Monday, September 15, 2014

Rain and Books, 12

I'm not sure exactly how I got this far without encountering Hidden in Plain Sight: A Deep Traveler Explores Connecticut by David K. Leff. But I recently grabbed it eagerly off the shelf of a Barnes & Noble (yes, I paid for it) and read it, partly during a storm when I thought the power would go out any second and partly on a weekend afternoon when I should have been working. (Oops.)

Hidden in Plain Sight's prologue begins with two places I grew up taking for granted, the Merrit Parkway and Westport's Nike Site. I had never considered that where I learned as a teenager to merge onto a highway from a dead stop and where I attended my first and only pre-football-game bonfire could have any link to my current love of exploring Connecticut and beyond. 

If you're wondering, a deep traveler is, apparently, one who observes their surroundings in all the ways I already do: slowing down to see things by the roadside to the consternation of following drivers, slamming on the brakes at the sight of interesting buildings, hiking through overgrown brush to find some historical remnant that may or may not be lurking underfoot, pondering what's behind street signs and place names, and generally being what I had always called a big dork. Finding out I could call myself a deep traveler instead was quite nice, I must say.

Today I Learned: I was relieved to find that this book did not contain that much I didn't already know. I was prepared to feel entirely unschooled compared to Leff, an essayist, poet, and former Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Environmental Protection. But in fact this book simply expanded what I already knew and made me want to continue looking for new places, rather than making me feel totally ignorant. So that was nice too.

That said, here are a few facts that were new to me: In the 1970s, the Department of Transportation attempted to find and replace all of the state's lost milestones. A Town Farm, recalled by the Town Farm Roads in many towns, was a 19th century poor farm. Connecticut has a "best-known roadside water source" and it is Alex Cassie spring in Windham. 18th and 19th century communities built "pest houses" at the edge of town to isolate those with contagious diseases. Elmwood in West Hartford (where my post office is; yes, I live in Hartford and my post office is in West Hartford, this is the beauty of Connecticut) was the site of thirteen elm trees, representing the thirteen colonies and planted in 1777 to celebrate the American victory at Saratoga in New York.

Amusements: This isn't a terribly funny book, but it has its rare moments, intentionally or not. For example, reading that Litchfield had a so-called Whipping Post Elm until 1815 and that in 1694, the Reverend Benjamin Wadsworth called Kent a "hideous, howling wilderness" made me smirk.

Listings: The hidden places and things Leff includes here are split into five sections: Along the Roadside, Places We Build, Seeing Green, Ghost Towns and Graveyards, and Through Artists' Eyes. Each of these contains about eight short essays. Some of my favorites are those on fall foliage, octagon houses, neglected graveyards, and the towns buried under Connecticut's lakes. At the end of the book there's a short and practical section that lays out where travelers can best see points of interest from old-growth forests to racetracks to quonset huts.

Quote: There were a few I thought I would pick out, but in the end I had to selfishly go with this partial sentence, describing Weir Farm National Historic Site in Wilton and Ridgefield: "In contrast to Yellowstone, which is the nation's first national park and itself the size of Connecticut..."

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