Creative Nonfiction, Sue Ellen Snape

The Road to Here

by Sue Ellen Snape

 

Robert and Margaret Stone and their children, including Sue Ellen in front, with their new Chevy, circa 1950
Robert and Margaret Stone and their children, including Sue Ellen in front, with their new Chevy, circa 1950

Starting around 1947 through the early 1960s , for summer vacation my parents often rented a cabin up on Stinson Lake, New Hampshire. We lived in central Pennsylvania, and in that era before superhighways, the trip was well over a day’s drive. With three children along, it required an overnight stop. The one time we left in the middle of the night was never repeated.

That infamous trip was likely the first, made in our very first family car, a ’38 Packard bought used at the end of World War II. As the youngest child, about five years old at the time, I was put to bed on the shelf under the back window, my sister bedded down on the back seat, and my brother on the floor. Accidently-on-purpose toppling off my assigned perch proved irresistible to me, inciting sneak attacks in return. My brother recalls the car breaking down as well.

Our travel route varied as new highways were built, but all converged on the crossroads at Rumney Village. I’d be on the edge of my seat along the winding road out to Stinson Lake, the final stretch a jarring ride over a dirt road around the back of the lake. My dad would invariably pronounce the road in terminal condition, not liable to last another season, but somehow it always did. A steep driveway led downhill to a small parking lot. From there we descended on foot.

The cabin stood partway down a forested slope overlooking Stinson Lake. The one story, wood-frame structure with its shingle exterior could be described as a cottage, but we always called it a cabin. Out front was a small deck with a view to the lake. Built in the early 1900s, the structure sagged in the middle as if it had tired of holding itself up. To my child’s eye it had always been that way, and offered a reassuring sameness from year to year.

On arrival, at some point we all had to pitch in to lug all our baggage down to the cabin, but as a child I’d pile out of the car and run on ahead. Coming down the path, the first glimpse would be of the rear porch with a door off to one side, which served as the main entry. A screened porch ran along the back of the cabin. This is where we slept.

The back entry opened to a utility room off the kitchen, with an open hall to the living room. The interior always smelled the same to me—an earthen mix of old age and fresh air, a trace of wood smoke. The old linoleum floors in the kitchen and living area had a traditional discolored look, the same cracks and curled edges. When going in or out in my usual rush, the back screen door always slammed shut, a sound I can still hear.

The sleeping porch had beds on each side separated by a free-standing divider, an open closet built into each side. A canvas blind pulled down over the screen for privacy, or blowing rain, but mostly we kept it open. My sister and I shared a bed. We brought sheets from home, but the cabin had a storehouse of wool blankets and handmade quilts stored in a large chest. Each quilt had a distinctive design. My favorite had an array of tiny, bright flowers, resembling wildflowers growing in a meadow.

A door closed off the sleeping porch from the living room at the front of the cabin. A jumble of easy chairs and two long, broken-down couches provided ample seating, with all kinds of pillows—tapestry, needlepoint, what have you—to cushion the lumps. The shelves of old books remained intact from one year to the next, as did the corner shelf with board games and wooden jigsaw puzzles, the puzzles handcrafted by original property owner, Walter Fletcher. People referred to him as Walt. He made the puzzles so they held together when lifted off the table.

A photo of a young, robust Walt Fletcher hung on the cabin wall. I met him as a wizened elder, on my part an awestruck child. He and his wife, Lena, had downsized to a smaller cabin up the hill from ours. A boardwalk ran along the back of our cabin, and branched off to theirs. I carry a mental picture of Walt as having sharp, golden brown eyes, his head cocked slightly in a birdlike pose. Lena had a sparrow-bright eyes and a way of flitting around that may have contributed to that impression. Following Walt’s passing, Lena continued to drive up from Florida until well into her nineties, and stay the summer in that cabin.

Neighbors gather for a picnic behind the Grimes’ cabin

The boardwalk continued past the rear of a neighboring cabin built similarly to ours, also a rental at the time, to a larger summer dwelling at the end of the group, belonging to the Grimes. Ashton Grimes was a professor of music at Oberlin College in Ohio. Both he and his wife, Katharine (“Kay”) Grimes, were accomplished musicians. In addition, Kay was a notable artist, and became well known for her realism still life paintings. The Grimes had built a wonderful playhouse, which their three daughters had outgrown, but in the early years, my sister and I were just the right age.

The Grimes’ eldest daughter had left home by then, and I knew her only as Judy-Who-Skated-In-The-Ice-Capades. The two younger daughters, Patty and Caroline, were still around for most of those summers. Both musically gifted, together with their parents, they put on what amounted to a virtuoso jam session at the Grimes cabin some evenings.

The youngest daughter, Caroline, played flute. Near as I can recall, Ashton and Patty played violin, with Kay on cello. There could a guest musician, or an amateur instrumentalist taking part. At some point my brother played clarinet well enough to perform with the group. Later on my sister made her debut on the viola.

As an aspiring organist my mom had once dreamed of enrolling at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, and despite attending a school in her home state (Oregon), and later settling into the role of housewife, she retained a love of music. How she must have cherished those musical evenings.

A fidgety kid not ordinarily motivated by classical music, I’d generally sit on the floor. From there I caught the full sensory effect of the musical vibrations, the thumping feet, the rising intensity of the fully engaged musicians caught up in the beat.

My dad was of a restless nature. A professor of microbiology, at six-four with the inner drive of a turbo jet, he usually walked the two or three miles to his building on the Penn State campus regardless of weather. Musically, he couldn’t carry a tune, but he’d go along with my mom on all things musical. She, in turn, would follow his lead in hiking the rocky peaks of New Hampshire. We kids were expected to follow suit.

At about age five I made the comparatively easy climb up Stinson Mountain. From all reports, I whined the entire way up, dragging my legs. On the way down I ran the full distance, that part I remember. In later years Stinson Mountain became a warm-up hike.

Once past the whining stage, on difficult climbs I mostly kept to a silent, martyred approach on the ascent, focused on reaching the open rock. New Hampshire’s rocky peaks provide ledge-jumping galore for active kids. I had great fun playing mountain goat on that granite landscape.

The Jefferson Caps Trail with its string of false summits, climbed in full sun on a merciless hot day, stood as the exception. Webster Cliff Trail and Mt. Cardigan offered the best ledges and sweeping views off the summit for the least burdensome ascent, and ranked as favorites. A hike up King Ravine on Mt. Adams stands as an all-time best. For me at an awkward age of twelve or thereabouts, surmounting the headwall of King Ravine made me feel like I’d conquered the world.

Driving the old Route 3 north from Plymouth to Franconia Notch or further north took well over an hour, so when hiking those mountains we had to get up early. It’d be dark, when I’d hear my parents up, my dad stoking the woodstove on cold mornings. Chilly mornings out on the sleeping porch made even more reason for delaying the moment when my bare feet hit the cold floor until the last possible second. The rule of thumb for a good hiking day was if you could see across the lake to the peak of Mt. Moosilauke off in the distance. Some morning clouds might lift —bucking those odds got us soaking wet on several occasions. Awakening to the patter of rain meant no hiking that day. From the comfort of bed and a layer of covers, I could drowse off to the cadence of rain on the cabin roof, the sound of dripping foliage in the woods.

Dad liked to fly fish, and would occasionally traipse off to some distant stream with his casting rod. Mom drew the line at fishing. The cabin came with a row boat, and I remember Mom rowing us to secluded cove with enough of a beach for a picnic lunch. Or she’d row across the lake to the Stinson Lake Store, which was also a post office.

The lake front itself offered no end of amusement. A giant, mossy boulder stood at the edge of the beach, large enough to support a gnarled old pine, an array of ferns and the occasional wildflower. A few hundred feet of sandy beach was kept clear of the encroaching vegetation. Other families sat out on the beach, and sometimes I’d sit out, too, and perhaps pass the time sifting through the sand for shiny particles of mica, little bits of quartz, or a coveted rare find in gemlike amber, or garnet red, for my own little bitty mineral collection.

Naturally we went swimming. The lake was teeth-chattering cold when you first jumped in, the bottom mucky the farther off the beach you went. Filaments of water plants created an underwater terrarium harboring small fish and other beasties—namely leeches. My parents said leeches wouldn’t bother you if you kept moving. It gave impetus to learning to swim well enough to make it out to the float and dive platform tethered in deep water.

Stinson Lake and the diving dock in the distance
Photograph by Robert W. Stone

In time I became less ghoulish over leeches, and would float in the shallows where the sun warmed the water. Sunlight created a dappled effect. Mica bits glittered underwater. Close to shore the lake bottom formed ripples from the current. I never did get a leech on me.

Some days we came back late from hiking a distant mountain and I wouldn’t feel much like taking a swim. Nobody said I had to, but my dad always did, and even my mom did, who probably didn’t feel like it either, and she was in charge of putting out supper. I’d go jump in the lake just enough to get wet, enough to prove I’d been swimming. Then I’d invariably stay longer. Once you were in, the water was glorious.

Over time I formed roots here in New Hampshire. Mountain trails that had once reduced me to tears became touchstones in that up and down journey into adulthood, and I made those same climbs many times over. Many of my favorite places and pastimes grew out of those summer days spent at Stinson Lake. Like so many others, I came from somewhere else and found my best place here in New Hampshire.