Lupine Season

The One Flower I’ll Drive to See

I never thought I would be one to appreciate flowers.

There was a time — not long ago — when I didn’t know a daisy from a petunia, and didn’t care.  And the truth is, I still don’t — with one exception.  Two years ago, I happened to move to the exact corner of the White Mountains at the exact time when something irresistible occurs each June: the profusion of color that is lupine season.

I remember when I first saw lupine.  My fiancee had been reading somewhere that the lupine were supposed to be spectacular in a nearby town called Sugar Hill.  “Flowers?” I thought.  “Who cares?” Sure, spring is really pretty when things start to bloom — I get it.  But driving around to look at flowers?  I’d rather be climbing a mountain, or kayaking a river.  Nevertheless, we drove up Route 117 into Sugar Hill for a look.

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A Local’s “Must Do” New Hampshire Hikes

The other day as I was happily cruising down a deserted side street, bypassing the tourist-clogged main artery of North Conway, New Hampshire, it occurred to me that I might have finally earned the right to call myself a local here in the White Mountains.  And it’s not just traffic short cuts that I’ve discovered; over the past two years I’ve stumbled on the best places to eat, the best places to drink, the best place to get cider donuts, and most importantly, the best places to hike.

The White Mountains have some of the top hiking in New England.  I’m fortunate to have much of it right outside my front door.  Remember that SNL skit when Tina Fey did a dead-on impression of a loopy Sarah Palin?  She explained her foreign policy “credentials” like this: “I can see Russia from my house.” Well, on a clear day, I can see the East Coast’s finest hike from mine.

What are New Hampshire’s best hikes?  Allow a local to answer.

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Hudson Gorge, Hang Gliding, and the East Branch of the Pemi

I took the opportunity during this week — my vacation week — to do some whitewater paddling.  As anyone reading my recent posts understands, I’ve become obsessed with the North Fork of the Pemigewasset river here in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  On Tuesday we got some rain, and finding the Upper Pemi — another one of my hit list rivers this spring — too low, I drove to the East Branch of the Pemi.

The East Branch is a New England classic.  This is the river I’d be paddling on for the last 7-8 miles if I run the North Fork.  By the time it reaches Loon Ski area, it’s a big river — flowing at just under 1,000 cubic feet per second on this day — a nice medium-low level.  I stashed my bike at Loon, where they’re attempting to rebuild the bridge over the river for about the eighth time in three years.

When I got to the put in at Lincoln Woods though, I started to wonder, “What if I walk upstream a little ways and put on higher than normal?” The river was at a nice level, and I wasn’t especially excited about just running the usual stretch.  I’d written last week about the time I carried my boat up the Lincoln Woods trail for three miles to Franconia Brook — and about how uncomfortable and draining this was.  I wasn’t planning to do this today.  I’d just hike up about a mile or so . . .

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North Fork of the Pemigewasset

In last week’s post, I wrote that the river that had risen to the top of my Hit List during the brooding period this winter was the North Fork of the Pemigewasset, arguably the longest stretch of whitewater in New England that nobody ever kayaks.  Why?  Because you can’t get into your boat until you’ve lugged it four miles uphill.  A four mile hike will keep most of us away.

Let me rephrase that.  A four-mile hike with a kayak will keep most of us away.  Even though we as a nation are growing more obese with every flavor-packed snack produced (after all, what can you really do when someone engineers something as diabolical as Trader Joe’s bacon-flavored popcorn?) — still, there are whole parking lots full of paranormally dedicated hikers here in New England who will not only think nothing of hiking four miles uphill, but they’ll want to do it during a blizzard, while it’s pitch dark, wearing shoes made entirely of hemp.  Take the “grid” movement for instance, New England hiking’s latest fad.  Completing a grid involves hiking each one of New Hampshire’s forty-eight 4,000 foot mountains during every month of the year.  That means you have to hike 18 miles out to Bondcliff in December.  And then in January.  And in February.  It’s crazy.  No wonder the moniker “gridiots.”

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Spring Hit List: Boating

In last week’s post, I wrote about Hit Lists.  Those are the rivers and waterfalls you spend all winter psyching yourself up for and telling your buddies that you’re going to run while you’re drinking beers and it’s -14 out and dark at 5 pm.  Then the snow melts and you throw the boat on the car and start chasing some of those rivers and waterfalls.  Some of them, you just never make it to.  The Linville Gorge was on my hit list for a decade and I just never got there.  Sometimes you do get there but it looks a lot bigger than you thought, and you walk away.  But sometimes it all comes together.  Last week I wrote about some of these moments — some of the most impressive and historic descents in New England kayaking in the last 15 years.

Last week’s post was all about great athletes, careful planning, pushing the limits, high levels of courage and skill, impressive accomplishments in a kayak.

This post is not about any of that.

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The Spring Hit List — First Descents in New England

I have always been a big fan of the Hit List.  Not in the mafia sense (although people who tailgate or clog up the left lane should definitely have their licenses revoked).  I mean having a hit list of goals: places to travel, mountains to hike, foods to try.  Mine usually take shape during winter, when I’m dreaming about what I’ll do when we have more than 42 minutes of daylight and a temperature that’s comfortable for those of us who don’t happen to be sled dogs.  You make a hit list because half the fun is looking forward to something.  The anticipation is the best part.

While it’s always key to put old favorites on the hit list (I want to hike Franconia Ridge every year until I die), the best hit lists have things you haven’t done.  The ultimate is having something that nobody’s ever done.  In kayaking, we call that a “first descent” (sometimes abbreviated — if you’re a really insufferable “bro” who happens to be “stoked” — as a “first d”).

Every winter back in the early 2000s, I’d get it in my head that I wanted to do a first descent.  I wanted to find a river nobody had ever done.  In kayaking, in the early 2000s, it was still theoretically possible.

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Tuckerman Ravine

To hear my grandfather tell it, I almost never existed.  From the head of the dinner table Howard Bird, Jr. would wave one arthritis-riddled hand toward his flesh and blood: my brother, my father, my uncle, and me.  “None of you,” he’d smile, “would be here right now if I had skied in that race.”

It’s a cruel irony that as we mature and can better appreciate our grandparents, they age and become less and less themselves.  By the time I was a teenager, my grandfather was in his 70s.  He’d already suffered one heart attack, and now he had painful arthritis.  He took a lot of medications.  Soon he had trouble getting up the stairs.  But when he occasionally mentioned “that race,” you could see the years melt away before him.

“That race” was The Tuckerman Inferno.  Not the current version, a springtime pentathlon.  My grandfather meant the original Inferno: the most extreme ski race ever held in the eastern United States.

It was something.  Racers kicked off from the summit of Mt. Washington, skied to the edge of Tuckerman Ravine, tried to weigh how much they valued their own lives, skied over the edge, then continued all the way down the Sherburne Ski Trail, to Pinkham Notch.  For those scoring at home, that’s 4 miles and more than four thousand vertical feet.  That’s more than the total drop at Vail, Aspen, or Killington — and much of it’s far steeper than anything you can find at any of those places.  The original Inferno was so unique and so dangerous that even today it would be outrageous and terrifying.

It’s just the type of event that should have had a long and rich history.  But instead it was just a glimmer.  Fickle weather, unpredictable snow conditions, and sheer logistics meant that the Inferno was held just three times: 1931, 1934, and 1939.  Soon after, World War II broke out, and the Inferno never regained momentum.  It made brief appearances in abbreviated forms several times since then, eventually morphing into the present day pentathlon whose final leg consists of a ski down Tuckerman Ravine.  But by the time I was a boy at my grandfather’s table, the Inferno hadn’t been held in its original, top-to-bottom glory in 50 years.

The last time it was, a tall, skinny college senior who looked a lot like me had entered it.

In April of 1939 my grandfather was a founding member of the Yale Ski Team better known for failing in big races than for winning them.  That spring, with New England enjoying an outstanding snow year and the Inferno set to be held on the last day of his spring break, my grandfather signed up to race in it.  To practice, he spent his two weeks off from school camping at the AMC lodge in Pinkham Notch and skiing in Tuckerman Ravine.  This was his view each morning.  It’s Tuckerman Ravine in April of 1939.  Look at that snowpack!

I’d like to pause here and remark on what a bad-ass Howard Bird Jr. was.  Let’s start with the fact that he was skiing Tuckerman Ravine in 1939.  Let’s start with the fact that anyone skied Tuckerman Ravine in 1939.  For one thing, Tuckerman Ravine is scary.  Period.  In any era.  The first time I looked over the edge, I was 21 and skied five days a week at the Middlebury Snow Bowl and at Mad River Glen.  I’d skied at Squaw Valley and in Alaska.  I looked over the rim and almost shit myself.

And I was on modern equipment.  Have you ever seen the skis those guys were using back in the 30s?  They look like something you buy at Home Depot and nail to your patio.  And the boots?  If you ever want to feel bad about yourself, try skiing down a gentle slope on cross country gear.  You’ll be windmilling like a drunk guy in an earthquake.  Now try skiing down the side of a building on them.  That’s what those guys were up to back on Tuck’s in the 30s.  Those boots had less support than Air Jordans.

Then there’s the little matter of my grandfather’s workouts, which floor me.  During those two weeks of spring break, he and his buddies would hike from Pinkham Notch to the summit of Mt. Washington and then turn around and ski it without stopping to practice for the Inferno.  Then they’d do it a second time.  In the same day!

But my grandfather never got to race in the Inferno.  A big storm blew through that morning, as big storms often do on Mt. Washington: totally without warning.  My grandfather was already halfway up the Headwall when word came down that the race was postponed.  He put on his skis, turned around, and skied to the bottom.  There would, he must have thought, be other days.

Except that there weren’t.  The Inferno was pushed back two weeks.  My grandfather, who didn’t have a car, tried everyone he knew, but couldn’t get a ride up from New Haven.  To hear him talk, he wasn’t sad to have missed it.  Instead, he’d joke that none of us would be alive if he hadn’t — because he might have done something stupid trying to win the race.  Still, I have to believe he was at least a little regretful.  Especially because by missing that race, me missed being a part of history.  The 1939 Inferno is legendary in American ski circles for one reason: Toni Matt.  That morning during his run, the nineteen year-old Austrian and future National Champion lost sight of where he was somewhere in the upper snowfields.  Although he’d planned to check his speed before he got to the Lip, before he knew it, the ground was dropping away.  Thinking that if he did try to turn at that speed, he’d surely crash, Matt did something that continues to awe anyone who’s ever stood at the top of the Lip: he skied straight down Tuckerman Ravine without turning.  As Matt himself said later, he schussed it.

Not only did Matt win the race, but he scorched the four mile course in just 6 minutes and 29 seconds, an absolute astonishment to anyone who has ever skied over this same distance.  The previous record, set by Olympian Dick Durrance, was over 12 minutes.  Matt’s top speed was estimated at 85 miles per hour.

For my grandfather, who was fond of telling this story about Toni Matt, that run from halfway up the Headwall the weekend before turned out to be his last run ever on Tuckerman and his last run on skis for more than twenty years.  It’s funny how these things work.  You think to yourself that there will be plenty of time.” And then — there isn’t.  The years get away from you.  My grandfather lived a remarkable life.  He thrived in international business.  He had four children.  He got to live and work in Columbia, Geneva, Mexico, and New York City.  He once talked Jesse Jackson out of a protest.  He wrote a book.  He lectured on campuses across the country.  He even got to ski again, during 18 months of living in Switzerland.  He taught my father to ski.  They took a few ski trips to Vermont after they moved back to the States (including one trip to Stowe at which they saw a Warren Miller film at the town hall narrated in person by Warren Miller).  But by the mid-1960s my grandfather stopped skiing and never skied again.  By the time I started skiing in the 1990s, health problems had forced my grandfather to give up almost all of the sports he’d loved as a younger man.  As far as I know, he hadn’t been back to Tuckerman since 1939.

It wasn’t until three years after he died that I finally made it there myself.  My friend Chris and I drove over from college one Saturday morning.  I still remember how improbable it felt: much, much too late in the season to be skiing.  But sure enough, there it was: snow on the side of Mt. Washington, and there was Tuckerman Ravine, a giant glacial cirque way up above the valley.  It looked impossibly steep.  Chris, having forgotten his hiking boots, made the trek up Left Gully in loafers — just the sort of old school gear simulation my grandfather would have smiled at.  We put on our skis and instead of skiing the gully, we drifted across to the top of the Lip, right where my grandfather would have skied.

My first thought was: “Holy s-*t, this is steep.” But my next thought was something I didn’t expect: “I can’t believe Grandpa did this.” It was odd.  I hadn’t gone to Tuck’s with him in mind, but suddenly I was face-to-face with the same rite of passage — totally unchanged — that he’d faced 70 years before.  That it was still so scary, even on my modern equipment and with all of my experience, only made his accomplishments speak more loudly.  It was as though for a brief moment all the time between us disappeared and I could see what a man he had been.  It’s not often we get to do that.  Many of the generational rites of passage — graduating from school, getting a job, buying a house — seem so different now from when our parents and grandparents did them that it’s hard to feel a kinship in these moments.  But there was Tuckerman before me — and it had been just as steep and exposed back in 1939.  I have to say, I felt a lot of pride as I skied over the edge in his proverbial ski tracks.

I felt the same pride last spring when I made my second Tuckerman trip.  This time it was even better, because I was with my brother, who’d sat at that same table with my grandfather and listened to his ski stories.  It was beautiful out — sunny, 60 degrees, no wind — basically the perfect day on Tuck’s.  There were thousands of people.  The air was festive.  We made conversation with strangers on the trail, at the hut, on the floor of the Ravine.  I traded sunscreen for a beer.  Everyone was giddy.  It was all of our last runs of the year, and it was easily the best.  My brother and I stood at the top and I looked out across all of New England as across all of the 76 winters since 1939 and I knew that my grandfather would have approved.  “It doesn’t get any better than this,” I thought, and pushed off over the edge.

Happy spring skiing in Tuck’s.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

“In the frosty December dusk, their cabins looked neat and snug with pale blue smoke rising from the chimneys and doorways glowing amber from the fires inside. There were delicious smells about: chicken, bacon frying crisp as the twilight air.”
–Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Where we live says a lot about who we are.  I’m thinking a lot about this right now.  Not just because, at 34, I’m hoping to buy my own first house this year.  But also because every spring I find myself thinking about what our homes and our neighborhoods say about us as I prepare to teach Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to my ninth-grade English classes.  Of all the famous passages by the venerable Ms. Lee — who passed away last month at 89 — it’s the one above, a relatively obscure few lines describing the homes of the African Americans in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama in the novel, which haunts me most.

There’s a been a lot of debate in the last five years about the role of fiction in American classrooms. The Common Core calls for 70% of a student’s literary diet to be comprised of nonfiction. But in all the talk about skill development and critical thinking, I think we often forget one of the chief aims of teaching fiction: to encourage empathy. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” Atticus Finch tells his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird. And every year that I teach this book, I find myself empathizing more and more deeply with Tom Robinson, the African American man falsely accused of rape in the novel. It’s not merely the injustice of his conviction that stops me in my tracks each time I reread. It’s that symbol of the American Dream that Robinson can almost have but never quite touch. It’s that cabin he lives in.

Where we live says a lot. Visiting the South, Bill Bryson once wrote, “It struck me as notably ironic that Southerners could despise blacks so bitterly and yet live comfortably alongside them, while in the North people by and large did not mind blacks . . . just so long as they didn’t have to mingle with them too freely.” I was always struck living in Washington, D.C., how starkly the city was divided by race. On the west side the schools and neighborhoods were predominantly white. But cross over Rock Creek and immediately everyone on the street was black.

But it’s just that interracial neighborhood that Harper Lee — who died last month at 89 — uses to show the bitter reality of racism during Jim Crow. Tom Robinson lives just down the street from the white woman — Mayella Ewell — he’s falsely accused of raping. What’s more, Robinson lives better than his accuser. The Ewells live in utter filth alongside the town dump, from which it is implied that they scavenge food. Meanwhile, Robinson lives in the cabin described above — neat, modest, cozy. Each year I press my students: how does this feel for the Ewells, especially for Mr. Robert E. Lee Ewell, the family’s ne’er do well patriarch? The answer of course is that while his own grating poverty concerns him not in the least, a black man like Tom Robinson living better than he does just down the road stirs him to a wild bitterness that spawns the unjust trial at the heart of the novel. Of Ewell’s bitterness Lee writes, “All the little man on the witness stand had that made him any better than his nearest neighbors was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white.”

But even more than detecting the seeds of bitter racism, when I think of Tom Robinson’s tidy cabin, I think about a man who wants very much — just as I do — to buy into the American Dream.

Look at the homes they live in — Tom Robinson and the other blacks. Their homes are modest, surely (many of the cooking smells emanating from their chimneys are from cooked possum), well-kept and loving. The fire glows inside, representing warmth and family. Tom Robinson embodies the classic hardworking American who wants to provide a better life for his children. He’s young — still in his twenties — and he’s surely poor, but he gets up every morning and walks to work. He goes to church on Sunday, and he’s such a respected community member that his boss, Link Deas, will later give an impassioned (if ill-timed) speech about his virtues during the court case.

This country tells its citizens, “Work hard, live modestly, and pay your taxes — and you’ll get to enjoy all the benefits of being an American.” Tom Robinson wants nothing more than anything to buy into the promise of America. He’s done everything this country asks of its citizens. He’s held up his end of the bargain.

But America does not hold up its end. Any agency Robinson seemed to possess by being a contributing member of society and a homeowner vanishes at the drop of a hat — or at the whisper of a white woman. That’s all it takes to show that he never really had any agency. He never had any authority. The laws didn’t protect him. The American Dream for Tom Robinson was nothing but a sham, a dead-end, a promise that was never real.

Ironically it’s the fact that he’s a good neighbor — helping Mayella with extra chores — that is his undoing.

This is especially appalling precisely because he has done everything right. Unlike his neighbors the Ewells, who subsist on welfare, Robinson never asked for handouts. He never asked anything from anyone except the chance to succeed in America according to its terms. Ironically it’s the fact that he’s a good neighbor — helping Mayella with extra chores — that is his undoing. He’s been hoodwinked. Not even Atticus Finch, the most powerful lawyer in literature, can outmuscle the racism of the Jim Crow-era South and save Robinson from playing the very role that society that has picked for him: not homeowner, but criminal.

That’s why the image of his tidy cabin — tranquil and peaceful and hard-won before all of the trouble goes down — stays with me. That cabin (which, let’s be honest, was probably sold to him, or rented to him, at an exorbitant, exploitive rate) is as close as Robinson, or any of the African Americans in To Kill a Mockingbird, will ever get to the American Dream.

Part of Harper Lee’s genius, of course, is to show precisely that it can all be plucked away from an upstanding man like Robinson by even the most worthless of whites: the Ewells. Robinson’s industry and thrift are sharply contrasted with the indolence and filth of his white neighbors. Unlike Robinson’s clean, well-kept property, the Ewells’ yard is littered with trash. Unlike Robinson, who works for every penny, Mr. Ewell lives off government relief checks and the local government’s tolerance toward his hunting and trapping out of season. Unlike Robinson, Mr. Ewell is a neglectful, even abusive father who spends his relief checks on whiskey rather than food for his kids, none of whom attend school for more than a day each year. Even though no one in town — particularly Atticus Finch — respects the Ewells, yet because their skin (after a firm scrubbing) is white, they’re still waved into the tent of the American Dream.

What’s particularly striking is that while Tom Robinson is shunted straight into jail without so much as a shred of evidence, whites such as Mr. Ewell are given incredible latitude by the law. Everyone in the town — including the authorities — bend over backwards to look past Mr. Ewell’s crimes. And it’s not just hunting out of season or spending his handouts on booze that’s overlooked. It’s much worse. For example, the implied incest between Mr. Ewell and his daughter Mayella is the worst-kept secret in town, but it’s something everyone is content to look right past. (So, for that matter, is the small matter of Mr. Radley, who is also white, locking his son, Boo, in the basement for 15 years!) Incest and child abuse are fine — just don’t try to help out a white woman with her furniture. The white Ewells are, despite their transgressions, given every chance to prosper provided they ever show (to paraphrase Atticus Finch) “the faintest hint of desiring an education.” Meanwhile it’s just too much for the town to consider the men and women who once worked their land as slaves to be granted the American Dream.

A common response that students have is: “Sure, but that was the Jim Crow South. It wasn’t like that up here.”

But, I tell them, the Tom Robinsons who moved north during during the Great Migration — who looked for their own tidy cabins in Chicago, Baltimore, and Detroit — found little more than further discrimination in the form of redlining and blockbusting.  The ghettos of today in those same cities play out that legacy.  The American Dream was no less an illusion there than in Maycomb, Alabama. Tom Robinson’s cabin was about as good as it got.

Great books not only help us understand people who are not like us, but they help us understand our own society in clearer light. With To Kill a Mockingbird, you’d have to be dense not to see the same issues at play everywhere in our society now: in the courts, in the economy, in the stories of young men like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and, this week, Gregory Gunn, and of course in the kinds of houses we’re allowed to live in. It’s all still around us, surely different in many ways, but strikingly similar in a lot of others. That’s what great literature shows us.

And that’s why the image of Tom Robinson’s house stays with me.

Jamie McEwan: A Remembrance

This past summer I wrote an article that was published in American Whitewater Magazine called “Jamie McEwan: A Remembrance.” This article is about Jamie McEwan — the whitewater canoeing demi-god who won an Olympic bronze medal, once paddled the “Mt. Everest of Rivers” in Tibet, and even managed to teach me how to kayak.  His death from cancer was the occasion for this article.  I’ve uploaded it to this site under “Books and Articles,” but I also wanted to post a link to it here.

Enjoy:

Jamie McEwan: A Remembrance of New England’s Most Famous Boater (American Whitewater Magazine, 2015)

“Jamie McEwan was handsome.  That much I remember thinking.”

Lake Morey Skating

Skating for a Fall

If there’s one thing that’s fun to do in your spare time, it’s things that you’re already good at.  During the winter, that thing for me is skiing.  I have skied almost since I could stand, and if there is a hobby I could be said to be competent at, it’s downhill skiing.  Although I don’t hunt for small cliffs to ski off anymore, or throw backflips in the terrain park while trying to keep my sagging pants from falling down like my teenage students, I’m still pretty good at skiing.  It’s comfortable.  I can show up at a hill and know what to expect.  I can get myself down most any white-colored incline.  I can rest fairly assured that I won’t do anything that will cause lasting embarrassment, such as losing control of my skis and taking out a giant inflatable can of Red Bull near the base lodge, or forgetting to dismount the chairlift and needing to be coaxed down by the liftee, or crashing and losing my hat and mittens in front of an entire women’s ski team.

Of course, all of those scenarios are back in play now that I have taken up snowboarding.  Last season I fell more times in a single day than I did in decades of skiing.  Most of those falls happened within speaking distance of the base lodge (some in the lunch line).  But none were serious, and learning to snowboard made the mountain big again.  It wasn’t comfortable — but it was exciting.

Skating on Lake Morey in Vermont proved to be much more of a challenge for the author than skiing.  (lakemoreyresort.com)

 

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