I left Boston with a sedan full of clothes and cumbersome books like Jude the Obscure and AtlasShrugged (for comic relief, you understand). The drive up Route 93 was one for the ages, with a lifting breeze and a magic hour that seemed to last the entire evening. As the autumnal mounds of suburban New Hampshire gave way to greasy food joints and creaky general stores, I began to feel like I had entered another country. And to a degree, I had. For better or worse, the New England countryside has a way of preserving old-time comforts and customs that most cities have largely shoved aside to make room for more contemporary diversions. It felt deeply refreshing to be surrounded by unpretentious establishments with names like "Hank's Chops" or "D.W. Beezley Supply and Feed."
The first hike up almost killed me. Day one is invariably the worst. Of course, it doesn't help that most trails in the White Mountains were designed by alpine athletes seeking revenge on regular humans. There's no other explanation for the lack of switchbacks, the prominence of rock staircases, and the evident principle that a trail should reach its destination as fast as possible: even if that means shooting up three vertical miles of granite and roots. For 1.6 miles (a modest distance in these mountains, believe me) every muscle in my legs and lower back quaked and quivered, guaranteeing physical therapy sessions in seniority. But I trudged on, climbing out of Franconia Notch, onto the plateau beneath Cannon Mountain, where Lonesome Lake Hut awaited.
I kicked open the front door, red-faced and gasping like a beached whale, trying to remind my lungs of their normal function. The hut was empty: the kitchen sinks dry, floors swept, mysterious bags of garbage festooned throughout the place. The first thing I noticed was just how loud my labored wheezing sounded, with no ambient noise to make it less conspicuous. This was it: my new habitat. There wasn't a soul to break the silence or offer a glance of acknowledgment. For the first time since my departure from Boston — from the office, the gala parties, the company of roommates, the availability of beer — I began to wonder if I had made a mistake.
I tried to distract myself by cooking a big, fatty dinner: ground beef sizzled with smoked paprika, spaghetti, and sautéed peppers. I took my plate, which was really more like a trashcan lid, and sat in the empty dining room, under the glow of bare bulbs. Through every bite, I kept shifting my glance towards the door, expecting some weary traveler to stomp in. This was similar to moments I would often have back in Cambridge, when I'd walk home from work in the evening and find that I had the apartment to myself for a few precious minutes. I could take my shirt off, put on Guns N' Roses, and rest my feet on the kitchen table, or invite a girlfriend over for some sensual boinking that wouldn't be punctuated by repeated whispers of "Shh!" from the other side of the wall. I savored those interludes of privacy, but at the same time, I counted the minutes until my friends would arrive home.