I just returned late last night from my trip to Salem, Massachusetts, the site of the famous witch trials of 1692-1693.
Although I’ve driven greater distances to get to Jasper, those trips usually lasted 9 days and included 5 days of rest and relaxation in a comfortable hotel. Salem, on the other hand, was my most ambitious trip yet. I traveled over 2,400 miles in 40 hours of drive time. With only two brief stops for naps and 9 hours spent touring the city, the entire trip took about 66 hours. No doubt about it – this was a marathon trip.
The Journey East
Hoping to avoid rush-hour traffic in Chicago, I departed Green Bay at 2:15 am Friday morning. My route took me through Milwaukee, Chicago, Gary, South Bend, Toledo, Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Springfield, and Boston. I rolled into Leominster around 11pm and crashed for a few hours in a motel room.
On the whole, driving along this route was a nuisance. The population density (and therefore, the traffic congestion) is pretty high along this corridor between the Midwest and new England. Cops were everywhere, like flies on shit. The incessant tollbooths and construction zones were obnoxious delays.
On the bright side, upstate New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont were drop dead gorgeous. The rest areas out there were nicer and more luxurious than the ones I’ve seen out west. Eastern rest areas are usually accompanied by useful amenities like restaurants and gas stations.
I must confess to a sensation of awe and wonder as I saw signs for New York and Boston. They exist in my mind as sort of mythological cities, and I was curious to visit them. But I didn’t have much time to waste, and I detest being around large crowds of people. So despite my proximity, Boston and New York remained islands of Atlantis.
I can honestly say that I enjoyed my visit to Salem. The visit was educational, the people are friendly, and the city is charming. But for all of its historical significance, Salem is a city that has not been well curated. A fire in 1914 destroyed many of the original buildings relevant to the trials. Tragically, very few original artifacts remain.
For example – just a few months ago, historians identified and confirmed the location of Gallows Hill. The site where those convicted of witchcraft were hanged is nestled between Boston, Proctor, and Pope Streets. I decided to walk over there, but I was surprised to discover there were no other tourists in the area. As it turns out, Gallows Hill today is nothing more than a Walgreens surrounded by what looked like low-income housing.
The fire wasn’t the only thing that has ruined this historical city. Corporate America has had its hand in it, too. Businesses pollute the city with cheap trinkets that they peddle to capitalize on Salem’s history. Six Dunkin Donut shops service a city not much bigger than my back yard.
Speaking of Dunkin Donuts… On the advice of travelers more experienced than me, I dined at local restaurants and specifically requested their specials or recommendations. It’s a better way to experience local culture than ordering familiar food from chain restaurants. I enjoyed Hash Benedict at the Ugly Mug Diner for breakfast and the house burger at Scratch Kitchen for dinner.
A Wicked Tour
Of the four museums I visited, I found the Salem Witch Museum to be most informative and felt it had the best production value. I also visited the Salem Wax Museum, Witch History Museum, and Witch Dungeon Museum.
I also visited (and highly recommend) Burying Point – a cemetery left over from the era where most of the residents of Salem are buried. The gravestones are heavily weathered and breaking down, creating a truly ghastly scene. The convicted witches are not buried here – the people of Salem denied the convicts a Christian burial. But their names are carved into stone benches in a small memorial park adjacent to the graveyard.
The highlight of the trip was not a museum, but a performance – Cry Innocent! A group of five very talented actors re-enact the arrest and pretrial of Bridget Bishop. The audience acts as the jury. They asked us to ignore what we know in modern times and try to identify with the mindset and fears of a villager from 1692 (which is a lot harder than it sounds).I also feel obliged to confess that the actor who appeared with the arrest warrant was really cute.
Though in seriousness, all of the actors were remarkable. Their first scene following Bishop’s arrest was particularly impressive. All five actors engaged in a frenzied series of rapid-fire monologues, seamlessly transitioning from one character to the next, and utilizing only simple towels as props. It would have been confusing if the whole act had been like this, but I understood that the point of this scene was to convey the fear and confusion that existed in Salem in the late 17th century.
Cry Innocent! begs thought-provoking questions. It’s easy to sit here in 2016 with the benefits of hindsight and modern scientific knowledge, and judge what happened in Salem as absurd. But what if you or I had lived in Salem – in those conditions and under those hardships? How would those circumstances shape our views? Would we believe in witches? Would we hang people on such flimsy evidence? If we were born and raised in 17th century Salem, we would not be the same people we are today, and our outlooks would differ.
If we went back in time, what could we do to prevent the tragedy of Salem without being accused of witchcraft ourselves? Should we tinker with history? While the events of 1692 were tragic, we learned valuable lessons from them (even if we do forget them too often).
The causes of the witch hunt are hotly debated, too. I’ve heard several theories: ergot poisoning hallucinations; oppressive Puritan structure; harsh winters and famines; neighborly bickering; the need to feel pious and morally superior; political disputes; family and territorial disputes; and so on and so forth. I tend to believe that all of these conditions (and more) contributed to the hysteria. While some causes may have been more influential than others, I believe that it was the totality of circumstances that resulted in the witch hunt.
If you do nothing else in Salem, make sure you check out this performance. It will make you think.
The Journey West
Rather than double back home, I chose to go around the north side of the Great Lakes and make a giant loop. This route took me through Manchester, Concord, Montpelier, Burlington, Montreal, Ottawa, North Bay, Saul Ste. Marie, and Escanaba.
Everywhere along the route between Gary Indiana and Escanaba Michigan was new territory for me.
Quebec – and Montreal in particular – was pure hell. I knew that Canada was bilingual. What I did not know was that road signs in Quebec were in French only. I don’t mind learning another language. But I was not prepared for driving 100 miles in the middle of the night at highway speeds while seeing signs I could not read. To make matters worse, I forgot to add travel through Canada to my cell phone plan. Wi-Fi was hard to come by up there, so I was blacked out from navigation updates for about 16 hours and had to rely on offline maps with limited functionality.
I stopped to nap at a rest area between Montreal and Ottawa. For a refreshing change of pace, I actually got a good night’s sleep in my truck.
I’ve been on the Trans-Canada Highway before, between Winnipeg and Jasper. The western half of the highway is dull and boring until you get well past Edmonton and start to see the Canadian Rockies. In comparison, the eastern half of the highway is gorgeous, just like upstate New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
It occurs to me now that having visited Montreal and Ottawa, I have now been to every Canadian city with a team in the NHL except for Vancouver (which I plan to visit next year).
I arrived home at 8 pm last night.