Sunday, December 20, 2009

Thelma, Louise, and Landscape

What is it about inland western landscape that makes it such a rich setting for film? Its features are emblazoned in American consciousness, woven into perceptions of our history and identity. Perhaps its stark, arid texture is intrinsically suited to the violence and romance of drama.

In Thelma and Louise, a landmark movie still too recent to gain popular recognition as a classic, director Ridley Scott develops landscape into its own character. Its evolution matches the maturation of the two main characters themselves.

When it was released in 1991, Thelma and Louise thrilled feminists. Janet Maslin, the outspoken critic at The Times, penned the movie a love letter of a review, citing its “sense of freedom and excitement.” Yet in 2007, Judith Warner, another Times columnist, wrote, “Remember, in 1991, how topical the movie seemed? How revolutionary, how thrilling, how cathartic?” Now, after watching the movie again, “It simply seemed depressing, oppressive and hopeless. It seemed like a relic from the past, a buried memory. It was dark. It was disturbing.”

Thelma and Louise polarized viewers in 1991, often by gender. Some male critics rather defensively criticized the movie’s one-dimensional portrayal of its male villains. Their point is literally true—we never learn why Darryl, Thelma’s husband, is so abusive —but misses the point that intimidation is usually one-dimensional to its victims.

At its core, as Warner points out, Thelma and Louise is about sexual violence motivated by male fears of female empowerment. The attempted rape in an Arkansas truck stop that sparks the movie’s plot is much more chilling than Louise’s shooting of the assailant. Tension infuses every one of Thelma and Louise’s interactions along the road, all of which are with men. The dynamics shift, however; when they reach the towers and buttes of southern Utah, the once spacey and submissive Thelma locks a state trooper in his trunk and blows up a tanker belonging to a misogynistic trucker.

As the two drive deeper into canyon country, Scott lingers on the empty, barren landscape, and he also uses more close-up shots of their faces, emphasizing the dust and absence of make-up. “You feel awake?” asks Thelma to Louise. A moment later, she continues. “Wide awake. I don't remember ever feelin' this awake. Everything looks different. You know what I mean. I know you know what I mean. Everything looks new. Do you feel like that? Like you've got something to look forward to?”

Cigarettes and whiskey bottles are piling up by this point, and the film’s last twenty minutes, with its guns, chases, and vast panoramas, are worthy of a bona fide western. The film’s most ominous shot is a chilling panorama showing their Thunderbird kicking up a long tail of dust along the lip of the Grand Canyon. Slowly, a helicopter glides out from behind the cliff like a bird of prey, unseen by the car’s occupants.

Roger Ebert has justly criticized Scott’s lack of faith in his ending—the freeze frame of the car shooting across the Grand Canyon fades to white far too quickly, and the subsequent shot of Thelma and Louise in happier times robs the moment of its emotional impact.

Nonetheless, Scott makes an important point through this allusion. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, these two outlaws choose to go out on their own terms. Women belong in the history of the west, and not simply as appendages.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Starting Point

The following piece, sadly homeless, dates from July:

“I’m a lazy farmer,” says Carolyn Fryberger, contemplating a fried Duck egg. Indeed, an 8 AM wake-up is late, especially if midday heat is to be avoided. But it’s an unusually cool summer in Swannanoa, North Carolina, where she is halfway through the first season on her new Crossing Point Farm.

This morning, she’s helping a friend harvest chickens. Crossing Point is small, just under an acre, with a ten member CSA, so to make extra money she hires herself out to other farmers, as well as working a part-time job as a School Garden Educator for the Town of Black Mountain. “The farm pays for itself, but not for me…yet,” she explains. After a little weeding—ragweed is threatening her pepper plants, already stressed by a fungus—she drives a few miles down the road, where a mobile chicken processing unit is waiting. Thanks to the USDA, a farmer must process any chickens he sells on his own farm. It’s a labor-intensive job, so between neck-cutting, feather-plucking, and eviscerating the birds’ guts, it helps to have five on the job besides the owner and Carolyn.

Raised in Black Mountain, just east down I-40, Carolyn attended Macalester for two years, studying Geography and Environmental Studies. “It means a lot to me to be from a place,” she says, explaining her subsequent transfer to UNC-Asheville, where she completed her degree in 2007. Farming “is the culmination of many different threads in my life.” These include African dance—“A lot of those dances are based in celebration of harvest”—as well as her academic studies. “Within the Environmental Studies field there’s a negative paradigm of the human-environment relationship. Farming is something I can do to restore it.”

After graduation, Carolyn moved to Austin, Texas, where she interned with an ambitious young farmer supplying urbanites with organic produce. The summer heat was brutal, and the farmer, burdened by debt, worked his interns hard. “After Texas, I had still survived,” she says. “I figured if I could make it in that heat, then I can do it. But I wanted to be back home.” She learned about the small parcel of land available for rent in Swannanoa, conveniently situated near Asheville. Nestled among houses built for workers employed by the Beacon blanket factory, it has been cultivated on and off for 70 years. “This whole thing is only possible due to the community here. I’m supported by this whole group of family, friends, neighbors and other farmers. Everything I have on this farm is used. Some people buy from me simply because they know me. For a first year farmer, that’s huge.”

She hopes to work on this piece of land for four years and then take stock of her situation. “I think of this as my graduate studies.”

Back at Crossing Point in the late afternoon, Carolyn and her intern, a young engineer who recently quit her job, are weeding again. It’s work that makes the body stiff and sore, and unlike harvesting, it is peculiarly frustrating because it lacks finality: the weeds always come back. Tomorrow is pick-up day for the CSA, and Carolyn is thinking about how to fill out the bags she prepares for her customers. Most pay $25 a week (for a 15 week season), so it is important that she give them good value. But in this, her first year of production, yields are unpredictable, particularly early on in the season. Her neighbors are surprised that she is not growing more corn, beans, and potatoes, but arugula and bok choi are what customers want.

Finally, at 7, Carolyn and the intern return to the house. “It’s difficult finding balance between how long I actually need to work and being able to get away from it and have time for myself, especially since it’s right in the backyard.” She works later in the day than most farmers—“When I go to sleep at night, it’s looming outside the window.”

Tonight, however, she’s off to the Swannanoa Gathering, an annual folk and bluegrass music festival at the nearby Warren Wilson college campus. Knots of people sit here and there, starting informal jam sessions, while the curious and appreciative look on. Banjo left at home, she’s brought a kale salad and watermelon to share in a potluck with friends who are thrilled to see her away from the farm. Square dancing follows dinner, then more catching up. She doesn’t return to the farm until midnight.

In the morning, she comes in after breakfast bearing a cardboard box. “Here are the first tomatoes!” She is harvesting, washing vegetables, and bagging lettuce mix. Customers will begin dropping by around mid-afternoon. “My favorite thing about doing this work is my position in the community. I love going to the farmers’ market. I love it when my CSA members come to pick up…People who I’ve known for a long time meeting each other and getting to be friends through the farm. I feel like I’m creating something that people want to come together around.”

All photos are courtesy Ms. Fryberger

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Adams Slide Trail: A Short Walk in the Great Gulf

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the history and geography of the Adams Slide Trail on this blog. Its incline—“referred to as the steepest path of its length in the White Mountains,” according to the 1960 White Mountain Guide—and location on the south side of Mt. Adams continued to intrigue me, though I was not able to bushwhack it while working in the huts.

Last week, during a visit to Madison Spring Hut, I was lucky to have good weather and spare time, as well as two excellent friends—RD Jenkinson and Hillary Gerardi, both croo at Madhaüs)— with whom to attempt the climb. After RD and Hillary finished cleaning up breakfast and we had a chance to get some food into our own bellies, we began our descent from the hut along the Buttress Trail. It heads southwest, traversing the southeastern slopes of Mt. Adams before dipping down into the Great Gulf. After 1.9 miles, it intersects with the Six Husbands Trail just below Jefferson Ravine.

The Adams Slide Trail starts near this junction; I won’t say exactly where, but it shouldn’t be hard for anyone with access to a decent White Mountain library to find it. Luckily, RD has sharp eyes, so we quickly began scrambling up a small herd path. A handful of people must bushwhack the trail every year, as traces of their steps persisted until we reached the felsenmeer.

The trail is indeed extremely steep, but progress was surprisingly steady. While undergrowth has spread across the trail during the past forty years (little evidence of the trail’s original exposure on the bottom half remains), a depression is still clearly visible in most places where hikers wore down the earth. At times, we strayed to one side or the other, but between the three of us, we were always able to return to the original tread. Here and there, we came upon a red blaze, a couple of which were reduced to a tiny smear on the rock.

Popping out above treeline, about halfway through our ascent, brought us views of the Great Gulf and into Jefferson Ravine.
Since the south side of Adams falls away so steeply, we could see much more of the Great Gulf than is visible from Adams’ summit, and in greater detail. The waterfalls on the far side of the Gulf flanking the Wamsutta Trail were magnificent. Then we fought our way through a brief section of krummholz—here, crawling was sometimes easier than walking because the firs and spruce have not yet colonized the packed earth of the old tread, allowing us to wiggle through a tunnel beneath the branches.

We stopped for pictures and to look for cairns, of which many remained. They were not well built but were often topped by quartz, distinguishing them from the background of grey schist that makes up most of the felsenmeer. I was more aware of the trail’s steepness above treeline because we rarely had to slow down to get through branches, and thus I had no excuse to pause and catch my breath.

Near the top, the cairns disappeared, presumably scattered when the trail was discontinued so that hikers would not stray into the trailless region. But we scrambled along what appeared to be the most interesting route up the cone and were rewarded by coming across a substantial cave. Had anyone sheltered in it before us? Not far beyond, we came across the blue blazes of the Star Lake Trail. From here, as the old guidebook says, it is but “a few rods to the summit of Mt. Adams.”

All told, the trail ascends 2,308 feet in 1.26 miles. We did the climb in about two hours, with ample time to enjoy views and pose for photos. It was easier than anticipated; this is one of the easier bushwhacks I have done in the Whites, mainly because we did not have to fight through the spruce-fir forest. However, we were lucky to have access to the hut. If one were to begin and end at the base of the Great Gulf, it would indeed be a full day.

Finally, isn't RD a hell of a photographer?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The White Mountains, by Train

From Appalachia:

The mountains may be the same as they were in the 19th century, but the trip there has changed immeasurably. Once tourists, mountaineers, laborers, and botanists climbed aboard their passenger cars at the Boston and Maine Terminal north of Haymarket in Boston or at the old Union Station in Portland, Maine or Springfield, Massachusetts, and they steamed past the fields and forests of central New England (in those days, far more fielded than forested) on their way to the White Hills. If the trip was slower than today’s ride up the interstate, passengers did not have to deal with traffic jams or tolls, and they could pass the time in conversation or a book. The railroads made the White Mountains accessible to urban populations, ushering in an era of genteel tourism punctuated by the grand hotels that sprang up around the region. While tourism is now an enduring feature of the White Mountains, its character has always been molded by how people get there. The era of railroads was indeed distinct.

Early American industrialists quickly recognized railroad’s potential after it was first developed in England. Trains could move freight and passengers more cheaply and quickly than horses or canal boats, so Yankees strained to complete their first locomotive. The Tom Thumb, as it was named, began operating on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1830, only five years after the first English train began regular operation.

States began issuing charters for railroads even earlier. The northeastern seaboard was the site of the first tracks, as the mines, mills, and ports fueling the Industrial Revolution were growing enormously and needed better integration. In the early days, state governments subsidized much railroad development, as investors lacked confidence that the new system would become profitable, but by 1850, interest on railroads had risen enough that private money was assured.

Several regional railroads soon sprang up to connect the White Mountains with northeastern cities. Chartered in New Hampshire in 1835, the original Boston and Maine Railroad was one of a half-dozen lines built to link Boston with Portland. After a series of mergers with an alphabet soup of short-lived, regional lines, the B & M became the dominant coastal company, and from this regional base, it spun a web of tracks across northern New England, stretching from Massachusetts into Canada. While none of the lines that originally reached the White Mountains belonged to the B & M, it consumed almost all of them by 1895, save for the Maine Central Railroad.

The first thread of track to enter the White Mountain Region belonged to the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad, which connected Gorham with Portland in 1851 after five years’ labor and $2,800,000. For $4.50, Bostonians could now catch a Boston and Maine train north, change at Portland, and arrive in Gorham in nine hours.

Rail access to the southern side of the mountains came more slowly. The Boston, Concord, and Montreal Railroad built a route extending through Laconia and Plymouth on its way to Woodville in 1853, but one still needed a stagecoach to penetrate beyond the Lakes Region. In fact, from The Weirs, just beyond Laconia, one could take the “Lady of the Lake” across Lake Winnipesaukee to Centre Harbor, where the stagecoach waited to make the journey’s final leg. By 1873, the B, C, & M extended as far north as Littleton.

The Portland and Ogdensburg was chartered in 1867 to run from Portland to Crawford Notch, where the owners planned for it to join their “Vermont division,” a western branch line. The task of construction was immense, as the tracks climb nearly 1,400 feet through the Notch, an average of 116 feet per mile between Bemis and Crawford House Stations. Along the way, engineers built both the remarkable Frankenstein Trestle (named for a painter whose name was attached to the nearby cliff) and the Willey Brook Bridge, which both rise precipitously above the conifers. “No other railroad in this region traverses such wild gorges, or looks out on such majestic peaks, close at hand,” wrote James Osgood in his 1884 guidebook Sweetser’s White Mountains. The line was not complete until 1875, and shortly after the western branch was finished in 1877, the Portland and Ogdensburg went bankrupt. In 1888, after a succession of short-term leases, the Maine Central, itself the product of a merger, took over the line, evocatively christening it the Mountain Division.

New Yorkers had a difficult time getting to the White Mountains, but they could choose among three routes: either travel first to Boston and then north; follow a series of small railroads up the Connecticut River Valley; or travel first to Saratoga Springs, itself a tourist mecca, and then east past the southern tip of Lake Champlain and across the Green Mountains—a rather more arduous journey that depended on steamship and stagecoach as well as rail. Many chose simply to remain in the more accessible Catskills or Adirondacks.

The 1860s and 70s were a heady time in the railroad industry, when tens of thousands of miles of track were laid, often without economic rationale. Speculators overreached, creating a “railroad bubble” similar to the recent internet and housing boom and busts. The railroad frenzy was such that although the US had fewer than 100 miles of track in 1830, the Union Pacific railroad spanned the continent by 1869.

The new industry was exploding at the same time as Americans began to take an interest in the wilderness they had once feared. By the mid-1800s, attitudes toward the outdoors were changing quickly, as the last mountain fastnesses were explored. Even before the railroads arrived, taverns and tourist sites were springing up to serve outsiders with an interest in the mountains’ recreational amenities or natural resources.

Crawford Notch, a key pass through the heart of the White Mountains, was a microcosm of the greater region’s evolution. It still retains a great deal of physical evidence of its railroad history, especially now that the Crawford Scenic Railroad has been revived. Mostly unknown to European settlers until the end of the eighteenth century, the Notch was opened in the 1790s by the family whose name became attached to it. Abel Crawford, his father-in-law Captain Eleazar Rosebrook, his son Ethan, and Ethan’s wife (and cousin) Lucy, used state money to spearhead the widening of the road through the notch, meanwhile constructing a chain of inns along the notch floor. The new route made travel between Portland and the Upper Connecticut River far quicker, and traffic increased considerably, with the tourist industry showing its first stirrings. The Crawfords blazed the first hiking trails in the region during this period to drum up business for their inn trade.

As railroads began to snake around the edges of the White Mountains, making them accessible to city dwellers, the influx of people drastically altered the region’s human geography. A tiny village before 1850, Gorham’s population quadrupled in the decade after the Atlantic and St. Lawrence’s completion. The railroad company built a $20,000 White Mountain Station House, which was both hotel and railroad station, with 165 rooms and capacity for 250 guests, while two other large hotels, the Alpine House and the Mount Madison House were soon to follow. Hiking in the Presidentials, which had previously focused on the range’s southwestern flanks, suddenly shifted east. The Crawford Path nearly went extinct, though it was later revived by the extension of the Portland and Ogdensburg to Crawford Notch.

The Crawfords themselves became obsolete even before the railroad arrived. Although they played the part of mountain men to the hilt, they could not satisfy the appetite for elegance and professionalism among the newer, more urbane customers. In 1837, a professional hotel manager from Portland, Horace Fabyan, acquired their inn and renamed it the Mount Washington Hotel (not to be confused with the far grander, surviving hotel of the same name, opened in 1902). After fires destroyed the expanded hotel and its successor in 1854 and 1858, it was left to a Colonel Cyrus Eastman to open a new Crawford House. In 1874, Sylvester Marsh and colleagues opened the magnificent 500 room Fabyan House, the largest hotel built in direct response to railroad construction. Its design maximized efficiency rather than style, and it was criticized for its industrial appearance, resembling, to one critic, “a cotton factory.”

Railroads irrevocably changed the experience of traveling to the mountains, which had hitherto occurred via stagecoach and boat, as Guy and Laura Waterman describe in their history of northeastern hiking, Forest and Crag.
Railroad trips were faster, thus occupying less of the traveler’s time. Train trips were more hectic, certainly noisier, and involved less social interplay among travelers or between travelers and drivers. On the other hand, railroad travel had a new kind of excitement and bustle. For many travelers, trains seemed to have a personality of their own in ways that perhaps steamboats and coaches did not, and that surely today’s airplanes and buses do not.”

The relationship between the trains and hotel companies proved lucrative for both sides, as the more people were caught up in the new interest in the outdoors, the more both industries stood to gain. Many hotels, like the Fabyan House, had their own train station, or at the very least a livery to collect patrons from the nearest station. The Profile House, named for its excellent view of the Old Man of the Mountain from its site just north of Franconia Notch, was accessible only by stagecoach for the first twenty-five years of its existence. In 1878-79, its owners built a nine-and-a-half-mile spur to Bethlehem Junction, which the Boston, Concord, and Montreal had reached several years earlier. The Profile and Franconia Notch Railroad, as the little line was called, allowed the Profile House to expand on a truly grand scale, ultimately reaching a guest capacity of 600 by 1905. Guidebooks of the era noted the integration of rail and hotel and devoted considerable space to describing the various rail routes to the region. The subtitle of the 1888 guidebook Ticknor’s White Mountains reads, “A guide to the peaks, passes, and ravines of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and to the adjacent railroads, highways, and villages…”

The hotels were a sturdy anchor to summer communities, often attracting people who preferred the seclusion of a woodland cabin rather than a hotel’s bustle but who appreciated some of its creature comforts and chose to build nearby. In some places, the summer communities have outlived the hotels. Randolph, a few miles of west of Gorham, still survives as an unobtrusive but tightly-knit summer community, perhaps best known for the labyrinth of trails on the northern side of the Presidentials maintained by the Randolph Mountain Club. This group’s roots extend back to the 1880s, when most summer residents stayed at the Ravine House, the Mount Crescent House, and Kelsey Cottage, all of which lay along the road now named Route 2. Most had ridden the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad to Gorham before switching to coach for the last few miles. A few of the more industrious vacationers joined with hotel owners and a few local woodsmen to build the first trails in the region, returning each night to their families at the hotel, where dances, charades, and communal suppers awaited them. “Here in Randolph we have met with the most charming hospitality I ever knew,” wrote Carolyn Morse Rea to her mother during her honeymoon in July 1904.

The RMC continues to maintain most of the old trails; Lowe’s Path and The Watson Path are two survivors named for hotel owner/builders, but they are now rarely used because they begin on the sites of the old hotels instead of the current departure point at the Appalachia parking lot. The Northern Presidentials still have the densest network of trails of any region in the White Mountains, and they would never have been constructed had the railroad not reached as close to Randolph as Gorham.

If a full day of trail clearing and trimming was not for every tourist, there was plenty of less robust amusement back at the hotel, perhaps peering at the sublime landscape from a rocking chair on the hotel veranda or finding refreshment in the cool woods and streams of the valley. For those who wished to experience the mountains without compromising their gentility, a short-lived network of bridle paths and summit houses grew up, allowing tourists to reach summits such as Moosilauke, Lafayette, Washington (which had five paths passable by horse during the 1850s), and even Moriah (just south of Gorham) before a bridle path reached Washington’s peak. Like horses, the summit houses, which varied from little more than a rude shelter to fully outfitted hotels, soon disappeared from every White Mountain summit save Washington and Moosilauke. Many foundations remain, however, as do the gentle inclines of some of the old horse paths, now trodden only by grateful hikers.

The railroads continued pouring people into the mountain resorts throughout the boom and busts of the late nineteenth century. The Civil War did not slow the White Mountain tourist industry, and a cholera outbreak shortly afterwards was little more than a hiccup. Industrialization allowed many American to attain new standards of living with leisure time and disposable income. While certainly many a Captain of Industry sent his wife and family north for the summer, only to visit on weekends, the size of the White Mountain tourist industry is most of all a testament to the emerging American middle class. The period has guided American attitudes toward leisure and tourism ever since. In his book, Grand Resort Hotels of the White Mountains, Bryant Tolles writes, “This concept of escape came to fruition during the 1860s in the White Mountains…the quest for success, while embraced by many, became an all-consuming preoccupation that large numbers of people sought to avoid through the new summer vacation ritual. Ironically, for many the selection of a vacation site, in turn, constituted a form of competition in itself.”

Economic recession in the mid-1870s slowed tourism for a few years, but the symbiosis between railroads and hotels that underlay the first period of growth persisted, and tourism soon recovered. The Boston, Concord & Montreal pushed on to Twin Mountain and Fabyan in 1874, where two years later it finished a seven mile connector to Marshfield, the base of the Mt. Washington Cog Railway in 1876. Meanwhile, the Portland and Ogdensburg pushed up to Fabyan from Crawford Notch, where the mammoth feat of construction generated a burst of national attention for the local tourist industry.

It was now possible to travel entirely by rail from Boston to the top of Mt. Washington. Designed by Sylvester Marsh who, legend has it, conceived the idea while lost on a hike to the summit, the Cog, as it is now known, has an average grade of 25% and was understandably scoffed at when Marsh approached the State Legislature for funding. After trains began successfully climbing the mountain in 1869, however, Marsh’s innovative rack railway system for climbing was studied by Swiss engineers harboring similar plans for their native Alps. Along with the Mount Washington Auto Road, the Cog continues to ferry thousands of passengers to the summit every summer, and it is perhaps the premier tourist destination in northern New Hampshire.

Like the other railroads in the White Mountains, the Cog stimulated commerce at its destination, particularly in the hotel trade. Summit buildings existed atop Washington before the Cog; Ethan Crawford had built three stone cabins in 1823, while the Summit and Tip-Top Houses, competitors, went up in 1852-53, but when the Cog arrived, pressure increased to provide better lodging. A new Summit House, accommodating 150 guests, was constructed in 1872-73 at the cost of $70,000. It took freight trains (one car per train) 250 trips to bring up the 596 tons of building materials. Meanwhile, Marsh was soon busy putting up the architecturally uninspired Fabyan House in the valley, where it was ideally situated to take advantage of the new rail traffic to Mt. Washington itself.

By the 1880s, nearly all the major rail construction in the region was complete. The last decade of the nineteenth century was a golden era for White Mountain tourism, with around 200 hotels, inns, and boarding houses accommodating 12,000 people. The region held the country’s greatest concentration of grand hotels.

Grace Herreshoff, a 27 year old Bostonian, captured the spirit of the era in her journal account of a February 1908 trip based at the Iron Mountain House in Jackson. “Took train (leaving hotel about 9) up the [Crawford] Notch, but did not get much of a view on account of snow flurries.” After an exhilarating day snowshoeing up Mt. Clinton, she and several companions returned.
“Singing and dancing we proceeded down—waved to an engineer as we crossed the treacherous icy meadows in the valley, and broke in on a big crowd at the [Crawford House] station. We had fine views going back thro’ the Notch—a glimpse of Washington, and looks up the precipitous cliffs of the west side of Frankenstein. It had been a gorgeous day—full of exercise and vigor—great beauty and fury of weather. We rode up in the pung [sleigh], warm tho’ stiff! After an extra “spread” we had our dance—a great pleasure to me, for I had no lack of good partners, and was treated with almost too much attention in our extremely festive Virginia Reel!”

Even before the First World War, however, the relationship between rail and hotels began to fray. Driven by fierce competition, the hotel industry became ever more professionalized and large-scale, requiring greater operating capital. “In a curious, almost perverted way,” writes Tolles, “the grand hotels were victims of their own fantastic success…Their appeal remained for a selected few, but their broader, largely upper-middle-class clientele gradually slipped away to engage in other leisure-time life patterns and pursuits.”

There were a host of reasons to seek out an alternative summer vacation. The invention of the car allowed vacationers a new measure of freedom, and while it took decades for a modern road system to develop, especially in northern New England, the middle class enjoyed the flexibility of road trips, especially as motels began to spring up along roadsides. Fashionable ocean liners and, eventually, airplanes, made travel to exotic destinations much more feasible and fashionable for the rich. Those who did spend the entire summer in the lakes and mountains began to favor private cottages rather than hotels, and as more women entered the workplace and summer camps became mainstream, the function of hotels as summer refuges for wives and children became obsolete. Finally, unlike the Civil War, the Depression and the World Wars severely depressed the national economy, devastating the hotel and railroad industries while they were locked in fierce competition with new technologies and social values. Many hotels, built of wood, were replaced when they burned down during the nineteenth century, but in the new era they were simply abandoned after destruction. Only four survive: The Mount Washington Hotel—“the most ambitiously conceived, elaborately appointed and conspicuously palatial,” according to Tolles—The Balsams at Dixville Notch, and Wentworth Hall Resorts and the Eagle Mountain House in Jackson.

Ironically, White Mountain passenger trains enjoyed a brief but memorable renaissance during the height of economic trauma during the 1930s and 40s. At the instigation of the AMC, the Boston and Maine Railroad began running “snow trains” to carry skiers north from Boston. Skiing did not achieve mainstream popularity in America until after World War II, but it became popular in the late twenties among some New Englanders who observed the sport in Europe, where it was blossoming in the Alps.

American ski infrastructure lagged behind that of France and Switzerland, but many northeastern outdoorsmen and women were intrigued, organizing through college groups such as the Dartmouth Outdoor Club or Harvard Mountaineering Club. In Boston, the Appalachian Mountain Club was the impetus for many skiing adventures.

Joe Dodge, the legendary AMC Huts Manager, led a few friends into Tuckerman’s Ravine in 1926, where they skinned some ways up the bowl before descending (Dodge’s son, Brooks, was known in the late forties and fifties for his daring in the Tuckerman couloirs). The cirque quickly developed into the most exciting ski scene in New England, and the Boston ski club Hochgebirge organized the Inferno, a blistering race from summit to base, including the ravine headwall. An AMC member, Hollis Phillips won the first race, in 1933, while in 1939 the young Austrian Toni Matt completed the run in a reckless six and a half minutes. Matt took the several thousand foot descent of the headwall without turning, a feat that continues to win him the highest accolades in skiing circles. Elsewhere, AMC members began scouting and clearing ski trails, often assisted by the CCC. Mt. Cardigan’s Duke, Kimball, and Alexandria ski trails were cut in 1934-35 (the name of the first honors a Russian émigré nobleman who taught skiing at the base cabin), while the notorious Hell’s Highway was cut by the DOC on Mt. Moosilauke in 1933.
Snowplows were scarce and winter roads dangerous, so trains were the most reliable method of winter transportation. At the AMC’s instigation, the Boston and Maine ran a train from Boston to Warner, New Hampshire in January 1931, pitched specifically to skiers. “You’ll have a glorious Sun-Day,” read the B & M poster. It was a popular idea, and the snow trains continued to run during the holidays throughout the thirties and forties.

George Macomber, now 81, rode the snow train while on winter vacation from high school. Up at 5:30, he would take the bus to Newton Corner, near Boston, where he caught the MBTA trolley into the city. After changing at Park Street, he arrived at North Station, where the train began to roll north.

“All ages were on the train,” Macomber told me when I visited him in his Boston apartment. “Everybody getting ready for a good time, lugging their skis and boots.” The train ran quickly, reaching its destination within two and a half hours. They were long, he said, “16 cars, must have had a couple thousand people on them. We’d get off at North Conway and parade down to Cranmore,” a resort that still exists, though it is now overshadowed by larger ski areas such as Wildcat, which Macomber later helped found with Brooks Dodge and two others.

The ride home was often high-spirited. “On the way back, the college kids and twenty year olds were having a good time. A lot of liquor, beer. A lot of trying to smooch. As a naïve 15 year old, I enjoyed watching all of that.”

Macomber’s wife, Ann, took some of the same trains, though she did not yet know George. Her family went as far north as Intervale, where a car from the Glen House picked them up to stay for a week and also took them to Pinkham Notch, where they could begin the skin up to Tuckerman’s Ravine.

Skiing’s popularity soon skyrocketed as former members of the 10th Mountain Division returned to fan out across the country and cheap surplus military gear flooded stores, but the snow trains were short-lived, doomed by the societal shift toward cars. The Boston and Maine steadily cut passenger service through the fifties and sixties and only continued freight service through a series of state subsidies and bankruptcies. Finally, Guilford Transportation Industries (later Pan Am) purchased the remnants in 1983. The Maine Central, after a similar decline, had succumbed to Guilford three years earlier.

Gas prices will need to increase far beyond $4.00 per gallon to bring back regular passenger service to the White Mountains, but nostalgia for the era of railroad and grand hotels has surged over the past couple of decades. The Cog continues to haul thousands of people to Washington’s summit in the summer months, while the Conway Scenic Railroad has refurbished the old Mountain Division tracks running through Crawford Notch. Beginning at the North Conway Station, built in 1874 for the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad, the train travels eleven miles north to Fabyan Station. From there, it is but a short shuttle ride to the Mount Washington Hotel, now a National Historic Landmark and in good financial health, having emerged from foreclosure in the early nineties. Passengers can disembark at Crawford’s Station by the AMC Highland Center, whose gables faintly echo the old Crawford House, on which site the new eco-friendly building stands. The CSRR and Cranmore Mountain even sponsored a “Snow Train Weekend” last January.

While the methods of transportation to the White Mountains are vastly different today, the cultural and structural legacy of railroads and the hotels they helped build still stands. How will technology and social values of the next century affect the White Mountain landscape?

Illustrations, in order: a B & M snow train poster, a B & M railroad bill, Frankenstein's Trestle, The Crawford House, The Profile House (twice), Winslow Homer's "The Bridle Path, White Mountains," a 1914 map of the New England railways, another B & M poster, and Tuckerman's Ravine in its heyday.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Monument Valley

I took this photo from Muley Point, an obscure lookout about forty miles to the north. The San Juan is in the foreground.

The road descending the escarpment was a bit hairy

From the north

The Left and Right Mittens

The Totem Pole. I've wanted to visit it since watching Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy caper on it in The Eiger Sanction.

Texas, according to John Ford

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Basin, Range, and the Colorado Plateau

Central Nevada, which, according to John McPhee, is slowly being stretched apart.

Zion: outside looking in

The Colorado by Vermillion Cliffs

Bryce Canyon

Canyonlands, looking out from the Island in the Sky

Delicate Arch, Utah's most famous arch, is on the left. The tiny bumps to the left are tourists more ambitious than I.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Along the Coast

Los Angeles

The Big Sur

Winding along the coast

The Bay Area from the Berkeley Hills

The Golden Gate in its natural habitat

Point Reyes


The middle Oregonian coast

A fishing boat returns to Newport Bay

Sunday, June 28, 2009

West to the Ocean

White Sands National Monument

Saguaro outside Tucson

Entrance to the desert in Joshua Tree National Park

The next morning

The Pacific!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Raising Steak

This is a review I wrote for the June issue of the Radcliffe Culinary Times.

When I began my graduate research on cattle ranching in Texas, I thought it amusing that most ranchers I spoke with talked a blue streak about their desire for independence and self-reliance, yet they all dressed, drove, and drank the same. Meanwhile, they eyed those few among them who challenged conventional ranching methods with deep suspicion.

Betty Fussell examines the same dynamic in her wonderful, sprawling Raising Steak, an investigation into the economics, culture, and gastronomy of American beef. How can a good steak symbolize rugged cowboy individualism when its producers are terribly afraid of sticking out from the herd?

The conundrum troubles few people, if the exploding popularity of steakhouses is any guide. Fussell gets right at steak’s raw patriotic appeal, writing, with typical strength and directness, “Real American men, women and children eat steak because it’s red with blood, blood that pumps flavor, iron, vitality, and sex into flaccid bodies. For women, steak is better than spinach. For men, it’s better than Viagra. With steak, it’s easy to get carried away.” I’ll say!

Fussell dates the blossoming of America’s lust for beef to the second half of the nineteenth century, when railroads and industrialism made cheap beef available to the urban masses. Cattle replaced buffalo on the Great Plains, completing the defeat of the Indians and establishing its American bona fides. The actual period when cowboys drove cattle north to the western railroad terminus was a brief interlude, “yet those twenty years [1867-87] had etched a schism in the American imagination…the sudden, invasive presence of the urban Machine created a deep nostalgia for lost Wilderness, which our stories often presented as the conflict of Eastern capitalist against Western cowboy.”

It is a sad commentary on American culture, and particularly masculinity, that our diet is so symptomatic of unfulfillment, but Fussell aptly concludes, “Images eat reality, and we feed our hunger for power and glory more than our need for nutrients when we eat steaks.” Yet despite its many unsettling revelations, Raising Steak is generally upbeat, sustained by Fussell’s infectiously enthusiastic voice.

She is fascinated by the characters inhabiting the world of beef. Crisscrossing the country indefatigably, she interviews an impressive, even bewildering array of sources, from the plucky lady who purchases meat for Peter Luger Steakhouse to Temple Grandin, an autistic animal scientist who designs half of the country’s animal handling facilities. Down-to-earth and witty, she makes the hefty text a fun read, though the vastness of information needs a more systematic presentation than it gets with her travelogue approach.

Fussell, born a Westerner but now residing in Manhattan, is somewhat of a paradox herself, which becomes problematic as she turns from the cattle industry’s history to its present situation. If Michael Pollan brings “an Easterner’s view to the West,” this Westerner is too indulgent toward ranchers. She details how the big meatpacking companies, assisted by the USDA, run their industry as a virtual oligopoly, driving down prices at which they purchase cattle, but fails to note that many rich hobby ranchers often sell cattle at a loss, hurting full-time producers who operate on a narrow margin. The reflexively macho and anti-government rhetoric common among cattlemen only makes truly independent ranchers more vulnerable to exploitation and wary of sissy solutions such as cooperatives. Fussell finds plenty of inspiring exceptions, but I am skeptical that the cattle industry can willingly reform itself without some massive cultural shifts among ranchers as well as packers.

When Fussell does get hot, she is forceful and eloquent. The USDA and the corporations it enables receive much warranted criticism, particularly for their despicable handling of Mad Cow Disease. Isn’t it funny how industry studies have a way of showing that consumers want whatever is cheapest for industry to produce? Money, mixed with a bit of cultural resentment, greases the industry wheels, and towards the end of the book, Fussell’s tone becomes reminiscent of muckraker Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation. She does not outline how she would reform production—her issue with the current system seems to have more to do with its execution and oversight rather than its inherent structure, and she implies that feedlot, corn-finished beef has its place in America.

Fussell is at her best when describing the cultural and culinary habits surrounding steak. She concludes with her own evaluation of the various cuts of beef—a section for which I am particularly grateful—and offers a series of recipes to describe the standard approach to cooking steak among major beef-eating cultures. Ultimately, steak, whatever its cultural and economic meaning, is awfully tasty, and we should honor it for its ability to sustain and nourish us, no matter what our reasons for eating it.