I did it. Six road trips, countless day excursions, and thousands of miles by car, bus, train, ferry, and Uber. I finished documenting the best and the (not always) brightest neon signs across New England.
But I’m burying the lede: I’m writing a book to be called New England Neon for Arcadia Publishing. It will be photos and text and cover all six New England states. (For anyone who slept through geography class: That’s Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.)
My goal was to finish the field work before the clocks changed, and I took it down to the wire with an off-season weekend in Provincetown to capture the Lobster Pot sign at dusk. Mission accomplished.
Here are some of the things I learned as I chased New England neon:
I developed an uneasy co-dependence with the Google Maps navigation in my iPhone. Although the calm monotonic female voice was usually right, there were a few minor misses and questionable calls (“Follow Roller Coaster Road for three miles” was about as bad as it sounded) and one total miss (Blackstone Valley Bike Path, I’m talking about you). Good news: I finally had a chance to visit Acadia National Park, albeit in a car. Bad news: I was trying to stay on Route 3. But my navigatrix, as I came to call her, kept me on track far better than my own sense of direction, or lack thereof, and it all worked out in the end.
Road food can be yummy. I was on a pretty tight schedule, so I couldn’t stop for local delicacies as often as I would have liked. But I had memorable meals at many diners along with way (Miss Portland and Birdseye stand out) and a few local spots (The Canteen in Provincetown and The Farmer’s Daughter in Easton).
But I invented a new food group. As delicious as these local options were, there were many days when I didn’t have time to stop for lunch. And thus I invented a new meal category: Food I can eat while driving. This included hard-boiled eggs and bananas squirreled away from breakfast buffets, those strange prepackaged cheese and nut combos, and a tasty chicken-salad wrap from a lunch spot in northern Maine.
Why did the turkey cross the road? I crossed my first covered bridge in New Hampshire. Almost hit a wild turkey in Rhode Island (although a friend was at the wheel). And everywhere encountered signs for deer crossings, moose crossings, duck crossings, horse crossings, and tractor crossings. Do state DOTs have templates for these things?
You can fight Uber and win. East Greenwich, Rhode Island, is not Uber territory, and I’m grateful I found a driver who was able to get me to Providence in time to catch my train. Unfortunately, he double-charged me for the trip — EG to PVD and then back to EG. Not cool, Uber. So after a few tries, I found a hidden link on the app that allowed me to file a complaint and, a few back-and-forth messages later, Uber refunded the 20-dollar overcharge. So read those receipts!
State fairs are not my thing. I cajoled a friend to go to the Big E multi-state exposition in West Springfield in September. We enjoyed seeing the sheep in the livestock tent, but the overall experience was too big and too crowded.
But I love boardwalks and arcades. I’d go back to Old Orchard Beach, Weirs Beach, or Hampton Beach in a heartbeat. Pinball, Skee-Ball, Pac-Man: Bring it on.
Mostly I was delighted to see that New England neon signs live on. Some are in beautiful working condition, having been lovingly maintained and sometimes upgraded over the years. Others are working but only sort of, with a few broken tubes or peeling paint. Many were abandoned, left to the mercy of the elements. And some were gone without a trace.