This is the second installment in my 3/4th true ghost story about my week in a New Hampshire cabin. To be clear, the scary stuff mostly didn’t happen, except in my febrile imagination. You can read the first part here, but I recommend instead you read it in this Google doc where I’ve also embedded pictures from the “real life” portion of my journey. I’m a day behind, so perhaps I’ll get the third installment tonight. It’s just a hunch, but I think things are about to get much worse (and therefore fictional) for our protagonist.
What I had wanted for my sabbatical was to hike, write and read, in that order. Although between the two of us, I wasn’t ruling out video games either. Hiking got first billing because reading and writing can be done in winter, in less scenic locations. But hiking was best done here at the height of blueberry season, in the gentle warmth of mountain summer.
Having signally failed to find the Ossipee mountain trails I intended from the back of the circle, I decided instead to take the well-marked routes from the Lake Winnepesaukee side. They all originated from the Castle in the Clouds parking lot. As I pulled in, under the shade of an old oak tree, I contemplated the different New Hampshires on offer. Yesterday had been the rural, poverty-touched, “Live free or die” New Hampshire woods. Today was the bucolic, orderly, historic “Currier and Ives” version of New Hampshire. The green fields were separated on the horizon by white picket fences before turning into the summer-dark green of the trees. Sparkling blue ponds (manmade) held clean gray boulders and were alive with fish and ducks. There was a stables nearby, as well as the eponymous castle a bit further up the roads. I frankly wasn’t sure which New Hampshire I preferred. Yesterday’s had felt rather more authentic.
My planned route this time was on the shorter side, the longer trails having been marked as strenuous. The first hour was marked by frequent dog-walkers, with joyful off-leash beasts who to a hound “just want to lick you”. The last of my encounters was with a woman who kept her hound in close reach on a leash, and she looked spooked. I called a cheery greeting, and she replied with a warning. “I have never seen that before!” she declared. “There was a porcupine that almost got Lucy here! She was off leash and ahead of me, and I didn’t even see the porcupine until she nearly had him! Good thing Lucy is good at stopping when I call her!” The protective cling of the leash was well-explained, then. I’ve heard that porcupines smell like delicious dinner, only to be the snack of great pain. I was relieved to see an unpunctured muzzle on Lucy – she was very lucky she was well trained. “Thanks for the warning!” I called back. “I’m glad you’re not headed to the vet right now!” “Me too!” her voice faded as she disappeared down the path. I was momentarily sad that I was not taking that trail. I’ve never seen a porcupine in the wild before. But it had probably also been rattled by its encounter, and had scurried to the undergrowth.
But a few miles up a broad, even, gently sloping carriage trail (according to the interpretive signs) led me to suspect that my path was only strenuous for a lady in a bustle with a parasol and shoes designed to show her ankles to advantage. It was as boring as it was easy – mile after mile of deep forest gentle slope, with no viewpoints in the homogeneous and well-mannered forest. By the time I hit my first peak, which finally had views, I was impatient with the placidness of the place. I resolved to switch my itinerary to a longer, theoretically harder one to stretch my legs a little more.
I regretted my decision to prioritize length over peaks by the time the sun was on the other side of the mountains. All I’d bought myself was a longer stretch of boring. Worse, instead of being a full-shade trail, there were now few enough hiking boots and plenty enough light that I often found myself hiking through high grasses – the favorite home of my least favorite creature: the tick. I consoled myself with the liberal dousing of bug spray that had started my day, but itched to get out of these broads and up to peaks.
Glancing down what seemed like aeons later, I saw my light gray pants legs were liberally coated with black dots. Moving black dots. Sticky moving black dots. There were maybe twenty ticks coating my lower body. I looked ahead and saw a shady, clear patch and sprinted, boots and all, to the welcome loam under a pine tree. I brushed off the ticks from my legs, pulled up the stretchy material as far as it would go and evicted a few more. I carefully checked my socks. Finally – I hadn’t seen another person in three hours – I took off my pants entirely right there on the trail and meticulously inspected both myself and them (removing a few more unwanted guests) before putting them back on. That there showed me beyond a doubt that I was really alone up here. Nothing summons other hikers like stepping off the path to rebalance your water ratio.
My knees, and the rest of me, were still a bit shaky. I’m not generally a scared person. But I have a *thing* about ticks. I want my bloodsucking attacks to be ones that I notice, not stealthy, horribly embedded ones that pay me for my blood by spilling poison back into my system, THANKYOUVERYMUCH. I was actually proud of my cool, collectedness and rational response to these ticks (as I drained a bottle of picaridin over myself). But I was still having a bit of a shock reaction to encountering my fears in such abundance.
So it took me a moment to pay attention to the circumstances in which I found myself. I was standing on the soft loam of under-a-pine-tree, but the tree itself let through the sky past skeletal branches, cold white against the blue of the sky. It wasn’t the only one – there was a big patch where the boring green I’d been lamenting had been turned to the white of bark-bare limbs and virulent green of pond slime. The air was still in this depression. A high-flying cloud in a mostly blue sky chose that moment to fly over, casting the mire and me both in shadow. From the unseen depths of the marsh came a strange sound, like the twanging of a huge rubber band. I stood, unsettled and transfixed by it, immune from mosquitos temporarily due to the fog of bugspray that still hovered around me. I noticed a great, old tree nearly divided in two and leaning towards the water. Like old man Willow from the Old Forest in The Lord of the Rings.
Yesterday my thumbs pricked. But today I couldn’t help remember a phrase I’d read in that crazypants vortex print-out: “Twisted trees, time/ space anomalies, bodily responses are markers of a vortex.” This was definitely a twisted-feeling space. I reassured myself what it REALLY was is a beaver pond and a sign of a healthy and evolving ecosystem, which would cycle through swamp to pond to meadow before returning to forest. But it FELT like a twisted place. I checked my watch to make sure I hadn’t experienced any temporal anomalies, and was informed that it was probably past time to get myself down off this mountain and get some dinner. And maybe boil all my clothes.
I picked up my pace and the fastest way down (that didn’t include going back through tick-glen) and such was my focus that when I started the pheasants, I almost leaped backwards. I was trotting through a section with heavy brush on the sides when those sides exploded into action and feather and flight, and three birds launched skywards with velocity. But one beat against the brushes as if caught, moaned piteously and then crawled away, crying in fear and pain just out of reach.
This might have been of concern if I wasn’t on to the bird’s tricks. I’d never flushed pheasants before (how bucolic!) but I knew that this was a favorite mommy-bird trick. She had a nest near where I was standing. But she was inviting me to come eat very visible, audible, clearly injured her instead of her chicks. She’d keep flopping *juuuuuust* out of reach until I was far enough from the nest, and then fly away completely uninjured, having bamboozled me and saved her chicks. I grinned at her excellent acting, but my feet kept to the trail and I let her save her little ones the easy way.
That was not the only animal sighting on my way down. I encountered gigantic hoof prints in soft mud that must be the elusive moose. There were a few times I could hear brush-scrapes or the sounds of large, moving things headed down the mountain. I was happy to find my car and the relentlessly scenic meadows.
As I pulled out the gracefully-designed road, I had to stop as three deer bounded in front of me, headed down off the mountain towards the lake. I wished them well in avoiding all other cars on their journey, and drove with eyes peeled for the remainder of my way circumnavigating the Ring Dike on Rt. 25. It was good I did, since I encountered a crazy number of other animals crossing the road all (I noted uneasily) heading AWAY from the Ossipee range. I swear I even saw a bear in a flash through my rear view mirror just before taking a curve.
Nightmares were probably inevitable after the day I’d just had. I tucked myself in, having scoured every inch of my body and tightly bagged my clothes, prepared for the tick nightmares. But while I’m sure there were some creepy-crawly dreams, I thrashed all night with dreams of running away, of fleeing, of looking back over my shoulders and seeing something horrible gaining on me, and needing to run faster. My dream-self was flooded with adrenalin and the need for greater speed, and my waking self sat bolt upright in bed, gasping, heart racing – filled with fear and dread and the desire to flee.