Add N.H. and Maine to travel experience list
It's always nice to be in the U.S.A. after traveling to another country. For one thing, cellphone service is back to normal. As soon as my family and I exited Canada, I called home to make sure all was well. For my week north of the border, contact with New Jersey had been limited to occasional texts.
That done, we could move on to part two of our summer vacation trip. We were headed to New Hampshire's White Mountains, where we intended to reach the summit of Mount Washington - at 6,288 feet, the highest peak in the East.
It was getting dark as we crossed the state. Then, the signs started appearing: Beware of moose.
I've seen my share of deer, including one on Route 130 in Pennsauken last year. But a moose, averaging 1,200 pounds and standing 7 feet from its toes, up its spindly legs to its massive antlers?
So it became my mission to spot it before we hit it. Any notion of napping was gone. I was on duty.
As we drove into North Conway on White Mountain Highway, I was delighted by the quaint town on New Hampshire's eastern border. There were the family restaurants, the playground, the train station, the ice cream shops, ski rental shops, and antiques shops.
The next morning was overcast, but we were ready to storm the summit.
Mount Washington is known as the home of the world's worst weather. The temperature at the top has never been recorded above 72 degrees; in 2004, the wind chill hit minus-103. With the temperature at 50 when we were there, we wore insulated jackets and hiking boots.
There are three ways to go up Mount Washington: Hike, drive, or take the train. Had the weather been clear, we would have attempted to climb the rocky trail. Instead, we took the Cog Railway. Opened in 1868, it's the world's first mountain-climbing cog railway. A locomotive pushes the railcar up the mountain - a steep ride with a 25 percent grade on average, 37 percent at its steepest. As we ascended, the trees got shorter and shorter, until there weren't any. They can't take the weather.
The railway ferries passengers from the base station, at about 2,700 feet, to just below the summit.
It was cold, the wind was gusting, and we were thrilled. Climbing up the rocks to the summit sign was an invigorating, 10-minute effort.
After that high, we climbed Silver Cascade waterfall on the side of Mount Jackson in Crawford Notch State Park. It's right off the road back to North Conway, and is one of the most-photographed sites in the area.
The next day we headed off to go zip-lining in Bretton Woods, but were thwarted by rains that made the lines unsafe. Since we couldn't go up, we went down - to the Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves in North Woodstock.
The river is a tributary of the Pemigewasset River. It was found by accident in 1852 by two brothers, Royal and Lyman Jackman, while fishing in what they thought was a brook. Climbing over the boulders to get a better position, Lyman fell in the water and seemed to disappear. He had landed in the first cave to be discovered, Shadow Cave.
The caves, my daughter proudly explained, are the result of heating and shifting beneath the Earth's surface 300 million years ago when the mountains were forming. (Apparently, I'm not as smart as a fifth grader. And, yes, she was listening in class.)
Off we went into the belly of the Earth to explore the caves, which were rated by difficulty. The tough ones required crawling; I skipped those. Inside, the caves were cool, literally and figuratively. Some were so cold we could see our breath. We were informed that they weren't suitable for bears and other hibernating animals - too cold and damp.
Back up on the surface, we found a garden planted with more than 100 species of native flowers, ferns, and shrubs.
The next day was the last of our vacation. But there were a few things to do on the way back to New Jersey. First, we had to get to the White Mountain Cupcakery, a Season 7 winner of the Food Network's Cupcake Wars. We got a six-pack of pretty little cakes.
Then, it was off to Maine. I had always wanted to go to the state nicknamed "Vacationland." We were heading to Portland Head Light, the lighthouse at Fort Williams Park in Port Elizabeth.
As we drove along, I remained on moose lookout. I wondered about the metal roofs on houses and thought that might be an option for my house. I was reminded of Jessica Fletcher - the mystery writer, amateur detective, and fictional Maine denizen of Murder, She Wrote - when we passed lakes and surrounding villages, and I wondered what stories they held.
Fort Williams Park had quite a few visitors. Children playing in the very cold water (I dipped a toe in), families picnicking, others strolling: The scene was postcard-perfect.
Our last stop in Maine was for - what else? - lobster. We visited the Lobster Shack at Two Lights, recommended as the best place around by the woman at the desk at the Portland Head Light. It was!
Finally, we were heading home. It had been a great vacation. We learned a lot. And I crossed two more states off my 50-states list - I'm at 26 and my daughter is already at 15. Hey! I hear there's a diamond field in Arkansas . . . .
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