We found our way through the Port of Pireus across a short, quiet stretch of water to the island of Aegina. After a perilous taxi ride (no roller coaster has ever terrified me that thoroughly), we arrived in a quiet, pine-shaded compound, with limestone grottos and placid Mediterranean blue waters.After a moment of deep appreciation for the view, we sunscreened up and climbed in. The water was intoxicating in our near private bay, warm and clear and calm.A ten minute walk brings us to the tiny town of Aegina Marina, which is sadly reduced from the days of Adam’s youth, and where ambitious and long abandoned buildings stand as archaeological ruins from the ’80s.As the daylight waned, I spotted a path up the pine slope along our grotto. I resolved to see where it led. The answer was boring (a hotel), but there was this enchanting rock, almost made got by the sun, where I sat for an hour to watch the sun fall beyond the bay and behind the mountains.In the gloaming, I returned to fetch my youngest son, and we watched the light disappear in the West to be to replaced by the great swath of stars. The Milky Way cut a path from Athens towards Africa. Jupiter was bright at our feet, with Scorpio perilous under the tread of that wanderer. It was gorgeous, and glorious and I spent an hour on that warm rock with a cool breeze and the sound of gentle surf below. There are precious moments in life, and that was one.Tomorrow, more swimming. We plan on spending the entire day at the beach. But today? Was perfect.
Sabbaticals that don’t come to a planned end are usually called “retirement” – and that’s a milestone I’m still years or decades from. So it turns out that tomorrow I have to pack up from this cabin and go home and resume the mantle of daily living. (And for the few of you who have inquired as to the availability of this cabin, here’s the AirBNB listing. Weekends in August look pretty full, but September is wiiiiiide open.) This period of rest has been exactly what I needed, and even largely what I planned. I have been somewhat surprised at how much I want to be out hiking. Only one day of this entire week have I failed to lace up my hiking boots. It’s been less reading than I thought. This may actually have something to do with the chairs in this otherwise lovely cabin not being incredibly comfortable for lounging in. I have written more blog posts, got halfway through a ghost story (sorry!), but my mostly-finished novel is completely untouched. I think that the process of editing feels too much like work and too little like exploration.
My loneliness/extroversion techniques have been interesting. I have spent several days entirely by myself. Physically. But I am struck by the generosity and kindness of my friends in having not one, but two people make the drive all the way up here to go hiking with me – on hikes I would otherwise have had the good sense to pass up doing alone. Those were two excellent days for me. There may be a better way to have deep and meaningful conversations with people than hiking, but I have yet to find it. Conversation flows as breath ebbs and views wax on the horizon. I loved the hikes, but I also loved the chance to go really deep into conversation with people I deeply like and admire.
And as Anthony cogently observed “I thought you were going up to the mountains for solitude, but you’re all over social media.” There is a constant dialogue in my head with … you? But in the tumult of work that’s usually with my colleagues. And so often I find that I have little interesting to say, or my interesting thoughts are still nascent and unformed. It takes time and space to take the germ of a thought and grow it into any kind of meaningful expression. And time and space are notably lacking in my usual daily life. But I definitely countered the aloneness by writing, and reaching out on social media. Perhaps I would find it less enjoyable if I actually was really alone. I am brought back to an era – I am the last of this era – where I used to write actual letters and then get responses in the mail. I think that worked almost as well, if more slowly. No one writes me letters anymore, and I write few to the remnants of generations past who do not “Facebook”.
When I first came, that first night, I wrote down my intentions for the journey: both those things I did and did not want to do. I also set some goals for myself, which were really permission to do what it was I needed and wanted. Here were my goals:
1) To truly rest and recharge
Admirably accomplished, I think. I fell into conversation at a trail head with some passing cyclists and they actually commented on how well rested, clear eyed and happy I seemed.
2) To understand myself and my desires, wants and needs better
I think this is definitely a B+ or better. I learned some interesting things about myself, with time and space. I also importantly reinforced things that I have previously believed, but had become separated from – like my passion for hiking. It’s a little divorced from reality, though, since who I am without obligations, family or work is not at all who I actually am. There is always work to be done here.
3) To sit down and recall a slower pace of life
Again perhaps a B+. When I wrote this, I imagined a reptilian torpor stealing over me where a whole day or two would languidly pass and I’d barely note their passing. Instead, I laced my shoes and went hiking. I think that reveals not failure, but who I really am. That said, today I spent almost a full hour sitting on a rock in a river doing absolutely nothing. I noted every charming, unexpected, delightful aspect of that creek – seeing things nearly an hour in that I’d failed to see in the previous many minutes. I don’t think I could have sat so still so long at the beginning of the week.
4) To write, especially fiction
I wrote, but it was mostly connectional and not fiction. I have no idea what it would take for me to actually write the fiction.
5) To hike, and use my body in joyful motion
Nailed it. This is pretty much what I did.
6) To reacquaint myself with nature and become friendly with mountains again
Speaking to that journey of self-discovery, it was interesting to watch me orient myself in place and history. I read up on geological formations and historic notes. I stared at maps. I learned the names of the peaks I could see. I went to as many New Hampshires as I could reach: biker bar, art gallery, 7-11, microbrewery, rugged trail, townie trail, literal castle, unpretentious state park, BBQ joint, etc. To the watching eye, you could almost see me laying down the filaments of roots to see where they might thrive and where they would be crowded out. You do not come to love nature in the abstract, but must love it in the most concrete. I like mountains, but I love Chocorua. I like rivers, but that stretch of unnamed river I dwelt in (perhaps the Chocorua?) for a long hour I knew and loved. I like trees, but I know the beech silhouetted against the darkening sky has one branch that has been stripped of a foot’s worth of leaves. To reconnect with nature in the abstract, I found I had to get very close to very concrete parts of it and introduce myself.
I recognize keenly how very, very fortunate I am that I was able to take this time, this distance and this week. There are so many aspects of lucky: the supportive husband, the older children, the resources to book a nice place for 10 days in high summer. But I wish that all of us could have these times and moments set aside to know ourselves and our surroundings.
The place I’m renting is for sale ($400k if you’re interested, with a two family plus the cabin). The house next door is also for sale, with the same gorgeous view and slightly less stuff going on and also $256k. I might possibly have called a realtor to take a look. The house, well, it’s not for me. And I know what I’m really doing is wishing I could stay in the easy-ness of this week, and look out on mountains that heal my heart. But it’s time to go back, hug my beloved family and take up the yoke of my labors again.
Since I have discovered that I apparently am incapable of writing in the third person, and since I have insufficient time this sabbatical to remedy the issue with more structured fiction, I figured I’d be adventurous and attempt this blog post in the third person. Don’t worry – this won’t be the normal thing. You will soon be able to resume not-reading my first person blog posts.
The day started with pie. There are much worse ways to start a day. This pie was made of tart, locally grown cherries picked in season, and almost entirely pitted. And as all the best pies should be, it was eaten for breakfast. The pie was a gluten-free gift from the wife of today’s hiking companion, Anthony, sent north from Massachusetts to nourish and sustain the travelers. It was well established that Brenda likes pie quite a lot.
The day was slated to be very hot, to the point of records being set. There is no way to hike Chocorua in only the cool of the day. The hike was planned for 10 miles, crossing from Champney Brook to the bald summit of the mountain. They’d then turn their steps towards the invisible ocean, claim the summmits of the other two sisters, then tackle the long, hot descent through beech forests to the waiting car in the White Ledge parking lot.
Champney Brook has a quick loop that for the measly cost of .1 of a mile gives you a long and lingering view of beautiful waterfalls across granite. The morning was still cool when their steps brought them to the falls, already the province of old hikers and young enthusiasts alike. With hours of hiking in front of them, they still lingered in front of the splashing spray of the clear mountain river, pure and golden in morning light. Heedless of risk to shoe and sock, they hopped across stones like a pair of young kids instead of the sedate software Stonehamites you may have met. Pushing across shimmering waters, they found a long dark wall of basalt with a vernal fall silhouetted against the impossibly blue sky and green leaves. They lingered in the spray of the waters, marveling at the work done by ephemeral water against impossibly soft stone. But the summit still awaited, and the heat would only mount throughout the day. They tore themselves away with deep regret that they and their to-be weary feet would not pass this way again. At least not this trip. If there were secret heart-felt vows to come back again with hiking-reluctant loved ones, they were only somewhat spoken.
Altitude, time and distance all fell under their greedy boots as their strides sought the open skies.
“You know, last time I did this trail I didn’t have a single undamaged tendon in my entire left knee” Brenda marveled, boosting herself up the granite. “I did this all with no left ACL, major tears in both meniscus, a bone bruise and two cysts – only to be stymied a half mile short of the summit by the sound of thunder.”
No thunder sounding in the mounting heat – only birdsong, the persistent buzz of mosquitoes, and the elegant huffing of two friends hauling themselves up a mountain side for fun. As they broke into the sunlight, they were rewarded by spectacular views of their next climb and refreshing breezes that swept aside both mosquito and humid heat. Despite their desire to achieve that summit, they stopped often to admire it and revel in the New Hampshire spread before them: lakes and civilization to one side, unpeopled White Mountain vastness to the other. Both raised the cameras to the horizons in the fond hope of capturing this warmth and joy for the cold, long days of winter.
A quick scramble up the last steep incline, and the summit was theirs. It was peopled with similarly victorious hikers: kids with their parents, the kind of retirees that the ardent hikers someday hoped to be, young folks bursting with energy and vitality, selfie-takers all. Long they lingered on the summit, seeking the freshest breezes and the most glorious views. The remaining hours of hiking gave them no fear: the days are still long so early in the summer, and the miles ahead were all downhill. The breezes blew away their fears, the warmth baked into them melting New England ice. The birds flew below them, hovering on hot winds. Snacks were consumed.
Long they lingered. Long they looked. Long they tried to record every moment of sound, scent, feeling and sight into their minds, for future recovery. But at last the miles ahead beckoned and then slid down the mountainside they’d lately ascended, headed to the other two sisters of the peak. Long was the discussion about which one was Middle Sister and where the Little Sister peak might be found. The second summit of their day boasted a spectacular view of their first, as well as old ruins and new mysterious towers. On the last high bit of ground, they looked back over the work of their feet, ate cheese, and were satisfied.
They descended into the long, slow slope back to civilization. Finding on the farthest trail the unexpected beneficence of a granite slope with lovely views and ripe blueberries, they picked a portion for the maker of pies, still in Massachusetts. As he carefully filled the Pringles can with the blueberries, she sat in the sun. “You know, some day we’ll be talking and I’ll remind you of the time we picked blueberries on the mountain together.” “Ah,” he responded, “But I’ll have to say ‘Which time'”? The friends grinned and picked the blueberries for those who had not been able to eat them, sunwarmed, in the waning slopes of the mountain.
The hike down was long, leafy and buggy. No more views beckoned. No more summits summoned. Only the beer and burger which are the inalienable right of all hikers remained of their adventure. But all through the descent of hard-earned altitude the theme spun: when can we hike again, and who can we bring along with us on the next journey – to share these wonders and joys.
Here on Thursday, I’m on the downward slope of this week of rest. I don’t have that panicky feeling I sometimes get late in a vacation “Hurry up and relax already! We’re almost out of time!” This has so far been a gracious, joyful and relaxed week.
Yesterday, with thunderstorms in the forecast, I just spent the entire day in my cabin doing the quiet and contemplative things I never have time to do. OK ok I played Civilization 6 almost all day and barely squeaked past the Congolese empire for my Scythians to win a cultural victory. I also wrote a section of ghost story and read a book cover to cover. This morning I snoozed my alarm, except apparently I actually turned it off. I woke up when my body was ready to arise, which was waaaaaay later than I had planned. But I didn’t, you know, miss anything. It was fine. I’m headed to White Lake today with a chair and a book and I’ll make a campfire and maybe rent a kayak. Tomorrow will be the real closing ceremonies, with a planned ascent of my beloved Mt. Chocorua. I’ll have Saturday, which looks fine, in which to do any things I feel like I should have already done. But honestly, I’m feeling pretty fulfilled.
I’ve also learned a few things about myself, in this quiet and space.
1) I only write in the first person autobiographical
I really love to write. I have been blogging for a very, very long time – almost twenty years (if not all on this platform). In fact, if you go back to my oldest (converted) post on this platform, you can hear the same longing for and love for the mountains I’m still trying to express today. (Although I’ve come around on New England mountains.) But I am like a body builder who has focused on one particular rep – one particular muscle group. I write as me, in the first person. Even when I write fiction, it’s the same voice and the same skills. The same perspective. I usually have such trouble finding time and space to get to a keyboard and get my thoughts down, I haven’t realized it. I’m an unbalanced writer. I’m not sure I *can* even write in the third person, or from a different point of view character. Now, I am fully allowed to leave myself in that state. I write for the joy of it. But noticing this makes me want to tackle it, and as gracious as this week is, I have trouble writing more than 2000 – 3000 words a day. Maybe this will be a fun thing for me to tackle and freshen my writing in the coming year.
2) I am not afraid
I’ve long known that I’m more motivated by hope than by fear. I’ve also generally known that I tend to be less afraid of stuff than our culture expects of women. But I didn’t really realize just how fearless I am. To be clear – I can still be very anxious. When I consider the destruction course our civilization is on, I’m deeply anxious indeed. But I’m not afraid of being alone in a cabin in the woods. I’m not afraid of scrambling up slick stone chimneys. I’m not afraid of falling. I’m not afraid of heights. I’m not afraid of ghosts. I’m not afraid of bears. I’m not afraid of the dark or the quiet. I’m not even nearly as afraid of ticks as I thought I was. I’m not a reckless person. I don’t go after adrenaline hits. I don’t usually take unnecessary risks or do wildly dangerous things. But it’s not because I’m scared – it’s because I’m cautious. Because I am not afraid.
3) I am physically strong
There’s a great line in “The Princess Bride” (ok, they’re all great lines) where Fezzik says as he tosses a boulder “I don’t even work out”. I don’t think of myself as “a fitness person”, and with my 40th birthday a happy memory, I am no longer young. But put me on a hiking trail with a full pack of water, and somehow my legs are indomitable. I felt powerful and euphoric in my body, cresting mountain saddles and breaking into the light. Even after rigorous ten+ mile days, my feet itched for more. I’m not coming to this entirely sedentary – I run 3.5 a few times a week when I can. But I also don’t do any weight training (I know, I should) and am physically best described as, uh, curvaceous. It’s so empowering to discover that under all that curve is muscle, sinew and will.
4) I like the things I thought I liked
My regular life is, by my own design, very busy and full of people. I cook and eat. I gather. I play games. I am with people a lot. Adam and I mused extensively on how I would do in this week of solitude. Would I go crazy? Would I try to fill the quiet spaces with busy-ness, like I do my regular life? Would I be bored and realize I’d misunderstood my own desires? But before I began to live my adult life, I would have described myself as an introvert. I spent most days mostly alone (as a girl I didn’t have many or close friends), with the company of my books and my thoughts and the mountains. I am not lonely in my aloneness. There’s a big caveat here though. I will get to spend two of these hiking days with dear friends, which breaks up the silence. And there is the internet, which for all its flaws is a lovely connection to the people I care about. But I like both things: the people and the quiet.
There’s also some reassurance in what I haven’t discovered. My journey through the week shows me that I am living the life I want, with the people I want. Only I want more hiking. (I’m trying to convince Adam that this week should become a tradition – he’s such a loving guy he’s going along with it.) The course of my life is the right one, and I can hold to it authentically and joyfully. These are all good and welcome discoveries!
Now, to White Lake!
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.
Today I walked for almost ten miles. It was the easiest trail I’ve ever encountered, to the point of being boring. After I got bored of yet-another-forest-switchback I started telling myself the tale of my journey thus far (you know, a heady two days in) as the ghost story it longs to be. The story below is 3/4ths true. It’s me telling a story as though it was my story (I think I always write first person), but a more fascinating story than I hope my actual story turns out to be. This is part 1. I have no idea if there will be future parts, but I know what will be in them (at least somewhat) if there are.
The first night in the cabin there were thunderstorms. I didn’t mind. I love a good thunderstorm, and the windows that had been designed to showcase the dramatic mountain did a great job of giving me a dry and safe view of the pounding rain and slashing lightening. I had nine more days to enjoy the view of the mountains, I’d take this one to enjoy the view of the storm breaking over the windowpanes.
After a few minutes of watching from the hard chair in front of the window, I moved to the less scenic view from the couch and pulled out the horror book I had bought from the veritable box of books I’d brought with me. I was embracing the irony, you see. Here I was, a woman alone renting a cabin in the wild woods of New Hampshire (which means I was as much as FIVE MILES from the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts). The setup had slasher flick/murder mystery/Stephen King written all over it. So I leaned into it and cuddled up on the couch with the fury of nature breaking over my head.
You will be shocked to hear that I didn’t sleep well that night. The cabin was truly dark – at least after I’d unplugged all the decorative lights. The sky didn’t carry the sickly orange hue of the halogens on my suburban street. The rain had spent the better part of its fury and was now settling down to the business of watering trees and filling rivers. But I had been cavalier about my own fearlessness. It’s not that I thought the fate of the (incredibly stupid, unperceptive) heroine from the novel was likely to happen to me. But my skin pricked. The line rattled unhelpfully in my head, to the time of the biggest splats from the rain gutter:
By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.
Eventually morning dawned, like morning has a way of doing. I was tired, but the world before me was clean-washed and the view of the mountain just as spectacular as I’d ever hoped it would be. Over my breakfast (Cap’n Crunch – double bonus that I didn’t have to set a good example for the children who were enjoying themselves at summer camp, and also they wouldn’t steal my sugary cereal) I perused the white folder on the rental’s table. While I was expecting a nicely ordered set of menus, attractions and house rules (and maybe the wifi password?), instead I got the most fascinating combination of takeout menus, five year old expired trash permits, letters from guests, and internet clippings.
The folder’s front insert said in a clear cursive script “Welcome to Ring Dike Cabin”. Below were the names and numbers of the hosts. Er, host. Someone had taken black sharpie and scratched out one of the names, still identifiable as a woman’s name. Only the man’s was left. I had a guess who’d originally created the folder, and who was now responsible for its curation.
The internet clippings were fascinating, and explained the cabin’s name. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, I was on the very foot of an incredibly rare geological phenomenon: a ring dike. The first document was a printed out internet summary of the phenomenon from the geologists point of view, waving around words like “Intrusive rhyolite”, “Batholith” and my favorite “hyperabyssal magma chambers”. It ends with five different spots to visit, with driving instructions like “Good outcrops of pink fine- to medium-grained subporphyritic granite are exposed along the access road leading to the lumber yard.”
There were a few slightly boring clippings of “did you know there’s a collapsed circular crater of a hundred-million year old volcano right here in NH?” But the last one really got me. It started talking about how to open an interdimensional Star Gate on the Ossipee Ring Dike. It called out references to one of my favorite tourist holes, The Oregon Vortex, and generally seemed entirely batty and fun until it recommended crucifixion as a possible method of opening “Out of the chaos of nature symmetry occasionally emerges in the shape of mountains and humans, who when crucified or spun with Unity consciousness becomes a Star Gate for the earth in total.” Let’s stick with spinning with the Unity, lads. One of the charts even showed the mystical alignment with Chocorua, the mountain I had come here to see, as well as Mt. Washington and most amusingly America’s Stonehenge which WISHES it was the Oregon Vortex.
I laid aside the sheets with a satisfied sigh. I’d just been able to read something random cover to cover because I’d been interested. That was the whole point of this week alone in the mountains – to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it, because I wanted to do it. That said, few mornings have dawned as fair and bright as this one had. And one thing I definitely wanted to do was go hiking! In all my journeys to New Hampshire, my heart and gaze had been ineffably drawn to the White Mountains. I was very ready to hike the White Mountain trails – I’d even bought an annual parking pass! But I had never, in all my journeys, looked at the eerily perfect circle of the Ossipee Mountains which were the battered remnants of a long-lost volcano.
So instead of taking my Sunday jaunt up in the Whites, as planned, I pulled up an internet map of hikes in the Ossipees and laced on my boots. OK, sure, I couldn’t quite figure out where the trailhead was. But I was ready for adventure! My heart felt full as I drove open-windowed over a gravel road up through the heart of the circle of the mountains. New Hampshire moved from suburban to bucolic to rural as I drove. I passed white houses with peeling paint, lovely estates with exceptional views, trailers half-hidden in the woods and farms done over as wedding venues. I was passed by one car, which had been new and cool when I was in high school (cough) 20 years ago with a tattoo’d, half-naked man more than half-way out the moonroof. If I was feeling liberated, I was still driving too sedately for that guy. But he didn’t hassle me as the Trans Am sped past.
Indeed, the trail head was undiscoverable. I drove as far along that dirt road, well past the “single lane, note turnout locations” point. I finally had to concede I would not find the trail head I was aimed at. I’d driven into the heart of the circle, through a gulley in it, and I’d been looking to hike up to the mountains there and see the circle from the heart of it. Much to my surprise, the Trans Am was parked at what *looked* like trailhead parking. I hadn’t imagined tattoo’d Trans-Am guy as a hiker. But people can surprise you. I applied sun screen and bug spray, looked meaningfully at the mountain stream that *would* refill my water bottle on the way home, and headed up the trail.
I was greatly surprised to catch up to the dudes. (Of course there were two. Shirtless & tattoo’d may have been reckless hanging halfway out the car, but not reckless enough to attempt to drive while doing it.) The driver, carrying a camo backpack and wearing mismatched ankle-length argyle/cartoon socks, was looking at something off trail while his compatriot waited for him. Despite my epic lostness (and no cell connection) I couldn’t quite bring myself to strike up a conversation with them. They ignored me in the way only a pudgy 40 year old woman can be ignored.
We played leapfrog like that all the way up the mountain. They were faster than me when moving. But they’d frequently stop and wander off the trail looking for… who knew? I was relieved when our strange procession was joined by a patient pair of adults cajoling what looked like a 4 and 2 year old to go up the near straight “trail” that was really ¾ boulder scramble. As I passed, praising the children for their effort, the mom stepped aside and instructed “Let this nice woman pass. She at least looks like she knows where she’s going!” Ah, irony!! But there were clear blazes (mostly), and I was pretty much never out of sight of my TransAm friends.
It took a shockingly short amount of time to climb from forest, to boulder scramble, to summit. And the summit was as worthwhile a goal as I’ve ever seen. The entire thing was covered in ripe blueberries, hearkening back to one of my favorite childhood books, “Blueberries for Sal”. I stopped and refreshed myself with them, and finally broke my silence to the two boys by commenting on their excellence. They opined expertly (and politely) on the crop and then leapt ahead of me one more time before the summit.
They were still milling around the border between summit and not-summit when I claimed the very best spot for sitting. I sometimes forget to wonder how gigantic, car-sized boulders get to the TOP of mountains, but not this time. I wondered whether it was volcano or glacier, fire or ice, that had deposited this boulder I sat on. Did it have intrusive rhyolite? I’d never know. I sat in the sunlight, strong breeze both blowing away pesky insects and drying the sweat from my back and hair. And I didn’t have to go anywhere, or do anything. I had my choice of views. Would I look south to the Lakes region of New Hampshire? (BORING!) Would I look east and see Ossipee Lake stretched out, nestled between green hills? (Better). Normally, I suspect, I would have looked north. There were the Whites, slightly obscured by a passing summer rain, too far away to be of any concern. I’d be watching for Chocorua. But my whole point this day had been to look away from the transfixing Whites and to this Ossipee mystery. So I turned my gaze west, to the still-unassuming hills I’d *meant* to hike. I sat with the sun and the breeze and my snacks (which involved both fruit and chocolate, although separately) and listened to the finally triumphant dad explain to the four year old how the carpet of blueberries was thanks to a forest fire four years ago. The mom and the two year old did not make an appearance, a tales whose history was easy to read.
I was peaceful, and quiet, and exactly where I wanted to be. Here I was, one day into my much-needed sabbatical, and I was resting. I released a breath that chased a portion of cortisol out of my body forever.
Now, many people can physically feel barometric pressure changes. Despite what I thought when I was a girl, it does not make me psychically attuned or special that I can feel when the barometric pressure drops. It probably didn’t help my 14 year old delusions of grandeur that I feel such drops as a sense of mystical forboding, as though something dire is coming and I need to be wary. In fact, that’s more or less what it means. The pressure drops and very often a storm follows.
But there on the fire-blasted summit of Bayle Mountain, in the Ossipee Ring Dike, I felt the ominous dread overtaking me like a wave drenching dry sand as the tide rises. A fast-moving cloud changed my sun-drenched perch to a greyed, chilled location. I pressed my palms to the (volcanic?) boulder, to reassure myself that my memory of the heat was a real thing. The sound of the songbirds was replaced by the cawing of crows – a sound I usually like. But in combination with the onrushing barometric dread and the dying of the light, it seemed like a bad omen.
I pulled my bag back onto my shoulders, stowed my no-longer-needed sun hat and told myself that it was just good sense to get off the mountain before the storm my senses was screaming at me about hit.
As I clumped heavily down the granite face (was it Biotite Granite or possibly Winnepesaukee tonalite?) I saw the TransAm Two huddled at that border between forest and summit, surrounded by charred logs, in a small cave made by two vast boulders. I thought about waving, but the weight of the barometric pressure pushed me on and I hastened down.
By the time I got back to the cheerful stream and my car, the weight had entirely lifted and the sun was shining. I took off my boots and waded in the water (I had learned not to do this if there was more hiking to be done, but I was finished for the day). I captured my flagon of beautiful river water and purified it with my light saber (ok, ultraviolet purification thingy) and drank it. I also marveled at just how wussy the soles of my feet were. As I child I would have danced across these pebbles. As a much stouter adult whose feet were entirely used to the wearing of shoes, the stones dug into my feet and the gravel got between my toes. The weird weight of the weather was entirely washed away in the dappled sunlight and annoying gravel.
When I come up to New Hampshire, I almost always stand with my metaphorical eyes north to the White Mountains and my back to the Lakes Region. Sadly lacking the relatives with a summer home purchased for $2 in 1964, which seems to be how everyone else I know has access to a lake/beach house, my New Hampshire heart’s home is White Lake State Park, but I’m generally itinerant. From White Lake, you can look south to prosaic Mt. Whittier with the big ol’ antennae on it, or you could look north to the majestic, mysterious and storied Mt. Chocorua, the jewel in the crown of the Whites (in my opinion).
But this cabin I’m staying in is called the Ring Dike cabin. And inside an overfull white folder, scattered between brochures for train rides and menus from BBQ joints, were a handful of geological and (most intriguingly) astrological printed internet articles talking about the Ring Dike left behind by a 10,000 ft volcano that did a lot of exploding hereabouts 200m years ago. There is, in fact, this bizarrely circular ring of mountains about 10 miles wide where the caldera of this long-extinct volcano once stood. And I, having driven past it dozens of times or more, have never realized (never mind explored) it.
This seems like the world’s most perfect ghost story fodder. (Cabin in the woods. Alone. In a PSYCHIC RING.) And I promise to do more investigation and write a bit about the geologic and loony aspects of this Ring Dike. But first, I wanted to get in it and see it for myself. The morning was bright and clear. The day open and inviting. The hiking boots were already by the door.
But where to go? I have an extensive collection of maps and books to guide my hiking while I’m up here. And not a single one of them looks south of White Lake. So I turned to my trusty ol’ friend, the internet (I sweet-talked the wifi password from the landlord), and found a perfect hike. You’d drive into the heart of the great circle, then climb up to a ridge and look around and then climb back down. Looked great. (Anyone who has hiked with me before is already having heart palpitations.) Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a description of the trail head, but the road dead ended there. How hard could it be. (Really, I should come with a warning sign for hiking.) I emailed my itinerary to my husband and consoled myself that I may not have a map, but I do have a compass!
I never found the trail head. I did have a splendid time driving through increasingly remotish woods on dirt roads, being passed by cars that were cool when I was in high school with tattoo’d men hanging most of the way out of the moonroof. Oh New Hampshire. Never change. But the road was marked private where it should have continued. I drove back to the spot where there had been parking and a private land, public use trailhead. There was a river there, a mighty confluence of three streams, that looked like a slice of heaven in dappled light. As I was debating which random trail to follow, two guys got out of a car and headed up the path. I followed them. They made me uncomfortable. They kept skirting off the path for brief excursions, going from in front of me to behind me then passing me again. I was edgy, until I realized that they were geocaching. Phew! They were friendly and fine.
A little ways in, I met a kind man wearing a music tshirt and walking a dog. He advised me to watch for the cairn and the red blazes, and take the Bayle Mountain trail. I took his advice, and attained a spectacular view for not that much hiking. I watched a rain squall pass over Chocorua lake. I ate my lunch. The wind blew away the flies. The mountain was entirely covered in ripe blueberries, like in Blueberries for Sal, only shorter. A man explained to his tiny, triumphant son that the hill had been scoured by a fire four years ago, and that it brought us the views and the blueberries.
Man. It was everything I wanted it to be. Except my ultraviolet light water purifier ran out of batteries and I couldn’t fill up my thermos when I got back to the glorious river.
I have now purchased a subscription to AllTrails and sent tomorrow’s itinerary to my phone. I think I would be content if I hiked every day, and forgot about the writing book. You can write books in winter.
I was about to wrap this all up philosophically when I remembered the most exciting part! I found a kind of scat I’d never seen before (clearly herbivore) and was wondering what it could be when I also found a tuft of white fur in a nearby pond. I think there must be a mountain goat up there! Very exciting!
Um, philosophical ending. It was really nice to go hiking, and it’s really nice to rest and make my own choices. But I’m still kind of bad at it. Guess I need more practice!