I told him no and closed the door, then got to thinking about winter. I mean real below-zero, white-out winter that severs power lines and traps people indoors.
The prospect unnerved me until I remembered something a dog-sled driver in Sweden had told me years ago: Winter is not the enemy. Don't fight it. Sometimes I even found myself at the window, dreaming about riding in a sleigh with my hands in a fur muff.
By the time the Berkshire Mountains got a confectioners' sugar frosting of snow in mid-December, I was ready to walk into a print by Currier & Ives, which isn't a far-fetched notion in western Massachusetts. Back roads cross rivers on covered bridges, mosey past red barns and lead, inevitably, to country inns where I was always tempted to check in on the spur of the moment. I drove around in an old Subaru station wagon, listening to James Taylor, with an overnight bag packed and ready on the back seat just in case I find a picture-perfect inn and decide to bed down for the night.
I did spot one every time I drove north from Great Barrington to Stockbridge, where the rambling, white clapboard Red Lion Inn holds a place of pride at Routes 7 and 102. There has been an inn on the site since 1773, which means it has the same deep Yankee roots as the 1716 Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass., and the 1789 Hancock Inn in southern New Hampshire. The good people of Stockbridge might take umbrage, but to visitors who flock here when the weather is fine to sample the Berkshires' abundant cultural attractions — Tanglewood, the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Berkshire Theatre Festival, etc. — the town is the Red Lion.
I kept passing the inn on my way to a night-school class at the nearby Berkshire Botanical Garden. As the holidays approached, the village, which was home to Rockwell from 1953 to 1978, had transformed itself into the famous illustrator's 1967 McCall's magazine cover "Home for Christmas," and the Red Lion's wide porch was framed with evergreen garlands and lights. To celebrate the end of the semester, I cut class and checked in.
I couldn't help it. The lobby resembled a scene from "Little Women," with a big Christmas tree surrounded by Victorian settees where guests sat listening to a harpist and eating gumdrops from cut-glass bowls. There was a fire in the fireplace, toasting the feet of people in rockers. A furry cushion on a nearby couch turned out to be Simon, the Red Lion's beloved black-and-white cat, and 137 teapots lined a high shelf all around the room, collected by Mrs. Plumb, who ran the inn in the late 19th century. Any minute I expected Jo March to run in, telling Marmee she'd sold her first short story.
Hand-stenciled signs pointed the way to the gift shop full of locally made crafts, the Lion's Den pub in the basement and Country Curtains, started in 1956 on the kitchen table of Jane Fitzpatrick, who ran the inn from 1968 to 1993, when her daughter Nancy took over. The curtain and décor shop — largely a mail-order and Internet business — is far more lucrative than the inn, Nancy later told me. When the inn's business slows after the first freeze, there are special packages and events to attract customers. But even in the dead of winter the Red Lion perseveres, catering chiefly to local tipplers, Chamber of Commerce dinners, skiers on their way to Vermont and the occasional loose screw who wants nothing more than to hole up in a classic country inn while the snow flies.
There is a working 1897 bird cage elevator, but I took the staircase to a $125 double on the third floor. The wide halls are full of antiques and flea market treasures, bookshelves and china cabinets, Norman Rockwell prints and old-timey photos, assembled chiefly by Jane Fitzpatrick and her husband, Jack, a former Massachusetts state senator who died last summer. High school sweethearts from Vermont, they moved to Stockbridge in the 1950s where they developed the curtain business and supported local cultural institutions. When it looked as if downtown Stockbridge would be replaced by a strip mall in 1968, the Fitzpatricks bought the inn, spending spare revenue from Country Curtains on upgrades and décor.
"You can't operate a place like the Red Lion without putting capital into it from someplace else. It's not a get-rich-quick scheme," Nancy Fitzpatrick said.
The Fitzpatricks did well enough to buy Blantyre, a Gilded Age estate in nearby Lenox, now a small luxury resort run by Nancy's sister, Ann Fitzpatrick Brown. Nancy helped develop Porches Inn, which opened in 2001 in a row of Victorian mill workers' cottages near the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.
Country inns come and go; new owners sink millions into well-loved properties, find they can't pay their way and close the door. But the Fitzpatrick clan seems to know the secret to making old places thrive. At the Red Lion it has to do with modesty and respect for the inn's personality.
A partial renovation in 2006 gave it an outdoor pool and spruced-up guest bathrooms with white beadboard walls and gold-colored fixtures. But the inn still offers a few humble shared-bath chambers; in-room espresso machines, sound systems and other chichi touches that drive rates high — and make the country inn experience like staying at a Hilton with ruffles — have been avoided. After all, Mrs. Plumb would have looked dimly on such contrivances.
My room at the Red Lion was cozy, with floral wallpaper and painted floorboards covered by a woven rug. Small, but amiable, it had lots of lamps, a writing desk, a wing chair and a plump four-poster queen for which I yearned even though the old grandfather clock in the lobby hadn't yet struck 4.
I spent what was left of the afternoon admiring Tiffany stained glass at St. Paul's Episcopal Church across from the inn, choosing penny candy at Williams & Sons Country Store on Main Street, looking through the book sale shelf at the 1862 town library and walking to a stone footbridge over the Housatonic River. Then it was dinner time at the inn: a salad with blue cheese and pistachio nuts and succulent duck breast, accompanied by a glass of Pinot Noir from Oregon.
Afterward I could have gone to the Lion's Den, where there's almost always live music, or watched a DVD from the inn's large collection. Instead, I retired to my room, savoring the winter quiet, got into my jammies and took a ride in my Currier & Ives sleigh with sheets, pillows and four posters.