Every year, I spend months saving money for backpacking trips abroad and learning about the foreign cultures I’ll be visiting. The farther away from home and the more exotic the destination, the more value I put on the trip. It wasn’t that I didn’t think cities drivable from my home weren’t worthwhile; but I wanted to experience unknown local delicacies, mountainous landscapes, ecofriendly villages, rich history, interesting communities and just a place that was generally different from my home of Long Island, New York. How could I possibly do that without getting on a plane?
My friend Mike recently invited me to come visit him in Rhode Island. I agreed, expecting nothing more than a long weekend of photographing Newport mansions, going for drinks in Providence and just relaxing on the beach. Surprisingly, the jaunt turned into a mini road trip of New England, as well as an eye-opening experience about how to find culture in your own backyard.Rhode Island
“What’s a lobster roll? And Rhode Island has it’s own clam chowder?” I asked Mike as we perused the numerous cafe signs wandering the streets of Newport.
Apparently, a lobster roll has nothing to do with sushi, as I had assumed, but is fresh cooked lobster meat tossed with mayonnaise and served on a grilled hot dog bun. Additionally, Rhode Island clam chowder is a local favorite, with a clear broth, potatoes, onions, bacon and quahogs. Both were delicious, and I couldn’t believe I’d gone 25 years without sampling either.
“Now we’ve got to get you some Coffee Milk,” said Mike, telling me about the state’s official drink. “It’s like chocolate milk, only with coffee syrup instead.”
Continuing our tour through Newport, I was able to sip a classic cocktail at America’s oldest tavern and learn about the history of the famous Newport Mansions, embodying 250 years of history and featuring among the highest number of surviving colonial buildings of any city in the country. Providence, the city I knew only for its bars, actually proved quite historical with a walk down Benefit Street. Immersing myself in 18th century architecture, it was hard to imagine that I was only three hours from home.
Next we were off to Franconia, New Hampshire. As we drove toward The Granite State, sea-level landscape transformed into mountain peaks reaching over 4,000 feet. The sense of adrenaline I only get while backpacking immediately washed over me, and I again I forgot I wasn’t all that far from home.
Mike and I spent three days hiking the Appalachian Trail, swimming in lakes and waterfalls and summiting Mount Washington, the highest mountain in the northeastern United States at 6,288 feet. I called my
mom excitedly about my newly discovered landmark, just as I had when hiking in the Andes in South America and the Blue Mountains in Australia.
The downtown area where Mike and I went for a nice dinner on our last night in town reminded me of some of the small towns I often visit abroad.
“This is the theater district,” Mike joked, pointing to a group of older men playing guitar at a one-stop pizza/ice cream/T-shirt shop, which was adjacent to an all-in-one dry cleaning/postal/Internet cafe/dog daycare. We walked across the street to the locally famous “Dutch Treat,” where I was once again introduced to a new meal, a burger topped with a flaky crab cake. While not authentic New Hampshire cuisine per say, it still made me feel like I do on backpacking trips when I’m able to find a cozy local restaurant selling a never-before-tasted food.
In Vermont, I experienced a degree of culture shock. It began at the Windham Hill Inn in West Townsend, a beautiful hotel in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the rolling hills of the Green Mountains, peaceful meadows and colorful gardens. The inside smelled of fresh-roasted granola, and locally made teddy bears adorned each room. I thought the emphasis on local products and country living was unique to the hotel; however, journeying into the nearby towns showed me southern Vermont was passionate about going local and community closeness. In fact, I didn’t see one chain establishment during the five days I was there.
In Brattleboro, almost every shop had a sign advising people to “go local.” Remnants of the town’s rich hippie culture from the 1970s are still visible, as you weave in and out of the many bead stores, eclectic galleries and laid-back cafes and bars. Colorful signs advertising events like poetry slams, indie film screenings, farmers markets, environmental workshops and fiddle contests abound, and it isn’t surprising to find locals fighting for moral cause.
Venturing off to the small village of Chester, I was transported to a time when Late Victorian, Colonial Revival and Federal-style architecture was the norm. In Chester, it still is. I was astounded by the depth of warmth conveyed by the city. Wandering down Lovers Lane as well as nibbling on scones at Inn Victoria‘s high tea and playing with the 10,000 plus teddy bears at Hugging Bear Inn and Toy Shoppe helped me experience an unusual culture.
Before heading home, we stopped in Grafton, and sampled some of Vermont’s local cheeses made with raw milk from nearby farmers as well as Vermont maple syrup candies at Grafton Village Cheese. Here I purchased souvenirs from the trip, Pure Maple Butter for my mom and Palmer Lane Maple Jelly Beans for my dad. I felt like such a tourist, but in a good way.
For me, the trip wasn’t a “staycation,” “nearcation,” or any other “nearby getaway” term that implies escaping from reality to relax. Instead, it was a chance to experience cultures different from my own, learn about interesting pieces of history and sample foods I had never tried. I discovered new sites, sounds, flavors and lifestyles, but most importantly, I discovered a new way to travel by bringing my love of backpacking home.