The Nation's Pulse

Almost Dying in the White Mountains

While living free amid the fall colors and Antarctic winds of the Granite State.

By 10.19.10

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Thanks to the generous hospitality of old friends, despite the taunting of my peers claiming that I was going on a senior citizen fall color tour, my wife and I journeyed to the lovely town of Jackson, New Hampshire this October.

Jackson is a place beyond the imaginings of even the most devoted viewers of the TV series Newhart (1982-1990), which, while set in Vermont, captured the imagination of this son of the Midwest and fortified my L.L. Bean fantasies of fall splendor in New England.

Neither we nor our other traveling companions, friends from St. Louis, were disappointed.

Crossing a beautiful covered bridge, we entered one of the charming towns which thrive in the shadow of the White Mountains and the towering Mount Washington.

We had arrived at the peak of the fall colors in early October which intensified every day we were there. The New England chill was invigorating and the sunlight was crystalline. The beauty was almost painful to behold.

But imagine our surprise when we attempted to drive up to the top of Mount Washington, were stopped half way up because of snow and ice on the summit.

Making the best of the situation, we joined other travelers at a pull-out to take in the view of the surrounding Presidential Range, including Mount Adams and Mount Madison. Stepping out of the car, even in the bright sunlight, we entered Antarctica. The wind was gusting up to over 70 miles per hour and the wind chill was around 17 degrees below zero.

We could hardly stand up, holding onto each other to keep our legs from being blown out from under us.

An employee at this site, standing bravely in the blasting wind while directing traffic, was philosophic about his condition. "What a job," he said. Frustrated that many of the drivers were not taking his instructions to pull over and not attempt to go any further up the mountain, he shook his head at the backed up traffic on the road. "Those who don't speak English go on, but smart people pull over here."

Only later did we learn that Mount Washington has the most irascible weather in the lower 48 states and maybe the worst weather in the world. Evidently, despite its modest elevation of 6,288 feet above sea level, it is smack dab in the path of the Jet Stream, or so I am told. It is the roughest part of the Appalachian Trail and deaths have occurred on the mountain when unwary or inexperienced hikers are caught in a weather shift. There is a major research station on the top of the mountain.

Note to free marketeers: the road up Mount Washington is private, a kind of toll road, which first opened in 1861. Evidently, they have kept the concession even though the surrounding land is all National Forest property.

The White Mountains start from a much lower point above sea level (Jackson is at less than a thousand feet), lower, say, than the Rockies which gradually emerge out of the high plains. They rise very sharply and are quite striking in character. Given the elevations they have very high timber lines. So their slopes are mostly covered with forests which provide spectacular vistas in the fall and probably the summer, too, for that matter. Moreover, the Dixville and Crawford Notches, what in other parts of the country would be called gaps or passes, are breathtaking and must be a challenging drive in the snow and ice of a New England winter.

The Balsams, built in 1866 and one of the Grand Resort Hotels of New Hampshire, is situated right at Dixville Notch where, since 1960, the first votes in the nation are cast in a presidential election year. This hotel must be seen to be believed. White, expansive and of wood construction, amidst overwhelming landscape, it is a delight.

There are several of these in New Hampshire, including the Mount Washington Resort, where the Bretton Woods agreement was negotiated after World War II.

A Michigander would recognize the architectural antecedents of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in these and other hotels and resorts in New Hampshire.

When not taking in the remarkable scenery and landscape, we spent a lot of time talking, eating and drinking with our good friends who migrated to New England from the Heartland. They are skiers and have marvelous taste. Thus, they settled in Jackson.

We did visit the local resort in Jackson, another of the grand establishments in the state, The Wentworth, which has wonderful food and very elegant rooms for guests, was just a short walk from our friends' house. The owner is Swiss, has an Irish wife, and is host to travelers from all over the world. The food is excellent.

This being New England, with several states in close proximity, we also paid a visit to the Fryeburg Fair across the state line in the Maine town of that name.

The West Oxford Agricultural Society was founded in 1851. It included nine Maine towns and then six towns from New Hampshire. It was the prime mover of the fair.

The first fair was held here in 1885. While much smaller than, say, the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, the scale is very humane and the animal husbandry on display is as impressive as one might find anywhere in the country. Over 300,000 people attend this event, which lasts a week and covers 180 acres. Draft horses, harness racing, lots of great, fattening food, and crafts are all on display.

Unlike the Granite State, Maine appears to have more fertile bottom land, at least in those parts, and agriculture is a mainstay of the local economy.

My wife and I, along with our friends who joined us on this trip to New Hampshire, are now going through withdrawal. Our fall expedition to New England, the chance to see a marvelous part of America and catch up with good friends must be one of those "unbought graces of life" which Edmund Burke described.

Live free and die in New Hampshire. Sounds like a plan.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.