Route 113A between Tamworth and Sandwich, New Hampshire is a twisty little stretch of wooded highway that, for half the year, is studded by frost heaves big enough to bounce an unsuspecting tourist right off the road. The route also bears the more lyrical name of "The Chinook Trail" and is home to the kennel where the rare Chinook sled dog was first bred at the beginning of the twentieth century.
I know this because I spent two months living just down the road. Many an evening was spent in the company of their twilight serenade. Between the Chinooks and the coyotes, along with the occasional itinerant bear, we were never really at a loss for excitement of the wild variety.
Almost seven miles northwest of Tamworth, Chinook Trail enters the village of Wonalancet, which consists of the Union Chapel, an oft-photographed New England church set against a backdrop formed by the Sandwich Range of the White Mountains; the cemetary across the street; the former post office, located on a spur road that also provides access to many popular trailheads; as well as clusters of early nineteeth century farmhouses and rustic cabins.
One of these cabins, if you stop to examine it (and imagine it painted red), begins to bear a remarkable resemblance to an old, one-room schoolhouse - which of course it was. The Wonalancet School: it was also our first home in New Hampshire.
The old schoolhouse is owned by an elderly couple who lives just across the road. They rent it out both short- and long-term to vacationers, friends of friends and other acquaintences. The DH and I fell into the "friends of friends of friends" category and stayed there from September to November of 2003, at which time we closed on our current house. I look back on it as one of the more special places I've inhabited, if only for that brief time. It had a quiet energy that was conducive to relaxation and a gathering of strength for the life-building struggle we were about to enter into.
The conversion from schoolhouse to residence had been straightforward, solid and effective. Most of the original classroom had been maintained as the living room, which was flanked by six symmetrical windows, all covered in roller shades. The front of the classroom had been sectioned off for a small kitchen and full bathroom. At the back of the living room were two (again)symmetrical rooms, which had undoubtedly served as the original cloakroom and supply closet, but were now small paneled bedrooms.
The cabin had an old TV and an even older phone, a trail map on the wall and lots and lots of books. It was a short walk from several trailheads, including the Cabin Trail and the Brook Trail, and a slightly longer walk from the Union Chapel and other trailheads. Although I wasted no time in beginning my job search, I nonetheless found myself with sufficient opportunity to enjoy the simple amenities the old schoolhouse provided me that fall.
DH had already begun teaching at the high school, which was 45 minutes away, so I spent my days alone. I read a lot: Great Expectations, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Seabiscuit, Carl Jung's The Undiscovered Self, the beginning of Dubliners until I realized I didn't meet the IQ requirement to appreciate it. I even wrote a bit, though mostly in my journal.
Many afternoons I spent hiking. I didn't mind going alone, as the trails were well marked. Far up the Cabin Trail is a small area of caves formed by large granite slabs deposited by glaciers. Two or three times I started for those caves, only to turn back. I could never seem to get going early enough and it would always start getting dark before I could reach them. I was scared to death about getting stuck out on the trail alone after dark, and yet it never occurred to me to go and buy a headlamp. City Slicker.
One day I did reach the caves, however, and felt a real sense of accomplishment. As I walked the trail, I passed old cellar holes that made me think about the people who used to live there. I thought about the path I was on and how it might at one time have been the only way to Grandma's house. That made me think of the Big Bad Wolf, and Hansel and Gretel, and how I would have found this all very spooky as a child.
I did manage to get out during the day. In addition to several odd jobs: dog walking, landscaping, stringing for the local newspaper, I would venture into Tamworth to buy food and supplies at The Village Store or The Other Store (yes, it's really called "The Other Store.") Though Tamworth has a post office, locals don't have to use it to get mail to one other. You can just drop something off in a bin at the Other Store to be picked up by the recipient next time they're in town.
In the other direction from the cabin was the town of Sandwich. At that time, my friend Lori lived in a shotgun shack just on the Wonalancet-Sandwich line. I visited her often when neither of us was working. We'd load wood into her woodshed or sit in her "yard," drink beer and play drums like a couple of hippies. If we felt like going a little crazy, we'd venture down to the Spring for fresh water or, for even more excitement, down the network of dirt roads to the Sandwich Creamery - open 24 hours - to buy ice cream or cheese, all on the honor system.
Something to do if you were used to living in a city, where you could go out and get something to eat if you were hungry at one in the morning.
Once in a while, we'd head into Center Sandwich to eat at the Corner House Inn and Tavern. I say that, but we never actually ate in the "Inn" part of it - always the "Tavern" upstairs. On cold nights you could sit in front of the fireplace while eating a mushroom-lobster bisque, beer batter fries or other tasty fare. They also had board games that you could play while drinking, from checkers to cribbage and Trivial Pursuit. A night out at the Corner House was a pretty big deal to us during those two months.
Drive the Chinook Trail and its attached dirt roads enough times and you'll be amazed at what you see. Turkeys are standard: whether foraging on the side of the road or crossing it, I always imagined them dressed as nineteenth century English gentry, discussing the highlights of their "afternoon (or morning) constitutional." I remember seeing both moose and bear, along with beaver, fox and any number of large bird species. One fox in particular always seemed to cross the road in the same place, usually about five seconds ahead of me, forcing me into a screeching halt. Of course he had to have a name, as I'm someone who grew up on Disney movies and learned to anthropomorphize animals from an early age, so he (or she) was referred to as "Jeremiah Fox."
Add to all this the glorious fall foliage New Hampshire experienced that year and our little cabin in Wonalancet felt most idyllic. The pace of life was slow, often too slow for people who'd been living in a city. Driving a half an hour to buy any food at all and forty-five minutes to an actual supermarket took a level of planning to which I was unaccustomed. Stores closed early and "nightlife" consisted of playing cards or other games at the cabin - or reading, or sitting around in the almost-dark because any brisk gust of wind would knock out the power.
But it was a pace that allowed me time to reflect and plan, as well as enjoy aspects of life which require time spent away from noise and media and technology in order to fully appreciate. Except for the pressure to move out by the end of October, we were in no hurry. We went to local plays and concerts; I even attended a workshop on slaughtering turkeys (I missed the actual slaughter, but showed up in time to help with the plucking - the perfect job for my OCD!).
When the day finally came, I found I was sad to leave: I knew that, despite the difficulties associated with living that far out of town, I would miss both the space and quiet. Now having spent ten years living on a major highway in "The City" (population slightly more than 10,000), I find I still miss those months living in the old Wonalancet schoolhouse.
Which is why we drive by often, usually on our way to Sandwich to visit friends who live in the village. He runs a small bookstore of first editions in addition to his "regular job." She runs a successful crafts business.
They live about a block away from the Corner House, which suits me just fine. Sometimes I get a craving for beer batter fries.