Tuckermans 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.

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