There isn't a presidential candidate in sight.
No photo opportunities, either, except for the ones of exhausted hikers along the Crawford Path. No talk of presidents, except Eisenhower (the bald peak to the southeast) and Monroe (the one to the west). No mention of the trail, except for the trail to Lakes of the Clouds.
This is the last breath of summer, and the last chance to pause and take pleasure in what we have and value before the sprint to the millennium and the marathon to Election Day. And this, smack in the middle of the state with the first presidential primary, is the very best place to do it.
The candidates dash to union halls and school auditoriums and, increasingly, to television stations. They miss the best part of New Hampshire, above the tree line. They miss the trail warnings that might shape their lives, like the one about bears that offers sound advice for hikers and politicians alike: Stand your ground.
In the old days, before cellular phones and English colonists, the Indians had a name for Mount Washington. They called it Agiocochook, which means "home of the Great Spirit." We think of Mount Washington that way in my family, too. It is a special place for us, full of myth and mystery.
And so this summer we headed to the Presidential Range, a three-day hike away from all our comforts. These broad mountain shoulders are just the place to take two city girls whose minds would be dizzied with worries about the onset of the second grade and the sixth, except for the fact that their mom and dad insisted they spend the two weeks before school opened visiting six of New Hampshire's lakes, five of its state parks, four of its icy river swimming holes, three of its peaks over 4,000 feet, two of its viewing spots for the Old Man in the Mountain and, just to prove that they are human after all, one of its water parks.
But it is Mount Washington that will linger with them, just as it has with their father, who every summer sets out to write a column about his family's vacation (one of our traditions of summer) but who never seems to get beyond New Hampshire, even in years when there is no election. There's no explanation for it. The campaign starts here, too, and no one can explain that, either.
Nor can anyone explain why the people who want to be president can venture north of Massachusetts and not linger for an afternoon at Newfound Lake, where the sharp eye will find four dozen different wildflowers. Or not pass the noon hour at Polly's Pancake Parlor in the lovely little village of Sugar Hill, where the pancakes (whole wheat, buckwheat, oatmeal buttermilk and cornmeal) are served under silky syrup ("personally selected for color and flavor") on a hill overlooking Hildex Farm. Or not pause at Shackett's, where you can devour a lobster-and-shrimp roll, buy the Sunday paper and fill up with regular unleaded, all in one stop. We did.
But this I know: Here in the White Mountains is a place where two children, and their parents, can feel like silhouettes in an etching, lone figures with packs crossing the ridge line. Here is a place where, at dusk, the sky looks like a hospital nursery, splotches and splashes of soft pink alternating with baby blue. Here is a place where the word "bobcat" might be dropped in casual dinner conversation, and where the people who share your table at the Mizpah Spring Hut might have just come in from exploring the moist and mossy bogs of Crawford Notch, which are nothing less than archives of the ecosystem, registering within them the vegetation and wildlife of the past.
And here is a place where, with no artificial stimuli and miles from a mall, a precious 11-year-old might shriek "Wow!" (an exact quote) three or four times an hour and where her little sister, only 7, might hike seven hours and never lose her composure, or her enthusiasm, or her special way of reminding us that the greatest miracle of nature may be the indomitable spirit imbedded in human nature.
Thus passed the summer of 1999 in the first primary state and in the life of our family. All too quickly.