Spectacular colours, the drives of a lifetime and a really large amount of food: autumn in New England is like nothing you’ve ever seen
Words: VARDHAN KONDVIKAR
Photographs: UNNIKRISHNAN RAVEENDRANATHEN
Look, I don’t like ghost stories, all right?
I have a highly overactive imagination, and each time there’s a campfire story session, I spend weeks trying to not shriek like a five-year-old girl at shadows and noises. I read a horrible book once, which had monsters coming out of the loo, and that resulted in digestive issues for a year.
So trying to sleep at the Deerfield Inn in Massachusetts, reputedly a very haunted place, is not particularly easy.
Oh, it looks innocuous enough, a pretty little wooden building, sweetly done up inside in an old-fashioned way and set on what actor Robert Duvall, on a shoot here, called “the most beautiful street in America.” It’s just that, when you look up the directions to the hotel, the first thing Google helpfully gives you is “Deerfield Inn haunted.” And it isn’t just a single ghost. Cora and John Carlile, who owned the inn in the 1920s, have seemingly decided to hang around, with Cora manifesting as a bossy ghost who prods guests to remind them it’s bedtime, and John possibly responsible for tables being moved around. There’s also a harmless poltergeist-type entity called Hershel, who likes to make a mess, but loves kids and will rock chairs they’re sitting on. Add to that knocks on doors, flashing lights, and books that get moved around. And then you’re assigned a lovely little room that looks like it hasn’t changed since John and Cora’s time, and bid good night.
The consolation is that, before you have a heart attack, you’ll have seen the incredible, mostly indescribable beauty that is New England in the autumn. Hey, I’ve been dying to see this for years, so it seems life has a somewhat literal sense of humour.
* * *
The trip starts off without anything suspicious – except for my photographer, Unni. Nevertheless, leaving Boston (a city of so much violent history, I’d be surprised if there aren’t ghosts here) and heading towards Massachusetts’s Berkshire Hills goes off without incident. In the USA, you have to remember to get off the Interstates and other large roads, because there is absolutely nothing to see on those, other than strip malls and low-price medical stores – but get off them, and whoomph, the country lights up. Little bridges over littler streams, narrow roads rolling through the hills, the occasional wooden house – you find yourself slowing down, rolling down the windows, cruising. It’s harvest time, Thanksgiving is around the corner, and, along the roads, from unmanned baskets telling you to pay what you think is fair, to farm sales, there’s an explosion of produce, from squashes and pumpkins to cherries and apples and nuts. It’s game season too, for turkey and venison, and cider is everywhere. Visiting a farm is like being inside a still-life painting, where the fruits are impossibly plump and glossy, the pumpkins large enough for Peter and his wife and several children, the berries and peaches like little bombs waiting to stain your clothes orange, purple and red. Load up on baskets of these, and every drive becomes a glorious, sticky feast.
And the colours! Yes, fall happens everywhere – Germany and Japan have spectacular ones too – but for the sheer celebration of autumn, there’s no place like eastern North America, and, specifically, New England. It isn’t easy to make sure you’re here at the right time, but there are foliage-tracker maps available online, and you have to make sure you go north and away from the coast if you haven’t found fall yet, but once you do… Golden yellows, gold-greens, oranges, strawberry reds, and the crunch and swish of leaves underfoot, the rustle of the wind, the immense silence of the American woods: this is a bucket-list thing.
With the weather getting chilly as we climb into the Berkshires, the little village of Otis has already gone indoors, and smoke curls out of the chimneys and into the rising fog. The houses are lit but silent, the white, pointed church beautiful. It’s spooky in a delicious way (we’re yet to get acquainted with Deerfield), and we take advantage of the silence to get lost and land up at the Otis Reservoir. A funny thing about America: for all the noise of Hollywood and the big cities, this is actually a country of huge, silent open spaces. The water is a perfect mirror, the lake houses and boats and trees looking like you could reach out and touch them. Even the one idiot on a jet-ski just shows you how quiet everything else is. You could live here, shoot calendars and posters with little inspirational slogans and make a fortune, without having to move more than 50 feet.