Ossipee Mountain Vortex: a ghost story part 2

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.

Ossipee Mountain Vortex: a ghost story part 1

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.