Feeling good, but with a long way to go, the peaks recede behind me as every step takes me further along the vast ridgeline. Madison, Adams, Jefferson…Washington looms ahead, its summit cone sitting high above the rest of the sleeping giants that make up the Presidential Range. Wispy clouds roll over ridges and through saddles, following updrafts, moving eastward. Breathing deep I take in the scene. To the southwest the mighty Appalachian Mountains continue southward, while a tide of Appalachian Trail “through-hikers” glide past, ruddy cheeks, bearded smiles, and the confident stride of having walked 1,800 miles with only a few hundred more to go. To the southeast, the mountains give way and the land begins to gently recede to the ocean. It is from here that the Saco River begins its brief 136 mile journey to Saco Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Tearing through Crawford Notch, churning over boulders, and tumbling 1,400 feet in 18 miles before reaching North Conway where, after its fleeting engagement with youthful exuberance, it settles in for its slow meander to the sea.
It is here at this spot, where the Saco River shifts gears, that I decided to return to the Northeast, after having spent 12 years in the Rocky Mountain West, exploring ragged peaks and aspen filled valleys. 12 years ago I was fresh out of college looking for adventure and work in public land management. A survey of my options revealed what I perceived to be greener pastures to the west. Colorado, I thought, that’s the place for me. It was, as it turns out, a place that I fit into quite nicely; recreation opportunities presented themselves at every turn, with a fresh crop of new arrivals like myself looking to forge new friendships through adventure. It was bliss; I hiked, I mountain biked, and I climbed, self assured that no place back east could hold a candle to the opportunities and access to recreation present in my new-found homeland.
Sometime in my early 30s this perspective began to shift when I ventured to North Conway during a trip to visit family back in Maine and explore the fabled granite ledges of the Mount Washington Valley. Here many of the earliest and most storied rock climbers in the U.S. cut their teeth climbing the cracks and subtly featured faces that characterize the local Conway granite. I was immediately captivated by the beauty of the Upper Saco River Valley and would continue to visit the region every time I ventured east. Slowly my idealized western narrative changed and I began thinking about how incredible it would be to call North Conway home. It had everything that I cherished about Colorado, without the jam-packed trails and edgy cyclists vying for the fastest STRAVA descent. Upon closer examination I also found a solid community of stalwart recreationists, dedicated to outdoor pursuits and willing to befriend new comers with a sincere interest in becoming an engaged member of the community.
When investigating putting down roots in the White Mountains I found many of the same challenges I was familiar with in the mountain communities of the west, namely tight job markets and limited options for affordable housing. These can be daunting hurdles for individuals seeking to relocate to places such as North Conway, where jobs tend to roll with the seasons, and short-term vacation rentals gobble up potential housing options. It’s tempting to paint a Pollyanna picture here – I am after all writing a piece about why, in my mid-30s, I decided to make North Conway my home, but being honest about the challenges shouldn’t undermine the positives. The fact is those with enough ambition, vision, determination and creativity can make a go of it here, and you don’t have to be a mountain guide or shop owner to make it work.
Like an increasing number of people in their 20s and 30s I have found my way into work that affords me the opportunity to work remotely, and it is that ever growing subset of the workforce that has a real opportunity to carve out a satisfying life, where a day of work can be followed by an evening of outdoor play or meaningful civic engagement. It’s a place where, if you identify a community need, you’ll likely find a handful of your fellow local residents that feel the same way as you and are ready to lend a hand in turning ideas into reality. It’s a place where, if you come to the table with a can do attitude and community spirit, you’ll be met with the same. It’s refreshing and it’s real, and it’s why I call it home.
Mike Morin is the Northeast Regional Director for the Access Fund, a national non-profit that works to keep climbing areas open and conserved across the United States. Mike’s work takes him across the Northeast from Maine to Pennsylvania, where he assists local volunteers and land managers with preserving recreational access to cliff lines and boulderfields, while providing expertise on balancing recreational access with sound conservation strategies. To date, the Access Fund has provided support and guidance on multiple projects in New Hampshire including climbing area conservation projects in Rumney, North Conway, and Keene. Mike lives in North Conway with his wife Amanda.