Living through a year of self-inflicted quarantine has been tough. Then, I remembered we had it rough before and made it thru.
This post is a story I wrote for my Storyworth project. It represents an installment of a personal compilation of stories I hope to complete this year. While the Covid pandemic has delayed long bike trips, I guess I have no excuse to stop writing.
How quickly we forget.
Its been a year living through the Covid-19 pandemic. Our lives have been altered to avoid contracting the disease and to protect others from its spread. Basically, we have led a life that was 90% isolated except for a few selected safe relationships and occasional adventurous activities outside of our homes. Someday soon I hope we can look back on this with some nostalgia. But, not right now.
Ironically, I just came across a note I wrote in 2012 during the last crisis we faced. I’m not even sure why I wrote the note or if I ever published it or showed it to anyone, but it struck me as oddly meaningful today.
At that time, thank God, we did not have our Ortley Beach home when Hurricane Sandy hit. Still, after our Morristown home power lines went out and we tried living in a cold, dark house for days we decided to seek shelter. Ours was by no means the worse thing that happened at that time so we steeled ourselves and made the best of it.
Mary Ann’s mom Caroline, in her mid 80’s at the time and who has since passed, was living alone and independently in her home in Lake Parsippany. She welcomed company and we needed a lifeline.
As I remember it, it was a great relief to be in a warm home where mom appreciated the company and we sure appreciated the roof over our heads. This would do until the chaos passed and we could return to normal. It was not a perfect situation but we were all in this together.
Here’s the note I wrote around mid November 2012 as our power was about to be restored after 12 days or so in my mother-in-law’s home:
It made me think that in any catastrophe there are those that suffer much worse than I. Also, overcoming the challenge can lead to good outcomes. Who knew that someday we would all look back on those days when being together in any form would be better than being alone?
As teens, we were looking for thrills and adventure. We found it along Route 22 and the Watchung mountains. Then, I found there was more to the story.
Get Your Kicks on Route 22
Maybe it was the radical change in the landscape with an abrupt rise of 500 feet that led to its reputation of mystery. Stories would be told of interesting places to visit in the mountains out west along the infamous Route 22. This road was our version of “Route 66”, a highway leading east to west across New Jersey to Pennsylvania and beyond. This was a time before the Interstate Highway system would speed travelers across the state by adding Routes 80 and 78, but bypass many local towns and areas of interest.
Before the age of shopping malls, Route 22 was a destination for shopping and entertainment. For the emerging automobile generation, there were large “discount stores” like Two Guys and E. J. Korvettes you could drive to and avoid the inconvenience of going into the city.
Route 22 had restaurants, gas stations, small and large businesses all along the road from Hillside to Somerville. There was even a night club turned into a clothing store built like a “Flagship.” . Back then, diners, drive-in theaters, bowling lanes, golf ranges and even an amusement park caused lots of driver distractions. Its unique commercial island between east and west traffic allowed right and left lane access adding to the driving danger that was Route 22. For us, the stories of accidents and fatalities on Route 22 only added to its challenging allure.
Bumps in the Road
One memorable destination worthy of a car trip out west was a road known as “13 Bumps.” To get there required about a 10 mile trip on Route 22 to the town of Scotch Plains, at the base of the Watchung Mountains. 13 Bumps was actually another name for Johnston Drive, a narrow two-lane road that paralleled Route 22 for a couple miles but rose several hundred feet above along the mountain ridge. A ride on Johnston Drive offered two unique benefits; a spectacular southern view of the suburban towns below and a place to experience a unique joy ride over 13 large bumps to the bottom.
As a teenager, with a car, a place to park with a view meant a high potential “make out” area for a date. Johnston Drive was a sparsely residential road then with houses built into the cliff and a few turnouts that could provide short-term parking with a view. With no authorized spot to linger and no shoulder, it would not be long before a cop would chase us away. That was probably a good thing. It was not uncommon for guys and girls to meet at Jahn’s in Union and adventure together on Route 22 to 13 Bumps, especially on a moonlit night ripe for the promise of adventure.
Of course, the proof of the quality of any ride was how much you would feel that tickle in your stomach as your organs try to defy gravity. Then, again and again, seconds apart. After each bump the custom was to count out loud the number of the bump until you reached “13” near the bottom of the road. 13 Bumps was our version of a DIY amusement ride which we usually repeated several times on any given night.
Falling into the Rabbit Hole
When I started thinking about 13 Bumps as a story, I decided to look online to see if others in the mid-1960’s had the same memories and experiences. But, what I found was that and more. It seems that Johnston Drive originated back in the mid 1800’s and legend has it that it used to be a unique carriage road that was always associated with mystery.
In 1845 a man by the name of David Felt built a small utopian industrial village in the Watchung’s called “Feltville” to support his printing business. To his disciplined and religious community he was known as “King David”. Feltville grew to over 175 residents in the first five years. Then, legend has it that in the next two years 11 children were captured from the town, mutilated, and died near the outskirts of the village.
As deaths appeared, most of the town believed the attacks to be animal related but the killings never stopped. Families began to turn on one other. They then blamed the murders on devils and demons. But, eventually, they blamed a family of 13 sisters who had lost both their parents at a young age. Because this mysterious family did not seem to be affected by the killings, their farm prospered and there were “13” sisters. the town claimed that they were “witches” who sacrificed the children to pagan gods for the good of their crops.
After a long trial the entire family of sisters were found guilty as witches and were hanged. As a reminder of the crimes. the bodies were buried along a local road creating 13 bumps which is now known as Johnston Drive. A rumor followed that before their death, the sisters put a curse on Feltville that would doom the village. However, no record of this murder spree is in the historical record, but remains an urban legend.
Update on the Witches of Watchung
First, let me tell you that the 13 Bumps are no longer there! I recently took a ride on Johnston Drive and there’s good news and bad. The good news is that it’s still a nice country road with magnificent houses and a great view. The bad news is that while the road is not perfectly smooth, you would not know that the bumps ever existed.
The municipalities of Scotch Plains and Watchung realized that the road was a problem over the years and attempted to flatten and repave the road multiple times. Locals claim even so, the bumps continued to mysteriously re-appear over the years. The last paving was over ten years ago. Maybe they got the paving right this time. Or, are they destined to come back? It’s possible I suppose that the curse has been finally lifted. Or, Maybe this urban legend is just an old version of “Fake News.”
How I fell into a rabbit hole and ended up in the mid-1960’s
On the 10th day of my New England Reunion Bike Tour, I was waiting out the rain in Lee, Massachusetts. I set out for my last meal in town before I was to leave the next morning. This area is known for its history and its embrace of mystery and new-age trends. Here’s what happens when my course collides with local forces.
The Salmon Run Fish House. It sounded out of place here in Western Massachusetts. Sometimes all you want, and really need, is something good to eat and the Yelp reviews were good. But, there was more than food to be found here. It was a rabbit hole of sorts taking me on a journey back to a different time.
Being a Bar Fly
I was kind of stuck in Lee, MA on that rainy evening so I did not mind settling into a comfortable place for a couple hours. The Salmon Run Fish House restaurant was an old, narrow, dated place with paneled walls, maybe a dozen booths and a small bar. The waitress strongly suggested I might want to take a seat at the bar since booths were reserved and they would be occupied soon (Got it! I’m sure they did not want one person in a booth). Or, maybe it was just fate to sit at the bar that night.
A couple sat at the bar near me and we began a conversation about local craft beers. I recommended the beer I was drinking called Two Roads: Road 2 Ruin. It’s a mighty good double IPA brewed in Stratford CT. Their marketing tag “The Road Less Traveled” seemed like the perfect motto for my adventure.
My new bar new friend, Bill Russell, was a pleasant, seasoned guy, 73 years old with an attractive wife. Although they now live in Lenox, he likes to come to this place for the food and atmosphere. He’s retired now but has a couple of unique interests and a memorable past.
Where it All Began
Bill used to live in nearby Stockbridge, a fairly famous artsy destination in the Berkshires. At least one reason for its recognition is that it was the scene for Arlo Guthrie‘s famous song and story telling adventure called Alice’s Restaurant(actually titled Alice’s Restaurant Massacree).
It turns out there once was a restaurant called The Back Room owned by Alice Brock and her husband Ray Brock in Stockbridge. The 18-minute song and 111-minute movie made from it are largely based on actual events outside of the restaurant and Bill Russell was part of that whole scene.
Bill grew up in Delaware but was sent by his parents as a teenager to the Stockbridge School in 1964 because of behavioral issues. It was a coincidence of time and place that Alice and Ray re-located to the the area from New York City. She became the school librarian and Ray taught shop at the school. Ray was an eclectic charismatic character who was an architect and talented woodworker. He quickly became an outspoken leader of an anti-establishment community which drew students from the school, including Bill and Arlo Guthrie. This was a turbulent time of radical social change, drugs and the Vietnam War.
Cooking Up Alice’s Restaurant
The story of “Alice’s Restaurant” is about a memorable Thanksgiving dinner in 1965 when Alice and Ray invited everyone they knew to a big feast in their newly bought deconsecrated church in Great Barrington which they converted to a commune-like place for young students and bohemian friends to meet, to discuss ideas and to party.
Arlo and friend Richard Robbins decided to help clean up after the Thanksgiving meal and headed to the town dump after dinner to cart off garbage. But the dump was closed. They unloaded the garbage where they should not have and are eventually caught and fined in an overly dramatic police arrest. Later the next year, Arlo was called up for his Vietnam-era draft physical in New York City. Much to his surprise he was re-classified. He had dodged the draft – not because of behavioral or physical issues – but because he had been arrested for littering!
Ironically, Arlo’s dad, famed folksinger Woody Guthrie, was on his deathbed at the time suffering from Huntington’s Disease, a rare genetic disease that Arlo inherited but was fortunate not to suffer from.
A Legend is Born
Bill was one among the dozens that attended that fateful 1965 Thanksgiving Dinner. Alice opened a real restaurant in Stockbridge afterwards which was a brief success before she became fed up with the business and with Ray. They split up a couple years later. Arlo Guthrie wrote Alice’s Restaurant as more a storytelling than a song. But it was to become a perfect humorous symbol of the times.
A movie deal followed the song’s success. It was not one of famed director Arthur Penn‘s greatest films. The movie was shot in the Stockbridge area and expanded the story with added fiction but it could not save it from a poor script and mediocre acting. Many of the original friends of Alice and Ray got walk-on parts, including Bill Russell.
Bill Russell ended up living in a room near the restaurant in Stockbridge and got to know Alice well. He learned the craft of woodworking and ended up moving to New York City where he bought a shop at a time and place when it was affordable. He lived there for 25 years but eventually came back to Stockbridge. He continues to live off the income from properties including his NYC building which once was his workshop.
When Bill and I parted company that night he told me he would be heading to Provincetown on Thanksgiving Day, as he has for many years. Alice Brock is still carrying on their tradition by hosting a dinner for her close friends, including Bill.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Bill was like the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland. He showed me the rabbit hole and I could not help but go in.
I learned Alice opened and closed several restaurants, wrote a few cookbooks and a biography called “My Life As a Restaurant“. Still, she’s always had a love/hate relationship with running a restaurant. She preferred a creative free-form style of cooking. Here’s an audio recipe for Salt and Pepper Soup recorded at NPR.
Today, Alice Brock (alicebrock.com) lives in Provincetown, MA and sells beach stones (painted stones meant to be hidden in strategic places) and other personal artwork through her website. Her former husband, Ray Brock, passed away in 1979. The deconsecrated church in Great Barrington was bought by Arlo Guthrie and is now the Guthrie Center at Old Trinity Church. where people people of all religions are welcome, musical events still occur and a large, open Thanksgiving dinner is served each year.
After googling the incident, characters and times, I viewed the movie Alice’s Restaurant on a library DVD. It brought back old memories including the strange times we lived through in the 60’s, including my own draft physical in Newark, New Jersey about that same year.
Its fair to say that listening to this song has become an American tradition for many of us – linked with Thanksgiving, story-telling humor, questioning authority and an ability to laugh at the absurdities of life. To me it’s become as timeless and strange as Alice in Wonderland.
A great concert for the ages. Neil Young at the Ryman Auditorium.
We’re taking a slight “detour” here from my Reunion Tour bike trip blogging to comment on and recommend a movie that brought home some of my personal feelings as of late. It’s one of the best concert movies I have ever seen.
Occasionally, out of the blue, something appears as a selection on one of my 60+ streaming TV channels that really, really is worth watching. That happened last night when I selected from Kanopy the 2006 Neil Young: Heart of Gold documentary directed by Jonathan Demme. Its themes, music and point in Neil’s life tie right into my 13-day, 500+mile bike tour I completed last week. The message sent to me was clear – others pass this way too.
This is the thoughtful and everyman Neil Young performing songs for the first time from his Prairie Wind album which was critically acclaimed and nominated for 2 Grammys. It was a different turn toward an Americana sound somewhat like country, bluegrass and folk ballads. It reminded me of the music I heard in Vermont that just tell simple stories well. I loved the album at the time but had totally forgotten about it. This is the same Neil Young who once sang, “It’s better to burn out than fade away.”
You’re Never too Young
Young wrote most of the songs after his father’s death a few months before. At the time, he was diagnosed with a treatable brain aneurysm. Yet, he opened a tour of the album at the famed 2,600-seat Ryman Auditoriumin Nashville, the shrine and home of the original Grand Ole Opry. At the time he was all too aware of the fragility of life.
The songs are about growing up in Alberta, his father, his daughter, his god, and even his guitar. It’s a beautiful positive ode to the basic important things in life. While I’m not a country music fan, the emotional connection that a good country song brings is in this music, in spades.
Young is reverent to all the places, old times and everyone he has known. The heartfelt lyrics and sound are true and played to perfection with great musicians, including Emmy Lou Harris and with artistic and minimalist filming. Neil never looked more like the musical genius he is than in this work.
If you’ve read other posts on my blog myplanc.blog, you know its about getting older and in appreciating and discovering joy in everyday things. This documentary did just that for me and helped me bask a bit longer in the good vibes I got from visiting some old friends – and having the unforgettable opportunity to reminisce about good old times.
Some memories of people are etched in our minds. Some of places. And, some memories have both.
It was a rainy day, exactly as forecast. I enjoyed sleeping late that morning at my airbnb in Lee, Massachusetts. I had decided that after 10 days on the road and only 3 more to go to complete my Reunion Tour, it would be wise to avoid riding my bike through the light, steady rain.
25 Housatonic Street is conveniently located near the town center and is large enough for to host at least a few guests in some old period rooms as well as accommodate the owner’s family and grandkids on an occasional visit. Definitely not a motel. It was, as they claimed in the airbnb listing, “Comfortable Living in 1870’s House”.
I was sitting alone in a shared guest area that offered coffee, food, and information. There were obviously lots of memories made and shared in this home. The creaky floors and the numerous tsotchkes here seemed to prove that beyond a doubt. But people make memories and I was fortunate to meet a few.
I had met Kathy yesterday when I arrived. She was also a guest for the upcoming week, here for the Women’s Week program at Kripalu in nearby Stockbridge. It is the largest yoga retreat in North America. Her upbeat conversation reflected my understanding that this area of the Berkshires is known for its new-age thinking. She had come to gain a new enlightenment, become an instructor and to meet up with other yoga friends. Later, she said the program was everything she expected and more.
Later that day I met Dave and Debbie, who were my thoughtful and friendly hosts. Debbie was probably near my age and had been a competitive cyclist who also organized mountain biking races in the Kingdom Trails Burke Mountain area for several years – where I had visited a few days ago. It was obvious she had lots of old memories of those past glory days. Now, she and her husband still ride on tamer local trails and enjoyed walking. Funny, how easily it can be to relate to memories from people we might not have otherwise met.
But, that rainy morning I also met Elizabeth who was a regular boarder here and not your usual airbnb guest. After a friendly greeting I noticed she had a slight European accent. She began to explain she actually lived here 3 days a week to accommodate her job as an emergency room registered nurse in a Pittsfield hospital. Obviously, being an EMT nurse requires a certain type of individual.
You probably know that nurses are in high demand these days but their salaries do not necessarily reflect that. Apparently, Massachusetts hospitals pay much better than upstate New York. Elizabeth’s home is about 25 miles west of Albany so rather than travel 80 miles each way for 3 days, she stays here. This way she can have 4 days off to take care of her home and farm animals.
It turns out Elizabeth was born in Poland in an area known as Galacia that is the same area where my ancestors are from. Yet, her family began their American odyssey first in Bayonne, New Jersey, as many Poles did over the last century. Her family was able to begin immigration in the 1940’s after the war when sympathetic Polish troops allowed Poles to cross the border into Austria despite a Russian blockade. Later, the border closed and the family was denied entry until Glasnost occurred in Russia.
As was the custom of the time and place in Poland, Elizabeth married a neighbor in what might be called a pre-arranged marriage which she fought. Eventually, Elizabeth immigrated and worked through marital difficulties, earned here RN degree and raised three daughters (all now in their 20’s) that are doing very well, including one who is a pre-med student. Her’s is a story of a successful persistent immigrant and of one woman’s strength. I could not help but feel her story is not over yet and wondered what memories were ahead for her.
Nearly a week after my stay in Lee, I found myself on a weekend away in the Hamptons with my wife, kids, their spouses and the grandkids. It was to celebrate my wife Mary Ann’s 70th birthday. Yes, we were making our own memories too. Accidentally, a moment came a few days ago that brought a flood of memories back from that day in Lee, MA.
In 1975 Mick Jagger was escaping a busy schedule of North American shows and a productive period of new music. Mick and Kieth Richards escaped to Andy Warhol‘s Montauk vacation home for a break. During that stay, Mick had a fling with a strong-willed woman. They would later name her as Hannah in a song he and Kieth wrote called the Memory Motel. (lyrics here) Some consider it one of their longest anb best ballads.
It’s speculation that the basis of the song then was Carly Simon, who Mick had a relationship with (Of course, it’s no secret that Carly got back at Mick with her hit single “You’re So Vane“). But the famous photographer Annie Leibovitz was also know as Hannah. So, let’s just say Memory Motel it was about remarkable women.
As we traveled through Montauk, we passed the actual Memory Motel. I did a double-take remembering the name but not realizing its history at the time. Apparently, there’s still a dive bar and beat up motel that lives on as a monument to memories past and those that can still be created.
Just like my stay at 25 Housatonic, some memories are just burned-in and will never leave. Rightly so. Chief among them are hard-headed women that make a difference and special places that we never forget.