New Hampshire

After a late May storm, the New Hampshire Sky becomes glassy. The pre-storm heaviness will linger for days, clogging the air and dulling the colors of evening.  Then it breaks into gusts little and big, that whip the pines into a frenzy and send hard arrows of water slantwise in through windows.

It’s over quickly, and the air outside smells clean and sweet, something thick and sticky having been wrung and beaten out of it. The sky is not bright, but clear and steel blue. Shafts of sunlight break through in pieces and, refracted through the water that still hangs in the air, clinging to the stalks of plants and dripping slowly off the boles of trees, flash out in brilliance here and there. But the light remains for the most part diffuse, which perhaps accounts for the sharpness everything seems to have acquired. The greens are stronger and brighter, and the edges of objects stand out against the edges of what they abut.

The trees are always noticeable, huge straight pines and elms and firs, but now each line and rutted irregularity of the bark is defined, as well as the tangles of minor vines and stunted hedges that make covert for rabbits and little hollow rooms of greenery. The scent in the air is apple blossom and lilac: now is when they smell the strongest. Now too is when the wildflowers become noticeable. They always seem to grow alone, or in groups of no more than three, and usually in the cover of some ugly and sensible household item of industrial plastic. This violet, soft, purple, and no bigger than a thumb, looks like it sidled up to the green garbage bin an act of cockamamie bravado.

Little wildflowers, violet and buttercup and mountain phlox, grow all over the woods  as well, but even there they are not easy to find. They peep out from behind larger and more solid trees, as if anything too gaudy, profuse, anything less than humble, might tempt winter back again. But peep they do, and bravely. The apple blossom and its smell are lovely, but it’s these little solitaries, always coquetting around with frost, that seem indispensable to spring.

Of course, spring does not arrive in any dependable way until the sky stays blue not just in the heat of the day, but right up until dusk before sunset. All through the winter it’s a soft gray that blends into the snowbanks piled on the streets, and is almost indistinguishable from the feathery flakes with which it covers the crowns of the white mountains. In fact, the only objects that do not participate in or surrender to the soft grayness are the mountain pines. In the winter especially, the straight, dark, green forms dominate the horizon. Under their snowcaps they are the only persistent spots of color, jutting up from the face. Wherever you stand, your gaze goes towards them.

My walk home from work faces the mountain directly; my house is nestled at its foot. In January and February, the moment of leaving the office or classroom is especially vivid. You step out from electric lights and faded carpets and indeterminate smells into air so cold the lungs take a gasping moment to adjust. Once they have adjusted the gasping continues, because the cleanness is intoxicating. The sky’s pink glow and the clean air and the challenge of the mountain in the horizon induce an almost giddy feeling, a temptation to simply walk up into its woods and never return again to office or or rented room.

This being inadvisable and the prospect of ending my walk intolerable, I usually turn around and walk back a mile back into town to the pub. It’s a hard walk, uphill, my back to the tempting woods, and by the time I deposit myself in a bar stool I can no longer feel hands or nose: I am once again in a position to do justice to the merits of civilization.

It’s in the surrounding towns’ bars and pubs that the two New Hampshires become most evident to a stranger. Well, three New Hampshires, really. The first one, the flimsiest and most forgettable, is the slap-up gentility of charming college towns. The eateries here mostly serve undergraduates out for a beer on their parents’ credit cards, or said parents and alumni passing through town for a visit. The food and liquor and atmosphere thus have almost no identifying characteristics beyond inoffensive and (in varying degrees) luxurious; you can choose between extravagantly and only mildly overpriced pleasant mediocrity.

Because of New Hampshire and Vermont’s abundance of breweries, the beer is almost always excellent. However, if you sit down to enjoy it at one of the college-town bars, an aging executive visiting his daughter will almost certainly try to pick you (though only rarely the tab) up.

To get to to the the first of the two New Hampshires, you have to walk a mile or so over the river to one of the small hamlets nearby. The town will usually have at least one inn, and often a general store that retains the exposed timbers of its construction a hundred, two hundred years ago. The inns, which often date from colonial times, have wood burning fires, papered walls, and antique furniture. Iron farm implements hang on the walls of backyard barns, now converted into garages.

The indoor effect is chintzy, but in a cozy, cluttered way, as you might expect a retired and prosperous forest witch’s cottage to be. And though the atmosphere is rustic, the patrons coming for weekends and wine tastings are no yokels. They’re tall and silver-haired, clad in loose fitting but expensive outdoor clothing: goosedown vests and and hiking boots. Or sometimes in hand-knitted scarves, and artfully witchy wool dresses. The wealthy of rural New Hampshire are strange birds if you have only seen the wealthy of New York or Connecticut. They are as likely to run a small farm as a financial planning firm. Some have had families in the state for three hundred years. Others are aging hippies, having sold out and served the man in their youth, now enjoying the fruits of their betrayal in the form of skiiing, rustic inns, and a tolerant local attitude to marijuana.

The other New Hampshire is on display at this bar, part of a local chain of Irish pubs, which at 5 pm on a weekday, is almost entirely populated with locals. The bar’s wall sport the typical decor: the regalia of Irish sports teams, framed Gaelic platitudes, red signs reading “50 Miles to Dublin,” frequent references to the craic. It’s cozy and supremely corny, and the beer, as usual, is very good.

Many of the men and women around the bar have lived in this town as long as the silver haired aristocrats, but their accents are broader, rounder, with an almost an English inflection, often spoken through missing teeth. The men are dressed in solid, serious, un-picturesque work jeans and boots; many work have snow-plowing businesses, and some work on farms. The women are for the most part also in jeans and boots, cheaper and  slightly fussier; but in this winter no one without either substantial means or commitment to dress is prioritizing chic. Some work at the hospital, others in various service jobs in town. Most of the patrons are regulars, and Jim, the bartender, knows what they like. Jim has an earring and a motorcycle; he’s been divorced once and has a girlfriend of ten years. The other bartender, Dan, is an imposing family man with a shiny head, square jaw, son in the Marines, and Irish accent.

Everyone is intent on their beer, their hockey game, their plans for the weekend (which, in the summer, often involve the river) and local gossip. Occasionally someone talks to me, but most evenings, like this one, I finish my beer quietly and go home.

On winter nights I finish the last leg of my commute home quickly, but once the weather warms up, I linger.

There are no wild profusions of any flower in this neighborhood, which is a long, green, lane, with roomy clapboard houses and wide yards, in which, on a Sunday morning, you can hear parents telling their children in affectionate, modulated voices, how to hold their tiny trowels as they help in the yard.

In the winter the contrasting green shutters and blanketing snow make the lane picturesque. Now it is merely wealthy, fragrant, and peaceful.

At night, though, it is something else. Everyone retreats into their houses at night. There are no children lying out on the lawns, or parents lingering over a shared gin and tonic on their porches. At night the lane is given over entirely to me, and to the animals that come from the woods. There is a fox that creeps out regularly, and we barely mind each other anymore. The deer come more rarely, and in groups. I have never seen the flash of antlers, but I have seen a knock-kneed fawn.

It is hard to tell what they are at first, as you enter the lane. Shapes move in the darkness further down, shapes that could be human, but moving in too strange a way. It has none of the deliberation, the subtle deference to potential onlookers, that human shapes should have, and you grip the keys tightly between your fingers, fearing either and equally monsters or drunks.

Their eyes shine out of the gloom as you approach, and as their forms come into focus, the initial impression that they are human remains: for a moment everything seems broken, and visions of men forced to run on all fours flash through your mind. Then in a flash of moonlight you see what they are. There are often five or six of them, standing in the middle of the street, the most mundane garden pests of country and suburb, the deer.

I’m always sad to see them run away, but sometimes they tolerate me, nosing the ground quietly as I walk by. I have a one-sided comradely feeling for the deer and foxes as co-possessors of the lane at night, and miss them when they stay in the black silent woods. Without them other other night tenants are more obvious: the shadows of trees that ripple across the ground, and the little wind that seems to mutter spite under its breath.

A few of the houses have fashionable little rock piles for a garden sculpture, zen, and a little ridiculous by day, naked and alone on the lawn.  At night, though, they lose their polished triviality. Their stone contours become faces and hunched, still shoulders; they grow in size and age. To reach the warm, well-appointed interiors you have to pass under their watchful eye, aware that you are a guest. The inky black hulk of the mountain looms ahead, the stone trolls behind, and you know that the green shutters and prosperous silver-haired hippies are no more than a film, easily scraped off, and underneath the place is the granite kingdom, hard and older than memory.

At the other end of the lane, past my house, the twisted tree by the stop sign–charming in the sunlight–has taken on a shape halfway between a man and an enormous crow. In between these two poles is the house in which I rent rooms, and at this moment it seems a world away.

However, singing and walking are a match for most fears. They prove so here, especially with my face tilted back to catch as much starlight as possible. If the garden crawls with the old stony life of the mountains, the stars are the other half. They are alive and present, the most real thing in the lane: shining out of a blue-black sky, depthless and blank, stretching and curving farther than my sightline goes. Their light is clear, and as hard as the granite beneath my feet, and so bright that if you turn up your head to face them,  everything else seems to have dissolved into shadow.

When I wake up in the middle of the night, the room is never quite pitch-black. Through the window next to my bed, the stars cast shadows. The room is silver grey, with one square, framed by a cross of white wood next to my head, of deep blue sky and light. It’s easy to drift peacefully back into sleep, waiting for the clamor of birds to crack open another day.

Travelling Semi-Alone, Part Two


Day Five: Wake up wondering how that many bottles of wine disappeared at last night’s dinner party, and why you always pick fights with that type of man. The ball is today, but first, you are punting. Punting, you discover, means sitting back against the wooden frame of a small light boat and letting other people stand wobbling about the bow sticking a pole into the water. While you wait for your punt, listen to the knotty, grooved man with long white hair down his front and back. He has been here twenty years, he tells his furious supervisor, and no year is different from any other. You are quite sure he has been here as long as the colleges.

The river is slow and not very wide, with mottled walled banks rising up one side, and the college itself on the other. Pass ducks and other waterfowl, and begin to fall asleep to the slow, steady pulls of your gondolier.  At water level, half submerged, sit the swan traps, dripping gated caverns in which, at one point, unsuspecting swans ensnared themselves. They are empty now but they still look like covetous, secretive places.  As you drift off to sleep, get your mind tangled up in a story you’ve heard about a woman turned into swans, and worry that she is lurking in the swan traps. Be unable to stop thinking about those stupid swan traps, and the things that lurk in them, or should, because if fairy tales are real anywhere, they are here. But it’s obvious that they aren’t; those gaping mouths aren’t hiding lairs and escapes and bird people in their shadows, only a gentle flow of brown water, in and out. The shapes you can see moving behind the criss-crossed glass of the college windows aren’t sad, they are cheerful and clever and arrogant and young, and so you are sad instead.  Consider overturning the punt.

Later, put on your prettiest dress, and decide that if you are going to be that kind of American visiting England, you are going to be that American visiting England, by golly. Attend one of innumerable garden parties with your date, in a walled garden behind an ivy covered door. As you push aside the ivy to see a bright green lawn covered in natty sweaters and floating wisps of printed fabric holding croquet mallets, reflect that it is not really your fault, after all. Politely decline a Pimm’s cup. National drink or not, the stuff is unholy. Make a beeline for the G&T table; sit on the edge of the wall overlooking the river, talking with your date about whether or not museums are signs of a decaying civilization, and throwing daisies at the punters beneath you. Decide that if there are any openings for professional piece of sun-kissed gauzy fabric, you will send in your resume.

Later, rush off to Cambridge’s tiny center of commerce. Have adventures in Topshop. Emerge victorious with nude flats and huge bronze earrings that look like they belong on the head of some statue in Athens. Retire to dress, and for once, everything goes right. Your preparations are minimal and a little pathetic, a shower easily the most important– but this time hair stays neatly in its bun, you don’t stab yourself in the eye with eyeliner, you haven’t hugely, tragically, miscalculated the type of undergarments needed. A friend loaned you the dress, a dark green and one shouldered column, and with your earrings, you feel like a statue come to life. The girl in whose room you are staying approves, and so do you, and so you put on your Amelia Earheart jacket. Kick yourself for not bringing anything more elegant, but once you leave the dormitory, enjoy the sunset, and the feeling of walking alone to meet your date in a floor length gown and aviator jacket.


Travelling Semi-Alone, Part One

Day one: Board your flight. Contemplate the fact that you are precariously poised 30,000 feet above certain death in a giant airborne metal box with a certain morbid glee. Contemplate the complimentary gin and tonics. When you’re finished, maybe ask the motherly stewardess (those red suits and matching pumps are so awesome) for another. Have a very nice flight.

Day two but not really because you went back in time over the Atlantic: Touch down in Heathrow. Find out why Audrey Hepburn always did her jet-setting in those trim suitcoats that seem cut entirely from one piece of cloth: namely, the sensible layering of blouse, cardigan, and scarf that grandma swore would ward off  pneumonia on the plane has dislodged, shifted, and wrinkled to such an extent that as you wait in line to go through customs, you wonder if it is actually, willfully attempting to strangle you. Scout out the territory. You are supposed to meet your host at Boots, at 7:30? Or was it 8:30? Get a cup of coffee, and when she names the price just sort of helplessly shove all your undifferentiated coinage at her. Even more hysterical energy. Realize your phone is dead and doesn’t make UK calls anyway. Sit down on your suitcase in front of Boots, unsure if this is the right Boots, the right time, if you will ever see your host or family again. Know that you look like a vagrant. Own it. Revel in it. Just as you are getting kind of excited about the prospect of traipsing around England on your own and sleeping in bus terminals, you see your host walking towards you and fling your arms around his neck. Ok, so maybe you weren’t that excited.

Day two again: Wake up, recovering from jet lag, in a room with a window seat overlooking the green of Christchurch college. Everything is green or stone. People down below keep walking around in something that looks like black tie. Apparently they must wear this to take exams? What is this place? The stairways in the college are twisty and given to nooks and skylight and doors in odd places. When you get outside,  past the heavy wooden gates bolted with metal who knows how many hundred years old, everything is golden stone, towers and spires sailing off against a very blue sky. You are surprised how blue it is, because this is England after all.

The streets and lanes are cobbled; it is a little city, and red buses and crowds of scurrying people traverse its roads. The stores are full of strange wares, the pubs serving strange foods everwhere. One street is somehow always filled with diaphanous bubbles, and always all that golden stone. It is a goblin market. Go through what seems like a thousand secret gardens with tiger lilies and lavender and flowers you don’t don’t know waving around in windy sunshowers, because it is England after all, and the weather does that. Go through what seems like a million college chapels occasionally austerely but mostly extravagantly beautiful, and filled with carved stone and wood and reliquaries. Later you will mainly remember something dim and glimmer of gold and dark red. At dinner that night with your hosts’ friends, a nice English man will ask if you’ve seen Oxford, and might he show you around the next day? You will, of course, say yes.

Day three: Drink tea in a squashy armchair at the top of a college, in a large open room filled with light and clinking china. Respond to his question about Dickens, but absently because you are listening to the conversation of two tweedy Oxford dons two squashy armchairs away. Keep reminding yourself that you are here. You must be a little fierce if it is to properly sink in.

Your date-cum-tour guide seems, you’re not sure why, to have escaped from James Herriot’s village–he is not from Yorkshire, but something about his square  face and slow, thoughtful kindness.  He takes you through more stone archways and past deer parks (with deer!) and along the little river,  but your real attention is on the pub at the end of the tour–the pub where the Inklings apparently met, but you don’t even think about that, because you aren’t really thinking at all–you are just noticing how low the ceilings are, how so much dark wood and small space can allow the sunlight to gleam  and dimple around the table and the foam on the Guinness. There are so many different kinds of light here. It is a very good pint.

Day four: Leave for Cambridge, which is just like Oxford, except different. It is a little town, not a little city, and completely flat except for one very steep hill which you will climb and descend exactly a half million times. The houses are small, with sharp slanting roofs roofs, and interspersed with the shops and pubs. The restaurants all seem incredibly delicious, but your impressions will probably be colored by that fact that you are subsisting on breakfast and a pint a day. It’s quieter here, and the sky seems wider and pink and gray, and there is one moment stooping under the low frame into the pub and staying suspended, as you cross the threshold, between the street folded up in the pink warm dusk and the cool chinking, murmuring interior that is your whole summer.