Not your average travel blog
In May 2004, Massachusetts became the first state in the USA to legalize same-sex marriage. It also has some fairly relaxed and efficient laws on smoking pot. To quote a friend in the UK, who advises organisations on the legalisation of marijuana, “the USA are getting increasingly smart towards effective pot control.” He’s not wrong.
Despite what we hear about the many negatives in the US (health system, diabetes, obesity, elitist sport system, their wasteful approach to resources etc.), the six states of New England are definitely a progressive and comparatively liberal part of the country. Other areas are rapidly following suit, with Denver recently legalising their marijuana supply chain and many states relaxing the laws on the “medicinal” drug.
Since arriving and exploring the city, the burbs, the sprawling towns into Massachusetts and some of the rural back roads, the regular smell of medicinal smokers in the streets (you can’t actually smoke cannabis in public) hasn’t been the only “anti-American” stigma that I can report on. I have been overwhelmed with the amount of liberally-advanced and alternative approaches to life. Everywhere I have visited (ok, so I’ve only visited a dozen communities through Massachusetts so far and I’m expecting some differences elsewhere), there has been huge passion for organic, locally-sourced produce, sustainable farming, a responsible approach to waste management, a demand for healthy, community-involved lifestyles, a respect for almost all things natural and a strong resistance to commercial, mass-manufactured foods and disposable lifestyle items. In many towns, as they are all heavily populated with students, there are also free public buses which keeps the liberal vibe jiving. It may seem like a huge area populated with medicinal tea-timers, organic growers with holistic approaches to life, but with so many forward thinking, modern educational centres which promote progressive living, rarely is there any scrimping on quality. It might be a part of the states run by a giant hippy community (that’s a sweeping statement!) but lifestyles here seem healthy, social and fulfilled.
I commented to my American friend that in the three days walking around Boston, I hadn’t seen a fat person. Apologies for my high expectations but in world news we’re told that in the USA, obese people are everywhere. Granted, I’ve not shopped in Walmart yet and I’ve only been here two weeks, but so far its been enlightening.
I have also found that CSAs (community supported agriculture) are an enterprising, sustainable, ethical way of sourcing seasonal provisions in New England, and its booming. Why this doesn’t happen in more cities and communities, I don’t know. People can financially, along with a little diarised labour, invest in a local, organic farm. It’s a way for the people to create a relationship with a farm and to receive a weekly basket of vegetables; sometimes flowers, fruits, herbs, milk or meat products throughout the harvesting season. What better way to involve family and community by growing and harvesting together? I am pleasantly surprised and impressed by how my experience of populated America so far has thwarted my expectations.
In the 19th century, Massachusetts (mainly Boston and its surrounding education centres) was full of raving intellectuals, writers, influencers, movers and shakers in society and educators. It was famous for its commercial fishing, advanced ship building, booming whaling industry and manufacturing interests. Pioneering methods to mass produce textiles and shoes meant that distribution from New England was big business. Realisation that shoes improved the work efforts of the slaves on the sugar plantations in the south, meant that shoe makers were in high demand.
When whale oil was substituted in the 1860’s with kerosine, whaling businesses were replaced by even more textile and clothing manufacturers. The big industries in the cities today have evolved into electronics, pharmaceutical and communications firms. Almost two centuries on, maybe Japan can follow suit now that they’ve suspended this years “whaling for research” season. Although I doubt the Japanese will turn to shoe making to replace their mammal massacres in the ocean.
As the region has such a “local” and liberal feel about it, New England avoids the “mass market” stigma that much of America has. It’s forte is not to be like England, nor is it to be much like the presumed America we all love to roll our eyes at.
With all this education, liberal thinking and old fashioned values, it’s not surprising that New England has large beer breweries and micro-brewers popping up all over the place, with dozens of them producing commercially and distributing all over America. I am told that numbers are now high enough to match those previously associated with New England prior to prohibition and the rise of the micro brewery is probably the biggest modern revolution in New England since 1776.
As a European and a beer lover, it has been frustrating that I’m on such a tight budget. Managing to sample a dozen or so beers with hospitable new friends on my birthday, I can honestly say that New England should be on any beer enthusiasts bucket list. Many liquor stores have also been holding free sample sessions this spring as I’ve been ambling by… much to my joy! The brewers respect traditional processes but they’re certainly not afraid to explore new concoctions with flavours to hand. Alongside IPAs, stouts, brown ales, red beers and session pints, there are organic lagers and experimental brews with wild blueberries, chocolate, spices, nuts, cranberries, maple syrup and a new one for me – pumpkin!
With more than 70, the state of Vermont has more craft breweries per capita than any other state…and I’ve managed to hitch a ride there in a couple days (currently accepting charitable beer donations.)
I have managed to find myself in Northampton, Easthampton and Amherst over the last week, college towns in western Massachusetts. Here for a few days and grateful for the warm hospitality, I’ve gently hiked up and loved the views from an icy Mount Tom and thawing Mount Sugarloaf.
I have been dragged, reluctantly but titilatingly, like a nose-wielding snuffman around what appears to be a US national institution – Yankee Candle. Politely put, it was an experience… It was quite literally the largest candle shop you’ve ever seen. It took more than 40 minutes to walk round it and there was hardly anyone there. It also advertised itself as the “scenter of the universe”… indeed, nice one.
As is common in the states, I have also claimed my free meal, drink, (but sadly not my hot tub session) and ice cream sundae on my birthday. I won’t advise anyone to carry a few fake ID’s with them if they ever wander across the US on a budget…
Camping spots have been frozen and the wind at the end of March made your eyes water. It’s now April and the snow is finally disappearing with a little rain and some warmer temperatures around lunchtime. Dropping to around freezing at night and with my pending trip north to Vermont, a stones throw from the Canadian border, I may or may not be able to trek through the northern woods in upstate New York.