For four days, my six year old son Simon and I lived in the woods in the North Country of New Hampshire. My older son was at camp down the road, and Simon and I moved into a primitive campsite at Milan Hill State Park for the duration after dropping him off. A few days spent camping is really nothing like being homeless, except that it does alter one’s way of thinking along that bent. We hiked, but that took up only a few hours after Simon protested over the mud and the endless stream crossings, and the wet ferns higher than his head on the Mill Brook Trail. We turned back and instead ate sandwiches beside the ponds of the Berlin Fish hatchery, watching the enormous trout eat in the round pond, catching the scent of something marine among the balsams. When it rained, which it did often, we looked for places to pass the many hours. Each thing we did only took up a little time, and the day still stretched until it was time to go read in the tent and sleep.
I carried my pack everywhere, with our raincoats, our food, our water, and books and paper for drawing. We ate on the steps of little historical buildings, in parks, on the porch of the camp store at Jericho Mountain State Park.
I had not seen myself in a mirror in days, though I knew by feel that my hair was standing up wildly. Simon was delighted to be unwashed, his skin mica-flecked and sandy after so many swims in Jericho Lake. There, we often ate our supper, watching the RV campers having cookouts and the ATV riders circling the parking lot. As it began to rain one evening, we saw two men walking with flaming logs on boards from the beach toward their campsites. A park worker in a golf cart came skidding up beside them, I assumed to chastise them, but instead, he loaded the logs into the back and off they rode, sparks and flames trailing behind them.
We were almost never under a roof. Traveling the public thoroughfares and parks, we met the same pair of Mormon missionaries in two different towns. In Berlin, we lay in the shade near the ruins of the old paper mill, with the Presidential range hulking to the south, the dam to the north, and the blue-green penstock carrying the water that used to be in the Androscoggin River past where the Androscoggin meets the Dead. From the vacant park with its fruit trees and gravel paths, we could see the empty buildings, windows missing or boarded up, a mannequin vigilant in one on the upper floor. A few locals sat outside the Family Dollar and hailed each other as they smoked. We crossed the street to a small patch of grass with two sculptures on it. One, a misshapen male figure standing above a female one. Simon stood beside it and said, “It’s a woman. I think she’s dead,” and he reached out and cupped the pockmarked and pitted marble of her breast.
We went back to Milan Hill and I climbed the fire tower for the views while Simon whittled a stick down below. All was silent. The thrum of the ATVs at Jericho was replaced by the muffled drumming of ruffed grouse in the woods. The phoebe stood on a stump beside us, and a red-eyed vireo scolded us from its nest slung from a birch branch above.
It rained all night our last night, though we stayed dry in the tent. By morning, the wind was buffeting the rain sideways. We ate quickly in the only brief lull of the morning, and I looked at all the hours until we could pick up Malcolm from camp at four.
We drove the longer way into Berlin, past the ruined ski jump and rusted staircase up the hill. The steps themselves are rotted away and you can see the sky through the missing pieces of the jump’s decking. We drove through Berlin looking for someplace to pass the time, but their library was closed. I considered sitting in a church for a few hours, but drove on seven miles to Gorham instead. There, the library was just opening; Cora was putting out the flag and there was to be a magic show in half an hour. In gratitude, I set my things down and Simon and I settled in. Every time we moved, a high stench rose off us. Simon’s arms and legs were grimed, and he was wearing a torn fleece and rain boots with shorts. We lived at that library for five hours, doing a puzzle, paging through magazines in high-backed armchairs, reading every volume in the “Fly Guy” series.
Gorham is a town on the Appalachian Trail, so the people there are no strangers to dirt-smeared, ragged travelers with all their things in a pack on their backs. People who, even if not in their real lives, are temporarily homeless and sleep on the ground every night. Who rely on public spaces and the occasional beneficence of strangers. A woman and her son moving into the library for the day didn’t seem unusual to anyone.
We picked up Malcolm in the late afternoon from camp as the rain finally stopped. The car smelled of rancid socks and spilled tea as we wound down through Pinkham Notch and then the ever more civilized stretches of North Conway and the Lakes region. Places where there are, a man in Gorham had said, “You know, Connecticut types–they don’t have any mud on their hiking boots.” I grinned, pleased to be passing, unwilling to admit to being Massachusetts born myself.
Back at home, on our small private parcel of land, a fox had killed nearly all our chickens in my absence. The survivors were hunkered, silent, in the coop, looking haunted. Our house feels enormous for a while after being outside so long, and simultaneously hemmed in. It feels absurdly luxurious, the kitchen richly appointed with a refrigerator and a coffee maker.
Even under lesser circumstances, public libraries, public lands, are always my third space. Pocket parks, trails, places with no admission price and no one documenting my presence or recording exactly what I do there. These places are necessary, and not just for people sheltering from the rain, or passing inordinate numbers of empty hours. For four days, we navigated public lands, trails, buildings, almost exclusively, coming home just before Independence Day. We could move freely, without trespass, without questioning. Coming back to my home reminded me of my great good fortune in all the things that are mine. Our four days spent in the North Country reminded me of my equal fortune in everything that is no one’s particular possession, but all of our birthrights. Even if we do come from Massachusetts.