WASHINGTON, N.H. -- Almost five decades ago, four young men at the end of their teens sat in Brigham's in Belmont eating ice cream. One turned to the others and said, "We're not from the country, we're not from the city; we're from the suburbs. That's like being vanilla. Let's get out of here and go camping."
A week later, they pulled into Pillsbury State Park in Washington, N.H., to spend a weekend in the woods. They were excited to find that their campsite sat on the edge of one of the campground's two lakes, May Pond, which connects to smaller Buttercup Pond. After they pitched their tent less than 30 feet from the water's edge, they rented rowboats and set out to explore the park by water.
Two hours later, tired from rowing, they beached their boats back at their camp and gathered wood for a fire, grilling hot dogs and hamburgers. Later, when the moon had risen, one of them suggested going out on the water again. The idea was greeted by a mad scramble to the boats. In less than 10 minutes, they sat in the center of May Pond under a three-quarter moon, listening to the mournful wail of loons.
Today the rowboats are gone, replaced by canoes and kayaks, but the campsites remain as undeveloped and rough as they were all those years ago. Pillsbury State Park still offers a portal back to a simpler, more rustic time, when the day's defining events were sunrise, sunset, and moonrise. The state classifies the park as primitive, which means it has only pit toilets (outhouses), spigots for water, and no showers or electricity. (Campers can show their permits at nearby Sunapee State Park for free day use, which includes showering and swimming.) This may account for the fact that, despite its accessible location in western New Hampshire, the park offers a sense of seclusion rare in a front country campground in midsummer, when even the rugged backcountry of the White Mountains teems with escaped city folk. In short, car camping in the East doesn't get much better than this.
The hiking trails -- six, including a stretch of the 51-mile Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway -- are where many visitors find the solitude they're looking for, but it is water that sets this place apart. There are about a dozen ponds and wetlands pocking the park's 5,500 acres of forest, though most of the 41 campsites are clustered around May and Butterfield ponds. Here, especially at dawn and dusk, the slow glide through still water opens a curtain on an experience too many have never known or have forgotten.
At nightfall the loons take center stage. Campers drop into sleep listening to their plaintive calls and awaken at first light to the raucous scoldings of crows. The sun backlights reeds glistening in the spectral mist.
After a smoky camp breakfast, it is impossible to resist pushing off in the kayaks. The boats slice almost silently through the water. Pyramidal chunks of granite -- some as large as buses, others tortoise-sized -- line the shore and poke through the surface. Their sharp angles seem to align in one direction, suggesting the path of the glacier's retreat. The mineral smell of lake water mingles with the resinous scent of pines.
Occasionally a dark shape looms, mooselike, near the shore, but each time it turns out to be a great stump or a rock. The park, with its shallow water and boggy lowlands, is perfect habitat. Staff members say the moose keep company here with beavers, turkeys, deer, and black bears, along with the more predictable raccoons and chipmunks.
Out on the pond with no houses in sight, it is easy to imagine being 200 years back in time, exploring a virgin wilderness. But the opposite is true: Settlers cleared farmland here in the 1700s, and loggers took over in the early part of the next century, when the property became home to a bustling lumber camp called Cherry Valley. Today cellar holes and the remnants of old mills are overgrown by a newer forest of pine, hemlock, beech, and birch.
Suddenly, two loons burst from between the two ponds and streak across the lake. They leave a wake as they zigzag past like a pair of feathered jetskis.
A purple kayak emerges from the mist, paddled by Rose Foote, who says she has spent the past 40-odd summers at Pillsbury State Park. This season finds her ensconced in a canvas-wall tent with a stovepipe trickling smoke from a side vent. Every morning she walks from her campsite to the edge of the water, where she launches her kayak to circumnavigate May Pond. She repeats the ritual before sunset. Rose is 95.
Back in camp, with cars and pickups parked at individual campsites, it is clear that Pillsbury is far from being wild. But the lack of electricity or showers provides a taste of the outdoors a tad stronger than vanilla. When departure day arrives, those new to Pillsbury may find themselves mentally thumbing through their calendars to find the next block of time they can set aside for a return.
Bill Regan and Jane Roy Brown live in Western Massachusetts.