Friday, April 8, 2016

Rocks and Rockwells

     I recently took in an art exhibit, explored the Battenkill Valley and watched the movie Clueless. Nothing extraordinary about that. These are simple pleasures that I'm sure many of you have enjoyed. But finding a connection between such disparate activities? I can't help myself, it's just the way my loopy mind works.
     Norman Rockwell in the 1960s was the title of a show at the Hyde Museum in Glens Falls. It chronicled the famous illustrator's work thru a turbulent decade of social change. It was late in his career but he was still growing and changing as an artist. His long association with the Saturday Evening Post transitioned to work for Look magazine. The gallery featured many of his familiar cover paintings along with interpretation and a short video. While his style remains recognizable thru out, you could see America and his documentation of it evolve over the years.

     Curiosity aroused, my next stop was Crandall Library for a shelf load of books on Rockwell. Two in particular were the impetus for a trip to the artist's former home in West Arlington, Vermont. And what of the Clueless connection? What does a California coming of age comedy with snappy dialogue { Tai: "You're a virgin who can't drive." Cher: "That was way harsh, Tai." } have to do with the nostalgic small town world that Rockwell celebrated? Standing in front of his old home and studio I was thinking of all the times I'd run and biked by this spot in the past. Of Sunday afternoons spent swimming and picnicking with family by the covered bridge. And I thought about how "clueless" I had been about the remarkable man who lived here, painting a town (and country's) faces and stories.

     The books that brought me to West Arlington were Norman Rockwell at Home in Vermont by Stuart Murray and The Unknown Rockwell by James A. "Buddy" Edgerton & Nan O'Brien. Murray's small volume is a good introduction with lots of photos and a chronology of the fifteen "Arlington" years. Edgerton's memoir is more personal. His family and the Rockwells lived side by side in two nearly identical houses. At times they seemed to merge into one rowdy clan. This closeness fosters an intimate portrait of Norman, his wife Mary and their three boys. Pair Edgerton's lively anecdotes with a visit to the largely unchanged scenes where they took place for a "You were there" experience.

     That's what I did. Rt. 313 east out of Cambridge, New York is the way to go. It's a pretty drive. Just a couple miles out of the village is the glacial outwash feature called The Plains and just beyond that is the large Eldridge Swamp wetland, another relic of the ice age. Snake Ridge is on your right and you'll see a few road cuts in black slatey rocks. Anaquassacook is a small cluster of homes just before the side road leading to the Eagleville Covered Bridge. Next you pass thru a part of the Battenkill State Forest and eventually cross over the river. The mountains get higher here and the road snakes thru a scenic water gap that feels like a secret entrance into Vermont. There's a large rest stop and picnic area that provides access to the river. Just beyond is a cliff of phyllite with its characteristic green sheen.

     Once you're in Vermont, the valley opens up a little, the mountains get even higher and the real estate gets pricier. Less than a mile beyond the state line there is a right turn and the beginning of five miles of dirt road perfection. If you were a famous artist looking for a quiet place to work and raise your family it must have seemed like a small slice of heaven.

     The two roads stay cozy with the river from here to Arlington. If you decide to stay on 313, in a few miles you'll see a covered bridge. Turn here and enter the page of a calendar. This may be the most photographed scene in the whole overexposed State of Vermont. Straight ahead are twin houses. The Rockwells lived in the one on the right, the Edgertons to the left. In the foreground a church faces a former schoolhouse. Beyond are the steep slopes of Big Spruce Mountain.

The Studio

     I usually park just over the bridge. Here you'll find a classic swimming hole along with canoe access. This is a fine spot for a picnic or a lazy afternoon of reading (Edgerton's book would be the perfect choice). It's also the place to head out on long back road runs, walks and bike rides. It's about mid-way on River Road. Heading west towards New York will give you a mostly level five miles out and back. Heading east towards Arlington is a little hillier. Combine the two for a ten mile workout. Bikers looking to stretch their legs can make a loop by pedaling up towards Sandgate, climbing thru
"the Notch" and then rolling back down Camden Valley. Play around with maps for lots of longer routes as well.

     If you walk across the bridge you'll see an outcrop of gray carbonate rocks on the other side of the road. The ledge appears to be limestone or dolostone, I'm not sure which. The mountains rising several thousand feet above this valley location are predominantly phyllites. There's a story here. A 450 million year story that's taken geologists well over a hundred years to decipher. I'll try to tell it in a few minutes.

Covered Bridge Outcrop

     Back in Cambrian times this spot was near the equator and beneath warm tropical seas along the edge of a landmass that would later become North America. There was life in the water but none on land - that was just bare rock. As organic sediments built up in shallow near shore locations limestones were formed. Further out, to the east and in much deeper water, fine clay particles settled to the bottom to become shales and mudstones. Over long periods of time tectonic plate movements in the earth's crust brought an arc of volcanic islands in from the east. These acted like a bulldozer pushing deepwater rocks up onto the near shore limestones. This crustal collision built a large mountain range along the edge of the ancient continent. The event is called the Taconic Orogeny and the mountains created were as high as todays Himalayas. The pressure and heat caused the shales to metamorphose into phyllites  and some of the overridden limestones to become marbles.

Limestone along River Road

     Many other geologic events followed including several orogenies that led to the formation of the supercontinent Pangea and its subsequent breakup resulting in the opening of the Atlantic Ocean. Over hundreds of millions of years erosion was constantly wearing these mountains down and today the Battenkill has cut a slot clean thru them. The covered bridge outcrop is rock formed under warm shallow water, then buried beneath thousands of feet of other rock thrust over it and finally exhumed by long eons of weathering.
     A valley that cuts across the trend of a mountain range is said to be superimposed. I've never seen an explanation of how the river did this. Perhaps two streams were flowing off a ridge, one east and one west until they cut down to the point where one could "capture" the other. Or maybe the river was present at the creation and able to carve thru the mountains as fast as they rose. Whatever the geologic processes were, I'm thankful they created the Battenkill we know and love today.

     And people do love this river valley (even if it is superimposed). Something about the landscape seems to attract an extraordinary number of artists and writers. In reading about Rockwell I was struck by how many other creative people lived nearby and were friends with Norman and Mary. Mead Schaeffer, Jack Atherton and George Hughes were cover men illustrators. Don Trachte was a cartoonist. Gene Pelham was an illustrator, artist and photographer who worked with Rockwell for fourteen years. The noted painter Rockwell Kent lived nearby and he and Norman often joked about being mistaken for the other. Rockwell knew and admired Grandma Moses. There's a sweet photo in Murray's book of Norman decorating  her birthday cake while she looks on.

     Poet Robert Frost was a star of the local literary scene as was writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher. She was a prolific author with dozens of books to her credit, both fiction and non-fiction for adults and children. Beyond that she was the spark plug of the local cultural scene and worked with the Rockwells on arts events. Locally the Hudson Falls Library has a selection of her work including the children's classic Understood Betsy and Vermont Tradition.

     Rockwell also knew Lee Wulff, the writer, sportsman and film producer. Wulff lived downstream in Eagleville, as did photojournalist Grey Villet. Eugene Witten painted from a riverside house and studio nearby and author Marcia Reiss creates books about New York City architecture from her beautiful old farmhouse on a dirt road just outside Eagleville. Novelist (and cheesemaker) Brad Kessler resides in Sandgate with his photographer wife Dona Ann McAdams. I could go on and on and still leave somebody out. Better to visit Battenkill Books, an area gallery or a local library where they can help you discover the wealth of artistic and literary talent the river valley nurtures.

Downtown Eagleville

    Local Products                                                     Grey Villet   

     Part of the appeal of Washington County, the Adirondacks and Vermont is communities with a home grown, genuine feel. For sure, corporate big box and fast, fake food homogenization is here, but it hasn't totally sapped the individuality and uniqueness of our towns. At least not yet. It's interesting to ponder why a place becomes "itself". Could Huletts Landing or Pilot Knob be anything but summer vacation destinations, given their locations on Lake George? And isn't the travel corridor of canal, railroad and highway an essential part of Fort Edward and Whitehall's identity? On the other side of the county think Granville and slate comes immediately to mind. Some places seemed destined by water power to become mill towns. Hudson Falls, Thompson/Clarks Mills and Middle Falls are obvious examples, even though many of the original industries are no longer there. Geography is destiny.

Falls and Bridge at Clarks Mills

     Maybe there's something - sheltering mountains, sparkling water, a sense of harmony - that makes the Battenkill Valley particularly conducive to creative pursuits. Maybe if I spent more time there this blog's writing and photography would benefit. But who needs an excuse to visit such a welcoming place?

Exploring the Valley and beyond

- Norman Rockwell slept here and so can you. His former house and studio in West Arlington is now the Inn on Covered Bridge Green. Info here.

- Norman Rockwell slept here too and you can drive by. His first house was a little ways up River Road towards Arlington. Now a private residence, look for a tiny plaque near the door - it's just barely visible from the road. Also note the gorgeous view of Red Mountain across the valley.

- Rockwell had planned to spend a very long time in West Arlington. He had purchased a cemetery plot here and Edgerton relates a humorous story about that. You can visit the charming little country graveyard that lies between Rt. 313 and the Battenkill.

- Plan on stopping at the Wayside (aka the West Arlington Country Store). You can get coffee, a sandwich, ice cream, the NewYork Times, hardware, a hat, ammo, fishing tackle and just about anything else you might need. More useful stuff here than in a dozen suburban malls combined.

- Dorothy Canfield Fisher was a big deal in Arlington and the pine trees in her grove are just plain big. Go to Arlington, then north on old Rt. 7A towards Manchester. After crossing the Battenkill look for Red Mountain Road on the left, just beyond Fisher Road. It twists and turns uphill. Just before the pavement ends there's a bend with an almost hidden path into the woods. Pull over, walk the path and look for a small monument. If you find it you've found the Fisher Memorial Pine Grove. Stroll amongst giants!

- The Green River tumbles down out of the mountains to join the Battenkill at West Arlington. Follow it back towards its source and you'll come first to Sandgate and then Beartown. From the end of the road there used to be a trail up Equinox but I'm not sure of its current status.

- You'll see a few signs for Rockwell this and Rockwell that merchandise around Arlington but he left back in 1953 and Stockbridge, Mass. has laid claim to him ever since. Get info for a day trip to the Norman Rockwell Museum here.


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