How to vacation like Mitt
The town of Wolfeboro (population 6,269) in New Hampshire, where Mitt Romney has a home, calls itself "the oldest resort in America."
By HENRY ALFORD The New York Times
You can tell a lot about a person by the way he vacations. Show me a weeklong trek through the Ecuadorean rain forest and I'll show you someone who values adventure over thread counts; show me a 10-day-long sprawl on a beach and I'll show you someone who has complicated feelings about the word "leathery."
Over this past month, we have been learning that when Mitt Romney vacations, he likes to go with as many members of his family as possible to his property on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, where he Jet Skis and eats ice cream and works on his laptop on his private beach.
The town of Wolfeboro (population 6,269), where Romney has his home, calls itself "the oldest resort in America," and it is a living tribute to the word "adorable." How adorable? There's a bandstand on the edge of the lake. You can get around town on Molly the Trolley, a partly open-air bus styled after a 19th-century trolley car. Teenage servers in restaurants are prone to drawing a smiley face on your check. The name of the hospital is Huggins.
In the event that this Pleasantville were to become White House North, is it a White House North that I would want to visit? Eager to find out, I threw some stuff into a bag — sunscreen, an Alison Bechdel graphic novel, my anxieties about motorized boating — and headed north.
My first stop was the popular, jam-packed sports equipment and rentals store, Dive Winnipesaukee, located in the three-city-block-long center of Wolfeboro. I rented a rowboat from a friendly tan fellow in his 20s wearing board shorts, telling him, "I got fired up by a photo that I saw of Mitt and Ann Romney on their Jet Ski, but I'm starting small." He nodded and said, "This is a good little boat."
Ten minutes of rowing on the lake afforded beautiful views of the Belknap Mountains and the hilltop campus of the Brewster Academy prep school. The ale-colored light was nostalgic-making. I marveled at the undulating hills and thought, by gum, the trees are the right height.
Before he required a full security presence, Romney was known to ride his Boston Whaler from his house right into town. So I followed suit by rowing to the town docks, whereupon I instantly fell into a status-based shame spiral: My boat was so small and so unmotored compared with everyone else's. Indeed, it was a collapse of ego that could be remedied only by rowing over to the dock of my hotel, the Wolfeboro Inn, and then going inside and somewhat regally announcing to the calm woman behind the desk, "I've moored my craft to your dock." Her eyes widened. She smiled indulgently and said, "You're fine."
My next foray combined two bits of Romney behavior — helmetless bike riding and working while vacationing. I rented a bike at the Nordic Skier and rode Wolfeboro's terrific 11-mile-long Cotton Valley Rail Trail bike path while checking my email. The trail is mostly a disused train track that's been filled in with dirt; it runs through backyards, forest and, most excitingly, the middle of a lake. That I was averting my gaze from the lovely scenery and from safety's way was both dangerous and stupid. In my efforts to simultaneously be productive and not crash, I deleted a work email before reading it. What if that had been North Korea writing to say "We're invading"?
I knew I could do better on the working-while-vacationing front. So I returned the bike and went to the centrally located Country Bookseller, where I told two employees about a book I recently published but that they don't carry. "There," I thought. "I'm not simply vacationing, I'm also re-energizing my base."
From there, dinner at Mise en Place, where Romney has been sighted. Alongside my dinner at the Chinese restaurant Sea Bird, it was one of the best meals I'd have during my stay in Wolfeboro; the pan-roasted salmon, infused with red Thai curry and accompanied by pineapple and ginger salsa, was not what I expected to find in the woodsy middle of the state that brought us Aerosmith and Adam Sandler. I smiled deeply. Romney-impersonating can be so broadening.
On Day 2, it was back to the water on a rented paddle board from Dive Winnipesaukee. Keeping your balance while standing on a surfboard that is being hit by a wake from more than one direction is wholly exhausting, so when, at hour's end, I sidled up to the Dive Winnipesaukee dock, I was in a bit of a mood. A teenage employee who was sitting on the dock in her bikini reading a Nicholas Sparks novel asked me impassively if I needed help. "Yeah, maybe this is a job for you," I said, noting to myself that she had not stood up. "Maybe I could hold the board," she added, still seated. "Yes," I confirmed. "That could also be a little job for you." America: It's all about creating jobs.
A stone's throw away at the town's main dock, I boarded the Millie B., a handsome, 1928-style mahogany runabout that takes people on 45-minute tours of the lake. The voyage was highly diverting, full of spray and laughter — my favorite part of the trip. Because the other passengers were a family of six from Boston, I was told to sit in the front of the boat next to the chatty, gravel-voiced captain, a local in his 50s with a strong Boston accent. We saw the house that belonged to Madame Chiang Kai-shek until her death at 105 in 2003. We saw where Drew Barrymore has stayed. We heard about Jimmy Fallon's visit over "July Fawth."
The captain's disquisition about the strange behavior of loons on the lake was followed shortly thereafter by the statement that, a month after Nicolas Sarkozy visited Winnipesaukee a few years back, Sarkozy got divorced. My mind drew an elaborate and bizarre link between Sarkozy's marital troubles and the Winnipesaukee loon population.
Then we saw the 13-acre Romney estate with its $630,000 boathouse and its 768 feet of shoreline. The central part of the shore was flecked with deck chairs, paddle boards and sports equipment, giving the hulking house behind it the impression of a giant Bouncy Castle. The captain said that, were Romney in town, we would have to contend with a fairly extensive security presence on the water. Just then the teenage son of the Boston family, seeing movement on the Romneys' deck, called out, "There's someone there! Hi, Mitt!" The boy's mother said, "He's not in town." I offered, "Maybe it's Tagg." The son yelled, "Hi, Tagg!" I added, "The Taggster!"
I was dreading Day 3, the day I would rent a Jet Ski or, rather — try to rent a Jet Ski. First I had to pass a 25-question, multiple-choice test to get a temporary New Hampshire boating license. I'd been poring over a study guide I'd picked up at Wolfeboro Jet Ski Rentals the day before. During the course of my study, it had struck me that I disagree with Romney on many things, but at least I can understand where he's coming from. I don't happen to think, as he once said, that corporations are people, my friend — but I can fathom the sentiment. The Jet Ski thing, though, is a total mystery to me. Risk your life on a flatulent fiberglass fire hazard? While irritating all life-forms in your environs in the process? New Hampshire's motto is Live Free or Die, but I've always thought of it as Jet Ski and Die.
But I knew I had to stare this beast in its belly, if only to make my antipathy more specific. On Day 2, eager to displace my mounting anxiety about this activity, I decided to drive around the lake, which took me three hours. I stopped at Weirs Beach (or, in the local parlance, WEE-uz) where I played Skee-Ball in one of the boardwalk's arcades and then ate fried Oreos dredged in Hershey's syrup and powdered sugar. The latter's lushness and inviolability momentarily erased every taste and memory in my brain; it was like eating a Top 10 single.
Restored, or sugar-distracted, I showed up the next morning at 9:30 at the closet-size office of Wolfeboro Jet Ski Rentals, where I received a passing score of 20 on the computerized test. The company's tall, barefoot employee put a PFD on me and led me to my Sea-Doo to show me the ropes. Any nervousness I had about trying to leash my Sea-Doo's hellfire was only exacerbated by the fact that a) it has no brakes, and b) it has no steering power when the motor is off. It's a go-go-go kart. My subsequent hour on the lake was a lurchy, scarifying whirlwind whose trajectory I would describe as "squirrelly." I dared only 45 mph of the vehicle's possible 55. When I unclenched my white-knuckled hands from the handlebars it sounded like Velcro.
"How was it?" the salesman asked afterward. I said: "Thrilling. Terrifying. Vomity." He smiled distractedly, so I said, "Don't worry, dude, I did not puke on your craft." He complimented my landing. I thanked him. I confessed: "I'm totally rattled. I'm going to go have a big mug of herbal tea and then curl up with my lesbian graphic novel." He wished me well.
What have I taken away from my time in Wolfeboro? First, that working (in my case, checking emails) while vacationing (or biking), is not a good idea. Consequently, I want a leader who vacations when he goes on vacation.
Second, I've realized that coiled deep within the most objectionable activity (in my case, Jet Skiing), lies an oasis of tenderness. You see, so rattled was I by my time aboard my Sea-Doo that I forgot my credit card at the rental office. Some hours later, in a mild panic, I returned to get it. "I put your card in this drawer," the salesman said, "so no one would take it." I thanked him profusely and said, "I guess corporations are people, my friend."