Just a rundown of the second half of my Western Mass vacation, after returning to civilization. A few museums, restaurants, and other highlights--see the section headings to skip or read.Western Gateway Heritage State Park
I made my way to North Adams, to hit MASS MoCA, but arrived in the late afternoon and needed to kill off a few hours. What would be better than a little dusty neglected museum about the Hoosac Tunnel
? I walked in there, and had visions of resentful bored teenagers glaring at their parents, texting away.... zomg like so lame :P :P :P
. I, on the other hand (being the dork that I am), ate it up--a mix of history, politics, economics, and the story of digging a 5-mile railway tunnel through a mountain in Western Mass with Civil War era technology. Yow. You know when you go into the museum and there's that one guy
watching the documentary film? Yeah... I was that guy.
Some of the innovation was just incredible--e.g., they dug the tunnel from both ends, and just using compasses, transits, and plumb bobs, the two tunnels met within inches
. Remember: 5 miles. Wow. If you look at the diagram below, they had to "transfer" angles up through those sighting towers (on the mountaintops) to the excavation sites. The two tunnel segments are also both angled slightly upwards, to allow for drainage from the wet rock--so they had to account for that angle as well.
The tunnels were bored using blasting and drilling--the huge boost in productivity going from black powder to nitroglycerin, or from hand-hammering charge holes into the rock to pneumatic hammers (which have the added benefit of introducing fresh air to the rock face, so your workers don't pass out).
The politics were also fascinating--the conflicts and resentments between urban and rural (Eastern and Western Massachusetts), as well as the forces for and against the tunnel. The real conflict was between those who wanted to extend the northern Massachusetts rail line (through Greenfield and North Adams) west to the Erie Canal (via that tunnel), vs. the southern Massachusetts rail line:The Western Railroad led by Chester Chapin, which ran a southern route through Springfield and Pittsfield, opposed the Hoosac Tunnel and its northern route through the state. They successfully lobbied to block state funding of the tunnel in 1861, which bankrupted Haupt and temporarily stopped the project.
Man... it kinda shocks you when anything
ever gets done by a representative government, doesn't it?
But basically, by the time they got the tunnel up and running, traffic through the Erie canal was starting to fall off... and that's why those Southern Massachusetts towns are bigger than the Northern Mass ones... economics, eh?Taylor's Fine Dining
After a hotel room and a shower, the New York Times travel section directed me to one of North Adams nicer restaurants--hey, just about anything would be a step up from freeze-dried beef stroghanoff, eh?
The town has a nice little downtown, but it is decidedly blue collar/post industrial/manufacturing. The ambiance was nice, but I soon found out that they closed and reopened the restaurant a few weeks ago, after "tuning" the menu.
This meant switching from higher end dishes to a menu that included burgers and roast beef sandwich au jus. And I was asked if I wanted fries with my pan-seared duck breast. Ah well. Just a bit sad when you see a place need to get "dumbed down" because of who goes there. In comparison, there are probably three better restaurants within walking distance at home. At least it was tasty... and I had a Bass, then a Guinness.Cup and Saucer
On the other hand, this place, for breakfast, was a serious win. A classic bustling lefty coffee shop, with a kickass breakfast menu. A big cup of coffee, an egg-and-tomato bagel with red pepper pesto, and home fries. Nom nom nom.
As an example of their good goofiness--pasta coffee stirrers, which supposedly have less of a carbon footprint than a plastic or wooden one. The calculations seems a bit questionable (farm raised wheat, etc.), but hey, they're pushing in the right direction.MASS MoCA
And finally, the museum. I've been meaning to go to this place for ages--especially when I was driving Boston-to-Waterloo during grad school. But it's really not at a convenient stopping point. For those of you who don't know the back story
, the building is an unused brick mill complex (as well as a former superfund site) that was given a bunch of economic redevelopment money as a new art museum.
Some lovely pieces there--such as Natalie Jeremijenko's Tree Logic
--four suspended maples, trying to fight their way back to phototropic
Some of the spaces are just enormous, lending themselves to really striking displays (such as Simon Starling's The Nanjing Particles
But the big crowning exhibit is their huge Sol LeWitt retrospective. I can just imagine the thought process how this happened:"Huh... we have a great big new modern art museum, with lots of wall space and not much in it."
[think] [think] [think]
The result: three floors of Sol LeWitt! More LeWitt than you can shake a roll of masking tape at!
For background, LeWitt's
thing was large wall drawings, given as a set of directions as opposed to only-pieces-created-by-the-artist. He likened it to musical composition--a set of directions, that can be executed and interpreted by various sets of artists. Quite compelling, and some pieces were elegant, or sublime, or whimsical. Although I found his middle-period big-blocks-of-primary-color stuff a bit underwhelming. But his "squiggle" drawings were a case of "step forward... look... step backwards... look... repeat."
What's great is that they had a video on how these 105 wall paintings were put together, by a team of LeWitt collaborators and students.
I am a great big geek, in that a lot of the time, I find the process
of creation--technically--as interesting as the art itself. For instance, sure, it's a lovely Rodin sculpture--but what was his workshop like? Lost-wax casting of bronze? How the hell did he get this finish texture?
But this got me thinking of other bizzare LeWitt takeoffs that should be done. For instance, I was wondering if you could get infrared or ultraviolet paint that reflects in different spectra? Then you could paint a wall that looks completely blank, but if you looked at it in the appropriate spectrum, it would show up.
Also, since farmers now have GPS-enabled combine harvesters, I was thinking you could make a ginormous crop-circle-size LeWitt out in Midwestern corn fields. I would definitely be amused.Wrapup and Conclusions
On the drive back that evening, I took Route 2 all the way home. On the way, I stopped for dinner in Greenfield--at Tofu A Go-Go
: ALL VEGETARIAN CAFE!!! HERALDED UNIVERSALLY AS THE LITTLE VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT THAT COULD! VEGETARIAN - VEGAN - MACROBIOTIC
It seemed like such a delightful stereotype that I had to stop in--the spinach and cheese quesadilla was pretty tasty. Finished a bunch of postcards, and hit the road home.
Overall, the non-camping parts of the trip felt a bit like "the hipster tour of cool Western Massachusetts cities"--Northampton, Williamstown, and then Greenfield. Incidentally--Local Burger in Northampton
--strong recommend. Not that going to those towns was a bad thing... but again, it felt a bit like a stereotype.
Made it home on Saturday night, and took Sunday to recover--I decided a day off to recover from a vacation was a pretty smart plan.