The other day when I was getting the mail at the end of my driveway in Lincoln, a nice couple in a car with Tennessee license plates asked me if there was a Wal-Mart or a Costco in town. I recommended the Lincoln General Store and said that was about as close as we got to a Wal-Mart or a Costco. I was pretty sure that the store’s Krista Jones had just baked maple scones, and so even though the emporium lacked the inventory of a Wal-Mart or a Costco, it was worth stopping by.
In the summer we get a fair number of travelers like this in Lincoln. The Lincoln Gap is open and so motorists pass through the town as they’re traveling between Bristol and Warren. Sometimes they’re a little lost, sometimes they just want to see if the switchbacks on the Gap are as terrifying as they’ve heard. In the winter, when the Gap is closed because no one in their right mind would try to plow it, the visitors are fewer and farther between: You really can’t get anywhere from here.
But I love the strangers we get in the summer. I asked Vaneasa Stearns, the store’s owner, about the folks who pass through this time of the year, and she said the questions range from the site of a good place to fish to the location of the nearest supermarket. (Lincoln has plenty of the former, but you have to drive to Bristol for the latter.) As I’ve strolled around town I’ve been asked the distance to the Ben & Jerry’s Factory (far), is it possible to get to Middlebury’s Bread Loaf campus from here (yes), and whether they’re anywhere near Lake Placid (depends on what a person means by “anywhere near”).
The truth is that I have enormous respect for travelers who drive through a place like Lincoln on a lark. They see the dot on the map and here they are. My wife is very much like these intrepid souls. She’s a photographer and her idea of the perfect vacation involves a car, a camera, and thousands of miles of unfamiliar roads. Often she disappears like this completely alone. One time she put nearly 4,500 miles on a rented automobile all by herself in 13 days of travel across the southwest. (Just for the record, this was back in the Mesozoic period when gas was cheap and we didn’t realize how badly we were degrading this great spinning gumball we call home.)
Now, traveling this way alone is not necessarily wise and it is certainly not for the faint of heart. A long time ago in a galaxy far away. . .in an era so many years distant that my wife actually rented a cell phone when she rented a car. . .she was traveling alone along a stretch of highway christened “The Loneliest Road in America” by “Life Magazine.” It’s Route 50, a strip of asphalt that runs east-west across Nevada and doesn’t have a lot of human habitation. But she thought the high desert and decrepit remnants of old gold rush towns might provide new material. So off she went.
As the light was fading she came across a tired little motel with no cars in front of it and a bar beside it with a couple of trucks. It was, she realized, the last motel for hours and she was exhausted. So she stopped and took a room. That night she called me on her rented cell phone to tell me that she was fine, though she had pushed the bureau in the motel room in front of the door and piled a mattress from the room’s second twin bed against the lone window.
Now, in reality was that town a Nevada version of Lincoln? Safe and quirky and welcoming? Or had she stumbled upon the Bates Motel? The next morning she didn’t smell maple scones from the bar across the street. But she took some wonderful photographs and savored the freedom that comes with a car and a couple of days off.
There’s still plenty of summer left. With any luck, I’ll be able to direct some more fearless out-of-staters to Ben & Jerry’s and Lake Placid.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 26, 2009.)