Weather and a countdown

I see that John Hee is noting the approach of spring in the New Forest. This really perks me up. Our daughter and son-in-law live in Minnesota. Yesterday it was -11°F (-24°C), with a windchill of -40°F (-40°C). No problem. She says she only fell down once.

Right now, Woodbury’s weather is unusually warm for this time of year, but it’s giving me good Scotland practice: a few degrees above freezing, frequent rain showers, and occasional gusting wind. Paul and I looked like drowned rats after our walk this morning, but my Precip rainjacket continues to make its case for inclusion in my TGOC kit.

Alan Sloman reminds us that Challengers have the Napoleonic 100 Days before we begin our trans-Caledonian stroll, and calls these the days of preparation and nervous apprehension. He’s exactly right, at least in my case. I hope I avoid a personal Waterloo and am able to “look back and smile at all those imagined terrors of this time.”

Thanks, John and Alan, for vital encouragement of two different kinds.

Town clock

Our town clock is in the steeple of the First Congregational Church—for good historical reasons a common situation in small New England towns. When I was in my teens my grandfather, then in his 70s, had the job of winding it, and I often helped him. (The job carried a small honorarium, forever undisclosed to my grandmother.) Getting up to the tiny belfry space that housed the mechanism entails climbing successive flights of increasingly rickety stairs, after first reaching for the secreted key in its hiding place and flicking on a sequence of dim lights.

The weights for the mechanism are two big wooden boxes filled with field stone, and our job was to raise them to the top of their runs. The “clock” box is the smaller of the two, and the cranking was easy—one-handed, really. The “bell” box is gigantic, and the cranking there, usually something over a hundred turns, was a much more substantial job, definitely two-handed, and you really had to get your back into it. (My grandfather demonstrates below, though for lack of space he is facing the wrong way and is posing over the easy “clock” gear, not the bigger “bell” gear in front of him.) At 17, I’d always try to do it without resting, something that seemed insane when I became the clock-winder myself. Then I’d do 30, rest, do 30, rest, then try to find someone else to finish.

I’d been out of the belfry for many years when I showed up at a Selectman’s meeting one evening in the ’80s, grumping that the clock was almost 10 minutes slow and that my grandfather had never let that happen. The response from my colleagues was inevitable, and I became the town clock-winder for something over a decade. My rule was to keep the clock to within 30 seconds of dead accurate, which I usually managed by setting it 30 seconds fast and letting it slow down a minute over the days between visits. The polls close here at 8 pm on election day, and it always pleased me that the election moderator used the bell in the steeple as the official time.

The system had its quirks. In the spring, I could simply advance the hands an hour for Daylight Savings Time, but the adjusting wheel wouldn’t turn a full hour backward, so in the fall I had to stop the pendulum, go away for an hour, and return to give it a push to begin Standard Time. A greater inconvenience was that, because there wasn’t enough run for the clock weights, I couldn’t simply appear on the same day every week. Instead, I had to climb the belfry a day sooner than I had the week before. I say “I”, but like my grandfather, I often had company, usually in the form of my father or my young daughter, but sometimes simply a curious friend or neighbor who just wanted to see how things worked. On the wall of the belfry space, many of the winders have left their autographs and dates. I remember watching my grandfather inscribe his, and seeing my daughter do the same three decades later.

I knew some of the earlier winders, and was told about others by old residents. My favorite story is about the man responsible for the clock in the first part of the last century. He was a stickler for accuracy, and because he knew the telegraph company always kept strict time, he assumed that the little Woodbury Telephone Company, housed in a small building a few hundred yards south of the church, did too. So before he’d go to wind the clock, he’d call the operator and ask her the time. She would excuse herself, return, and give him his answer, satisfying him that the clock was running accurately. One day he asked her why she had to leave her console to check the time. “Why,” she told him, “I go out onto Main Street so I can see the Town Clock.”

I retired as town clock-winder at the end of 1999, after helping to promote a painstaking refurbishing of the external clock faces and the 1876 clock mechanism itself. I was replaced by an electric motor, which winds but doesn’t adjust. The clock is often 10 minutes slow.

Missing grace

Since she was very young our daughter has been my favorite partner in the hills. The only thing that could make me more excited about the 2008 Challenge would be her joining me on the walk. Alas, it’s not on this year.

We took H on her first overnight when she was four. The AMC has a belt of huts across the belly of the White Mountain National Forest, eight of them, a day’s walk apart, from just west of Franconia Notch to just east of Pinkham Notch. The huts are enclosed and staffed, and are, in both senses of the word, rough equivalents of the refuges, huttes, and refugios of the Alps. We chose Zealand Falls Hut, fourth along the line, which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post as our Nalgene-destruction site. It’s easy to get to from the nearest trailhead, a nearly flat three-mile walk along what once was the bed of a logging railroad, before a stiff climb over the last tenth of a mile reminds you you’re still in New Hampshire. The hut sits next to a lovely waterfall, and looks down Zealand Notch toward a jagged line of peaks to the south. We had a wonderful time, and it remained her favorite goal on birthday trips with young friends or cousins.

Five years later (and about five years after the photo above was taken), H and I headed for Zealand in winter, when the hut is on caretaker status (little heat, cook your own food). The ski tour is one of the classics of the New England winter. We planned an overnight in-and-out. The approach road, which gains more elevation than the trail itself, is closed in winter, so the distance doubles, but it’s not technically demanding. We hopped out of the car, sniffed the breeze, looked at each other, said, “not bad” and hit the trail. We didn’t know at the time, though I certainly should have, but it was -6° F (-27° C).

The plan was to stop at the halfway point, where the summer approach road ends and the trail begins, to boil some water for drinks and lunch and give H some practice using the Whisperlite. But by the time we got there, she was worn down, very cold, and still faced over an hour’s ski to the hut. She suffered a teary and miserable half-hour while I sat her down out of the wind, bundled her up, fixed her some soup, and made some adjustments in her clothing. This was partly an equipment problem. Good cold-weather stuff for kids was hard to find in those days, and the overboots we’d fashioned for her didn’t really fill the bill. But it was mostly a stupid father problem. Remarkably, when I knelt to console her—to apologize, really—she sniffed, “It’s okay. I’ll be all right.” And she was. She gradually rallied once we got on the trail proper (much nicer skiing), we had a wonderful evening at the hut, which included a quick trip outside to ooh and ahh over the aurora borealis, and we enjoyed a fantastic gliding ski out the next day in warm, bright sunlight. Like almost all dads, I’ve always been proud of my daughter, but her response under the conditions, at her age, remains one of the most steadfast and generous acts I’ve experienced, in the mountains or anywhere else.

So I’ll miss her on the Challenge not just for her company or her competence and reliability in the hills, but for her resolve, her good humor, and especially for the comfort she invariably brings (and the absolution she grants) to those who need it. Maybe we should have named her Grace.

Birthday Boy

I’m turning 60 today. My father, who turned 84 last week, just called to wish me the usual, and reminded me of the story of his trying to get my mother to the hospital just after a big snowstorm. They didn’t have a car, and he’d called for a cab. My mother’s father, frantic with concern for beloved daughter and first grandchild, decided that they’d waited long enough, that the driver must have gotten lost. So he went tearing off into the snowdrifts to look for him. Of course, the cab immediately arrived, my parents bundled in, and my grandfather was left standing on some drift-covered curb somewhere. It’s a semi-famous, much-embroidered family tale, one I’ve heard at least once a year as long as I can remember. This year, it dawned on me that I am now eight years older than my grandfather was when he went off looking for that taxi.

I understand how this post-middle age landmark anniversary could be a bit fraught. But I take my angst where I find it, and I’m delighted to say that right now I’m not finding much. Things are good … for all the wonderful, boring reasons: a great, close-knit extended family; superb, admirable, interesting, and healthy friends; good health and reasonable fitness of my own; and some events and challenges coming along later this year to add a little spice to the unsalted Tuscan bread of my life.

Today I’m allowed potato chips, which I will consume in great quantities—with champagne, of course, to demonstrate what a class guy I am. I will watch my favorite team, the University of Connecticut Huskies (UConn Huskies, get it?), thump the Tarheels of North Carolina in a women’s basketball game. My dad will bring me a pound of dried apricots. My friends will mock my decrepitude.

Not too bad.


Last night I managed to delete my entire blogroll. I think I’ve remade it properly this morning. If you were listed and don’t find your blog in the new list (and care), please let me know and I’ll pop it back in.

The Challenge and the campaign

Well, I’m back in communion with my own computer, in my own office, so regular posts will once again be available to a public ravenous for these fascinating ruminations. This morning, excavating pyramids of detritus both temporal and digital, I found this piece, which I’d meant to post long ago, but tucked aside and forgot.

With the exception of a few years here and a few years there, I’ve lived in this town for over five decades, but I sometimes feel like a stranger in a strange land. The receipt of my Big Envelope in November came at the end of a week during which I’d been attending to the odds-and-ends aftermath of an unusual, urgent, rushed small town political campaign that I ran from late October to Election Day on November 6. Without going into detail, I’ll say that a friend suggested that my slogan should be, “Strong Convictions, but no Indictments.” I am long retired from what could be called local politics, hadn’t really been paying attention, and it was too late to get on the ballot. So I had to run as an independent write-in candidate, a drawback that I hoped I’d be able to overcome, but despite great support from a number of people and the kind of rabble-rousing pictured above, couldn’t quite manage in the two weeks available. I got 1,000 of 2,300 votes. And so a person who was forced to resign his state office in disgrace continues to hold a position of honor in our town.

It would be profoundly untrue to say that I’m glad I lost my election. It was, to me and those who supported me, one of those extremely rare black-or-white, we-know-we’re-right situations. But if I’d won, I would have had to decline my place on the Challenge, since my presence would have been required here for our annual Town Meeting on the third Monday of May.

So in my disappointment, it was soothing balm indeed to be able to receive the good news from Scotland with utter delight and no reservations. I’m now looking forward to spending Monday, May 19, walking from Lochcallater Lodge to Clova over Jock’s Road.

Now the urgent question is what to do with all these lawn signs….

(Six or seven weeks on, I can tell you that I took most of them to the transfer station for recycling and proper disposal, saved one for sentiment, and two are slated for use as spill and splash protectors under paint cans.)

Water bottles

As I wrote last time, my kit’s mostly set, but I’m having to buy some new water bottles. Our Nalgenes are all ancient, and they’ve been cracking and failing in use. Besides, I’ve been pondering an appropriate vessel to double as a hot water bottle at night. My circulation has turgidified, and my fingers and toes turn icy even when it’s not exactly freezing out. I take shorter trips here at home, and in chilly weather often tuck in a few of those little chem warmers just in case, but I don’t want to carry the load in Scotland. I’m thinking of a half-liter Nalgene, but I’d rather not add the volume, either. So I’m also thinking of a Nalgene Cantene, which is basically a Platy with a Nalgene top. But I’m worried it might spring a leak. I may wind up bagging the whole idea, but I’m still pondering. I also need a new pee bottle, and am thinking along the same lines and worried about the same issues. Maybe one bottle could…nah.

A friend wondered why I didn’t just send all my disintegrating Nalgenes back to be replaced, since the people at Nalge are usually very good about this. They are, indeed. Many years ago, back when they had the old-style hard plastic top, I bought a liter bottle. The top failed (the loop broke) when our daughter, then a very small girl, fell off a bench at Zealand Falls Hut and the full bottle slammed into the floor and a bunk post at just the right angle and velocity. I contacted the company and was told to screw the top on, cut an inch or so of the top of the bottle off, send the resulting exhibit back for the engineers to take a look at, and they would replace it. The next week, a brand new bottle appeared, and I was happy. The following week, another brand new bottle appeared, and I thought perhaps this was Nalge’s way of saying “we’re sorry we inconvenienced you.” The next week, another brand new bottle arrived. And I was confused. One more week, one more bottle. Concern. After another week and another bottle, I called the company, explained that someone there must have pushed the wrong button, and ended the stream of new Nalgenes. They didn’t want the extras back, and we’ve been using these bottles ever since. They’ve been great until recently, when they obviously reached their expiration date. (The one above burst in our daughter’s pack, adding a little extra dampness to a canoe trip.) Nalge owes us nothing.

I’ve only in the last year or so converted to using a Platy for drinking on the trail. After two instances in the mountains when I felt ill and had headaches, it dawned on me that I was getting dehydrated. I’d always drunk what I thought was a sufficient amount of water, but clearly something had changed in my metabolism and I needed to drink more. The Platy makes that easy, and I’ve had no more trouble.

These adjustments that you learn you have to make as you get older remind me of the process a batter has to go through against a new pitcher. You go to the plate the first time and try your normal approach. The pitcher throws stuff at speeds or to spots that get you out. You go up the next time and the time after with increasingly better information, you modify your approach, and if you’re good, and lucky, you begin to hit the guy. Of course, a good hitter fails seven times out of 10 anyway. That wouldn’t be so hot with dehydration. Though I’d be happy to reach that level with my analogies.


My kit is my kit…pretty well sorted out over the years. Not super lightweight, but put together with comfortable walking over difficult and varied terrain very much in mind. Depending on how much food and water I have aboard, I’ll be carrying 18-25 lb. (8-11 kg.) The only significant clothing element still up in the air is raingear. I’m concerned about the kind of chilly multi-day downpour Scotland has occasionally been known to produce, and I’m wondering weather to stick with my Marmot Precip or to go with a Paramo-style top. I’ve gotten thoughtful advice in both directions, and I change my mind weekly. I think I’ll be fussing with this for a few months yet.

And ticks. I’m worried about ticks. Most impressed by reports of “tick infested” campsites. My father was knocked out late last year by a tick-born illness called ehrlichiosis, and he spent a very nasty couple of weeks, and a long time recovering. I usually walk in shorts down to about 40° F (4° C.) or so, but because of the little bloodsuckers, this is perhaps not a great idea, especially in the west. My seldom-used long trousers are RailRiders, and my rainpants, which I pull on even less often, are light, full-zip Red Ledges. I may just stick with the tried and true, but I’m contemplating Cascadas to cover both bases (and, most likely, both legs).

We’ve been using Stephenson Warmlite tents since the early ’70s. Once, when we lived near London for a while, we took a coach with a club up to the Lakes, piling out into a dark and soggy farm field late on a chilly and very wet night, and were comfortably snuggled in our sleeping bags in about five minutes flat. We lay there emitting self-congratulatory giggles until the hammering and invective of our soaked fellow campers ceased some considerable time later. The Warmlite 2, which then was actually called the Warmlite 6, has always been a quick, taut pitch, sturdy in winds, and extraordinarily roomy for its weight. Very hard to beat. I’ve got a fairly new one now, even lighter, and it will be my shelter from Mallaig to the east coast. (Mine’s a nameless model 2, similar to Gayle E Bird’s Wendy, and unlike Alan Sloman’s famous Wanda, which (who?) is a shorter and lighter model 2C, a recent innovation designed for climbers who often have less room for pitching.)

I’ve been sleeping in the same Feathered Friends Swallow for a long time, too. It’s rated to 20° F. (-7° C.), weighs 2 lb. (900 g.), stuffs pretty small, and will keep me cozy.

I carry a McHale 0-SARC pack—comfortable, sturdy, and light enough. It claims 3,000 cu. in. (50 l.), but it’s clearly got more volume than that. I use a couple of hip-belt pockets for things like reading glasses, kerchief, lip balm, and camera. Did I say the pack is comfortable?

Little else of interest, just the usual mundanities. I’ll probably mention a few in future posts.

Oh, shoes. I used to wear Limmers, big, heavy, classic mountain boots beautifully built in New Hampshire for walking the steep and rocky trails of the White Mountain National Forest. I’ve gradually moved to lighter and lighter footwear, and will probably show up in Scotland in a pair of Montrail Hardrocks. I used Vitesses on the Tour du Mont Blanc in 2006, and they were fine once I paired them up with appropriate sox (my light running anklets were not so hot). But they’re hard to find now, and I’ve been walking in Hardrocks. They’ll do.

Does anyone recognize the location in the blister-easing photo above?

A cup of kindness yet

We always throw a Boxing Day party at our house, but for the first time in decades, our schedule this year made it impossible. Nobody in the States knows what Boxing Day is, and our guests usually wind up calling it “Boxer Day,” (mental picture of a bloody Robert Di Niro doing knee bends in the corner near the drinks) but we always have a great crowd and a great party. We missed seeing everyone this year…but we’ll be back!

I’ll be away and without easy access to computer for New Year’s Eve and much of January (though I’ll try to post occasionally), so I’m extending early wishes for a memorable Hogmanay and a peaceful new year. May your celebrations be as sober and elegant as mine.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fere!
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.

A few good looks

A couple of belated Christmas offerings.

The photo above, which I actually promised in the post below on Mt. Washington, is this morning’s view north from the summit, showing part of the ridge of the northern Presidential Range, including Clay (an almost-president Presidential), Jefferson, and Adams. Madison is out of the picture to the right. (Photo credit: Mt. Washington Observatory.) Temperature at 9:45 am: 22.7°F (-5°C), wind 41.5 mph (67 kph), wind chill 2.6°F (-16°C).

And a gift to those who have not already unwrapped it for themselves: Have a look at Daryl May’s LEJOG Website. I don’t know if it’s Lands’ End or John O’ Groat’s or what’s in between, but there’s obviously something in that walk that brings out something special in those who write about it. Or maybe it attracts those who are already special. Whichever it is, Daryl joins the corps.

A peaceful holiday season to all.