West again. From the land of low skies and moist air, the highlands of the northeast, we turned from the coast and puttered through central Maine and into New Hampshire. We took small, two-lane state highways and backcountry roads and found ourselves in a number of quiet, New Hampshire hamlets and at the shores of many a placid pond. The country was so green and arboreal that the desert travel from home through Texas seemed like a decades’ old memory. The roads wound north and south and north again such that there was, in fact, no straight route from Bar Harbor to New York. But as the sun climbed and hung and then began its descent again we got closer and closer to our destination.
White River Junction.
The name may mean nothing to many people. Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century it was one of the most important railway junctions in the region. Now, though, at 2,200 people an uninquisitive traveler while passing through might not take notice of it. The sleepy town rests at the bottom of a steep valley, thick with trees and life and winding streams. Though the middle of summer, we ached to see how beautiful it would be when winter came.
For me, though, the town is the home of the Center for Cartoon Studies. “What?!” You say. “Yes,” I say “read on.”
The Center of Cartoon Studies, a place that, apparently, most locals don’t even know about. When we stepped into a grocery store for directions we were met with blank faces like we were speaking Rapa Nui. The manager, fortunately, had gone walking in the town before and gave us some quick directions. Under a railroad bridge and around a corner we found it, a street straight out of the depression with old department stores, a post office and a bar with a sign that read “OPEN” but may or may not have been referring to a day 15 years prior when it was in fact still open.
And there, on the bottom floor of one of the old department stores, with a polished glass storefront and a clean black and white logo on the door, was the school. The sun had already fallen behind the valley walls and the streets were getting dark but I wanted a peek. I ran across and peered in the window, the lights still on but the halls empty. Artwork hung on wires against the far wall. The door was locked. After a few moments of taking it in, realizing my family was tired and hungry, I turned to leave. But then I heard the door open and I swung around and bumped head-on into a tall, bespectacled man with thinning hair and thick brow.
I excused myself and spewed forth my interest in the school hoping to justify my awkwardly creeping about on the sidewalk. He recommended I come back the next day for a tour and then dismissed himself with a humble “I’m just an old guy who likes to draw.” Later that night at a KOA, after we had set up camp, I was doing a little more research on the school when I saw the face of the man I met. James Sturm, epic cartoonist and co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies! Just an old guy who likes to draw. Right.
The skies opened up on us that night and we swaddled ourselves and settled in for some rest. The next morning we returned to the CCS and I managed to slip in with a personal tour. It was like a movie, or a dream, or, dare I say, Heaven?
How can a place like this exist, a place dedicated to the study and pursuit of cartooning, where one can learn from and be mentored by people like James Sturm, Alec Longstreth and Jason Lutes?! Everywhere around me was inspiration and hope and excitement, the nervous methamphetamine-like energy of creation. It felt safe and innocent and sweet, like childhood. It had been so long since I felt that purity of excitement over visiting a place. White River Junction is charming enough, with its old diners and coffee shops, cartoonists’ work pasted up on the walls, railroad tracks and stone masonry. CCS made it feel more home, somehow. A stranger in a strange land forgets their strangeness when they focus on the utterly familiar and endearing.
Vermont had more for us, though. As rain drizzled down on us we left the valley and wound our way over a flooded river and, by way of a pot-hole plagued dirt road, arrived at a farm. We had heard about this place that offered free cheese, jam and honey tasting. In the workshop of an old farmhouse we were led from one cheese to the next. Old ladies and young girls worked side by side, preparing orders to be shipped round the country. We picked up some genuine Vermont maple syrup, some wholesome cheese, and some jelly and said goodbye to a young cow tied up outside.
On we went, further into the wooded country, stopping for some cookies and a baguette from the King Arthur flour company, and veering north for a spell, through Montpelier. I somehow expected more from a state capitol. It was a beautiful little town, charming streets and buildings, clean and green with the sheen of fallen rain (you like that rhyming?). It definitely seemed like a nice place to live and put-put about but it’s hard to compare it to Sacramento or Atlanta. Maybe that’s why I liked, unassuming as it was. But at any rate, we kept on until we ended up (somehow, I have no idea how, really it was just a coincidence, we had no idea, just kinda happened) at the Ben and Jerry’s factory in Waterbury, VT!
- ( Before )Sample Time!
The tour was straight out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Bright murals lit up every wall. There were candies and statistics and souvenirs and history timelines and videos and ICE CREAM! At the end of the tour, having seen the conveyor belts and mixers and flavor dispensers, we got our samples. Never having been a fancy-ice cream fan I was hooked immediately. The gusty, wet weather outside did nothing to dampen our excitement over our ice cream. Even Eli had his first lick. His pupils dilated and a siren popped out of the top of his head, AAAOOOOOOOOGGGAAAA!!! And he was off! He ran around and around and swung under the hand rails and up and down the ramp.
- Eliot loves flattened-penny souvenirs
When the ice cream ran its course we got back into Captain Kiwi and started thinking about where to bed down for the night. We were met on the highway with beautiful, thick, grey clouds and serene sloping hills. Everything about the state made us sigh with relief. It was so good to be somewhere so beautiful. When would we have ever come here? What would have brought us out of the comfort zone of Pasadena to say “Let’s go to Vermont”? We were so happy to be where we were, with each other in our little bus, puttering down the highway.
We ended up, that night, at a small state park hidden in the backcountry and accessible by more than a few twists and turns of dirt roads and narrow streets. The first impression was “We will die here, tonight.” It was that kind of a woods. But after meeting the camp hosts and parking and throwing some dinner together we fell into a comfortable peace. The isolation was cathartic, the silence of the woods, broken but for a gust of wind or pattering of rain, was like a warm blanket over our spirits. We awoke and were only slightly surprised by the beauty that surrounded us in the dense forest. Eliot jumped out and played on the wet grass, we ate breakfast and poured ourselves some coffee.
Captain Kiwi was packed and prepped. Before we left, though, we went on a short walk, chasing Eliot through a field of open grass, feeling the crisp wet air on our faces. (Not to say we didn’t have moments when Eli was crying and throwing fits, when we were scared a mountain lion would attack us as we came out of the bathroom, or when we tried to reassure ourselves that the bus wouldn’t tip over in the night…but as a whole this is the experience we are left with, what was imprinted on our hearts and what we will remember as having more value.) The Captain rolled on and we returned to the highway.