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THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 3 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 3.
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THE WHITE MOUNTAINS.
“Hast thou entered the store-houses of the snow?”
Book of Job.
One of the charms of such travelling as that of the English in the United States, is its variety. The stopping to rest for a mouth at a farm-house after a few weeks of progress by stage, with irregular hours, great fatigues and indifferent fare, is a luxury which those only can understand who have experienced it: and it is no less a luxury to hie away from a great city, leaving behind its bustle and formalities, and the fatigues of sight-seeing and society, to plunge into the deepest mountain solitude. I have a vivid recollection of the dance of spirits amidst which we passed the long bridge at Boston, on our way out to New Hampshire, on the bright morning of the 16th of September. Our party consisted of four, two Americans and two English. We were to employ eight or ten days in visiting the White Mountains of New Hampshire, returning down the valley of the Connecticut. The weather was brilliant the whole time: and I well remember how gay the hedges looked this first morning, all starred over with purple, lilac, and white asters, and gay with golden rod; with which was intermixed, here and there, a late pale brier rose. The orchards were cheerful with their apple-cropping. There was scarcely one which had not its ladder against a laden tree, its array of baskets and troughs beneath, and its company of children picking up the fruit from the grass. What a contrast to the scenery we were about, to enter upon!
Of the earlier part of this trip, (our visit to Lake. Winnepiscogee and the Red Mountain.) I gave an account in my former work* , little supposing that I should ever return to the subject. My narrative must now be taken up from the point where I then dropped it.
From the summit of Red Mountain I had seen what kind of scenery we were to pass through on our road to Conway. It was first mountain and wild little valleys, and then dark pine scenery,—barrens, with some autumnal copses, and intervals of lake and stream. Lake Ossippee looked like what I fancy the wildest parts of Norway to be; a dark blue expanse, slightly ruflled, with pine fringing all its ledges; and promontories, bristling with pines, jutting into it; no dwellings, and no sign of life but a pair of wildfowl, bobbing and ducking, and a hawk perched on the tip-top of a scraggy blighted tree.
In the steam-boat on Lake Winnepiseogee there was a party whom we at once concluded to be bride, bridegroom, and bridemaid. They were very young, and the state of the case might not have occurred to us but for the obvious pride of the youth in having a lady to take care of. Our conjectures were confirmed by the peculiar tone in which he spoke of “my wife” to the people of the inn, in giving orders. It had a droll mixture of pride and awkwardness: of novelty with an attempt to make the words appear quite familiar. For some days we were perpetually meeting this party: and this afternoon they introduced themselves to me, on the ground of their having expected to see me at Portsmouth, on my way to the White Mountains. I imagine they would have been too busy with their wedding arrangements to have cared much about me if I had gone. I was glad we fell in with them, as it added an interest to the trip. We looked at the scenery with their eyes, and pleased ourselves with imagining what a paradise these landscapes must appear to the young people; what a sacred region it will be to them when they look back upon it in their old age, and tell the youth of those days what the White Mountains were when they towered in the midst of a wilderness.
We all took up our quarters at the inn at Conway; and the next morning we met again at breakfast, and improved our acquaintance by sympathizing looks about the badness of every thing on the table. Eggs were a happy resource; for the bread was not eatable. We did not start till ten, our party having bespoken a private conveyance, and the horses having to be sent for, to a distance of eight miles. So the wedding party had the companionship of our luggage instead of ourselves in the stage; and we four stepped merrily into our little open carriage, while the skirts of the morning mist were drawing off from the hill-tops, and the valley was glowing in a brilliant autumn sunshine. This was to be the grand day of the journey—the day when we were to pass the Notch; and we were resolved to have it to ourselves, if we could procure a private conveyance from stage to stage.
We struck across the valley, which is intersected by the Saco river. Never did valley look more delicious; shut in all round by mountains, green as emerald, flat as water, and chumped and fringed with trees tinted with the softest autumnal hues. Every reach of the Saco was thus belted and shaded. We stopped at Pendexter's, the pretty house well known to tourists: having watered the horses, we went on another stage, no less beautiful, and then entered upon the wilderness. For seven miles we did not see a single dwelling; and a head now and then popped out of the stage window, showing that our friends “the weddingers,” were making sure of our being near, as if the wildness of the scene made them relish the idea of society.
The mountains had opened and closed in every direction all the morning: they now completely shut us in, and looked tremendous enough, being exceedingly steep and abrupt, bare, and white where they had been seamed with slides, and in other parts dark with stunted firs. At the end of seven miles of this wilderness, we arrived at the elder Crawford's, a lone house invested with the grateful recollections of a multitude of travellers. The Crawfords, who live twelve miles apart, lead a remarkable life; but one which seems to agree well with mind and body. They are hale, lively men, of uncommon simplicity of manners, dearly loving company, but able to make themselves happy in solitude. Their year is passed in alternations of throngs of guests with entire loneliness* . During the long dreary season of thaw no one comes in sight; or, if a chance visitor should approach, it is in a somewhat questionable shape—being no other than a hungry bear, the last of his clan. During two months, August and September, while the solitaries are trying to get some sort of harvest out of the impracticable soil, while bringing their grain from a distance, a flock of summer tourists take wing through the region. Then the Crawfords lay down beds in every corner of their dwellings, and spread their longest tables, and bustle from morning till night, the hosts acting as guides to every accessible point in the neighbourhood, and the women of the family cooking and waiting from sunrise till midnight. After the 1st of October comes a pause—dead silence again for three months, till the snow is frozen hard, and trains of loaded sleighs appear in the passes. Traders from many distant points come down with their goods, while the roads are in a state which enables one horse to draw the load of five. This is a season of great jollity; and the houses are gay with roaring fires, hot provisions, good liquor, loud songs, and romantic travellers' tales—tales of pranking wild beasts, bold sleigh-drivers, and hardy woodsmen.
The elder Crawford has a pet album, in which he almost insists that his guests shall write. We found in it some of the choicest nonsense and “brag” that can be found in the whole library of albums. We dined well on mutton, eggs, and huckleberries with milk. Tea was prepared at dinner as regularly as bread, throughout this excursion. While the rest of the party were finishing their arrangements for departure. I found a seat on a stone, on a rising ground opposite, whence I could look some way up and down the pass, and wonder at leisure at the intrepidity which could choose such an abode.
We proceeded in an open wagon, the road winding amidst tall trees, and the sunshine already beginning to retreat up the mountain sides. We soon entered the secluded valley where stands the dwelling of the Willeys—the unfortunate family who were all swept away in one night by a slide from the mountain in the rear of the house* . No one lives in that valley, now; and this is not to be wondered at, so desolate is its aspect. The platform on which the unharmed house stands is the only quiet green spot in the pass. The slides have stripped the mountains of their wood; and they stand tempest-beaten, seamed, and furrowed; while beneath lies the wreck of what was brought down by the great slide of 1826—a heap of rock and soil, bristling with pine-trunks and upturned roots, half hid by a rank new vegetation, which will in time turn all the chaos into beauty.
A dark pine hill at the end of this pass is the signal of the traveller's approach to the Notch. We walked up a long ascent, the road overhanging a ravine, where rocks were capriciously tumbled together, brought down doubtless by a winter-torrent. At present, instead of a torrent, there were two sparkling waterfalls leaping down the mountain. The Notch is, at the narrowest part, only twenty-two feet wide. The weather was so still that we were scarcely aware of the perpetual wind, which is one characteristic of the pass. There the wind is always north or south; and it ordinarily blows so strong as to impair the traveller's pleasure in exploring the scene. It merely breathed cool upon us as we entered the tremendous gateway formed by a lofty perpendicular rock on the right hand, and a steep mountain on the left. When we were through, and had rejoined our wagon, my attention was directed to the Profile—an object which explains itself in being named. The sharp rock certainly resembles a human face—but what then? There is neither wonder nor beauty in it. I turned from it to see the infant Saco bubble forth from its spring among stones and bushes, under the shelter of the perpendicular rock, and in a semicircular recess of the greenest sward. Trees sprang from sharp projections, and wrenched themselves out of crevices—giving the last air of caprice to the scene.
We were just in time for the latest yellow light. Twilight stole on, and we grew silent. The stars appeared early to us on our shadowy way, and birds flitted by to their homes. A light still lingered on the mountain stream, when Sirius was tremblingly reflected in it. When the lights of Ethan Crawford's dwelling were seen twinkling in the distance, we were deep in mutual recitation of poetry. As we drove up to the open door, Mr. D. said, quietly, as he looked up into the heavens, “Shall we get out, or spend the evening as we are?” We got out, and then followed supper, fiddle and dancing, as I have elsewhere related* .
We proposed to ascend Mount Washington the next morning, if the weather should allow. It is a difficult and laborious ascent for all travellers; and few ladies venture upon the enterprise; but the American lady of our party was fully disposed to try her strength with me. I rose very early, and seeing that the mountain peak looked sharp and clear, never doubted that I ought to prepare myself for the expedition. On coming down, however, I was told that there was rather too much wind, and some expectation of rain. By noon, sure enough, while we were basking upon Mount Deception (so called from its real being so much greater than its apparent height), we saw that there was a tempest of wind and snow about the mountain top. This peak is the highest in the Union. It rises 6634 feet above the level of the sea: 4000 feet of this height being clothed with wood, and the rest being called the bald part of the mountain. We spent our day delightfully in loitering about Mount Deception, in tracking the stream of the valley through its meadows, and its thickets of alders, and in watching the course and explosion of storms upon the mountains. Some gay folks from Boston were at Crawford's; and they were not a little shocked at seeing us pack ourselves and our luggage into a wagon, in the afternoon, for a drive of eighteen miles to Littleton. We should be upset—we should break down—we should be drowned in a deluge—they should pick us up on the morrow. We were a little doubtful ourselves about the prudence of the enterprise; but a trip to Franconia Defile was in prospect for the next day, and we wished that our last sight of the White Mountains should be when they had the evening sun upon them. Our expedition was wholly successful; we had neither storm, breakage, nor overturn; and it was not sunset when we reached and walked up the long hill which was to afford us the last view of the chain. Often did we stand and look back upon the solemn tinted mountains to the north, and upon the variegated range behind, sunny in places, as if angels were walking there, and shedding light from their presence.
We passed the town of Bethlehem, consisting, as far as we could see, of one house and two barns. It was no more than six o'clock when we reached Littleton: so, when we had chosen our rooms, out, of a number equally tempting from their cleanliness and air of comfort, we walked out to see what the place looked like. Our attention was caught by the endeavours of a woman to milk a restless cow, and we inadvertently stood still to see how she would manage. When she at last succeeded in making the animal stand, she offered us milk. We never refused kindness which might lead to acquaintanceship; so we accepted her offer, and followed her guidance into her house, to obtain a basin to drink out of. It was a good interior. Two pretty girls, nicely dressed, sat, during the dusk, by a blazing fire. Their talkative father was delighted to get hold of some new listeners. He sat down upon the side of the bed, as if in preparation for a long chat, and entered at large into the history of his affairs. He told us how he went down to Boston, to take service, and got money enough to settle himself independently in this place; and how much better he liked having a house of his own than working for any amount of money in a less independent way. He told us how Littleton flourishes by the lumber-trade; wood being cut from the hills around, and sent floating down the stream for five miles, till it reaches the Connecticut, with whose current it proceeds to Hartford. Twenty years ago there was one store and a tavern in the place; now it is a wide-spreading village on the side of a large hill, which is stripped of its forest. The woods on the other bank of the river are yet untouched. Scarcely a field is to be seen under tillage; and the axe seems almost the only: tool in use.
We were admirably cared for at Gibb's house at Littleton, and we enjoyed our comforts exceedingly. It appeared that good manners are much regarded in the house; some of the family being as anxious to teach them to strangers as to practise them themselves. In the morning, one of my American friends and I, being disposed to take our breakfast at convenient leisure, sat down to table when all was ready, our companions (who could make more haste) not having appeared. A young lady stood at the sidetable to administer the steaming coffee and tea. After waiting some time, my companion modestly observed,
“I should like a cup of coffee, if you please.”
There was no appearance of the observation having taken effect; so my friend spoke again:
“Will you be so good as to give me a cup of coffee?”
No answer. After a third appeal, the young lady burst out with,
“Never saw such manners! To sit down to table before the other folks come!”
I hope she was pacified by seeing that our friends, when they at length appeared, did not resent our not having waited for them.
We set out early in an open wagon for a day's excursion to Franconia Defile—a gorge in the mountains which is too frequently neglected by travellers who pass through this region. Before we reached Franconia, some part of our vehicle gave way. While it was in the hands of the blacksmith, we visited the large ironworks at Franconia, and sat in a boat on the sweet Ammonoosuc, watching the waters as they fell over the dam by the ironworks. When we set off again, our umbrellas were forgotten; and as we entered upon the mountain region, the misty, variegated peaks told that storm was coming. The mountain sides were more precipitous than any we had seen; and Mount Lafayette towered darkly above us to the right of our winding road. We passed some beautiful tarns, fringed with trees, and brimming up so close to the foot of the precipices as to leave scarcely a footpath on their margin. A pelting rain came on, which made us glad to reach the solitary dwelling of the pass, called the Lafayette Hotel. This house had been growing in the woods thirteen weeks before; and yet we were far from being among its first guests. The host, two boys, and a nice-looking, obliging girl, wearing a string of gold beads, did their best to make us comfortable. They kindled a blazing wood fire, and the girl then prepared a dinner of hot bread and butter, broiled ham, custards, and good tea. When the shower ceased, we went out and made ourselves acquainted with the principal features of the pass, sketching, reciting, and watching how the mists drove up and around the tremendous peaks, smoked out of the fissures, and wreathed about the woods on the ledges. The scene could not have been more remarkable, and scarcely more beautiful in the brightest sunshine. It was not various: its unity was its charm. It consisted of a narrow rocky road, winding between mountains which almost overhung the path, except at intervals, where there were recesses filled with woods.
After dinner, our host brought in the album of the house—for even this new house had already its album. When we had given an account of ourselves we set out, in defiance of the clouds, for the Whirlpool, four miles at least further on. On the way we passed a beautiful lake, overhung by ash, beech, birch, and pine, with towering heights behind. Hereabouts the rain came on heavily, and continued for three hours. The Whirlpool is the grand object of this pass; and it is a place in which to spend many a long summer's day. A full mountain stream, issuing from the lake we had left behind, and brawling all along our road, here gushes through a crevice into a wide basin, singularly overhung by a projecting rock, rounded and smoothed as if by art. Here the eddying water, green as the Niagara floods, carries leaves and twigs round and round, in perpetual swift motion, a portion of the waters brimming over the lower edge of the great basin at each revolution, and the pool being replenished from above. I found a shelter under a ledge of rock; and here I could have stood for hours, listening to the splash and hiss, and watching the busy whirl. The weather, showever, grew worse every moment; the driver could not keep the seats of the wagon dry any longer; and after finding to our surprise that we had staid half an hour by the pool, we jumped into our vehicle, and returned without delay. There were no more wandering gleams among the mountains; but just as we descended to the plain, we saw the watery sun for a moment, and were cheered by a bright amber streak of sky above the western summits. By the time we recovered our umbrellas there was no further need of them.
It soon became totally dark; and if there had been any choice, the driver would have been as glad as ourselves to have stopped. But we were wet, and there were no habitations along the roads: so we amused ourselves with watching one or two fire-flies, the last of the season, and the driver left the horses to find their own way, as he was unable to see a yard in any direction. At last, the lights of Littleton appeared, the horses put new spirit into their work, and we arrived at Gibb's door before eight o'clock. The ladies of the house were kind in their assistance to get us dried and warmed, and to provide us with tea.
Our course was subsequently to Montpelier (Vermont), and along the White River, till we joined the Connecticut, along whose banks we travelled to Brattleborough, Deerfield, and Northampton. The scenery of New Hampshire and Vermont is that to which the attention of travellers will hereafter be directed, perhaps more emphatically than to the renowned beauties of Virginia I certainly think the Franconia Defile the not mountain pass I saw in the United States.
[*]Society in America, vol. i. pp. 220–225.
[*]The region must, however, be less desolate than it was. The land in the neighbourhood had been worth only twenty-five cents per acre, and was now worth just six times as much.
[*]Society in America, vol. i. p. 227.
[*]Society in America, vol. i. p. 227.