November Interval

Mary Switalski


Pick a campground nestled in Crawford Notch, just south of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range where Mount Washington rises 6,288 feet, bald and brown, or goes suddenly white, given its notoriously quick-changing weather.

Don’t go at it like an ascetic with a backpack; load a vehicle with food and gear fit for late November. There will be no other campers to impress with your Thoreauvian ability to simplify, just you and a few friends. Even Thoreau kept three chairs in his Walden cabin: one for himself, “two for friendship, three for society.” So bring some friends, and make sure one’s a good friend; those New Hampshire nights get cold.

You’ll want layers of clothing, your thickest sleeping bags, and a true cornucopia of food. You are a mammal and it is winter. Your instincts will have you craving fat, meat, strong beer. Your willingness to sleep in the wild north, so late in the year, is a daring kind of love, the kind you’ll want to honor with a feast.

When camp is made, gather piles of deadwood and kindling. Take turns with the saw to keep warm. There’s satisfaction in finding your own fuel, making your own hearth, everyone’s breath white as kettle steam. You’ll find long-burning birch and bright-burning fir, and you’ll accumulate heaps of the small stuff to keep it all going. You’ll sit fireside and draw close, telling common stories—the ones you all know by heart, the ones you have made together—so late and long that the coals last through until morning.

The first person awake must emerge from tent to throw kindling on the coals and crack the skin of ice on the water jugs. Put a kettle over the new fire, and when the water boils, stir in the coffee. The grounds will settle along with flecks of fallen ash, lending your wake-up cup smokiness and grit. The crackle of fire and smell of coffee will coax your society out into winter air, even from the naked comfort of zipper-joined sleeping bags.

The sun will be low, its light attenuated, slicing through the trees as you make breakfast. Breakfast sausage, farm fresh eggs. On cheese, never compromise; go with sharp and creamy cheddar from blithe New England cows. Hunks of bread warm on hot stones placed beside the coals.

And if you want to hike, you should hike, though you will not be able to reach the summits of the Presidentials because the high granite is covered with ice and the peaks are crusted with snow. Peaks aren’t everything; there are hikes through gorges, along ridges, alongside flumes. There’s Arethusa Falls, the state’s highest at 200 feet, and Ripley Falls, where water rushes over pink and grey granite, coating the rock in ice and collecting in clear pools. You’ll hate to leave, so you’ll stay until you’re sure it won’t leave you.

But you’ll crave warmth again, returning to the campfire to snack on s’mores, grilled cheese sandwiches, or root vegetables roasted with butter and onions. Feed your mind too. Pick up a book on local lore and learn about the Willey Slide, how in 1826, a mudslide pulled down the face of a mountain and the seven members of the Willey family. The mud split in two courses and spared the Willey house, leaving it intact but empty on the mountainside. Samuel Willey left his reading glasses on his bible, opened to Psalm 18, “the lord is my rock,” and fled the house with his family, straight into the mudslide.

If you’d prefer poetry to history, something from Robert Frost. His old house is just a few miles from the Notch, and you can stroll around his yard, flip up the flag on his old rusty mailbox.

And think about his poem “Birches” as you walk back to a stream coursing through his paper-white trees, how he wrote about them after an ice storm, how they seemed not to break, though they were bowed. You are old enough, now, to have been bowed, but not yet broken, not yet “weary of considerations.” Not today. Fallen birch will cross the stream, strung with icicles. Round river stones will show blue, pink, and ochre under the water, their muted colors so remarkable now that autumn leaves are gone and all else that remains is November brown. The sun never climbs high in November, and the smiling faces of your society will be silver-cast in the angle of its pale beams. You may embrace each other suddenly, or maybe you’ll hop up onto a gully-spanning birch and chicken-fight like kids again. Frost wrote, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”

And in “The Road Not Taken,” he wrote about how “way leads on to way.” Change is always coming; friends move away, meet new friends, start families, grow distant. Paths diverge. Societies scatter. The White Mountains will be there forever, but they won’t be all yours again. Just yours, for one cold, clear weekend of essential communion.

Don’t hold back. Cook a full Thanksgiving dinner right there in the fire pit. Bank up a thick bed of coals to slow-cook the bird, covered in its pot with some water, salt, and spices. Wrap potatoes in foil with sweet cream, butter, and garlic. Roast and mash a butternut squash. Let your popped cranberries cool in open air.

Finally, lay the feast. A log will do for a table. Take a little bit of everything. Full of American food, you’ll lie by the crackling fire, wondering what the wild’s other beasts make of the smells that weave through birches and up the granite. In the valleys, families have gathered, sanctifying this nation’s creation story, a story of colonial fraternity with the first Americans. It’s mostly myth, but today is real. It’s real—this kind of family, this depth of gratitude.

And when the dishes are reasonably clean, it’s time to drink in earnest, strong beer or a warming liquor. It settles the stomach, stimulates the spirit, and may also lead to some fire-lit dancing, to laughter echoing between silhouetted mountains, to toasts and to promises ringing beneath an infinity of stars.

Yes, if you’ve ever thought about camping in New Hampshire in late November, I say go. But be prepared—and not just for the trip, but for how it will change you. You’ll find out that you’re tough, and that you’re lucky. You’ll have new stories to tell. You’ll tell them to try to hold onto them, even as you’re walking away. And somewhere, ages and ages hence, in front of the Macy’s Parade or a football game or a prix fixe white-linen affair, you will not be what you are now—young and hale, with the people you love well, in the cold White Mountains on Thanksgiving.

Mary Switalski
Mary Switalski’s work has appeared in Bethesda Magazine, Bird’s Thumb, Copper Nickel, DigBoston, Dunes Review, Monday Night, The Pinch, and elsewhere. She lives in Takoma Park, Md., and teaches writing at American University in Washington.