Tuckermans Ravine, New Hampshire

Postcard / TUCKERMAN RAVINE, NEW HAMPSHIRE
      There aren’t too many places like it, at least here in the Northeast.  Up and down Route 93 are manicured ski areas, with trails cut like avenues down forested slopes.  But for wide-open powder skiing, the standard, at least east of the Wasatch, is Tuckerman Ravine.  But skiing is a gleam in the eye here in July, where my cousin and I, and a handful of teenagers, are hiking Tuckerman Ravine – with our sights on Mt. Washington.
      Cut from the flank of New England’s highest mountain, Tuckerman is a glacial basin, beneath a steep headwall, above which, somewhere, is the summit.  The basin and headwall are part of a geologic formation called a cirque, where an Ice Age glacier sheared off and carried away a slice of the mountain.
      The result is a bowl, broad but steep, cut from the granite.  It’s something of a legend.  There aren’t any ski lifts at Tuckerman.  You carry your skis.  It’s for purists.  Rick’s father, my Uncle Fred, skied it in his youth, with the old slat skis and break-a-leg bindings.
      Unlike Georgia, everything here is glacial.  The trail is glacial moraine, choked with rocks which were simply dropped when the ice sheet melted.  And the backstory to the picturesque stone walls of New England.  Behind my father’s house is a strip of old woods where you can hop from one rock to another, almost all the way across, without touching dirt.  Another New Hampshire landmark, strikingly visible from the top of Mt. Monadnock, are the myriad lakes and ponds – every one a glacial excavation. From the mountaintop they look like strips ripped by a giant claw.
      It must be cold in winter at 6,000 feet, but not today.  It’s a sunny warm afternoon, as we scramble over boulders toward the headwall.  From the top of the Ravine, we have a long view of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains.
     Across the valley are the slopes of Wildcat Mountain, another premier ski area.  I guess you’d call it Northern New Hampshire, though it’s still a long drive to the Canadian border.  It took us more than two hours to get here this morning from Hillsboro.
      The trail starts in Pinkham Notch, which sports a visitor center and ski lodge – and not much else.  For the first hour it’s nothing but a trudge uphill through the trees.  Not much to it.   Just keep walking and try not to twist an ankle in the rocks. Two and a half miles in, we enter the Ravine.  Through the trees we can make out the granite walls that frame the basin.  There are a number of huts at Hermit Lake, shelters for the skiers.  Today, though, it’s a bunch of hikers, taking the sun on a broad veranda, most of them already on the way down.  Not us.  We’re not exactly morning people.  It’s already two o’clock in the afternoon.
      The Ravine is above the timberline.  I love it up here.  If I fall over dead on one of these boulders, they can leave my body to the birds, like they do in Tibet, and let my soul enjoy the panorama.  The close quarters of the forest fall behind us.  Rick disappears.  As I hump over a knoll he pelts me with a snowball.  In a shady crevice, where a stream pours from the mountainside, he has found a slab of last winter’s snow.
      We are staying outside Hillsboro, in a lakeside cabin my father rented.   He’s generous with my brothers and me.  Each year, he rents a place for a month so that my sons and grandsons can spend some time with him.  A nephew and one of his friends have joined us.
      My father still lives in Massachusetts, in the town I was raised in.  On the evening we arrived, I went jogging, with an eye out for the marker tucked away in the front yard of a leafy neighborhood, declaring that here Nathan Howe dropped his plow in the field on April 15, 1775, to respond to the Lexington Alarm.  I’m a sap for this stuff.  One of my ancestors was a Minuteman; another, a Tory Loyalist.  I have roots in this place.  
      As I run through the Common, there’s a small crowd in lawn chairs.  A horn band is in the bandstand.  They are playing Simple Gifts on trumpet, trombone, French horn and tuba.   It’s so pretty it damn near brings tears to my eyes.I have detoured to visit my mother’s grave in the cemetery north of the Common.  The grave is on the far side.  I can never seem to find it very easily.  Her death still confuses me.  Memorizing its location is beyond me, and I always wander through the markers looking for her headstone.  The wind changes and I can just hear the strains of the band.  I think they’re playing Nothing but Blue Sky. A corny old tune, but a good choice for an evening on the Common.
      Drawn back to the music, I pause in the old section.  The headstones tell poignant stories about life in old New England.  Elener and Eliza Howe, 3 and 2, died within five days of each other in early March, 1805.  Little Danny Newton died December 19, at six months old.  Winters here can be long and hard. I remember the exhilaration as a boy when winter slouched off, and a warm spring sun, almost forgotten, finally returned.
      It’s an old town.  Down the hill from the center is the sprawling home of Artemis Ward, the first general of the Continental Army.  It sits back on a broad hillside.  He didn’t last long.  The Continental Congress sought more regional diversity, and perhaps ability, in George Washington.  The Virginian had difficulty at first with the New England fighters.  Unlike the hierarchical society in the South, these Yankee farmers had never taken orders.  They elected their captains, and when it came time to plow or harvest, they simply went home.
      Returned from the run, I suggest a movie we can watch over my father’s chicken pot pie.  I’ve got The Man Who Would Be King in my bag, I tell him.  He pays me no attention, and peers at a shelf of DVDs.  Have you ever seen The Jerk, he asks.  I don’t know it.  “It’s a really good movie” he assures me, and gathers himself for an exposition of the plot – such as it is – of The Jerk.  It could be worse.  I’m actually bracing for My Cousin Vinny.
     I can never visit my father without an invitation to watch My Cousin Vinny.  My father believes that My Cousin Vinny represents the high-water mark of American film.  It concerns some cartoonish New Yorkers accused of a crime in some Alabama town.  He likes Marisa Tomei, who is ethnic and scrawny and just not to my taste.
      I have to tread carefully with this.  I don’t want to tell him it’s really a pretty dumb movie – this might actually hurt his feelings; although on the other hand I do know my father.  He is usually nonplussed by such criticism, assuming that it is just me who is ignorant and uninformed about the subtle delights of My Cousin Vinny – a condition he will now correct.  What I usually do is explain to him that it is a fine movie but I’m really not in the mood for anything too serious or thought-provoking.  Nothing too heavy for me right now, Pop, I’m on vacation.
    Although a few days with my father, my son, and assorted nephews and cousins up in Hillsboro are a lot of fun, the evenings are dull.  The cabin itself is dark and drab.  My nephew and his friend have an acoustic guitar which they are learning, with obvious difficulty, to play. In the corner is a small TV, on top of which is a dusty VCR.  There isn’t even a DVD player in this place.
     Down below are a handful of VHS cassettes.  It looks like the media room in a state prison in South Dakota.  The small stack of cassettes includes favorites like NFL Great Moments, Mulan, the Lion King, Part II – and, the Godfather.  I never thought I would find myself grateful to find a copy of the Godfather.  But my son has never seen it.  We pop it in.
      Brando is in great form.  Other actors pale a shade when he’s on screen.  My father gives me a sharp look and stabs a finger at the screen.  “Do you know what his best film was?”  I had no idea Dad liked Brando.  “No, what?”  “Citizen Kane.”  I look at him.  “I don’t know, Dad, I’m not sure Brando was in Citizen Kane.  Are you thinking about Orson Welles.”  He wags the finger again.  “You know, I think it was Orson Welles.”  If we’re not talking about My Cousin Vinny, Dad’s film criticism falls off dramatically.
     On the mountain, toiling over the boulders of Tuckerman Ravine we are running out of time.  My nephew’s friend, whose Goth T-shirt and long black jeans do not suggest a hiking proclivity, is getting sore feet.  We’re two hours at least from the car.  Atop the headwall we’re still a mile from the summit, with something like 2,000 vertical feet to climb.  It’s late afternoon.  I’m starting to think about the fun of hiking in the dark – and the two and a half hour drive back.  It’s not hard to convince the boys it’s time to head back down.
      It’s the right decision.  After an hour picking our way down a fall of boulders to the approach trail, the rain starts.  It’s a warm rain and not so bad.  It toys with us, though, starting, stopping, coyly showing a sliver of blue sky, and resolving finally into a steady downpour.  The footing among the rocks is slick, and one of the boys has gone from foot-sore to something he describes as an ankle sprain.  He and I are way behind the others, soaked to the bone, but grateful, at least I am, that we’re not up on the ridge dodging lightning.  This has to be easier on skis.
     On the road outside Pinkham Notch, there are cars pulled off to the side.  It’s not a wreck; it’s a moose.  He’s gnawing at a tree just off the road.  He’s a big animal, not as handsome as a horse, but a lot smarter looking.  A small crowd creeps closer, snapping pictures.
      Bullwinkle is oblivious.  Without any natural predators, he has little fear of us.  Despite his size, like most animals of the wild he is well-camouflaged in the shadows and vegetation of the forest.  Although he sticks to this one tree, he’s hard to see.  There is a preternatural nothing in the viewfinder.  We spend ten or fifteen minutes watching this marvelous creature.  But I’m dog tired and the novelty wears off.  Unless he’s going to start strumming the ukulele, I’m ready to get going.
    It’s late when we return to the cabin.  The boys are passed out in the backseat.  I’m feeling pretty good that I’ve made it back at all, nearly hallucinating with fatigue.  But sleep cures a lot of ailments.  The next morning is sunny and beautiful on the lake, and almost takes the limp out of my step.

Fenway Postcard

Gulf Shores Postcard

     During Spring Break we went to the beach.  Our beach is in Gulf Shores, Alabama.  We have a ground floor condo unit, with a pleasant stretch of lawn in front, beyond which is nothing but blue ocean.  We like the sand, the seafood, the sunsets.   Wheeler, our twelve-year old, brought his friend Cameron.  I think they had a good time.  They were, the very first day, talking to some older 8th grade girls in the hottub, my wife reported.  “How are the girls”? I asked when they got back.  “They were totally digging us,” he grinned.  Totally digging us.  This is not the answer I’m looking for.  I am not sure why.
     There was a church group from Indiana.  Wheeler and Cameron were in luck.  Right out our front door the Hoosiers put together a dodge ball tournament.  Somebody yelled “dodge ball” and in moments, it seemed, the place was screaming with kids.  It was pretty organized: a mesh bag full of colored balls, and an assortment of plastic cones to mark the field.
     A loud, beefy, forty-something guy, Dave, was apparently the commissioner and was running the show.  Shirtless and clutching a Corona, he refereed the games, bellowing like a drill sergeant.  “You, you, yeah YOU, you’re out, out, get out, you’re out”.  And a kid would slink over to the sidelines.  I’m with Sergeant Dave on this.  It is a contest, it turns out, that requires something like military supervision.  I can’t recall ever seeing a game so full of, well, cheating.  It is almost part of the happy chaos of the game.
   The way dodgeball works, of course, in theory, is you sit down if someone hits you with a ball.  But in practice you sit down only if several people saw you get hit and won’t stop howling until you do.  With so many kids darting in so many directions it is hard to keep up with which ball hit which kid, so very few, at least in the early going, when there are lots of kids, ever sit down, knowing the chances are pretty good that nobodybut the guy who hit you saw you get hit.  He can yell all he wants, but if nobody saw it, how long is he going to stand there protesting before he himself takes one off the forehead, in front of Big Dave no less, and gets yanked off the field, miffed and indignant, while the culprit on the other side throws him a quick smirking grin.
    Even when a kid, caught in flagrante delicto, actually leaves the field, more often than not he re-appears mysteriously a minute later, playing as though nothing happened.  This is tough on the adults, who have lost most short-term memory and really can’t recall if the kid got hit this game, last game or yesterday.  As bad money drives out good, the cheating largely takes over, and gives the whole matter just a tinge of a street fight.
    And the rules.  My childhood memory of dodge ball was a whole lot different.  It was gym-class on a drizzly day.  You took a ball, an old volley-ball typically, scuffed and dirty, and winged it as hard as you had at the guys across the gym.  Not exactly chess.  In 21st Century dodge ball, there are exactly so many lollipop-colored balls stretching across the centerline, maybe ten or more.  I say “exactly” because if Detective Dave doesn’t count the right number, game is suspended for an easter egg hunt through thebushes.  Variations include setting the balls in patterns to make the scrum more interesting.
     The opening moments are dramatic.  His eyes narrowed, Dave scans the array on both sides, telling this kid to move back a few inches, this kid over a little bit.  He rubs his jaw, studying the teams, and finally drags one kid over to the other side, and drags another the other way.  He must be more bark than bite, however, because more than once he ordered a kid to move back behind the line, only to have the enterprising young fellow simply reach behind him, pick up the cone and put it down in front.  As I said, devotion to the principles of fair play is not on parade here in dodgeball.
    When there is, finally, a perfect symmetry to both teams, Dave barks, in a bootcamp voice, “DODGE-ball”. The kids then rush to the balls and commence to bonking the beans out of each other, balls ricocheting all over the place.  If you hit someone, they’re out, unless they catch it, then you’re out, but if they’re holding a ball and your ball hits their ball, nobody’s out, unless someone else on their team catches your ball on the rebound, then you’re out, or you catch your own ball on the rebound from their ball, then they’re out – I think.  The game moves fast, the cheating faster, so sometimes its hard to divine just which rule it is that has this kid jumping up and down in protest.
     There are also infractions, policed by you-know-who.  He harbors a special contempt for the “line-huggers” – those kids who stick close to the back line, either as a tactic or in huddled terror of those flying balls.  It is no less than cowardice under fire to Field Marshal Dave, who struts Patton-esque along the sideline, hurling insults and threatening consequences to those who won’t come out and fight.  It is a metaphor for life, with Dave, a prism through which to glimpse the depths of the soul, the elation of victory, the bitter taste of defeat, not to mention the subtle human satisfaction of riding to victory on the wings of guile and deceit.  I’m not sure I get it, but then I don’t have to.  I’m on vacation.

Beartooth Mountains

A Stop in Beartooths      Phil and I were talking about age and elevation, as we climbed over the rocks to Clover Leaf Lake, at ten thousand feet.  The first day of backpacking was hard.  We hiked all day.  At Martin Lake, I was stumbling with fatigue.  It was eight miles, the last couple a monumental grind up a mountainside of roots and rocks.
     We’re hiking in the Beartooth Mountains.  I didn’t know where they were on a map eight months ago.  The range straddles the Montana-Wyoming line just northeast of Yellowstone.  They are not the youthful Tetons, still pushing pointed fingers into the sky.  The Beartooths are high, but hunkered down and massive, great blocks of billion-year-old granite, autochthonous rock the geologists would say, sculpted by the eons into sheer walls and plunging valleys.  Into the 1880s they were impassable, until a coal miner from Red Lodge, a missionary of the Almighty Buck, found a way.
      His trail is now Route 212, which runs from Red Lodge, Montana, over the mountains to Cooke City, just a few miles from the entrance to Yellowstone Park.  It is called the Beartooth All-American Highway.  From the prairie at Red Lodge the road winds up through piney hillsides – blackened from recent fires – to a series of dramatic switchbacks.   Around hairpin turns, the road climbs above the timberline, to distant views of gray mountains.  The skyline is not one of jagged peaks – the “bearteeth” we were expecting – instead, a vista of lofty Olympian meadows overlooking the world of mortals below.
     Along the highway, the steepness creates the danger of falling rock, cobbles of which lie here and there in the road.  In more active areas, enormous steel nets, anchored by heavy cables, catch the debris.  At one troublesome switchback, in what looked like an act of desperation, the road crews had simply covered the entire hillside in concrete.
    At the passes – there are two of them between Red Lodge and Cooke City – the terrain is alpine, a russet brown skin, like the hide of huge beast, pocked by rocks and a few sprouts of grass.  The wind never stops blowing.   An hour or so out of Red Lodge we stop at the Top of the World, a general store in the middle of the Beartooths.  It is an improbable place, miles from anywhere, run by a fellow and his family who live in a few rooms in the back, selling gasoline, snacks, fishing lures and Wild West gifts.
     This week there’s a biker rally.  Wherever we go in the West we seem to find ourselves in the middle of some sort of biker festival.  Each time we visit Top of the World, on our comings and goings, there are motorcyclists flying colors from some Ohio or Illinois town.  These motorcycle groups are no longer the monopoly of young sociopaths.  All of these folks are middle-aged, with graying hair swept into pony tails, and heavy paunches corseted in black leather.
      It was my turn to plan this year.  I found a bed-and-breakfast in Red Lodge, with big rooms, good breakfasts and a hottub.  I also culled from the guidebook a trail with a six mile hike to a cluster of lakes where we would make base camp for three nights.  The trailhead, I boasted to my friends, was the same elevation as our destination.  It would be a stroll.  It wasn’t.
     The book said six miles to Martin Lake.  We left around noon from Clay Butte Lookout, trending down to Native Lake.  As we hike, Leetz entertains us with discursions about the Civil War.  We emerge from the pines into a meadow on the flank of Clay Butte.  The trail runs the high edge of the meadow, which tips gently away from us, before disappearing into a steep valley.  Across the valley the mountain range seems close enough to touch.  Leetz is now regaling us with descriptions of the neurosis of Civil War generals – Lee, obsessed with shame, Jackson, phobic about – of all things – pepper.  It looks like it could be a long hike.
    It was a long pull from Native Lake up to Mule Lake.  The Beartooths are filled with “tarn”, the term for the myriad lakes that dot the mountains like jewels.  There are nine hundred of them in the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness, fed by glaciers and filled with fish.  They are waypoints in a great staircase.  Reach a lake, take a break, hike up to the next.    
     Somewhere after Mule we crossed from Wyoming into Montana.  It was down and down – and then up; it was now growing late in the afternoon.  We came across a couple of hikers on their way out.  They warned that we were still a couple of hours from Martin and it was a tough climb.  We decided to keep going.  The book said Martin Lake was so abundantly beautiful that it could not be missed.  And we were, after all, veterans of the pack trail.
    We soon found ourselves on a climb that wouldn’t end.  Strapped to 40-pound packs, we climbed and climbed, over roots and rocks, up the staircase.  I was breathless.  The day before I was breathing Ellijay’s sweet and profuse oxygen.  There was no oxygen that I could detect up here, and my body was sagging.  Up ahead, a few hundred yards away, I caught a glimpse of sky – the top, and surely the lake.  It was a lake sure enough, but not ours, and the trail disappeared at the foot of another escarpment.  It went on like this: a difficult climb, a view of sky at the top … and another climb.  My gait became leaden, one boot dragged in front of the other.  My legs were starting to give up.  My left thigh began seizing in a spasm.  The pain in my back and hips from the pack was getting worse.  My shoulders ached.  I had run out of water.  It began to rain.  Leetz was ahead somewhere.  Behind me were Phil and Jim, I didn’t know how far.  I hadn’t seen anybody in a while.   
      At the top I found Leetz.  There were no greetings.  We looked at each other.  Looks say it all.  Phil and Jim appeared.  They had the same hang-dog look.  No sign of the lake, but no climb in front of us either.  We started down.  After a mile or so we crossed a shallow stream where I stumbled so badly, from pure exhaustion, that I almost fell in.  We found a clearing and sat down.  I was having a hard time thinking clearly.
     But we were at Wright Lake.  The right lake, it seemed to me.  It wasn’t Martin, but its sister next door.  A few yards further we found an old fire ring overlooking the water.  As the Mormon said, this is the place.  By Ken’s GPS we had gone nine miles.  It was sunset and would be dark soon, but we sprawled in the grass for fifteen minutes catching our breath.�
 The nice thing about high elevation exhaustion is that 75% of it is oxygen depletion.  Fifteen minutes of just breathing, without carrying that hateful pack, is a pretty good cure.  We needed tents pitched, firewood gathered, stoves fired up, wet rancid clothes changed.  As darkness fell we were finishing dinner and stoking a fire.  Clouds that had cast a pall on our preparations cleared.  Above us stars filled the sky.  It must have been a sky like this that inspired the name of the Milky Way.
     Around the campfire we argue.  We’re talking about depression in the cultural context.  Two of my friends are psychiatrists, for whom the topic has some professional interest.
     I don’t subscribe to the idea that depression, as the term is commonly used, really exists as a pathology treatable by experts.  It’s a cultural artifact, an emblem of the modern therapeutic sensibility.  As culture yields to the forces of commerce and materialism, people are simply more alone.  People, dogs and ants derive the sense of their existence from community.  The response to this alien loneliness what we call symptoms of depression.  In a hundred years, in a different time, it will become a footnote, one of those phenomenon that marks the antiquity of the era.      �
Ken and Jim are happy to argue.  How can any discerning human being deny the evidence of depression all around us.  All those hopeless housewives and overbearing husbands, all that sleeplessness, substance abuse, sexual dysfunction.  All that lost earning potential!
      The answer is that life isn’t pretty; and for many it’s just plain awful.  But if anesthetizing ourselves with some pill is what the doctor orders, well, I’m not sure the doctor is helping.  Some people, true enough, are really sick, and you may call their illness whatever you like, but taking every miserable housewife and her angry husband and putting them on Wellbutrin is problematic.  The legions of modern psychiatrists, once guides to the unconscious roots of human despair, are now quartermasters for the chemicals that provide the solace that was once the province of communal life.
     But maybe that was the sore legs talking.  The next day was sunny and warm.  Phil and I went down to fish.  It is my lot that I’m the guy who buys the fishing license, the lures, lugs the pole and tackle, and the other guy catches all the fish.  Wright Lake was full of brook trout, who darted here and there in the shadows of the clear water.  I could not interest them in my gold spinner.  Phil, however, harboring a talent I had never seen, with my same gold spinner, was soon hauling them in one after the other.
     An hour later we left camp and headed to Clover Leaf Lake, yet another step up the staircase.  We skirted the shore of Wright, and hiked up to the next watershed.  We promptly lost the trail in a meadow braided with streams.  Straight ahead, a cleft in the mountain looked like the direction of Clover Leaf.  Without a trail, we scrambled over boulders, climbing up into the notch, where we traced the flank of a narrow gorge.  At the top the terrain leveled off, and turned uphill, gently this time, along a stream, which emptied into the lake.
     Here, at what felt like the top of the world, I cast a lure into the deep blue water, and a fish hit.  My friends, wholly without licenses, poles, or for that matter, skill, knowledge or experience, lined up.  It was a fine afternoon.  Few fishermen hike to these distant pools, and the fish were jumping into our laps.  We filled a ziplock bag with trout.  The cutthroat were a foot long.
     Camp was lively that night.  Freeze-dried food tastes better with trout.  Another threat of rain passed and the stars again crowded the sky.  The next day we wandered up and down the lake country.  At each promontory a blue lake sparkled at our feet.  We descended into Green Lake, 400 feet down an endless series of steep, dusty switchbacks.    We hiked up to another lake, over a morass of boulders.  The boulder fields are slow going.  At a break on the shore, we noticed two backpackers approaching from the far end of the lake.  They were the first hikers we’d seen all day.  They were in full packs, headed for the boulders and Green Lake.  They were old, at least late in their sixties, maybe seventies.
     They were a husband and wife from Red Lodge, and had just climbed Castle Rock, the highest peak in Carbon County.  They had been doing this for years.  I’ve already forgotten his name.  Her name was Betty.  They were skinny, weathered old folks, looking fit as mountain goats.  Their packs were old, the bedrolls looked like film props from Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  They were friendly, chatty.  They never sat down.  Finally they swung around and headed toward the boulder field.
     In Red Lodge, a couple of days later, we ate dinner on the patio of a restaurant on Broadway, the main street here.  The sidewalk was busy.  Red Lodge has not yet made the A-list of Western resort towns, so it lacks the gentrified look of Park City or Ouray.  The Californians have not yet landed.  Dwarfed by the Western landscape just beyond the rooftops, little towns like Red Lodge feel comfortable and homey, like a campfire in the outback.After dinner we drove out into the prairie, speeding almost weightless over the flatland, listening to the music we listened to as teenagers, already thinking about tomorrow’s flight back home.