the pig roast had been over for at least an hour.
     Barely making it back into Brattleboro with gas in our tank, we were again faced with the problem of locating a restaurant late at night. When we stopped in the gas station, I asked the cashier for some ideas, and he suggested several nearby places. The first we stopped at didn’t have a very big selection, and the second looked a bit scary. By this time, George was repeatedly chanting “Papa Z’s,” and doing a pretty good job of convincing me to go anywhere else. The steak house on the north end of town was closed, the pizza place across the street didn’t seem appetizing, and the chinese food place just north of these was closed.
     Suspecting that we’d have to have calzones for the second night in a row, we stumbled across a chinese restaurant that was open until 1 a.m.! As it turns out, Hon Dynasty II is attached to a night club by at least three interior doors, and they keep the same hours. A rock band was playing, and the music could be heard very well from the restaurant. We actually saw this as a benefit rather than a disadvantage, so we gave it a try. We weren’t disappointed – the menu had an enormous variety and the food was excellent. Besides having soup, I had the Steak Kew (“chunks of filets of beef tenderloin, sauteed with mushrooms, water chestnuts and other Chinese vegetables”), Pam had the Sesame Chicken (“slices of chicken deliciously sauteed in an exquisite sesame sauce”), and George had the Ho Yu Gai Poo (“chunks of chicken deep fried to a gold brown, sauteed with beef, ham, mushrooms, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and other Chinese vegetables and served in an authentic oyster sauce”). Mine was probably the best, with Pam’s a close second, and George’s third.
     We went to bed pretty satisfied that evening, despite our hard beds. At least tomorrow night we’ll be back in our own!