There comes a moment on every getaway, whether it's a week in Europe, a weekend on the Cape, or just a day trip through the foliage in the Berkshires, when a certain calm settles in, all those problems back at the office disappear, the broken dishwasher doesn't matter anymore, the phones aren't ringing and the computers aren't beeping, and it feels like, well, vacation.
It was shortly after 1 p.m. on the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend when that feeling hit me. My wife and I had driven a half-hour from our campsite in Conway to Glen Ellis Falls on Route 16, near the Pinkham Notch visitors center. We had climbed 1,800 feet in elevation on a grueling path in the White Mountains, including one stretch more treacherous than we had bargained for that had us crawling up a particularly steep rock. We had followed the Glen Boulder Trail up past waterfalls, streams, pines, and above the tree line before reaching our destination.
We were alone and drenched in sweat once we got to the actual Glen Boulder, and it was windy and chilly and gray clouds were racing by, but none of it mattered. The views were breathtaking and, sitting in silence, we gobbled up our lunch of turkey sandwiches, cheese and crackers, granola bars, and gorp. We were sitting just feet from the boulder, which sits precariously balanced on a ridge that overlooks the highway, when that moment arrived. I was relaxed. Wet, rubber-legged, and hungry. But relaxed.
Living in these parts it's easy to take for granted the Whites. We think "weekend getaway" and it's usually the Provincetown ferry or the Berkshires or the Vineyard and Nantucket or Manhattan. But none of those can give you the beauty and tranquillity of nature that you find in the White Mountains. And if you do what we did, and find a campground instead of a motel or bed-and-breakfast, and grill some chicken and hot dogs and roast marshmallows while sitting by a crackling fire in the dark woods, it's impossible to feel stressed.
Our weekend was an adventure in last-minute planning. We wanted to go camping, but first wanted to see if the weather was going to hold. Once Tuesday arrived and the coming holiday weekend looked clear, we called dozens of campgrounds, both state and private, and accepted the reality that the state ones were booked and we would have to settle for private.
There are literally hundreds of campgrounds in the White Mountains, so there is no way to know what you're getting unless you have a recommendation or a history with one. Cove Camping Area seemed to fit our needs. Close to a cute town, North Conway, with shops, restaurants, even an array of prized outlets, but deep in the woods, on a lake, with hot showers. (OK, so we're not Grizzly Adams, but hot water is our only requirement for camping. Honest.)
We got there Friday night around 8, bought some firewood at the camp store, and quickly set up camp as best we could in the dark. Other campers were arriving too, so it was bustling. Our site was small, and a little too close for comfort to the other tents, but it was wooded, and flat enough, and equipped with a fire pit and picnic table. Too tired to make a fire and cook, we drove into North Conway for dinner at Horsefeathers. The menu has it all, from sandwiches and burgers to salads and soups to steaks and fish, and it's all plenty good (and the Sox were on TV in the bar area, winning, which only livened the mood).
We slept fine Friday night in our tent, maneuvering our sleeping bags around a few roots on the ground, and woke Saturday morning early to make some pancakes on our propane stove. The downside to camping, as were reminded overnight, is that the walls are pretty thin, needless to say, so every cough, sneeze, and argument is easily heard or understood. Relationships, like the tents, are out in the open.
Our hike Saturday would turn out to be the longer but easier of our two days. We climbed up to Lowe's Bald Spot from the Pinkham Notch visitors center, about a 3-mile climb along a mostly dirt trail that takes you to a spectacular view of Mount Washington.
Inspired, we climbed back down and decided we had to see the view from Mount Washington, even if it was on wheels, not on foot. We drove a few miles north on Route 16 to the Mount Washington Auto Road, forked over the hefty $25 fee ($18 for me and the car, another $7 for the passenger), and wound our way up the narrow, winding, steep 8-mile road, taking my Honda Accord out of first gear only twice the entire way up. It's not a drive for the meek or defensive driver, or for anyone with a fear of heights (no guardrails!), but the view makes it all worthwhile.
"Look at the fog," my wife said as we reached the parking lot at the top, more than 6,200 feet up.
"That's not fog," I answered. "Those are clouds."
Standing atop Mount Washington with clouds racing by, clutching my shivering wife, feeling as though we were on top of the world, even if it was just our little corner of the world, could actually have been that "moment" of relaxation for our trip. But then there were the 300 or so other people standing around us, the tourist shop hawking $20 T-shirts, and the stream of cars and motorcycles coming and going, and suddenly it didn't feel so special.
Our moment would come the next day, by foot, sitting alone in the shadow of a really big rock. Home was not even 200 miles away, but it might as well have been the other side of the planet.
Doug Most can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.