Berkshires Road Trip
I recently took a 2-day road trip through the Berkshires with a friend. We drove at a leisurely pace, heading west from Arlington, Massachusetts along Route 2. After about a hundred miles, Route 2 becomes the Mohawk Trail, in the northwestern-most corner of Massachusetts near where it intersects with Vermont and New York. We stopped in North Adams and toured the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA). The exhibits were varied and colorful to put it succinctly. A modern art museum is always another world unto itself, so I won’t do the injustice of trying to describe the exhibits in a story about a road trip. Suffice to say the museum is a premier showcase for modern art in this country. Our stop there made for a fantastic side trip in contrast to the natural beauty of the mountains as we toured.
Only minutes away, we drove the winding roads of the Greylock Reservation, up to the peak of Mt. Greylock, visiting the War Memorial Tower and enjoying clear summer views. The drive down the opposite side of the mountain was a spectacle of flickering light filtering through the trees along the twisting road. We had the windows down. The air was clean.
We continued southwest to the town of Hancock where we stayed overnight at the Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort. It was a large, very decent hotel. The hallways had a musty odor, as of old wood, which I found nostalgic and comforting. Nearby, we dined at a local establishment called, “Powder Hounds Restaurant and Tavern.” The modest restaurant hosted a mix of locals and visiting families with plenty of noise and delicious food. We ate a smoked trout appetizer served with perfectly crisp toast tips, fresh dill and sour cream dip, capers, and fresh chopped onions. I ordered the Jack Daniels drunk steak for dinner. It came with the butteriest mashed potatoes and delicious locally grown corn with red peppers and onions. We even splurged on dessert, a mud pie loaded with gooey caramel, chocolate, peanuts, and whipped cream on a base of creamy cheesecake. Our seasoned waitress was a charming, enthusiastic character who made the meal all the more special. For such a noisy and rustic place, I will long remember the stimulating food and atmosphere.
At our hotel, I found a brochure describing Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Noticing there was an open rehearsal the next morning, I made a point of detouring to Lenox to take advantage of the incredible opportunity to get up close to the music and the musicians. Tanglewood, I had quickly realized, was something truly unique and special that could not be bypassed or else be regretted for ages.
Without question, attending the symphony rehearsal outdoors at Tanglewood was the most memorable part of the journey even though it was not originally planned. Sitting in chairs on the hard earth floor of the “Shed,” we watched the orchestra rehearse on stage under a large, acoustically sound canopy. Observing the musicians in their street clothes, shorts, and sandals was a odd thrill. Although we weren’t far from the stage, I used my binoculars to spy on some of the players up close. Having played trumpet and french horn in school (including into college) I watched with interest as the players’ facial expressions changed with the music as they played and rested between passages in their parts. It brought back memories of what it was like to play in a live orchestra. All my musical knowledge and language came flooding back as I observed and listened.
At one point I was drawn to a small exchange I witnessed between two trumpet players behind their music stands. Did I actually see the third chair trumpet player (Thomas Siders) point out a missed accidental (missed note) to the second chair player (Benjamin Wright)? As Siders gestured at Wright’s sheet music, I watched Wright’s facial expression change from surprise to denial to shock, then concern. I could clearly recognize all the phases a musician experiences when a fellow player points out a flub. I had to chuckle. Perhaps it wasn’t specifically a missed note, but whether or not it was, I certain I had uncovered a secret debate between the trumpeters by watching the exchange between them. Fortunately, the two musicians behaved as adults and not as high school kids. Neither seemed offended. It’s hard to tell with trumpet players sitting on stage trying to look dignified, anyway. Whatever the drama, it passed quickly.
The music was as good as it gets. The acoustics of the outdoor venue were exceptional. Even while walking away from the covered area, the music could be heard with clarity and nuance from out on the park lawn, which sprawls away for acres.
We were treated to the music of Higdon’s Blue Cathedral and Sarasate’s Song of the Nightingale. Two guest violinists, Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony played J.S. Bach’s Concerto in D minor for two violins and strings, VWV 1043. Of the two, one had a clear edge in musicianship, but I’ll keep my opinion to myself as to whom. Other superbly played pieces were Poet and Peasant by Suppe (ethereal and thrilling in the outdoors) and Bizet’s familiar Suite from Carmen. Each piece being rehearsed was played in full. Only a few times did the conductor, Giancarlo Guerrero, need to stop to go over specific passages. All in all, the Tanglewood experience has been one of the most enriching for me since moving to New England six years ago.
Subsequent to the orchestra rehearsal, we made the obligatory gift shop visit to purchase a kitchen magnet. I picked up a CD of a Boston Pops concert which I had recently attended at Boston Symphony Hall.
Continuing our journey, we drove to Stockbridge and visited the Norman Rockwell museum. This had been on my agenda ever since moving to Boston. It wasn’t until our Berkshire’s outing that I finally put it on an itinerary. Although the museum itself was smaller than I expected, the guided tour made it seem larger. I learned intimate details about the life of Norman Rockwell and his early success at age 22 with his first Saturday Evening Post magazine cover. To see his works and to realize how brilliant the man was at age 22 was literally an eye-opener. His earlier works were just as impressive as those in his later years. Rockwell was obviously born with a genius for art. We are fortunate his talents were recognized early on. His works all show the same incredible feeling, detail, and often whimsical composition that sets Norman Rockwell apart.
We picked up another refrigerator magnet at the gift shop. My friend also purchased a copy of Rockwell’s painting, Stockbridge Mainstreet at Christmas (Home for Christmas), his nostalgic rendering of Rockwell’s final town of residence.
The Rockwell museum was our last scheduled stop, however we still had the energy for another detour. We decided to stop in the city of Northampton on the way home. The stories we had heard were that Northampton was full of crazy people. That’s as far as my friend would interpret what his friends from work had conveyed to him. After a long drive from Stockbridge, upon reaching Northampton, we parked immediately near the center of town. A parking space beckoned us from in front of a Thai restaurant, so we exited the car and dined early on spicy, well prepared eastern cuisine. We then proceeded to walk to the center of town to watch people. I had been observing a few individuals walking past our restaurant while we were eating our Thai food. They were a strange assortment of people going by in all manner of dress and gait. Once we were outside in the street again, the rest of the local circus crowd became our main attraction among the numerous other restaurants and shops.
In fairness to Northampton, this was just a brief snapshot in a very short visit. As we walked a 20 minute loop around the town’s center, it reminded me of a small seaside town in San Diego–Ocean Beach–which is a haven for hippie types and idle folks of all ages. I used to love ditching school and going there to look for trouble in my teens. Downtown Northampton, like a flea market or an outdoor rock concert event, had people gathering in small groups in front of doorways and at curbs.
We bought blood orange flavored gelato in a chocolate shop and a brownie at a Starbucks. I noticed people rolling joints on the sidewalk and one man walking a few steps behind another as he described a “fat baggie.” (Like I said, a flea market of sorts.) We stopped at an imports shop and I was engaged by a women (perhaps the owner) who did her best to pick my brain by asking a lot of questions. When I mentioned we had just come from Stockbridge, she storied me about a mental institution frequented by alcoholics there–not what I had hoped to keep as a lasting impression of Stockbridge. We moved along.
We still had a way to go to get home, so we left enigmatic Northampton debating whether to return again for a closer look another day.
It was a glorious 2-day road trip and not at all hectic in any way. Imagine that. We left early on Friday morning and arrived back home, Saturday night, having had just one overnight stay. Sunday was left to relax. We will likely do it again when the leaves are changing. It will probably be more heavily traveled at that point, but the leaves are always worth a drive. We did the Adirondacks last year.
Just thought I would share….
Robert George Reoch
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