Steamboat Springs I was energized by the recent lively discussion over the fate of independent retailing during the Steamboat Economic Summit. I was so fired up that I felt compelled to find out how they do it in New England. We packed our bags and set out on a mission to find out how many interesting shops and indigenous restaurant meals we could discover on a seven-day blitzkrieg through five states.
We began our quest for authenticity in Buffalo, N.Y., where there are corner pizza joints every six blocks or so in the suburb of Cheektowaga.
Buffalo is also home to Frank & Teresa's Anchor Bar, the real name, and the birthplace of Buffalo wings. However, we had previously worshiped at the Anchor Bar, the little restaurant that has caused so many chickens to spend the rest of their lives wingless.
So we piled into a giant Chrysler rental car and set out in search of Vermont cheddar and Maine lobstah.
The New York turnpike, though well maintained, is a nightmarish strip of fast-food outlets that are so institutionalized they hide insidiously inside every rest stop. In order to visit a restroom one must run the gauntlet past Burger King and Sbarro.
Things begin to change where I-87 heads north and billboards advertising the chairlifts at Whiteface Mountain outside Lake Placid begin to appear.
Jump off on a two-lane highway and before long you're rolling north through dairy country toward Middlebury, Vt.
To be sure, one can find factory outlet malls in Vermont.
However, in Middlebury, they seem a remote possibility. If there is a Denny's in this tiny college town, we overlooked it. Instead, we purchased our morning pastry and coffee at Otter Creek Bakery.
Owners Ben and Sarah Wood let you pump Green Mountain Blend all day if you return with the same paper coffee cup. Naturally, we were back for a luncheon of smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches -- $5. We shopped at a groovy store called Wild Mountain Thyme, and at the Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow. It's right where Otter Creek plunges over a waterfall right in the middle of town.
Touring over the hills of the Green Mountain National Forest, we followed Vermont Route 100 and the White River to the junction with 107. Not far from the bridge over the river is Ted Green Ford.
They've been there since 1913 and car dealerships don't get much older than that.
Before long, we were in Lebanon, N.H. where blooming rhododendrons softened the crush of noon hour traffic. In Hanover, we ate lunch at a Mexican restaurant of all places.
The Gap has appeared on Hanover's nicest block, but there is still an independent book seller taking reservations for the new Harry Potter volume, and a campus clothing store selling green sweatshirts emblazoned with the letter "D."
We visited a Ben and Jerry's for iced coffee, uncertain if we're in a giant national chain store or a funky little dairy store founded by a couple of good-hearted hippies.
The Atlantic Ocean was calling, and there was ample daylight, so we jumped on Highway 101 and pointed the Concorde straight for Hampton Beach. The strand facing the beach is a nonstop string of independent hotels, restaurants and tacky souvenir shops.
It wasn't what we're looking for, so after getting our legs wet in the 52-degree ocean, we headed north on Highway 1, stopping at several good shore breaks to watch the surfers. Weary of the drive, we almost pulled up to a chain motel but we pushed on across the Piscataqua River bridge into Maine, and accelerated past a sprawling complex of factory outlets.
On the verge of getting cranky, we hit the jackpot in York Harbor.
When we pulled up to Edwards' Harborside Inn, the light was just falling from the fishing boats moored off the front lawn. The innkeeper gave us a suite with an antique four-poster bed and sent us off to dinner up the coast at Lobster Cove.
At Lobster Cove, you can tuck into a 1.25-pound whole lobster dinner for $14.95. I decided to go big and consumed the "Down East Shore Dinner" which added a cup of chowder and a pile of steamer clams for $21.95.
Maine just kept getting better, with another lobster pig-out and raw shellfish fest at J's Oyster, tucked almost out of sight on the pier along Portland's historic waterfront.
By the time we had backtracked westward through the Berkshires of Massachusetts, we'd seen a lot of mom and pop establishments. There was a politically incorrect and kitschy Indian trading post where a guy can still purchase a rubber tomahawk. We passed up Pizza Hut in Greenfield, Mass., and drove around until we found local office workers having sandwiches at Bogie's Coffee and Deli works.
At Bogie's you place your order at the counter and they hand you a worn playing card that somehow connects you to your sandwich basket. We were the four of diamonds.
You know me. I could go on and on. I met so many friendly people in seven days across five states that I had to make notes so that I wouldn't forget them all. There was a surfer, a high school kid from Exeter, N.H., a trout fisherman in Vermont, a French speaking professor from Montreal who was interested in my digital camera, and a guy fixing the rotted planks of a boat dock in Maine.
But the majority of the people I met were in small, independently owned shops and restaurants like Lobster Cove. You could say they made New England come alive for me.
The young woman who served our dinner at Lobster Cove was Piper McDougall. And it was Miss McDougall who talked her way right into this morning's column. When I told her we were from Steamboat Springs, she said she had stopped here once on the way home from California.
"What do you recall about Steamboat?" I asked. "Is that little pet store in the tourist shopping area still there?" Piper countered.
"Was it called Felix and Fido?"
"That's it! I spent more money there on little sweaters for my dog than I spent on food the whole trip," she said.
Visit Steamboat Springs -- doggie sweater capital of the Rocky Mountain region, and a place where mom and pops still survive.