Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Maine Thing - Day Two

TEMPORAL NOTE AND APOLOGY: Now see, here again is how my life works. I just recently had a computer crash of some magnitude, and I backed up all my photos onto a CD. And when I got my computer back online, I went in to grab the pictures of Day Two, and they were gone. Day One is fine. All the pictures I'd already posted are fine. The really really cool ones I was going to post here about this trip, on this particular day... gone. Destroyed. Forever. Or so I thought. Because of my ridiculous OCD tendencies, I had backed them up in several thousand places and then forgotten where all of them were. It has taken me this long to find one. Sorry, and thanks for sticking with me. Prepare for Day Two.

Woke up and jumped immediately back on the road west, headed for the Cog Railway. Again, navigating only with Google Earth running on my laptop in the passenger seat, I managed to make it all the way back to New Hampshire.
Stopped in a town called Conway for two reasons. First was that there were a lot of old shops to peek into. Antiques. Copper weathervanes and such. Had a great time. Second was that the entire interstate system of New England chokes down to one stop sign in Conway, and you pretty much have to stop there.
Noticed some things I hadn't seen on my way through the day before. The stop lights in New England flash at you. In addition to the red light that tells you not to go, there is a white strobe about the luminance of the sun. It does get your attention... and then it permanently blinds you. Not sure that's an effective tactic. Also, the people there have a thing for stone wheels. Every third lawn has a giant stone doughnut poking up out of the grass next to the driveway. Not sure what that's about, but I'm not going to push anyone about their lawn decorations when ours are rusted out cars on blocks. There are Canadian flags all over, which is something I had never thought about before, but it makes sense... Canada is right there. And finally, every two hundred feet, there is a moose crossing.
Passed through all the national park lands again. Zoomed by Silver Cascade, and made mental calculations to see if I could take the Railway trip and make it back to finally climb that waterfall before dark.

Made it to the Cog Railway just before zero hour. The place is a log cabin-type museum/gift shop at the bottom of Mount Washington. The trains are just outside and the railway leads up the mountain.

The first train they ever used there has been retired, and stands as an exhibit next to the tracks. Here is 'Old Peppersass,' in all its awful repainted glory. You know, with a name like Peppersass, you get the feeling it must have been a hoot hanging out with the guys on the railway way back when in the 1850s.

The trains in use now look the same, kinda like old-timey coal engines (because that's really all they are), and are built back-end high, so they stay level as the tracks incline. Ours was the Waumbek. Not a lot of regular folk names for these trains, really.

They each push one train car, and when it was time to go, we all loaded up into ours.

Inside, the cars look as old-timey as the engines; small thin bench seats, sliding windows with brass latches, and wooden plank floors. The engineer in the car gave us a short history of the railway, the engineer in the train fired it up, and we were off.
Well, off I guess in name only. The Cog Railway trains move at an astounding two miles an hour. The trip up, in addition to being no small feat of old-timey engineering, is an hour-and-a-half-long endeavor, during which the train periodically ducks into short dead-ends so that the other trains coming down the mountain can barrel past. Apparently old-timey engineers hadn't researched braking systems all that well. We'll get to that.

I opened the window once, which was a bad idea in two ways. First, it's a coal-fired train, which meant that pungent demon-scented coal smoke came pouring into the car and made me public enemy number one amongst the passengers. Second, it's a coal-fired train, and little bits of laser-hot coal spit from the engine and fell on me. So, stinky and Swiss-cheese burnt, I learned that Mount Washington is best observed from behind a closed window. And through one of those windows, I got to see that all those little bits of coal had piled up along the track during its long life; at certain points, the bits were feet deep.

You're at a fairly steep angle the whole time. The small buildings alongside the tracks were built back-end high as well, and all had signs on them that read THIS BUILDING IS ACTUALLY LEVEL.

The front of the car is amusing. There's a doorway but no door. You can claw your way to the front of the car and breathe the fresh coal air while watching the tracks pass under you. The car engineer is outside on the small deck, kicking her legs off the railing.

There's also a bridge. It was the highest or longest or something in the country. I forget exactly what the superlative was that the engineer used, but she could certainly tell you. What I do know is that I sure didn't want to fall off of that bridge.

The scenery was amazing. The trees I had seen while driving were all mixed together color-wise, but from the mountainside, they appeared to group into great swaths of yellow or red or green. You can see the whole valley behind you, and another to the side of you, and past the other mountains in the distance, you can see more valleys, probably in Vermont and New York.

Further up, into what seems like the clouds, the terrain changes into rolling hills covered in wheaty grass and gray rock. Several cairns of stones stand in the mist, serving as landmarks for hikers. Very ethereal.
Struck up a conversation with a fellow from Newfoundland. Now, before I met this guy, I pronounced it like you do... NEW-found-lund. With the air of the slighted, he explained to me that it's actually pronounced New-fund-LAND, and that if you don't say it that way when you're actually there, the locals won't understand you. Also met two Indian doctors from Boston, and they were towing a tiny brown baby that climbed all over me.

At the top of the mountain, there's a small concrete outpost. There are a few radio towers, a restaurant, and another gift shop. The coolest thing up there is a sign that says you're at the top of Mount Washington, and the elevation. It's the highest place east of the Mississippi, I think I remember them saying. What is definite is that it's 6,288 feet in elevation, and that for the first time in my mostly Southern life, I finally made it to a summit of something. I have proof.

A word about the top of the mountain. One of the selling points of this tour is that you can see four states from the top on a clear day (I didn't know they were tiny states until I started driving through them, but that's still cool). When I drove through the day before, it was clear. The day after, when I was leaving, it was clear. But...

... the day I actually went up, it was so foggy that you could barely damn breathe. I was lucky to see my shoes.

But of course, that made for some really mysterious-looking pictures of the radio towers.

The weather here is supposed to be a big deal. Whoever tacked up this sign should really go hang out in Louisiana during hurricane season.
We loaded up again for the return trip. I had been wondering on the way up how they were going to handle this, but all those thin benches faced forward on your way up. Were we going to face backwards for ninety minutes on the way down? Nope. Those clever train builders built seats that transformed; the back of the seat slid down to become the seat, and now they all faced down the mountain. It was really cool, and you never saw so many confused people as they entered.

The car engineer had work to do on the way down. See that wheel there? That's the brakes. The only brakes there are in the car. She had to work the wheel all the way down so the weight of the car didn't overwhelm the train. She talked a lot on the way up. Not so much on the way down.

The sun came out when we were halfway down. Illumination only made the landscape more beautiful. This picture doesn't convey how big it really is. This trip is really worth the trip. I recommend it.
At the bottom of the mountain, we all disembarkated, and while I was debating whether or not to return to Silver Cascade, I noticed a wooden bridge halfway hidden away across the tracks. Intrigued, I slipped away from the crowd and across the bridge. A sign identified the trail beyond as Jewel Trail, and just a few steps into the woods, I was in the wilderness.

It was so quiet, I had trouble picturing the railway I knew was right behind me. Sat down on a log a few times and just listened to silence. Every now and then a bug chewed on something or a bird flew by.

The trail crested a hill and forked. I heard the sound of water and followed it.

Found another bridge. I have always wondered who builds these things. They're all usually constructed in the same style and out of the same kinds of wood, no matter what region of the US you find them in. I mean, when a road's getting built, you see who's doing it, and it's right there next to another road, but who hauls a bunch of timber way out into the forest and knocks together a bridge over a stream you can easily cross? I love that people do that. Maybe it's not people. Think it's elves? Or maybe really clever turtles? I dunno.

Enough about amphibious carpentry... here's the stream already.

I spent about half an hour there in the trees, marveling at what was here before people were, then I clambered back to the car, Silver Cascade forgotten.

Set Vermont in my sights and hit the gas. Saw the opposite sides of all the mountains I had driven past the day before. The trees were still amazing, just east-facing.

Cruised by a small graveyard built on a hill. It was so interesting that I had to stop and wander through it. Some of the death dates ranged back to the 1870s, and several women were referred to as 'dau't'r' of someone or other on the headstones.

Made it back into Burlington just as dusk fell. Encountered a fresh car accident. Now, I've driven some cars pretty hard, but how exactly do you do this?

Also discovered that in Burlington, they don't know what's to the left.
Drove around the city for a while, making a lot of right turns. The place looked a lot like Portland. George Washington-looking architecture and lots of statues. Finally found my hotel. Did you know that Motel 6 is also Econolodge? I didn't.
The next day I dropped off the rental car and headed back to Salt Lake, three states and one quest down. I may head back next year for the leaves. But I may skip the lobster.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, if we want THEM to say "Noo AW-lnz", the least we can do is say "New-fund-LAND." LM

8:42 AM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

Actually the highest point east of the Mississippi is Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina, which at 6,684 feet is noticeably taller than Mt. Washington's 6,288 ft. However that doesn't stop various tourism agencies in New Hampshire from promoting Mt. Washington as the highest peak - which is nothing more than a lie. Mt. Mitchell's height has been known since 1835 so it's hardly news. So don't believe everything you're told as a tourist - even in the US!

3:32 PM  
Blogger Sue said...

Glad you found your photos. I live in New England and it's fascinating to see "my backyard" through another's eyes. As far as Mt Washington goes, FWIW, Wikipedia states that it's the third highest state high point in the eastern US (Mt Mitchell in NC being the first).

6:54 PM  
Anonymous sandtalker said...

Maybe they meant the highest point East of the Mississippi, and NORTH of North Carolina?

6:48 AM  
Blogger Phil said...

DAMN THOSE CARNY FOLK! ROOKED! Oh well, at least it was a really really high place I went to. And now I can make a quest out of getting to the top of Mitchell. You know, now that I think about it, maybe they just said it was the worst weather there at Mount W, and ONE of the highest points. DAMN ME! ROOKED!

12:40 PM  

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