November 29, 2004

Travel treasures in your own backyard

Sometimes we travelers get so caught up in the thrill of seeing faraway places that we overlook special places close to home. Case in point: I lived for 10 years in Dedham, Massachusetts, site of the Fairbanks House, built in 1636 and the oldest surviving timber frame house in North America. I passed it nearly every day for those 10 years. I never went inside. I've done better in my new town, chock-full of imposing buildings designed by 19th-century architect Henry Hobson Richardson. I've visited all of them, save the one that's privately owned.

My wake-up call regarding the travel treasures in my own backyard came when I read an article in a major Boston newspaper about -- my town. Damn! I should have written that story! The writer described places and sites a half-mile from my house! But, I couldn't have written that story -- because I'd never visited the places. A freelance writer from somewhere else was smart enough to recognize the destination value of my neighborhood. I was scooped. I missed it. I was too busy looking for travel fulfillment thousands of miles away and had overlooked the treasures down the street.

I now look at nearby places with a traveler's eye, seeking out that which makes them unique or interesting or important, and I write about them, hoping to inspire a traveler with perhaps just an afternoon to spend to go and visit.

I have a cottage on a small New Hampshire lake. In "The Last Paddle," reprinted below, I share a late autumn kayak ride on a lake I've lived on for 20 years, but have only recently taken the time to get to know. "The Last Paddle" was originally published in the November 2004 issue of The Occasional Moose: A Journal of Life in the Monadnock Region:

Foliage is long past peak, many trees already barren. The graying leaves that hang on shake with age and inevitability. I push my kayak into the water and paddle over and around the stumps revealed each October when Highland Lake is peeled back to show things unseen in summer.

Fishermen and weekenders have gone. Time to pull the stopper, inspect the dam and make needed repairs. By Halloween, the lake in its shallowest parts is a ripe mud pool, in its deepest, a glistening meander alongside hushed woods.

It's the season's last paddle. The low water can no longer host powerboats, and even the most committed bass men in their silvery shallow-hulled craft have abandoned Highland until spring. When the lake is down, my kayak shows me things no one else is looking for in places no one else can reach.

I wear sunglasses. Fall's burnished light embraces me and glints off the ripples I ride through. I tilt my face toward the sun, remembering how it felt in summer, trying to soak up and store it.

There's so much to take in, things hidden in high season and high water. A rock jetty, hand-placed long ago, running 15 feet off Mallard Island's tip. The line along the shore where the fecund forest soil ends and New Hampshire's granite underpinnings begin. Decaying logs and slender water grasses, home to creatures, some who show themselves and some who rarely do. I peer into their murky homes and apartment complexes. Hello, turtle. Let me sit and examine the patterns on your shell. The deep, cloying smell of exposed algae fills my head.

Like spotlights, the stillness and bare branches let me see or sense any moving thing. A few year-rounders putter about their properties, canoes on shore, lawn furniture still arranged. Two fishermen are closing their place, pulling up docks and securing windows. Their dog explodes from the woods when he sees me, a burst of movement and color in this muted, going-to-sleep world, and he barks and bounds along the shore next to me until dense trees stop him.

I eavesdrop on a couple in a birch bark canoe. They're a quarter-mile away, but I hear their conversation -- speculation about which yard a moose had called home for awhile -- as clearly as if I were sitting between them. Were I to confirm, in my normal voice, that they'd indeed found Lily Moose's lily bed, they would have heard me, crystal.

Dennis the dentist, who's been spending less time on teeth and more time on the lake of late, poles around on a homemade raft, collecting the slimy, untethered logs that poke from the mud near his dock. A fit, grippingly handsome man with Ralph Lauren hair sharing raft space with dripping brown butt ends of rotted trees.

When the water is down, the docks left standing in the muck become long-legged flamingos, skinny legs and knees exposed. Can-can girls. Frisky ladies pulling up their skirts. The docks that have been pulled out and tied upright show their blue plastic barrel bellies.

Anything that can blow away has been stored away. Gone are wind chimes and floats, umbrellas and beach chairs. Lonely picnic tables, too heavy to move, dot beaches and yards. They've begun their slow, cold wait for people to come back out and sit again.

At the marina, the docks and boat berths have been pulled out. The gas pump is gone. White shrink-wrapped motorboats sit parked like so many Sydney Opera Houses. In the extreme silence, my ears track a car as it moves through miles of woods up on Shedd Hill Road.

On this last paddle, I do things I don't do when the water is high and boats are about. I cross the lake at its widest point, slowly. No worry about powerboats catching me before I reach the other shore. The lake is mine. I cross and recross. I stop paddling, float, and lift my head to the sun, closing my eyes. No need to rush, nothing to watch out for.

The loon that lives with his mate in a reedy shallow across from the marina plays with my kayak, diving on one side and emerging, finally, twenty yards off the other side.

The waterfall whose hums and trills are muted in season by the competing sounds of summer activity now has top billing. I rock in my kayak and note every nuance of its performance.

As I head home, autumn's last rays kissing the earth, I look down the long lake and think of what's ahead. Winter will soon bring its wonders. Like the long skate. If you catch it just right, after the lake freezes but before snow has buried it, you can skate on Highland Lake glass for seven miles.

Read excerpts from Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America at