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Posts Tagged ‘New Hampshire’

0E358330-754B-44B3-A583-BBA2095D962AI grew up in Massachusetts, two miles or so from the New Hampshire border. Now, I live in New Hampshire, three miles from the border on its other side. I grew up in a smallish town, and now live in a decidedly smaller one. In both places I’ve encountered the pride and suspicion of the native. Fifth and sixth generation natives with long memories and tendencies to refer to houses as “the Gauthier place” or “the Cote place” long, long after any Gauthiers or Cotes have lived there. We’ve lived in our New Hampshire town for about five years now, and we might as well have just pulled in with Massachusetts plates about yesterday. This place can be fiercely tribal and suspicious of outsiders (as prospective Senate candidate and suspected carpetbagger Scott Brown may soon find out).

Every Sunday, my mother down in Massachusetts makes an elaborate supper for our large, local family. Given enough daylight and time, either I or my husband runs over there for the meal. Last time I did the run, I took a route that crosses the Powwow River four times. This river runs through my hometown of Amesbury, but gets its start up here in New Hampshire. The basin it empties backs up to a ridge a mile and a half north of us where Route 107 runs west to east through town. A drop of rain striking the north side of that ridge runs down to the Exeter River and on to the brackish Great Bay. A drop striking the south side will find its way to the Powwow, across the border to Amesbury, over the spillways on the lakes, then through downtown where it careens over a falls, past the remnant of the old water wheel and sweeps into a dark hole under the old mills. It flows through tire studded mudflats, under the highway, and finally on under the haunted Bailey Bridge where, they say, a carriage drawn by ghost horses passes some nights. There, the Powwow is obliterated in the courses of the tidal Merrimack, sweeping out to sea.

B000E42C-1513-4079-A760-8349663453D2As I ran the route the other day, it struck me as funny to think of being seen as an outsider in my little New Hampshire town. The arbitrary nature of the lines we draw, making this side mine and this side yours. This boundary a town, this a state. You, a native, me a foreigner. Our lines of convenience and commerce, and yet, the river finds the route of least resistance, going with gravity until it finds the ocean. I grew up along this river, and it is indifferent to the border it crosses, twice in a lazy oxbow up by the north end of Lake Gardner. I went away to college and lived along the tributaries of the Connecticut River. I went to vet school and lived along the Blackstone River’s feeder streams. And then we came back home, leaving my home state, but reentering my childhood watershed.

I suppose I will always, in the eyes of the natives of this New Hampshire town, be “from away.” But viewing such human comings and goings from down at the waterline, it looks decidedly like I never really left.

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The last time we would see each other until the ill fated latter miles.

The last time we would see each other until the ill fated latter miles.

My normal gait is returning after a couple days of stiff-legged hobbling. Sunday, I ran a 20 mile race traversing the entire, brief coastline of New Hampshire. Christophe ran it as well, though for him, it was to serve as his last long training run for the Boston Marathon. For me, it was to be an actual race. For 14 good miles I maintained my planned pace. I run without headphones, so I listened to the conversations of the runners around me: a barrel-chested, shirtless middle-aged man with long scraggly pony tail held forth to his female companion about lobsters and whether or not they are chordates (which he pronounced “cordites.”) They are not, and his companion expressed that opinion, correctly pointing out that lobsters have an exoskeleton rather than “the cord thing” (that would be the notochord). He was insistent in his erroneous thesis, and she backed down. So for two miles I pondered the nature of gender relations and male authority.

Around mile 7, I listened for a while as two married women in their 40s discussed husbands and jobs. Around mile 10, they were still behind me, and we were the only three people around when I got an unexpected ego boost.  One of the women said to the other, “Look at her. She’s totally in the zone. Look at her rhythm.” “I know,” said the other, “she’s like a metronome. That’s awesome. I look like a horse.” I pretended not to hear them, but I got a solid three miles out of that praise, and the pondering of female self-image.

Before I lost contact with the two women, I heard them talking about marriage. Both had been married over a decade, and they were talking about some rough patches they’d faced. “It’s peaks and valleys, you know? There are some real lows. It’s not easy.” I know that’s the conventional wisdom, and certainly being married is not always a pure delight, but as the miles slid away on this flat, sea-level course, I was left pondering the relative ease with which I stay married to the man who was somewhere behind me on the course, clocking his own miles at a measured pace. The flat course was no metaphor for it, since there are high peaks indeed. But the low valleys, they haven’t seemed to come.

Christophe maddeningly just ahead. The geographical high point, but a mental low point of the race.

Christophe maddeningly just ahead. The geographical high point, but a mental low point of the race.

Around mile 11, Christophe passed me. Glancing my way he said, “Race ya,” and cruised on past. I assumed he was making a break for it and would soon be a dot on the horizon. But instead, he settled into my same pace, but only 40 yards ahead of me. This bewildered and depressed me, alone as I was on the course at that moment, and I found myself verging on tears. This is the kind of weird emotional outburst common to runners in the late-middle stages of a long race, and to women in hour 3o of labor. So he and I have been here before. It took me a mile to make up the distance, at which point I wasted considerable breath and energy sobbing at him. He fell in with me and we ran together for a while.

My legs cramped up at mile 15, feeling like they were being flogged from within by a knotted length of rope studded with nails. I had recovered my senses by then, and told Christophe he could proceed at his chosen pace guilt-free. I could see him weighing this, checking for traps, cautiously trying out the idea. Then, he declined, opting instead to stay with me. The irony had struck him, he told me, that he is running Boston to raise money for Casa Myrna, a domestic violence charity, and he was considering abandoning his wife by the side of the road so he could finish a training run marginally faster. That would be hard to explain.

So, we finished the last 5 miles together, at my curtailed pace, and with four or five walk breaks. The fair skies that had prevailed through the earlier parts of the race had given way to gray clouds over the boarded up pizza places and arcades of Hampton Beach. The course grew uglier, and the air colder. We went at my hobbled speed, my strides almost two to his every one, and crossed the modest and mostly abandoned finish line with our five year old jumping in for the last 50 yards. The metaphor that wouldn’t come finally did. The peaks and valleys, or the flat monotony of a coastline 20 miler–it’s the terrain itself that may be pitted and rugged, and the course difficult. But yoked together, shoulder to shoulder in a well mated team, it’s the harness that wears light.

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IMG_3223 After a frenzy of knitting for other people, with a queue sometimes 5 items long, I finally had a chance to knit something for myself. So I knitted myself what was billed as a waistcoat, but which is, I hope, vest-like enough to qualify me for residence here in New Hampshire. I grew up within a mile of the NH border, but had never really lived the northern New England lifestyle. Now, my husband is employed in Concord, the capital, and I am gradually growing accustomed to the existence of things like “dressy fleece” and “really nice moccasins” for special occasions like meeting the Governor.
The other day, I was at a Salvation Army thrift store in Portsmouth NH and I watched a women in an extremely bright green and puffy down jacket approach a mirror. She thoughtfully gazed at herself as she held a garment up to her chest. It was an extremely bright orange and puffy down jacket. These people know what they like.
A year or so ago, we went on a weekend trip to Portland, Maine. We had reservations at a pretty nice restaurant, so I brought a cute dress, black tights, and leather boots. We were seated up in a balcony overlooking the main restaurant, and it gradually dawned on me that every other patron in the place was clad in at least one fleece item, and almost universally shod in LL Bean mocs. Wasted was my attempt at dressing right. I was clearly marked as a non-local.
I won’t live that way anymore! But neither will I wear a fleece vest unless I am hiking. No matter how fancy and dressy it is. I’m hoping that knitting my own fleece vest substitute will strike the right note of vestiness and self-reliance that is New Hampshire’s flinty foundation. I’ll let you know if it gets me invited to meet the Governor.

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I spent yesterday in a sweat of nervous energy, trying to fill the hours until the polls closed and the returns began to come in. Even my young sons were caught up in the excitement, though I was surprised to discover, in this exclusive interview, that they came down on either side of the political divide.

Going about my errands yesterday, I drove past the polling place in the town next to mine. As I crested the hill and the little white buildings on the diminutive town green came into view, I saw the parking lot packed with cars and people filing in to vote. I felt a sudden visceral wave of pride and gratitude rise my mouth in a half sob. I know my last post was partisan, but the pride I felt yesterday was not about winning. I didn’t know then who would win. In fact, while I live in a purple state that went blue yesterday, my pocket of New Hampshire is decidedly red. So more likely than not, those folks were lined up to vote for Romney. The thing is, regardless of the candidates or the stakes, the sight of people peaceably assembling to vote, and without any fear of reprisal, gets me every time. I can be as cynical as the next girl about all the money and special interests, but on election day, when everyone is slotted into the booths with only their feet and ankles visible below the curtain, it’s down to one man, one vote, as it’s meant to be. Fine leather wingtips alongside steel-toed work boots alongside a college student’s optimistic flip-flops, despite the cold wind sweeping in at the edge of a coming Nor’Easter.

As I drove by, I noticed a sign by the road advertising a bake sale, soup and lunch at the polling location. I suspect most of those people would have voted anyway, even without the soup. But I cannot express the fullness of my gratitude for the privilege of living in this country where we vote without fear, without trepidation, and with an untroubled stomach, ready to slip our ballots into the waiting machine, and then stroll over to bake sale and have a cookie with the neighbors.

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I promise, after this, I’ll write a few short, pithy, light-hearted posts. But this one, I must do now, for the obvious reasons.

I believe in civility, and I believe in civic engagement, so usually I try to encourage public participation in our democracy no matter which side of the aisle your guy may be on. But I confess, as we get close to election day, I am feeling a pit of anxiety opening in my stomach. My family is political on every level, from town referenda to Presidential primaries, and I always feel the stakes are high. But this time, I really mean it.

On the Mall on Inauguration Day, 2009.

We went to an Obama rally in Concord, NH today, and stood in line for 3 hours to stand in the press of a crowd 300 yards distant from the occasionally visible President. 14,000 other people and our kids were with us. They were also with us on a freezing day in Washington D.C. four years ago when we stood with millions of other people to watch this same President sworn in. Simon, our second son, was still in utero, and Malcolm, running a fever, was mostly confined to his snowsuit and blanket draped stroller. The crowd in Concord today was different from that inauguration day not just because it was a bunch of reserved, mostly middle-aged New Englanders who prefer dignified (though firm) clapping to indecorous hooting and shrieking. It’s different because this President’s been up to his elbows in work for four years now, and with our firm clapping and firm set jaws, we’d like to see him through.

Uncannily similar, four years later in Concord.

I don’t generally get weepy or maudlin. I do not cry at weddings, and I do not watch chick flicks. But today, listening to the President talk about teachers, and about opportunity for every kid, I found myself with an unexpected catch in my throat. So much so that I had to give up indecorous hooting and merely clap. Because here’s why I’m a Democrat: I’m a smart and talented person. But that is not nearly enough to make it. I am now what some might derisively call “an East Coast elite.” But it was not always so. My family generally had what we needed growing up, but not all the stuff we wanted. My mom went to nursing school at Northern Essex Community College with 4 kids at home. I did a lot of babysitting. We shared some tiny bedrooms. I went to public school up through eighth grade, and was pushed and challenged by Mr. Rogers, and Mr. Miller, and Mr. Doran, who gave me extra time, and special assignments and good books and told me about the existence of prep school, and that I should go there. So I did. And so I kept company with the elites for four years. I won’t say some of my best friends are hedge fund managers, but many of my acquaintances are. I didn’t appreciate how hard my parents worked to be able to afford Exeter until, clutching a fistful of acceptance letters from some of the very best private colleges, I listened to my father tell me I couldn’t go. We couldn’t afford it.  And so I went to UMass instead. My wild, sprawling, chaotic and wonderful state school out in the Valley. We could afford it. We could afford it because Massachusetts invested in it on my behalf. We could afford it because what wasn’t subsidized by my state, I could loan out from my country.

And then, with my four years done, and my diploma in hand, I went to veterinary school at another East Coast Elite institution: Tufts. But for a Massachusetts kid, that too was subsidized by the state. So heavily, in fact, that when the state hit tough times, and the subsidy was wavering, I contemplated what I would do after I had to withdraw from school. But the state came through every time, and I got that degree too. All the things I’ve accomplished may be my own, but the chances given to me were the gifts of a faithful and optimistic government.

Now, I teach at North Shore Community College in Danvers, Massachusetts. My students are moms in night classes, Iraq war vets on the G.I. bill, immigrants on Pell grants, and 25 year olds who can stay in school now because Obamacare lets them stay on their parents’ insurance for another year. This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do with my degrees. I won’t ever get rich off it, and it probably won’t ever pay off my own student loans. But I am no victim, and neither are my students. We are the next in line of long generations who wedged a foot in the door of this country and waited for their children to pry it open a little wider. There’s more than a little light getting through the space we’ve made in that doorway now, and I bring my boys, my exhausted, cold, hungry, good boys, to these events even if they’ll never remember it. Because I need to show them what I believe. That we are none of us able to to open that door all the way in one try, in one generation. But we’re nearly there now, and I want them to look behind when they go striding through, and remember to grasp the hand of the stranger running to catch up. Born Americans, but bred Democrats.

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Malcolm requested a photo of himself under our homemade banner. He then spontaneously decreed, “I am a Democrat!”

This past weekend, I took my five year old son Malcolm with me to go canvassing for Obama. It would be disingenuous to claim that I brought him only to give him a lesson in civics. I brought him partly as a human shield, partly as a security blanket, and partly to ease the social awkwardness. It takes guts to walk up to a stranger’s house and knock on the door, not knowing who will answer, or what they might say. Our area of New Hampshire is a genuine swing district, and we have a wide range of political opinion, socioeconomic status, and receptiveness to strangers with clipboards on the front steps. We encountered undecided voters, voters who were firmly for Romney, and voters who were firmly for Obama. And there is no predicting which when making that long walk up the driveway.

We are Yankee folk here–diffident, independent and wary. Every time someone came to the door at our knock (and plenty of people clearly hid under the couch when we approached) I could see the same suspicious regard in their faces. Having been on the other side of the door when canvassers come by, I know I probably had the same expression on my own. After all, who knocks on a stranger’s door but salesmen, religious groups and political canvassers? This is the dreaded trifecta that makes people feel the instinct to run to the bathroom and run the shower until the people just go away.

When we were done with our three hour shift knocking on doors, I had the familiar feeling that it’s never as bad as one anticipates. Everyone we spoke with was at least civil. No one let loose a stream of expletives or threatened bodily harm, so I feel the day was a success overall. And though I was glad of the reassuring company of my son, I did genuinely want him to see that we don’t just sit around in the echo chamber of like-minded liberals making snide and witty remarks about the opposition. We go out and talk with people, and listen to them.

For all the talk of the founding fathers, and the great America that supposedly once was, and that we have supposedly lost, one of the things the founders would surely lament is the nearly complete loss of political debate between neighbors, face to face. As the election draws near, I often overhear, “I hate talking about politics.” I understand that sentiment when the only discourse anyone hears is between shrill and self-righteous t.v. personalities, or between Facebook friends of friends sniping at each other and never speaking in person. It’s much harder to deride someone’s opinion when speaking to them on either side of the front threshold. So whether you’re the supplicant with the clipboard, or the person peering warily around the door, try to overcome your instinct to run away. I know you feel it, just like I do. But if we’re to overcome the polarization that we all agree is poisoning the political debate, we must really talk to each other, and we must at least try to understand each other. If we don’t, we turn over all responsibility for our own government, and if we do that, then we are surely lost.

 

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We Courchesnes do a lot of hiking, walking and trekking. We have long since left behind the brief but golden years of baby in backpack, wherein we could move at our accustomed pace with a mostly sleeping infant/toddler lolling in the carrier. Now, we are in the slow moving, adjusted expectations phase of hiking with preschoolers. We no longer do much summiting of mountains, and we rarely exceed a 1 mile per hour average pace. So, as the pleasures of the hike shift from quiet, solitude, and reflection, to fart jokes, 20 questions, and singing repetitive songs, one gradually comes to terms with one’s altered existence.

873, 945 bottles of root beer on the wall…

Now, when we hike, we seek out flatter terrain, and aim to have a physical reward at the end. Kids are not overawed by panoramic vistas, but they’ll hike pretty well if there’s a swimming hole at the end. Or really excellent snacks. And while grown-ups on their own will pensively plod along, enjoying the sensations of the walk, kids generally need a good deal of distraction to make it all the way through the hike. Here are the main ones we use:

1) Epic stories of the Toad King. When hiking in the close, fecund woods of New Hampshire, one often finds tangles of roots overtopped with thick mats of moss. These are obviously the palaces of the narcissistic and arrogant, though benevolent Toad King. He maintains summer palaces, winter palaces, and often gets himself into trouble through hubris and ineptitude. He has attempted kayaking, luge, and gold mining. He has died several times, but always comes back to life. The good thing about the Toad King is that we see a lot of toads around here, so the boys get to do a lot of royalty watching.

2) Participatory fiction. One person gives the first line of a story, and then all members of the party take turns adding to it. A typical Courchesne story:

Mom: “Once there was a half salamander half vulture who was dissatisfied with his life.”

Dad: “So he sent away for a self-help video from the home shopping network.”

Malcolm: “But instead he got lasers and a Yeti.”

Simon: “And then vampires came out of the woods and… KILLED them ALL!”

100% of the time, Simon ends the story on his turn with “and KILLED them ALL!” But maybe you will have more success.

3) Riddles and 20 questions. We mostly do 20 questions since my kids are a little young for true riddles. But I gave them a riddle that started out, “Lucy and Bill were found dead in a pool of water. What happened?” Malcolm sort of got it, but from then on, Simon would periodically adopt a creepy whisper and say, “Lucy and Bill…were found dead in a forest.” Or, “Lucy and Bill were found dead in the ocean.” Hilarious. Maybe eventually we’ll get beyond this, though with a mother like me, it’s unlikely that these children will grow LESS morbid with time.

The Toad King’s family mausoleum/root cellar.

When these fail, we sing 999,999 bottles of root beer on the wall. So much for silence and pensive contemplation. At the end of our hikes, I sometimes feel mentally wiped out, but physically still pining for my pre-child rambles in the mountains. And then, my boys, who had been shrilly whining non-stop, will suddenly say, “I loved that hike.” And I’m a goner for sure.

 

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Once, while I was traveling on Vancouver Island in Canada, I took an embarrassingly touristy bus tour. The woman next to me was a big haired, loud floral print wearing Texan, and she was so forcefully friendly, she overcame my Yankee reserve and we chatted a bit. Turned out she had traveled extensively in New England.

As we rode through the countryside, the bus driver pointed out the many tiny farm stands by the side of the road. “Nobody tends them–you just buy your veggies and leave the money in a box. It’s all on the honor system. I hear that’s not something you see a lot in the states.” My Texan friend leaned in close to me (another thing we Yankees find discomfiting) and whispered, “Must look like home to you though; everyone sells things like that in New England!”

I haven’t been out of New England all that much in my life, so it had not occurred to me that roadside economies are not universal, or even particularly common. Since moving to New Hampshire though, I seem to have found the roadside economy perfected. When talking to friends and family only as far away as eastern Massachusetts, they look at me incredulously when I tell them we sell eggs by the side of the road. “You just SIT there, all day?” they usually ask. No, I tell them. We leave the eggs out in a cooler with a plastic bottle in it for the money and a sign reading “Fresh Eggs, $3/dozen.” Just like everyone else in this town, it sometimes seems. No one has ever stolen the money, or the eggs.

Malcolm selecting a bike at our favorite untended roadside “shop.”

But it’s not just eggs. Our favorite “bike shop” is the front yard of some people a couple towns over in Brentwood. They’re right on busy Route 125, and they have rows and rows of bike racks filled with their merchandise. From $15 tricycles to a really nice Cannondale mountain bike for $80, you just leave your money in a little red box and take your new-to-you bike home. There is a lock on the cash box, however. The honor system only goes so far.

Sometimes, there are misunderstandings. A couple of weeks ago, our neighbor down the road put up a big piece of wood on which he had scrawled (in red spray paint) “Whoever took my pallets please bring them back.” Pallets are almost universally considered to be up for grabs when out at the roadside, so the theft was understandable. Sure enough, two days later, the pallets were lying in his driveway and the wood now read, “Thanks.”

The prodigal pallets return and all is well.

I often wonder how much of my temperament is inborn, and how much was shaped by my regional upbringing. We don’t have a reputation for friendliness here, and I have known many New Englanders who were unnerved by the open and chatty cultures in other parts of the country. I’m not a misanthrope; in fact, I love the company of other people, under the right circumstances. But this roadside economy seems to me to reflect what I love about New England; we trust you intrinsically, but we’re happy not to have to talk to you.

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View toward Beaver Pond, just down the trail from our campsite.

Bear Brook State Park is massive, by the diminutive outdoor standards of New England. It sprawls over 4 towns in southeastern New Hampshire, and offers some old-school outdoor recreation, including fly-fishing pond, kids-only fishing pond, stone beachfront pavilions, horseback-riding and archery range.

We inhabited the park for 3 days and nights at a beautiful campsite at the quietest end of the 101-site campground. Two trails headed off into the park directly from our site, and glimpses of both Spruce Pond and Beaver Pond were visible through the trees from our tent. Aside from some truly jerkwad campground neighbors in violation of all the rules (quiet after 10pm, no more than 6 people per site, no alcohol, and no chopping down trees with the chainsaw you brought) it was a lovely stay at a campground topped only by the stunning Pillsbury State Park farther west, the main tradeoff being amenities; Pillsbury has only pit toilets and no showers/laundry/fancy stuff.

First geocache, and we’re hooked!

This trip marked my and Malcolm’s first foray into geocaching, and we located a stash of goofy plastic toys about a mile from our campsite. Malcolm was enthralled by the process, counting down the distance to the cache in the one hundredths of miles, and obsessively checking our compass bearing. For those not in the know, geocaching is a GPS based treasure hunt where members of the public hide stashes of little trinkets, or just a simple logbook, and upload the coordinates to a geocaching website. Anyone with a GPS unit or a smartphone can download information on caches nearby, and then set off to find them using a combination of techy gear and old-fashioned maps and orienteering skills. It was a profound motivator for Malcolm, who trekked almost effortlessly to the cache, and was gleeful over the plastic McDonald’s toy he retrieved. In exchange, we offloaded a few stupid little toys of our own for the next searcher.

We used an free, intro geocaching app for iPhone, which permits the finding of three caches. It’s a good chance to see if you like the activity, and we will doubtless be buying the $9.99 version so we can continue with this geeky new hobby.

It also happened that our camping trip coincided with a park outreach program on the threat of bad news beetles arriving in New Hampshire as stowaways in transported firewood. The kids played games, looked at specimens of various beetles, and learned to recognize the beautiful but destructive Asian Long-horned Beetle. They also got a huge amount of invasive beetle swag, including patches, temporary tattoos, and water bottles emblazoned with this difficult-to-explain-to-children slogan:


Really? “That’s What Tree Said?” In any case, the info was great, and Simon was thrilled with the temporary tattoo of the beetle, which made it look like an insect was feeding on his forearm for the remainder of the trip. Awesome.

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Upper Greeley Pond and rain.

My first introduction to New Hampshire’s White Mountains came when I started backpacking there as an adolescent. I therefore assumed, incorrectly, I see now, that the Whites were all about solitude, as the day hikers are all left behind by about 4 miles from the nearest road. Since having kids, I’ve joined the ranks of those day hikers, looking for scenic vistas a half hour’s walk from the parking lot. My trip up to Lonesome Lake was a particularly rude awakening as throngs and droves of casual trekkers with their aggravating dogs and radios looked for a reasonably accessible mountain scene before lunch.
Our trip to Greeley Ponds off the Kancamagus Highway, however, was perfectly aligned with my memory of the Whites as a place where you might not see another human soul for days. It had been raining for several hours at our campsite, and we elected to drive south out of Franconia Notch in search of better weather. As it turned out, it was only raining directly over our tent, and out of the Notch, it was clear blue skies. So we stopped at the trailhead for Greeley Ponds and set off. Almost immediately, it was clear that we had become tethered to our own personal raincloud. A drizzle turned to rain, then back to drizzle intermittently throughout the mile and a half walk in.

Self portrait with boy and cloud.

The trail is almost entirely flat, with a couple daring stream crossings, making it ideal for kids. On a sunny day, the place would have been mobbed. But we were alone, entirely. A set of large, fresh footprints indicated that someone had set off ahead of us, but we never saw him. We reached Upper Greeley Pond as the rain came down hard again. Standing on the gravel beach at the pond’s northern end, flanked by my sons and watching circles on the water from the rain above and from the fish rising below, I remembered why this place captivates me utterly. And even if my backpacking days are on hold, it’s a fair trade to be a mile and a half in, watching the sweep of the rain and trading a peanut butter sandwich between us.

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