Dear Smitty

Our authors write Smitty, our travel editor, about their journeys

Our Travel Editor, Smitty

Although British by birth like his namesake James Smithson, Smitty is a gadabout who is at home anywhere from a palace to a rain forest. He sends our writers and photographers around the planet—he'd much rather be sending himself, of course, but someone has to stay home and mind the store. Still, Smitty likes to be kept abreast of what's going on in far-flung places, and so our authors write him letters about their journeys.

Dear Smitty:
When we visited the last living Shakers, what we did not expect to find was an air conditioner. But there it was, poking out of an upstairs window of the Dwelling House.

We have TV too," Sister Frances Carr told us a few minutes later, when we met inside. "People are amazed, and disappointed, that we're not like the Amish."

What did we expect to find at Sabbathday Lake, Maine? Crazy dancing? Sister Frances, who is in her 70s and has an aura of command, wore a dress that was plain, but hardly anachronistic or outlandish. Brother Arnold Hadd wore dark trousers, a white shirt and looked like a 40-ish professor of history at Bates College, a few miles up the road, in Lewiston. They live a Shaker life at Sabbathday Lake—celibate, communal, focused on worship—but they're not out of touch with modern life. Just try clicking on their Website: They record CDs of their singing and ride jumbo jets to Europe to give lectures. "We pay into Social Security, and we pay for Blue Cross-Blue Shield," Brother Arnold told us.

Why had we expected the Shakers to be people who were living antiques? Perhaps it was because we remembered an old Shaker song we'd once heard. The canoes were all drawn up on the sand, tents pitched, steaks broiling on the driftwood campfire, and somebody with a guitar and a solemn bass voice sang "'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free, 'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be...."

Sometimes, in visiting Shaker sites and trying to get where we "ought to be" we actually seemed to have the gift for complication. For instance, for our visit to Hancock Village, we had made reservations for ourselves and our Welsh corgi at a bed-and-breakfast near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, figuring it would be closer to the Shaker spirit than a modern hotel. However, we arrived to find nobody home except a large, barking German shepherd. We waited on the porch for 45 minutes before giving up and driving into Pittsfield like lost pilgrims. We spotted the downtown high-rise Crowne Plaza hotel. Yes, they did have one room left, the clerk said. No, they didn't take dogs. But, he said, with a big grin, for Nosmo King an exception would be made!

We overshot the long driveway into the Watervliet Shaker village a few times. But that was nothing compared to trying to locate the Mount Lebanon site, near Hancock Village. We sought directions at roadside insurance agencies and beauty salons, receiving such comments as, "Isn't that some sort of religious school or something?" Finally, officials at Hancock gave us the straight scoop and we made our way down—way down!—the obscure side road leading to what remains of the Shaker headquarters.

Mostly, though, visiting Shaker sites proved easy going, at least compared to finding the source of the Nile. And at Sabbathday Lake, when the restaurant at our one-star motel by the highway abruptly closed, permanently, the Shakers invited us to dine with them. It was wonderful American farm food, with "the gift to be simple," and we remain nostalgic for such dishes as Sister Frances Carr's broccoli in rosemary butter. It was as poetic as it sounds: skillet-browned butter seasoned with Shaker rosemary then dribbled over fresh organic broccoli from Brother Arnold Hadd's garden.

With a twinkle in her eye, Sister Frances told us about a Publishers Clearinghouse letter she recently opened: "Dear Mr. Shaker—You may already have won...." This bit of computerized marketing was not our hoped-for encounter with Brigadoon, but that broccoli with rosemary was. And then Brother Arnold delighted us. "We make pickles and jams and jellies to sell," he said. "Our mustard pickles never fail to win a blue ribbon!"

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