Just about 24 years ago a young man, a fresh-faced kid is more like it, set out in a car packed with some camping gear and a map. He wanted to see some of the country. Not from the far-reaching view of a plane window, not the oft-visited tourist venues seen in every brochure, not the everyday sights, he wanted to see the real country. He wished to touch the back roads and farm stands, the real people (farmers, fishermen, general stores) and places. He needed to see the hard-to-find nooks of a vast nation and discover some of the secret little places hidden along the dirt roads. He wanted to get off the bold black lines of the road atlas and follow the thin, fading contours that no one pays attention to. This would be his first road trip, his first foray away from home, his first taste of so much more that would feed a need to see even more. And so with a map and a full tank of gas, the road led north.
I can not believe that it has been nearly a quarter of a century since I drove up I-95 heading for Maine. It was my first road trip and I was excited. Leaving New Jersey behind and crossing state lines seemed so foreign back then. The sound of the highway buzzing away beneath the tires as the miles piled up. I did not want to exit the highway until I had put enough distance between NJ and my first campground. It would take five hours to reach that campsite in Freeport, Maine. A cute site overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the clam diggers in the morning and the lapping waves in the evening. The breeze filled the old bivy tent with a faint hint of salt. The coast was rocky and steep, nothing like the beaches of Jersey. Seafood, lobster and clams, were sold on the roadside, a "sea farmers market" along the back road. The local "big" city was a cobblestone-paved wharf holding antique tall ships and whale tour charter boats. Looking out across the ocean from my little tent one could believe that the road ended here, but there were more tiny lines to follow. Lines that led away from the ocean, further north and slightly west.
Those lines would bring me to the base of a mountain. One thin line did not end at the mountain's base but at the very top. One road led up the rocky slopes through the clouds, above the treeline and into a whole other climate. The Mt. Washington Auto Road allows for intrepid drivers to conquer the mountain from the driver's seat and obtain a view of forever. From the summit the land flows away from the mountain for as far as the eye can see. The clouds fill a sky that reaches farther than the view of the melting horizon. At once a person feels so big atop that peak and so small in the midst of all the world flowing around them. On the top of that mountain, looking out at the country, I could envision all the lines branching out from the dirt road that winds back down the mountain and I wanted to see them all.
One of those lines led me further west and north into the Green Mountains and farmland of Vermont. I met ice cream makers that would change the freezer case of every grocery store churning their special brand of frozen treats hidden in a little holler away from any big city. I saw teddy bears handmade with love and recycled materials and personalized while you wait in a little warehouse disguised as a vibrant-colored farm building. Both places offered "behind-the-scenes tours" of their facilities filled with laughter and stories and cute little samples, so personable. Along those thin little lines were sugar shacks and moose tracks and hiking trails and swimming holes and cheese and apples and cider and milk from a glass quart and an antique flea market in an old barn.
It was like any other flea market in an old building. Vendors divided into little sections within the building selling their different wares. It really was nothing special. The only reason to stop was to see if there were any hidden treasures to bring home as evidence of a successful road trip. Vendor after vendor held not a single memorable piece to put in the car. Yet hidden away in the building, no, beneath the building in the basement was a special place. Below all the antiques was a tiny hole from which beer flowed. Being only 18 at the time and seeing only the typical cheap swill of the secret high school party and not being a fan of late night drunken debacles, I had no idea that such things existed. The walls were lined with cans from beer companies and brands long forgotten. Can styles that were no longer in manufacture were everywhere. Even the smell was intoxicating in that basement. I could not sample the production line but I could take home some of the best mountain road trip memorabilia. I could return home with tangible memories that truly summed up a camping road trip. A couple of beer coasters with a little red mountain and a tribute to Vermont's Long Trail.
I returned home full of memories and sights and pictures. I also came home with the desire to return to that basement at the end of every road trip. And that is exactly what I did for the next several years. Every camping trip, road trip, visit out of state, would somehow find a back road that led back toward that antique mall. Trips to upstate New York would mysteriously wander into Vermont. A visit to a candle maker in Massachusetts would transform into a jaunt further north into Vermont. Eventually I had reached an age to actually sample the products but that did not matter as much as the destination and the destination did not matter as much as the journey. Each time I visited the place a different road would lead me there and I would see even more of the country, sample even more back roads.
By this time college had taught me the appreciation of cheap yellow liquids that could be consumed in mass quantity. But this stuff was different. It was not churned out in large factories on massive assembly lines and stacked high. It was brewed with care and flavor and seemed to put the essence of the outdoors, of campfires and gurgling streams, in that little bottle. Maybe it was the scenery or the lovable bears on the labels or the hiker that has come to symbolize the brewery. It could have been the Blackbeary Wheat, the first seasonal beer I had ever tasted, mixing a light brew with blackberries, or the Pollenator, a honey-infused taste of Spring. This was nothing like anything I had ever seen. The little basement gave way to a true brewery further down the road and the place had now become a true destination complete with food and a patio deck overlooking the beer's water source. It was Long Trail Brewing.
They turn 25 this year and my family and I will take a road trip back there again. I will pick up some beer and maybe a T-shirt. But along the way my kids will visit a teddy bear factory and a sugar shack. They will sample cheeses and apples and dips and homemade soda and fudge. Perhaps they will get a chance to try some roadside lobster or clam chowder. They will drive up a mountain and look out on forever and hopefully I can get them to see the thin, faint little lines that lead out across the horizon. Just maybe, as the wind stings their cheeks, they will find their own back road and they will remember it and yearn to follow it as they grow. Because the world is full of wonder and surprises and adventures and little roads that hold little treasures that stay with you, always.