When Gary Dehnel's parents moved into an assisted-living facility in Florida last September, his sister discovered an intriguing item while cleaning out their house. It was an album from the elderly couple's 1934 honeymoon -- a 10-day trip they'd taken through New England, documented in photographs, a diary and financial logs. Dehnel flipped through it: There was Dad at Saratoga battlefield in New York. There was Mom sitting on a lookout over Lake George, N.Y. Here were business cards from the inns where they'd stayed.
Dehnel's frugal parents spent a total of $65.39 for the whole thing.
The Manassas area resident had a flash of inspiration: He wanted to repeat the trip with his wife, Connie, to celebrate their 32nd anniversary, taking the same two-lane roads his parents took, tracking down the inns where they stayed, finding every bridge, every historical marker, every awe-inspiring mountain view his parents photographed.
Connie, 50, was game. She and Gary, 54, decided to make an album of their own, just like the original. They would start their trip June 6, just three days -- and 68 years -- after Gary's parents started theirs. It would satisfy their historical curiosity, and more important, would be "a gift we could give to his parents," Connie says. The gift would be one of remembrance.
Dehnel went to the library and printed out the front page of the 1934 New York Times for every day of their trip, so "their morning paper was our morning paper," he says. Then the couple set off on a vacation that was more a hard-working journey -- two amateur detectives, sleuthing out pieces of the past.
Alexander Dehnel knew Margaret Stellhorn's brother through business. He and Marge met at a dance when they were young adults, just before the Depression hit.
"I looked at him and he looked at me and that was romance," says Marge, 92.
Al and Marge set a timeline: They would marry when Al, now 94, started making a certain salary at his job selling fire extinguishing systems -- somewhere around $11 a week, as best as they can remember. But the economy slowed his pay raises. When Marge, a secretary, began making more than Al, they decided it was time to tie the knot. Their wedding took place in Lincoln Park, N.J., and that night they set off on their honeymoon, the biggest trip either of them had ever made. It took them 1,500 miles through New York's Adirondacks; across Vermont; through New Hampshire's White Mountains; east to Portland, Maine; down the coast to Gloucester and Cape Cod, Mass.; west to Providence, R.I.; and back home through Connecticut.
On some sections of the trip, Marge and Al traveled on dirt roads. There were no modern motel chains, no Holiday Inns. The days they traveled, the newspaper carried headlines like "Roosevelt Denies Danger of Famine in Crop Disaster" and "Hitler Meets Mussolini Thursday; Italy to Avoid Anti-French Accord." Marge wore long skirts and blouses. Al wore a dress shirt and tie, sometimes with a sweater and a beret. ("I didn't know Dad had a beret," Gary says in surprise, flipping through the album.) They took careful notes of everything, like these from their wedding night:
"Stopped at Hotel plaza where the new husband asked for a single room and the clerk looked at the new wife and politely said, 'You mean a double room.' "
"Slept well but man in some other room had a choking fit and woke us at 3 a.m."
Most days, Marge and Al had a hearty breakfast and then a light lunch: apples and crackers and ice cream, fruit and buns and ice cream, crackers and raisins and ice cream. ("Dad has always liked his ice cream," remarks Gary.) They kept track of every expense: 20 cents for tipping a bellhop, $1.10 for a turkey dinner and tip, $1.81 for 10 gallons of gasoline.
They were careful with their money. Accounting for inflation, their trip cost $881.79. Connie and Gary's trip, which was one day shorter, cost almost twice that: $1,618.74.
Connie and Gary hit the road every morning around 8:30, beating Marge and Al by an hour and a half. This extra time was crucial, because the sleuthing wasn't easy. The Dehnels had to rely on town halls, tourist bureaus and informal networks of strangers for information. They were fighting crummy memories, bad records and, of course, the passage of time. Inns where Marge and Al had stayed had been converted or destroyed. Two old buildings on the Saratoga battlefield had been moved, apparently for the sake of historical accuracy.
Hoping to stay where Marge and Al had stayed whenever possible -- and unable to locate most of these places beforehand -- Connie and Gary made no reservations. Having no fixed destination each night was unusual for the two, who like to plan trips carefully.
"It was a little scary, actually," says Connie.
On the second day of their vacation, following close to Marge and Al's path through Glens Falls, N.Y., Connie and Gary tried to find the Brick Gables, an inn where the elder Dehnels had stayed. The inn's business card was pasted in the honeymoon album with this meager address: "One Mi. North of Center. Route 9."
After driving around with no luck, the couple decided to find a bed for the night. It seemed an easy enough task until they realized they'd stumbled into the path of Americade, an annual rally that brings tens of thousands of motorcyclists to the Lake George area every year. After striking out at three bed-and-breakfasts, the Dehnels finally found shelter at a private home that had formerly been a B&B. It would prove to be just one of countless times they were rescued by the kindness of strangers.
That night, they received a call from the owner of one of the full B&Bs. Intrigued by their search for Brick Gables, she had made some calls and located it. It had become a beauty salon, now covered in ivy and blocked by trees. Connie and Gary had driven past it several times, missing it because it was almost unrecognizable.
It was then that Gary realized that this historical journey was going to be as difficult as he'd imagined. But one asset would help him and Connie more than any other. "We can find these things," he realized, "with the help of the local folks."
Ultimately, the Dehnels' luck in retracing the '34 honeymoon was largely due to local folks. Nearly everyone they approached -- a sheriff, a parking meter cop, people at a tax assessor's office, voters on a local election day -- was eager to help them with their quest.
In Wilmington, N.Y., a guide vacuuming at the visitors center directed them to a set of steps -- all that remained of the Locust Inn, where Marge and Al spent their third night. While searching for Clark's, a lodge in Mendon, Vt., they asked in a grocery store and at an orchard, and talked to a bartender, who called his grandmother -- all to no avail. They finally brought the honeymoon album to the town hall, where the clerk recognized the building as belonging to a church.
The original album -- which served as the Dehnels' travel guide -- seemed to fascinate people.
"Everyone we talked to to get information wanted to look at it, so the pages started falling apart," says Connie. She and Gary spent one whole evening on their trip carefully covering the pages in clear plastic.
Part of the reason this trip back in time worked, Connie and Gary believe, is because of where it took place. Had they retraced a honeymoon in another part of the country, where development came fast in recent decades -- like in the Manassas area, where they live -- much of the past might have been obliterated by growth and a transient population. But in New England, they could count on finding people who'd lived in the same place their whole lives.
"In New England, the towns are small, everyone knows everyone," says Gary.
Each little find was a triumph. In Upstate New York, he and Connie toured a garnet mine and -- like Marge and Al -- picked some of the rough, dark pebbles to take back with them. The next day, at scenic Ausable Chasm, Gary says, "we stood within three or four feet of where my parents stood for many of these pictures. That was sort of tingly." Later, Gary -- a former Coast Guard pilot and now an aviation acquisitions contractor to the Coast Guard -- used his pilot's portable GPS to locate the position of a now-gone covered bridge his parents had photographed.
In North Woodstock, N.H., on Day 5, Gary and Connie hit pay dirt. At the visitors center, they discovered that the Kisnop Lodge, which Marge and Al had stayed one night, still existed as the Wilderness Inn. After so much searching, the Dehnels finally had the chance to stay in the same place Marge and Al had. They took pictures to show Gary's parents later, in hopes of jogging their memories.
Alas, the inn didn't look familiar. Not everything Connie and Gary saw during their trip was recognizable to Marge and Al, whether because of the changes wrought by time or the foibles of memory. But then again, they did remember certain things. About a month after the trip, Gary flew down to Florida with his new album, which Connie -- a creative soul who runs her own decorative painting business -- had assembled meticulously. For two hours, Marge and Al sat at their kitchen table, studied each photograph and relived a trip almost seven decades old.
"They would say, 'Oh yeah, we remember having lunch here,' " says Gary.
The gift, it turned out, was not merely one of remembrance, and it did not belong to Marge and Al alone. Over more than a week, Gary learned about his parents in a way he never had before. He studied their pictures, he read their musings, he stood where they stood. He had always been close to his parents, he says, but by taking this trip, "I was part of them."
As for Connie, whose parents are no longer alive, the journey back in time has spurred an interest in her own family's history. She found some family journals from when her mother lived in Newburgh, N.Y., before she was married.
"Our plans," Gary says, "are to go back and hit Newburgh sometime."