Ladder to Heaven.
Jacob’s Ladder is the steepest span of track in the world. It clings to the side of Mt. Washington whose summit has the worst weather in the world, at least according to the train’s brakeman. I found this hard to believe since I was comfortably wearing a short sleeve shirt at the top. Wouldn’t the South Pole be more chilly and generally unpleasant? I’d just ridden the precarious Cog Railroad to the summit of a mountain once believed to be the highest east of the Mississippi, until Mt. Mitchell was resurveyed in North Carolina and stole its crown. Now the cloud-immersed warming-hut was filled with bikers adorned in denim, leather, bandanas, and skulls. It was Bike Week in New Hampshire.
I didn’t have a bike, but I had a van,The Chief. Since the road up Mt. Washington was reserved for motorcyclists, I had to circle around from Gorham, through rolling hills faded blue in the distance. I found entry at the base of the Cog where I garnered a front seat. The old train-car made a slow ascent through beautiful vistas, up and back down again. The brakeman pointed out where people had been injured, or frozen and died.
If some of them made it to heaven, it wasn’t far away. In the valley below was the heavenly Bretton-Woods resort, a classic hotel amid picturesque peaks and gorgeous gardens . There were no bikers there, only a few folks in rocking chairs on the expansive veranda, and on the lawn out front I watched a mother playing giant chess with her son. As the kid struggled with the pieces, he made a comment to his Mom about being Harry Potter.
I descended into another valley which led past and over various rivers, streams, and brooks to the town of Franconia. With great luck, I managed to catch the tail end of the Lupin Flower Festival. Following the banners to Sugar Hill, I hoped for an early dinner at Polly’s Pancakes. It was closed. Outside his barn, the friendly owner, Dennis, directed me to visit the flower fields just up the hill.
As the sun dipped toward the tree-line, I stood in a beautiful meadow of lavender shoots. They rose above my waist, like inverted bushels of fragile grapes. Their sweet scent curled invisibly into a sky of purest blue.
Polly’s opened at 7am, I was there, for what some considered the best Pancakes in the country. The small wooden structure overlooked rolling green hills where mist clung to the trees; it was an idyllic location. I ordered mine with chocolate chips; they truly were the best I’d ever had.
Dennis and his wife Kathie joined me. Kathie introduced me to her mother, the daughter of Polly, the originator of my 3-stack. The couple kindly bought my breakfast and showed me their giant barn across the road where Dennis displayed horse statue he carved.
At the car, I ran into another man wearing a Captain America T-shirt. His family took a picture of us by the Chief. They were headed into Polly’s, I was headed for the road. It was time to continue my climb down New Hampshire, armed with some tips for the day.
The Wolfman and the Mermaid.
The first was to steer by Franconia Notch, famous for the stone profile called Old Man of the Mountain; but the face fell off some years ago. I had to settle for posters of a monument planned for him. Just down the road was the Flume, a narrow canyon where school buses disgorged their contents of children. Beyond that was Clark’s Trading Post, a consummately cool tourist trap. I exchanged witty quips with an elderly woman behind the counter and bought a whip. I watched bears outside roll on their backs with plastic balls. I also met the most interesting guy of the trip, Timberwolf “Wofman” Ryan.
Timberwolf Ryan lived in a railroad car on the property. He was big, with a long beard, big shoulders, big arms, and a big smile. Several times each day, he played the legendary role of the Wolfman, a hermit that lived on the land and grumpily groused the tourist trains that steamed by each day. He shot his gun and yelled, riding a crazy little buggy and wearing an eye-patch. Afterwards, he signed autographs for the kids.
He took me to see the train’s conductor, Leon, who created the legend of the Wolfman years ago to arouse tourists who seemed bored with the train rides. Sitting in his home, Leon asked if I believed in mermaids. “Maybe,” I said carefully. Grinning, he opened a weathered sea-trunk and withdrew what looked like a mummified fish with a human face. A “Fijian Mermaid” he proudly called it, and indeed it was, an actual mummified creature glued together, half fish and half monkey.
The middle rungs of New Hampshire are composed of lakes, like the one where “On Golden Pond” was filmed. I passed by, then made a run for Laconia and the Biker Festival at Weir’s beach. Thousands of motorcycle lined the long board walk, complete with funnel cake stands, lingerie booths, and trailers full of biker paraphernalia. The event had nearly a 100 year history, and was considered one of the biggest rally’s in the country.
As the afternoon wore on the sky grew gray and I drove through a drizzle along tree-lined roads to a Shaker Village called Cantebury. It was late, and except for the gift shop full of wondrous crafts, deserted. In the low light the eerie wooden buildings colorfully painted, was a stark counter-point to the hedonistic motorized noise of the rally…a testament to the vast differences our country embraces side by side.
Nothing is far away from anywhere else in New Hampshire, and not far away from the Shaker’s Village was Deerfield, where I’d been invited to stay with a friend from high school, Marni Ash and her family. We had steaks and cupcakes, we talked for hours over wine about school, soccer and gymnastics. Upstairs I was treated to a warm shower and a soft bed.
The others slept in and I got up. Marni had advised me not to miss pretty Portsmouth, and since it was potentially my last view of the Atlantic I didn’t. However, the Atlantic view I’d hoped for was actually a river patterned by a heavy rain. I made an umbrella-dash through the soggy streets to see the town, grabbed a hot chocolate at Starbucks, then departed, slogging through the weather to Robert Frost’s farm not so far away.
I took the tour. The guide told me about his own cross-country adventure and the experiences he had. He said because of all the bad news, it was easy to forget how good people were, that no matter what people seemed to say or believe, when it came down to it, an American would help you in a pinch. This had been my experience as well. Although sadly, the day before, the news reported a man wounded in a drive-by shooting while doing a project on American Kindness. Not a proper theme for a Robert Frost poem.
I spent some time perusing the art at the Currier Museum in Manchester, which had a great collection. The sun came out as I headed west and entered Peterborough where I walked through the Toadstool bookstore, and had an early special at the Dining Car. One of the pretty waitresses asked if I wanted a traveling companion. Hmmm.
As I dropped down the last rungs of the ladder and neared the State’s border, I sought some quiet time at a graveyard above Dublin Lake. The sun sparked water ringed with green, a sapphire surrounded by an emerald forest. The warm white headstones I leaned against had an enviable view. Below me, a subtle breeze lilted across the haze of the road.
I rode the breeze to the shadows of a park in Keene, another small town with a small central park buttoned by a Gazebo. Citizens lazed on their folding chairs, kids rolled around in the grass while their parents shushed them to keep them quiet. The lake breeze intermingled with the music of a band, whose instruments glinted with the last touch of day.
Later, as I was settling in for the night, an old man approached and said he loved what I was doing, that people forget how much good is in this country. He patted my shoulder and we watched fireflies dance at the parking lot’s edge. When I looked back he was already walking away, but he shot me a smile. I climbed into the back of the Chief, grabbed an atlas, flipped my headlamp on, and tried to figure out my strategy for Vermont.