Two Saturdays ago, five hours after flying out of Savannah, I steered a rented Ford along Connecticut state roads in the Farmington Valley, curving past farmhouses and barns, through towns settled before Georgia founder James Oglethorpe was born.
It's been a while since I've traveled outside of the South. I needed, and looked forward to, different scenery, a new experience, even if only for 72 hours, mostly filled with events surrounding a wedding.
I love to travel, but I'm a terrible "leaver." Once I'm on the road I'm relaxed, but before I depart, I'm a mess. The days before any trip, even a short one, are filled with too many decisions.
Which sweater to wear with which trousers? Where's the phone charger? Where's my boarding pass? Should I get a rental car? We've all got our quirks-this "travel preparedness" anxiety is one of mine.
All of which may explain why, three days before my two-and-a-half-day trip, I was too busy to attend an event in Ellis Square, announcing that the American Planning Association (APA) selected Savannah's Squares as one of the Ten Great Public Spaces in America for 2009, part of their "Great Places in America" program.
This national urban planning organization really likes our squares. In 2007, they designated Bull Street (from City Hall to Forsyth Park) as one of the Ten Great Streets in America. The reasoning? "Most distinctive are the five public squares located along the street - two of which were included in the original plan for Savannah created by General James Edward Oglethorpe," said the APA in October 2007.
Even before 2007's designation I thought I'd heard it all before-"Savannah's squares are the epitome of public spaces, so accessible, blah blah blah." I love our squares, our downtown. No need to go to the Ellis Square event to hear it again. I had packing to do, and I was headed north to see something different.
Once in New England, the lay of the land was a fresh experience. In the 30 minute drive from Hartford's airport I passed through several 17th century towns, each with its own "Established in ..." sign, now part of Hartford's metropolitan area.
Most noticeable to me was the lack of visual clutter. No billboards. No lighted "signs on sticks." The entrance signs for large shopping malls were no higher than five feet; brick entryways with illuminated raised lettering, even for the Walmart and the national chain clothing stores.
Driving in the afternoon sunshine, the roads bisecting busy towns soon passed through remote woods, traversing narrow stone bridges that crossed waterways referred to as "brooks" instead of rivers or creeks. Every few miles, a brown road sign showing hikers in silhouette told me that the path bisecting the roadway was a designated hiking trail. Emerging from the woods, I found myself driving the edge of a corn field, then a boarding school campus with a three-stories-tall historic brick silo as its landmark.
I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd landed in a movie set. The countryside seemed free of litter. The trees seemed like Hollywood props. Branches reached upward instead of outward like our live oaks, with red and yellow leaves in stark relief to blue skies, no draping shrouds of Spanish moss to filter the sunlight.
And, I loved it all--until supper time, when I decided to find a restaurant to enjoy a simple meal. Head over to one of these towns I've passed through, park the rental car, and walk along until a café strikes my fancy.
A great plan for Savannah, but not workable on this trip. These picturesque towns, with their clapboard churches, mansard or front-gabled roofed houses, and wooden signage, had no public spaces. No sidewalks along any thoroughfares or side streets. No main streets. No town squares. No "Great Public Places," nor any mediocre ones. Finding a café in the twilight was a driving task, slowing to fifteen miles per hour and peering at the signs, sending telepathic apologies to the cars stuck behind me.
A fine place for a long hike through the woods, but no place for a short walk in town. The expense of the rental car, one of my many angst-ridden decisions during my trip planning, no longer felt like a luxury. Without a car, my New England meals would have been limited to the hotel restaurant, with only the wedding venues to give me a glimpse of the region's distinctive beauty.
Despite the work needing to be done in many of Savannah's neighborhoods to make us more pedestrian friendly, on this trip it clicked that I take our downtown walkability and our squares for granted.
Monday morning, I scraped ice off the rental car windshield and headed for the Hartford airport. Late that afternoon, in Savannah's 70-plus degree drizzle, I thought about my trip-glad for the experience, wishing it was longer, but with a new reminder that there's no "Great Place" like home.