Catching fall colors where America began

CONCORD, Mass. -- When the maples turn, it isn't only autumn; it's peak tourist season in New England. City people phone fall foliage lines for color updates, and back roads are clogged with eager leaf peepers. But as 19th century essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "The beauty that shimmers in the yellow afternoons of October, who ever could clutch it? Go forth to find it, and it is gone."

His words argue for catching the fall show not by driving after it, but by staying in a perfect New England village and letting it happen around you. Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine have popular autumn getaway spots, but I recently discovered a less obvious contender in Emerson's Massachusetts hometown. Together with villages such as Lexington, Lincoln, Groton and Bedford, Concord lies in a hilly region a half-hour's drive northwest of Boston, where the suburbs yield to farm fields and forests. Lazy rivers beckon canoeists, treasures spill onto the sidewalks from antique shops and farm stands fill with the fruits of fall.

It wouldn't be stretching it to say that Concord, founded in 1635, is the pattern of the New England country town, with a proud square, white-steepled churches, mossy graveyards, handsome colonial-era homes and more historic and literary sites than some cities 10 times its size.

And then there are the sugar maples, the crown jewel of a New England fall, which turn such lurid shades of red, yellow and orange that New England's strait-laced founding fathers must have had to avert their eyes.

"I do not see what the Puritans did at this season, when the maples blaze out in scarlet," wrote Henry David Thoreau, a Concord native. He knew better than anyone that when they ripen, they outline nearby Walden Pond; frame the North Bridge, where the American Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775; and put on a leafy fireworks display around Monument Square in the center of town.

Weather dictates the unfolding of autumn colors, of course, as well as their duration and intensity. But according to Gregory Burch, the owner of Concord's Hawthorne Inn--where I based myself during an early September visit--trees in town are already beginning to turn. In a typical fall, colors climax around Columbus Day and last through the end of October.

I was too early for changing leaves, but in this town of 13,328, it is never too early or late, too hot or cold, to have your mind elevated and your heart stirred. From the homes and haunts of great writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne, to the places where the first pages of American history were turned, there is much to see and think about in Concord.

My visit started at Boston's Logan Airport, where I rented a red Mustang convertible. ("Cool cah," a teenage boy yelled to me in that unmistakable Massachusetts accent at an intersection stop.) I'd been warned about Boston traffic tangles and confusing highway on- and offramps due to construction of a massive tunnel known as the Big Dig. But I arrived at the Hawthorne Inn that night with only minimal inconvenience.

Innkeeper Burch made me a cup of herbal tea and showed me to my first-floor room, called Punkatasset for the Concord hill where American militiamen gathered before the battle at North Bridge. The room was a pure pleasure, with a queen-size, canopied brass bed, floral wallpaper, Oriental carpets, antique lamps, a writing desk and a 19th century fainting couch. Occasionally I heard cars passing outside, but this troubled me only briefly as I got into the spirit of the area by reading "Nature," Emerson's best-known essay. Each night I sampled a different Concord author; they all seemed to invite deep sleep.

Burch and his wife, Marilyn Mudry, opened the dusky rose-colored inn in 1976, and live in the rear section with their three children. Built in 1870, it occupies a plot of land once owned by novelist Hawthorne, who in the mid-1800s lived across the road in a house called the Wayside. The Hawthorne Inn's seven guest rooms are full of antiques, and the walls are abundantly covered with an eccentric but appealing collection of art: Balinese masks, botanical drawings, Japanese prints and stone friezes carved by Burch, who is also an artist. Gardens, benches and more objets d'art surround the inn, and Burch taps one of the maples shading the inn for syrup each year.

With tousled graying hair and an earring, Burch was a good listener who presided over breakfasts of home-baked pastries, yogurt, fruit compote and coffee, as well as interesting guests: I met a Tufts University professor on my first morning. When the dishes were cleared, Burch spread out a map of the Concord area to show me where to go walking, where to hunt for antiques and where to find the best farm stands or eat fried clams, a regional specialty. And he told stories--about how the British retreated from Revolutionary militiamen down Lexington Road just outside the front door, and how Bronson Alcott, father of "Little Women" author Louisa May, did gardening for Hawthorne.

Everything in Concord has a story. Walking into town on Lexington Road one day, I saw a woman coiling a hose in front of one of the many colonial-era homes that have plaques. "You live in a historic house!" I blurted out.

"Yes, I know," she replied nonchalantly, and went back to her coiling.

I devoted my first day to Concord historical sites, beginning with the North Bridge, about a mile outside town. The bridge and the Battle Road--which stretches almost all the way from Concord to Lexington, 15 miles east--are part of the Minute Man National Historical Park. There are visitor centers at each site, with multimedia presentations and displays on the events of April 19, 1775, a date no one can leave Concord without committing to memory.

On the night before, at 10:30, 700 British soldiers were dispatched from Boston to seize arms and supplies thought to be hidden by disaffected colonists in Concord, inspiring Paul Revere's famous midnight ride. By 5 a.m. the British had reached Lexington, where 77 minutemen (an army of local citizens so called because of their readiness for service on a moment's notice) had assembled. Hopelessly outnumbered, the American colonists had begun to disperse when a shot rang out. To this day no one knows who fired, but the single gunshot precipitated a British volley that left eight minutemen dead on Lexington Green.

As significant a moment as this was, the "shot heard 'round the world," as Emerson later described it, was the one fired several hours later at the North Bridge. There, where the small wooden bridge arches over a graceful curve of the placid Concord River, local militiamen faced another British volley. This time, though, the colonial army shot back, forcing the redcoats on a brutal, daylong retreat back to Boston.

In a beautiful statue by local artist Daniel Chester French, a minuteman stands with his musket raised on one side of the bridge.

Across a field, at a window of the house called the Old Manse, Phebe Emerson, wife of firebrand Concord minister William Emerson (Ralph Waldo's grandfather), stood watching the events. A sturdy brown colonial built in 1770, the Old Manse also has literary connections. It was here that the young essayist penned "Nature," and where Hawthorne, author of "The Scarlet Letter," spent the first purportedly blissfully happy years of his married life.

After a lunch of succulent fried clams at Twin Seafood in West Concord, I rambled over to Lexington to see the historic green and to tour the nearby Hamilton-Clarke house. Patriot leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock were awakened here the night of April 18 when Paul Revere stopped to deliver his oft-quoted warning. But it was "The regulars are coming out!" that he cried, not "The British are coming"--after all, at the time, virtually everyone in New England was English.

Another common misapprehension is corrected along the Battle Road, a lovely, tree-lined place for walking past sites, like Meriam's Corner and Bloody Angle, where fighting flared as the British retreated. A stone tablet about a half-mile west of the visitor center marks the spot where a redcoat patrol arrested Revere after he left Hamilton-Clarke house. So, contrary to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's familiar poem "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," the patriot never reached Concord (although Dr. Samuel Prescott, who rode alongside but evaded the British, did).

I dined contentedly that night on a plate of tapas at the Walden Grille in Concord. I also tried the restaurant at the Colonial Inn on Concord's Monument Square. It has a cozy taproom, but the crust of my chicken pot pie was disappointingly soggy. Far better was my last dinner, Wellfleet oysters and prime rib at Longfellow's Wayside Inn (not to be confused with the Nathaniel Hawthorne residence), 15 miles away in Sudbury. Dating from 1716, the Wayside is one of America's oldest inns.

It's often said that Concord is the birthplace of two revolutions. After the War of Independence, the second is the cultural enlightenment of the mid-19th century, which gave voice to some of the first authentically American artists and thinkers. Chief among them were transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, who sought to turn Americans away from materialism by simple living and reflection on nature. Emerson propounded the transcendentalist creed in essays and lectures, but he was a family man with obligations. So it was left to Thoreau (stubbornly pronounced "thorough" by locals because that's the way he said it), a bachelor who made his living by doing odd jobs, to practice the philosophy at Walden Pond from 1845 to 1847.

One morning I walked the three-mile path that circles the pond. Now a state park, Walden Pond has a replica of Thoreau's 10- by 15-foot cabin that, with only a few chairs, a desk and a single bed, evokes the writer's frugal lifestyle. When developers threatened Walden Pond's periphery 10 years ago, rock musician Don Henley spearheaded efforts to preserve it. But now Thoreau fans and nature purists see another danger in the hordes of sun worshipers that the pond's popular beach attracts ("Who was that writer from around here?" I heard a teenage boy with a beach towel ask as he walked in front of me down the path), although I couldn't resist a refreshing dip in the pond myself.

From there, it was on to Concord's other literary shrines, beginning with the Emerson house (occupied by the writer from 1835 to 1882 and still owned by his descendants). On the Cambridge Turnpike just south of town, it's a dignified white colonial with many of the original furnishings. Two docents took turns showing my small tour group the downstairs rooms--where there are photos of Yosemite, visited by Emerson in 1871 in the company of naturalist John Muir--and the bedrooms above, where a dollhouse beloved by Emerson's daughters holds little tables and chairs made by handy Thoreau. But the original contents of Emerson's study have been moved across the road to the Concord Museum, which also has the original bed, desk and chair from Thoreau's cabin.

Tours of literary homes provide visitors with an excellent introduction to 19th century Concord's intellectual life. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Bronson Alcott all lived within walking distance of one another. Louisa May Alcott borrowed books from Emerson's library, and her artistic sister May copied paintings in his home.

For lovers of "Little Women," the Alcotts' Orchard House on Lexington Road is a required stop. Three-quarters of the furnishings are original, and tour guides tell the family's story with earnestness and fidelity, beginning in 1858 when the financially strapped Alcotts moved in. Upstairs, you can stand by the desk where Louisa May wrote her story about the four March sisters, which was so successful that it paid off the family's debts and turned its author into a reluctant celebrity.

Hawthorne lived several doors down from Orchard House in the lovely yellow Wayside house, but he was a different sort of writer, drawn to dramatic stories with Gothic flourishes such as "The Scarlet Letter." He liked his privacy and, tour guides claim, used to walk a mile out of his way when going into town to avoid Bronson Alcott, who sat outside engaging passersby in prolix conversation. At the Wayside, I climbed up to Hawthorne's tower study, added by the author to "elevate his works."

I saw these literary homes and the graves of the people who lived in them at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in one busy day. It made my head spin and left me ready for less intellectual pursuits, so I spent my third day driving back roads among the villages of Lincoln, Acton, Groton and Bedford, all of which sent militiamen to the North Bridge in 1775. Shiny new apples were already on sale at Hutchins Organic Farm Stand, just outside Concord, and near Carlisle, I stopped at Kimball's for a pumpkin ice cream cone. In Groton I did some antiquing at Jos. Kilbridge, then drove north to Lowell.

There, about 25 miles from Concord, lies another national park, housed partly in the old Boott textile mill. The park commemorates the third upheaval in this part of New England, the early 19th century industrial revolution that forever changed the region's rural way of life.

And on my fourth day, I rested. Appropriately, it was Sunday, so I attended a service at Concord's Unitarian First Parish Meeting House, originally built on a ridge to the east when the town was founded. The church is white inside and out, with a gold cupola and delicate plasterwork, and the sermon, on man's capacity for reflection, was positively Emersonian.

In the afternoon, I rented a kayak at the South Bridge Boat House and paddled down the Concord River, stopping near the Old Manse to read a testimonial to the town from "American Sketches," by Bostonian Henry James. In it, he wrote that Concord has "weight, character, intensity of presence, sweetness of tone and moral charm." You can't visit things like that, but you can feel them at Walden Pond, in Emerson's study and under the sugar maples on Monument Square.

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