Culture, Family, Friendship, History

Memories of Mount Washington, New Hampshire

I see that today–August 29, 2023–is the 154th anniversary of the opening of the  Mount Washington Cog Railway.  (That means that my great-grandmother, who was also born in August of 1869, would have been 154 years old the day before yesterday.)

The railway, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, was the first mountain-climbing rack railway in the world.  (A rack railway is one on which the rail car moves along by engaging with a track below it.  The ‘toothed’ wheel(s) on the car engage engages with the interstices between the teeth on the rack, moving the car forward one cog at a time.)

I have a complicated relationship with New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. It was certainly in the top three when it came to the late Mr. Right’s enumeration of his favorite places on this earth.  In fact, we got married there in 1981, while we were on a camping trip with his kids: Sam was the best man.  Michael was the photographer, and Jenny was the flower girl.  The bride wore shorts.  The groom looked like an escapee from the Bee Gees:

After the wedding, we retired to the Elmwood Inn for the reception, where we had the special–Veal Parmesan.  It was $1.45 a plate.

Who says weddings can’t be done on the cheap?  Even now?

We were married by Charles S—-, a Justice of the Peace.  Bless his heart, he wanted to make it as nice as possible for us–impoverished loons that we were–so we went to his home, and held the ceremony in the back garden.  There were flowers.  And hummingbirds.  And beautiful mountains in the no-so-far-off distance.

Whatever he did, his efforts paid off, because the magic lasted for thirty-nine years, until Mr. Right’s death in July of 2020.  I’m grateful.

A few years before the wedding, when–as they say–Mr. Right’s and my “love was young” we’d embarked on another trip to Mount Washington, this one incorporating 1978’s Thanksgiving week, so I didn’t have to take too many days off work.  This is the story of that trip:

File:TuckermanRavine.MtWashington.NH.jpgI was sitting in the little snack bar in the base station of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington (a short mountain, comparatively speaking, but one which has its own set of challenges for climbers), prior to setting out on an expedition with Mr. Right, when a shocking newsflash came over the radio: Hundreds of people had died in an impossibly massive murder-suicide event in Jonestown, Guyana.  It was one of those “Where were you when…?” moments.  That’s where I was.

People were flabbergasted. Most of us had no idea what any of it was about. And as the bizarre and gory details came out over the next several days, the story just got stranger and sadder. By the time all the facts were known, over 900 people were dead, a US Congressman had been assassinated, and an ominous, and often flippant new phrase, “he drank the Kool-Aid,” had entered the English Language.

It being 1978, however, the facts did take some time to seep out. And in the meantime, Mr. Right and I enjoyed a lovely few days hiking, climbing, and sightseeing.  We made it–on that very same day, August 18 1978–to within a couple of hundred feet of the summit of Mt. Washington when we had to turn back because the weather closed in suddenly (not an unusual occurrence**) and we had to descend.  At that very moment, however, a solitary climber who’d come up the other side and over the top and had started to descend, approached us.  I think he was the first person we’d seen since we left the base camp.  And–of course–when he got close enough, he yelled out, “Frank!!” and Mr. Right shouted, “Bob!!,” and the two men, fellow members of the Pittsburgh Explorers club, embraced.  (That’s just how Mr. Right was.  I remember, years later, being seated at a wedding with a group of strangers when he and the fellow sitting next door but one to him discovered they were cousins via a South Side Pittsburgh family member who’d also been a priest, AND also was a relative of the old gentleman who owned the hardware store in Claysville, three miles away from where we’d moved in 1986.  That was just my life.)

Shortly after “Bob” left us and continued down the trail, Mr. Right got us lost for about five minutes.  It was cold, windy, blustery, and terrifying.  And (so sue me) I never let him forget it.

But the meal–once we got down on terra firma–made up for it.

Until the next day, when my skills as a map reader (which are actually pretty good) went haywire and–with the best intentions–I directed us to Milford NH instead of Milford MA. (Milford, BTW, is one of the most common place names in the United States.)

He never let me forget that, either.

And I think, with goodwill on all sides, that’s how lifelong relationships, and memories, are formed.  It’s not–as the saying goes–“one damned thing after another.”  It’s the same damned thing, over and over again.  (At least, if neither of you is perfect, that’s how it seems to be.)

But back to Jonestown for a moment:

This article provides a fascinating first-person account of Congressman Leo Ryan’s visit to the colony, of his interactions with Jones and his followers, and of the subsequent massacre of Ryan and several others as they were leaving. It’s written by a survivor of said massacre, a congressional aide who was traveling with the group, and who was shot several times herself as the melee progressed. It’s a powerful witness to the situation, as well as a sidelight on how different so many things were, forty-five years ago, now.

The Jonestown massacre was, until 9/11, the greatest single intentional destruction of American civilian lives in history.

My God.

The things we do for love.

They can be so life-affirming and uplifting.  They can be what makes getting up in the morning worthwhile, and what makes the next generation even possible.

And–when delusional and turned to evil–they can engender unimaginable tragedy, horror, and one dead end after another.

I still can’t process the madness and the pure evil of the Jonestown event. 900 people. Many of whom went willingly and joyfully to their deaths. Many of whom murdered their loved ones, including their children, by forcing them to “drink the Kool-Aid” (not a phrase I’ve ever been able to bring myself to use–as with 9/11 the memories are just too raw–or by injecting them with poisons, including cyanide, and leaving them to die prolonged and agonizing deaths. I just can’t process that level of madness and evil. All I can do is pray for the poor, insane, deluded souls, and for those innocents who had no choice. May they rest in peace.

**From the Wikipedia Mount Washington Page:

The mountain is notorious for its erratic weather. On the afternoon of April 12, 1934, the Mount Washington Observatory recorded a windspeed of 231 miles per hour (372 km/h) at the summit, the world record from 1934 until 1996. Mount Washington still holds the record for highest measured wind speed not associated with a tornado or tropical cyclone.


Leave a Reply