Last Fall, we (Allison and Emilie) went for a walk in the woods. It was the last good camping weekend of the year - chilly and rainy enough to make you feel hardy and accomplished, but not enough to make you sick. The campsite was chosen more or less at random, based on some unscientific Yelp sampling and its distance from New York City. At some point in the middle of the walk, which was misty and grey in an elven sort of way, a sign appeared along the path. “Welcome to Massachussetts.” Crossing state borders on foot through the forest like some kind of olde-timey adventurer?! We were so ready. But then the rain gathered strength and we were no longer olde-timey adventurers at all - just damp little people scampering towards the car. Once safely ensconced, we did some decidedly modern research - and the gps informed us that, by chance, we were a few miles from Lenox, Mass. - where Bernadette Mayer wrote Midwinter Day and Nathaniel Hawthorne was troubled by the coldly charming hills. We set off, fully expecting to see our imaginary diorama-town made real. For those of you familiar with/from Lenox, this might seem like a comical level of excitement - but that, I suppose, is part of the point. We arrived, and were greeted by a sign to match our expectations. Austere, yet somehow friendly. We parked the car on a dangerous part of the road and scampered out:
We found, to our delight, that we recognized the names of roads and even some businesses from the poetry; Shear Design, the hairstylist, has clearly been going strong for many years now:
"Who are these unwashed young women screaming outside of the Shear Design?", passersby might have asked, had there been any on this gloomy day. They might have been elegantly dressed in the nice wealthy hippie mom linens which graced many window displays, or they might have been like us, visiting from New York City and sitting in the "The Bookshop" discussing the difference between living in the Berkshires and renting in NYC. In fact, there were people sitting in "The Bookshop" discussing this topic in the world-weary, comfortable way that people of a certain age (with a certain type of leisure time) do when they're really ready to sit back and relax with a classic convo. We watched these fashionable, silver-haired types from behind this bookshelf:
Which both delighted and gave us pause. Here we were in a place so aware of its identity and how to market that to outsiders - a perfect jewel of a place presenting its shiniest facets for city slickers like us. Was that nice, good, a useful balm? A diorama meant to capture someone's idea of a perfect town in a way that could be instructive or interesting or important? Or were we supposed to feel cynical, doubtful of these fancy boutiques, these black-turtlenecked intellectuals sipping wine in a bookstore in the afternoon? I (Allison) grew up in a town somewhat like this (though in upstate New York, not New England) where we wrote the names of antique stores on faux rustic signs to help weekenders navigate through the charming stone cottages. I always felt a resentment (who could afford those antiques anyway?) combined with a desire to show my out-of-town friends all of the most charming spots; the small-town pageant. Feeling a rush of complicated feelings about my childhood and upbringing, I bought a souvenir t-shirt at The Bookstore and we ventured out. Knowing we would have to spend our entire evening trying to light a fire from damp wood back at the campsite, we decided it was time to end our accidental pilgrimage. We drove slowly around the town once more, looking for details, things we might have already built into Old Paper Houses through intuition or luck. There were historical placards, lovely little houses, and hidden evidence of regular people trying to live as comfortably as possible where there were cracks in the perfection. Finally, the Town Hall met our expectations - solid, elegant, a sign of a real place where generations upon generations before us had fretted over how to be people living together in the old cold hills.
Cover image by Carol Rosegg