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Weekender: Back to School

New England college towns are the templates for what we imagine American university life should be. These small academic communities are ideal places for a weekend visit, especially at peak leaf-viewing season. To stroll across a busy common, have coffee at a café, hike a nearby hill, browse at a bookstore, or just picnic under a tree as the leaves are starting to turn is to experience the simple pleasures of small-town college life. I attended a big, anonymous city university in upstate New York, but somewhere in the back of my mind there's a lingering thought that I missed out on a real liberal arts education. Maybe it comes from my mother, who had her heart set on my going to Williams College, near the Five Colleges (Amherst, University of Massachusetts, Hampshire, Smith, and Mount Holyoke) in western Massachusetts. So when I found myself in adjacent New Hampshire in prime foliage season, I decided to combine a scenic drive with a visit to Williams–a trip back to a past that could have been mine.

On a crisp and sunny Friday morning, my friend Gen picked me up in Peterborough, where I'd been staying, and we headed southwest, toward Amherst. Our plan was to take only secondary roads, visiting other campuses along the way, staying at bed-and-breakfasts, and giving ourselves plenty of time to explore the area.

Just over the border in Massachusetts, where Route 10 turns into 63, a detour near Northfield led us through rolling farmland. The birches, maples, and hickories were igniting with sparks of rust and saffron, but there was still green in the cornfields, and roadside stands were selling the summer's last tomatoes alongside bushels of shiny new apples.

Unconcerned with direction or time, we drove slowly, passing gas stations and general stores. It was almost dusk when we rolled into Amherst. Let the tourists have Vermont, I thought, imagining its roads clogged with tour buses.

After a good night's sleep at the Allen House Victorian Inn, a restored late-19th-century bed-and-breakfast on Main Street, we woke up to a glorious, breezy morning. The inn was serving pumpkin pancakes, but I satisfied my urge for a latte and the New York Times at Rao's Coffee Roasting Co. Emily Dickinson had lived in Amherst (her house is now a museum), and the town is still a great place for writers and readers, with good cafés and excellent independent bookstores. After our lattes, we wandered into the Atticus Bookstore, where the friendly salesclerk advised us to drive south to Mount Holyoke, "the prettiest campus in the area. Those women's colleges knew how to do it right."

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