Great North Woods (Part Two)

We drove through Colebrook and watched the town center thin out through open car windows traveling East. The air was warm and threatening spring. I wanted to be in my canoe paddling past small islands dense with second growth trees. We were on our way to Dixville Notch, Brad and Erin promised me a playground like I had never seen in the North Country. A Notch forgotten and overlooked, the one time home to The Balsams Resort Hotel and neighboring Wilderness ski area was now left in a state of disrepair and I had to see it to understand it.

Balsams Resort Hotel with Dixville Notch in the distance

Tiny, faded trail signs, buried to their necks in mounds of snow watched us slowly drive past; equipped with neither skis nor snowshoes exploration of the highlands would have to wait for the next visit. The road is narrow and the steep cliffs give the drive a claustrophobic feeling. One part of me wants to climb to the top as quickly as I can, perhaps up to the often mentioned, Table Rock, just to gain a wider view and catch a breadth of open air. But for now we drive on, The Balsams and its ski mountain will be our first stop, our first opportunity to feel the Notch open a bit, a place to stretch our legs.

Trailhead signs

I’ve had hundreds of drinks at the Mt. Washington Resort Hotel. Attending different fancy dress social event or just having an après bite and beverage, the Mt. Washington in all of her historical grandeur is well known to me. The Balsams is more of a tucked away mystery. From what the locals say it has closed many times. Most recently, in the last decade of so, it was a place for locals to escape. Brad and Erin talked about heading up here when the snow was good:

“The snow was always good, the trails were narrow, no lines at all. We would go to the hotel after and they just let you walk around with a bottle of wine. There were no TVs in the rooms but somebody would walk around pushing a little cart full of books. They had a movie theater and we would sit there in our bathrobes and just relax.”

Steep walls of Dixville Notch

My tour-guide-couple recall romantic escapes to Dixville Notch and describe rooms with character and perfect powder on the hill with a hint of sadness and a tinge of longing. They tell me how a resort conglomerate was going to re-open the historic hotel and ski area but got caught up in legal matters and other complications. Peering through windows cloudy with time at the ski area’s base lodge I saw furnishings from the seventies and eighties. The indoor picnic tables with their red plastic seats were all still there. Each plastic stool was fixed in a shared orbit to a central red plastic table. I could see where red-faced skiers sat eating crushed sandwiches out of plastic baggies in a laughing and cajoling circle of plastic. Pints of Sam Adams, poured from a heavy glass pitcher would stand around the center of the table like a pupil, the iris of this après eye would be purple and neon green, as was the ski fashion of the day.

There was a quiet past, a sort of goof ‘ol days of the North Country. The disdain for “flatlanders” and “Mass-holes” may have been present, but in retrospect some of the locals recall a softer ribbing, free of the present day resentment for tourists coming up here to spend their city money on our mountain recreation… I pull away from the camaraderie in mind, pass the dust and the cobwebs, and we return to the car headed for the Balsams.

If Stephen King’s, The Shining, were rewritten today (with our preoccupation for post apocalyptic settings in mind) the story would have taken place at The Balsams as it looks now. Neglect and vandalism have taken their toll. I’m told there was also a fire, or more than one. There used to be a culinary school at the Balsams that prepared all the guests’ meals several years ago. Local recollections of abuse and advantage-taking are still muttered in coffee shops when the subject is broached.

A small notch, dynamic in every way; one road through, almost no real estate within. Established hiking trails, reasonably spaced pull offs with road side information kiosks and picnic areas throughout; an established ski mountain with lifts and a base lodge. The Balsams, historic, elegant, and grand. And yet this whole area is shut down and falling apart. One of William Hurt’s best delivered lines comes to mind while I write all this down, “How did you f%*k that up?”

I know I am a dreamer and not a business person. I know books and film have always been my playground, fantasy my reality more often than not, but isn’t there a build it and they will come scenario here? Are we not a nation housing multi billionaires and energetic politicians bouncing between pundits and charities with too much money and free time? Surely a wealthy mind with an eye toward history and beauty could look upon the Balsams the way ex-presidents look upon libraries, as a place to preserve their legacy for future generations. Get up here and escape the chaos, breathe air un-marred by Uber and Starbucks. Walk paths like a naturalist, sans ear buds. Dress for dinner, dine with strangers, and take a bottle of wine to the movie theater in a bathrobe. Ski until the walk to the parking lot is unfathomable. Recover with a book and not a YouTube video. Unplug, immerse your senses in wild things. Sleep and dream uninterrupted by alarms. Wake, dine, ski, hike, dine, drink, laugh without a screen and discuss the written word. Careful though, Caveat Emptor, life in these mountains glistens with magic and can leave the intellect picky and turn it off to chain restaurants and treadmills forever.

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