All Normal Philosophic Calm Vanishes

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – If there’s anything more hellish in the life of an elderly Yankee than driving in Boston traffic, it’s anticipating having to. The thought of hurtling at 75 miles an hour through Methuen, Medford, and Somerville in the company of thousands of homicidal maniacs in SUVs (all of whom, unlike me, know where they’re going) makes me peruse commuter airline schedules. When I add the prospect of darkness, rain, sleet, snow, or rush hour, all normal philosophic calm vanishes, replaced by Wagnerian bass viols expressing deep existential dread.

Yet go I had to, for work: a New Hampshire Public Television shoot on Cape Cod. The route couldn’t have been much simpler – interstates most of the way, and according to Google Maps, a bit less than four hours. So, if I left around one, I should pull into the motel in East Sandwich just about dark. It was a Sunday afternoon, to boot; but I still wasn’t easy in my mind.

Sunday morning, when I let Kiki out, there was a little over a foot of new, wet snow in the yard, and more coming down, hard. Okay; so we’ll leave at noon and hope for the best. Which we did. Before we’d gone thirty miles, it was obvious our home had been on the southern edge of the storm. Clear roads, and by the time we turned south at Concord, dry pavement and broken clouds.

Cape Cod is currently in the middle of a mini-surge of COVID, so the motel had asked us not to come to the office; that the room would be open with the key inside. They also don’t allow dogs normally; but these are hard times in tourist locations. Assured that Kiki doesn’t shed, and that she’s now a member of the crew, they relented. The other crew members trickled in ‘til about ten.

Next morning, up and at ’em, and off to the shoot, with a stop at a Dunkin’ Donuts along the way. We were to meet Tom Ryan at a trailhead parking lot at the edge of the West Barnstable Conservation Area, take a little hike, and chat with him a bit just before – literally – he took off on a months-long road trip through the West with his two canine friends, Samwise and Emily.

A lot of you know Tom from his best-selling “Following Atticus,” the tale of a fascinating little miniature Schnauzer who pretty much saved Tom’s life and with him climbed all New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-foot peaks in both winter and summer. We’ve done several episodes of the show together, and he was responsible for getting me over my grief at the loss of our last dog, the utterly amazing Tucker, and signing up online for a peppy little ginger-colored rescue terrier from Texas. Whenever we get together, our three dogs sort of melt into a rolling ball of fur and happy growls.

Tom moved to New Hampshire, at the foot of the Mount Washington Valley, some years ago and enjoyed several happy, creative years. But in the last several months, feeling cramped by the influx of tourists and the percentage of local houses now listed as second homes – not to mention the encroaching leash laws on dogs on public trails – he’s thinking of moving. He’s lived through a stroke and the failure of several major organs, but is able to travel on the proceeds of his writing; so he’s taking a long walkabout and thinking about where to settle next. It’s to his credit that he’s leaning, without my even recommending it, most toward Vermont. I have a feeling that a few months’ traveling through the American West, dodging COVID, will seal the deal. I hope so.

Cape Cod, the world’s most famous glacial moraine, where Tom’s been quarantining for six weeks, has filled in with people since I spent my sixteenth summer here washing pots and pans in a summer camp and sailing during every free minute. Still, he’s been able to relax here more than in Mount Washington Valley, and walk unrestrained for miles in places like the one we were in that morning, a four square-mile semi-wild area somehow saved from development. We climbed to an observation platform near the top of the high point (232 feet!) of the area and sat chatting in a biting breeze with our backs to the sun. Mountain bikers and hikers with their dogs went by. Everybody sat or stood about two meters apart, and many wore masks, a reminder that Tom and his pals were about to venture into perilous country, while Kiki and I were about to return for a seven-day quarantine away from the horrors of Boston and back in the center of the civilized world. We bade the three pilgrims good-by at the trailhead and all went our separate ways, carefully.