CommonWander is Back!

Hey Wanderers, I’m back!

After some very significant changes in my life, I decided to restart CommonWander, for a number of reasons:

  • I missed sharing my day trips and adventures through Massachusetts;
  • I missed writing, in general; and
  • Because now I can.

Let me address that last point with some history. In 2012, I left the Sentinel & Enterprise, my employer for seven years, and started a job in communications and education for a state agency. I soon decided that it was neither practical nor possible to continue writing about communities in Massachusetts on my own time, and with my own totally biased, often unresearched, opinion, since I was dealing with the same communities professionally. Perhaps I was being overly cautious, since this blog is about finding the hidden gems and reasons to visit these cities and towns and doesn’t step anywhere near controversy, but I thought I couldn’t be too careful, given my public job. I resigned that job earlier this month to take a position in an email/online marketing company in the Boston area. I feel quite a bit more free to share my journeys once again.

I plan to blog more frequently (and I promise to never again disappear for years at a time), in between trips and asking for destinations. I’m looking for the best small businesses in the Commonwealth, the best events, the most beautiful spots and anything weird you could think of. Please leave a comment if you know where I should wander next.

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Gone ‘Til November

My title here may be a bit of an exaggeration, but with three out-of-state weddings in five weeks, I have had little time (or gas money, yikes!) for road-tripping around the Commonwealth these days. I will resume my wandering as soon as I’m through with 2012’s Weddingpalooza.

Carter Park in Leominster. Four years ago, so there’s new stuff to see now!

In the meantime, a few quick hits:

My newspaper and the Lowell Sun have launched What Do U Wanna Do? A Central MA/Merrimack valley events page. Check it out for arts and entertainment.
• The Boston Globe Magazine published a fall travel guide with lots of cool hints related to autumnal exploration (in my opinion, the best kind!)
• To plan your leaf-peeping excursion, the New Hampshire Tourism board has a pretty high-tech tracker of peak foliage dates; Massachusetts’ Office of Travel and Tourism also has some suggestions for events happening across the state that coincide with the brightest leaves. Here are similar sites for Vermont and Maine.
• Just looking to hang out with some cool people locally, and maybe make some new friends? See what’s up with the North Central Massachusetts League of Awesome People on Facebook, and post your own goings-on.
• Go apple-picking! Yes, the hot, hot summer made apples appear early, but there’s still plenty of time to visit an orchard with your family. If pie and apple crisp aren’t your thing (seriously? What’s wrong with you?), there are plenty of non-dessert options for our favorite fruit.

How do you like them apples, Sholan Farm?

Phillipston

I went to the Red Apple Farm in Phillipston this afternoon to go to the Appleseed Country Fair, hosted at the farm’s Highland Avenue orchard. Knowing I was headed to Phillipston, I tried to find something to do before the event (get some breakfast, take a hike, even) but my Googling didn’t yield many results.

I ended up just going to the fair. Phillipston is a sleepy place, but the Red Apple Farm is fantastic. And the fair was a really good time. Sponsored by the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce and the Gardner Ale House, there was music, beer, wine, cheese, BBQ, fried stuff, crafts, and everything that makes a decent Saturday afternoon.

King of all the goats

Supergoat

The farm itself is gorgeous, on both sides of the street, with many varieties of apples ready for the picking, pumpkins, some goats, a cow, sheep, donkey and bunnies. The farmstand is really cool, filled with house-made condiments (apple butter, pies, dressings, apple salsa, fudge) and knick-knacks. If you don’t feel like picking apples, you can pick up a bushel there.

As far as food goes, the fair didn’t disappoint. This was my first experience with turkey legs, fair style. Pretty enormous/gross/tasty. Sampled Smith Farm cheese – yum. Tasted wine from the Hardwick Winery – very good. Drank Gardner Ale House beers – Summer’s End is delicioso. And we had pumpkin ice cream. Why isn’t everything as perfect as pumpkin ice cream?

Phillipston traffic jam

After leaving the fair, I headed toward the Phillipston town common, which was dead. On my search, I encountered the Phillipston Wikipedia page, whose only interesting tidbit is that in FY 2008, the town spent about $30,000 on the public library. And that appears to be the most fascinating thing about the town, outside the farm. I did end up leaving pretty early, because of reports of tornadoes in Massachusetts, so maybe I missed something.

The famous Phillipston Library

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Concord

A few weeks ago, I touched the desk where Louisa May Alcott wrote “Little Women,” by accident.

It happened on one of the coolest tours I’ve ever taken, a special three-destination package of the Concord Museum, the Alcott house and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home, all within walking distance of each other in what must be the smartest square mile in Massachusetts.

My travel buddy (a.k.a. Mom) tipped me off to a great exhibit (going on through the end of September) at the Concord Museum. Annie Leibovitz’s “Pilgrimage” features stunning photos of places and things important to many of the world’s greatest thinkers (Charles Darwin’s notes, Emerson’s library) and artists (Virginia Woolf’s desk, Elvis Presley’s shot-out television). I’m an amateur judge, at best, of photography, but these were breathtaking images – quiet moments and sweeping landscapes, all connected with some of the most riveting people.

Annie Leibovitz’ Niagara Falls, currently hanging at the Concord Museum

The museum has this deal right now, where you can get a ticket to the exhibit as well as the two historical homes. It’s $21. And it’s worth it. After the Leibovitz exhibit, we made our way through the rest of the museum, which is bigger than it looks and a fine tribute to the history of Concord. Following that, we made our way along Lexington Road to the Alcott home, a gorgeous, brown Colonial set among lush gardens and the Concord School of Philosophy, established by Bronson Alcott.

Alcott House, Concord, Mass.

Historical home tours are a gamble – they could be terribly short, or filled with replicas and assumptions.

Or they could be the Alcott home. Preserved for the most part the way Bronson, his wife and daughters kept it, the home is wide open to tour groups. Nothing is behind velvet ropes or glass. The tour begins with a short video told by “Louisa May Alcott” (the museum director) and a brief history of her father’s visions for educational reform, the literary importance of Concord in the 19th century and Louisa’s own headstrong feminism.

Then we were led by Beth, our tour guide, into the home’s kitchen for the start of the tour. It was as if she had been a close, personal friend of the Alcotts – she spoke about them with authority, respect and fondness. She also connected the Alcotts’ home life with Concord — Emerson would debate with Bronson when they passed each other in the street, Henry David Thoreau would take the girls on nature walks — and with “Little Women,” Louisa’s most famous novel. As we stood in Louisa’s bedroom, I accidentally backed up against a small writing desk Bronson had built for her. Our guide explained that’s where she wrote most of the story of Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy.

We weren’t able to make it over to the Emerson home in time for a tour, but the ticket package is good through the extent of the Leibovitz exhibit. The rest of our afternoon, we spent walking through the gorgeous downtown area, full of high-end boutiques, high-end homes and a high-end school (Concord Academy). Don’t forget to bring a lot of money if you plan to shop in this town.

We followed this with a quick drive across Route 2 to West Concord, a quieter but still charming town-square area. We then hopped over to neighboring Maynard for a bite to eat.

Concord is a gem. We didn’t even scratch the surface of its attractions (Walden Pond, river kayaking, etc.) but the tours were enough to remind me why I love the place. Imagine being young Louisa. Your neighbors are some of the greatest American minds and you know it. Your parents are progressive well beyond their time. The dinner-table chatter isn’t about reality TV, but about education, human rights, agriculture, nature, philosophy and politics.

Beth, our tour guide, explained the mindset among this group perfectly: “They were great friends, but they weren’t a chorus.”

Imagine being able to debate calmly, rationally, and intellectually, and being able to disagree pleasantly. Now we fight, insult, pander, choose our news from those who “agree” with us. Part of my modern-convenience-loving self was jealous of the people who lived in Concord then.

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Fishing at the mouth of the Merrimack

As I noted in a previous post, I’ve been spending a lot of weekends attending weddings this year, which means I’ve been spending a lot of time in dresses, makeup and high heels that have blistered my feet to no end.

So when my friend Phil emailed me early last week to ask if I’d like to get in on his fishing trip, I responded: “Heck yeah, I do.” I had only ever been fishing in a small pond near my parents’ house and from a pier in the Indian River in Florida – all of this at least 18 years ago. It was Shark Week, and I jumped at the chance to catch something at sea and eat it the same day. Plus, I didn’t have to shower beforehand.

Phil’s coworker had chartered a boat with Rings Island Charters of Salisbury/Newburyport (all told, it was about $125 per person for a half-day trip including bait and equipment), and we met our captain, Gary Morin, at a marina off Bridge Street. Gary was great. Funny, informative, instructive, and patient with my complete lack of fishing knowledge and my tendency to be in his way.

Phil, Wayne and Brian’s elbow. It was really perfect weather. Overcast but not rainy, and not too cold.

I was the first of our group to get a fish on the line, so I attempted to reel it in and it immediately became apparent that I didn’t know how to do anything on a fishing boat. My would-be catch got away, but it was OK – it was early yet, and I’ve heard somewhere that there are plenty of ’em in the sea.

Capt. Gary Morin

It wasn’t in the cards for any of us. As we moved from place to place, we had a few close calls but only one too-small striper that we released. It was a little frustrating, but we all had a blast. On Gary’s recommendation, we stopped by the All-American Tavern on our way home for lunch. All of us got seafood (and it was very good) and I’d say we’d all make the same kind of trip again.

I don’t have any basis for comparison, though we did see other, larger fishing boats on the water and I can’t imagine you’d get as informative or personalized a trip on one of those. Gary answered everyone’s questions, kept us moving throughout the harbor in search of bluefish and striped bass, educated us about the season, the water, the land around Plum Island, his preferred practices and the fish themselves. It was much more than I expected to learn, and, for not catching anything, much more fun than I expected to have.

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I’ll be back

Fellow Wanderers,

I am at “that time” (29) in my life when everyone I know is getting married. As a result of my attending six weddings in five months, my bank account is low, my mileage is high and I haven’t been able to wander too much. So I’m taking a break.

I will be back exploring at the end of this month!

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Revere Beach

As I wrote last week, I was psyched to go to the Revere Beach Sand-Sculpture Festival on Saturday, the third day of the four-day contest/party/street fair at the country’s oldest public beach.

So my mom and I drove out to Revere (quite an exercise in patience on a hot summer day), and parked at the new Wonderland garage before realizing we were on the wrong side of the tracks. Unknowingly, and on the advice of a woman who also appeared kind of lost, we walked about two miles out of the way before ending up at the sculpture contest.

Well, it was fantastic. Smaller than I thought it would be, but the things the artists did with just sand, water and limited sculpture tools just blew me away. This year’s theme sculpture (not included in the competition) celebrated the 100th year of Fenway Park:

This was the winner, a pretty awesome bee:

The only problem was the heat. Saturday was unbearably hot and humid. We didn’t stick around too long after checking out the sand sculptures. After finding a two-block route back to the garage, thanks to the Massachusetts State Police, we drove toward the iconic Kelly’s Roast Beef, but decided the high-90s heat and the line kept it out of the cards for us. So we headed up to neighboring Nahant for a late lunch at Tides.

But back to Revere Beach for a second. This is one place where I believe the hype being promoted by the state: With a little sprucing up at the completely-dead-looking Wonderland neighborhood, a footbridge across the Blue Line tracks from the parking deck to the beach, and a little marketing, the beach could be a prime destination for people throughout the Boston area in the summer.

It’s a beautiful, wide, long sandy beach with calm and cold waters, it’s a quick and painless walk from the train station, and it’s a prime spot for people and plane watching.

A little touching-up wouldn’t kill this spot.

I hope investment in the area promotes development and interest around the beach. There’s a LOT to be improved upon in terms of neighborhood growth. While I’d hate to see residents priced out of their neighborhoods, it could use some definite sprucing up. You’d be hard-pressed to find another area with as many hideous/run-down homes as lower Revere Beach — things get much less sketchy as you head north.

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