I’ve always had a great pride that my Mom’s side of the family is from this romantic northern region of New Hampshire, “Yeah, I grew up in Massachusetts, but I’m sort of from Canada via New Hampshire and Vermont,” I like to boast. I was particularly proud that my Grandmother didn’t learn any English until she was 13 and for my entire life I’ve lived off a free supply of Canadian maple syrup that comes in a can.
I’ve talked about this world, but I’ve never been there. I’ve taken three plane trips to get to Iraqi Kurdistan and taken buses across all of Kenyan, but never driven the four hours North to actually meet my family and see where all my maple syrup comes from.
I called my Grandmother and asked her if I could go visit and photograph her cousin that runs the maple syrup farm in Quebec. She called me back a few days later to say that the syrup wasn’t going to be running for a few more weeks because of how cold and dry the winter has been, but that my Grandfather did have a small family reunion up in Colebrook in March that he had no way of getting to. She wasn’t going to be able to drive him because of a problem with her back and my Grandfather is no longer allowed to drive himself. Here I could be useful and get what I want, plus I love long drives.
My Grandfather is a complete oral encyclopedia of his upbringing. He remembers where his 2nd grade teacher lived and where he bought the two-ton dump truck that he used to haul waste from construction sites when he was 17. If you sit next to him at dinner, you’ll get a history of the Native Americans and Shakers who used to live in Harvard, Massachusetts and if you drive North with him on Route 93 and Route 3 you’ll triple your New Hampshire knowledge and learn best and worst business practices for managing a dairy products business.
We have a room for two nights at the Old Colebrook House, which is now a glorified snowmobile resort and will be the site of the reunion tomorrow. We show the new owner of the building a photograph taken on the porch of the Colebrook House in the late 1800′s. Everyone in the photograph is dressed to the nines; everyone in the restaurant tonight is wearing Ski-Doo t-shirts.
We are out of the door by 7:15am to start a long day of visiting old family and popping into places we don’t fully belong.
As we walk to Howard’s for breakfast, my grandfather uses the word “lowery” for the first time. He says that this sort of “lowery weather” happens most days up here. Lowery? I think to myself, like Lois Lowry? I don’t want to appear dumb so I just play along. I guess it just means grey, but not particularly extreme in any way.
Grampa strikes up a conversation with a large gentleman at Howard’s and it turns out they are related in some distant way. This man used to be a commercial lender at the bank up here, but left his job to start a small family logging company. We make plans to stop by his current site on our drive this afternoon. My Grandfather would be the best photojournalist, he can find a connection with anyone and quickly makes himself welcome in their homes.
We head up to Dixville Notch, the unincorporated village that gets to vote first in Union in presidential elections. My Grandfather describes it as the most alpine mountain pass in the US, but I don’t really believe him until I see it for myself. The mountain really closes in on you and you feel like the rocks on both sides are teetering on the edge, ready to fall as you drive past on the narrow road. We stop in at the old Balsam’s resort Hotel, which has been closed for two years as they try to modernize everything. It reminds me of the Mohonk Resort near New Paltz, NY where my brother was married.
We pull into the logging site that we were told about this morning and wander around the graveyard of trucks and big logging equipment all frosted with the snow that has continued to fall since we got here. We can’t find the loggers; they must be working the woods.
As we drive back to Colebrook I spot a curious looking helicopter floating down the same direction to town.
The reunion goes off without a hitch and I become the designated “family photographer.” Everyone crowds around centuries old tin-types and ancient canes, trying to one up each other with more interesting memorabilia and deeper familyknowledge.
My favorite story from the reunion was on an old relative named Edward Norton who built a gold mine across the river in Monadnock Mountain (not to be confused with the more popular Mount Monadnock). Only after he carefully cleared and constructed a road up the mountain and started excavation of the mine did he discover that he was mining pyrite, fools gold, not real gold. The road still stands, but the mining operation has since shut down as the pyrite market is slow these days.
My Grandfather and his 3 brothers:
We talk a lot about dairy farming and milk and about the changing landscape of farming. A successful farm 60 years ago could survive with between 25 and 50 cows, but now the same sized farm would need more than 150 cows to even try and compete. So why not stop in on a farm and check out the dairy operation? Grampa knows of a farm where he used to know someone.
We decide to go check out the milking anyways and barge right in. Grampa doesn’t know anybody and I don’t know anybody, but he looks harmless and friendly and before I even get a word in he’s figured out how they are related to his old friends and who the trucker is that delivers their milk. It is a tiny little world up here.
As we drive down the Vermont side of the river, past old farms and abandoned paper mills, I decide that lowery is the best word to describe the place. Nothing is too downtrodden, but even the cows look awfully lowery.
Next up on our list of people to go visit is a man in his 90′s who was in the 10th Mountain Division in World War II. With no call or warning, we walk into his house late into the evening as they are finishing up dinner.
The man was not just a successful soldier in the mountains of Italy, he also worked for more than 4 decades as a surveyor for logging companies and has spent the last decade writing a regular column on the “good old days of logging” for the local paper, The News and Sentinel. He’s been having some technological troubles organizing years of columns into a book. He needs a young buck like me to come back in a few weeks and figure out where all the files are so I am invited to come barging in whenever I want.
Wandering the streets of Colebrook on a Saturday night.
Sunday morning we our going to Canada. I’m warned that the architecture will change completely after we cross the border and that everything will be much cleaner and better organized. It is. Canadians don’t let trash pile up in front of their houses and even gardens along the side of the highway are awarded prizes by the local government for their stellar upkeep.
We are in Quebec, where nobody speaks English.
Grampa doesn’t speak more than a word of French, but that’s fine because nobody seems to care if you come stomping onto their front porch early on a Sunday morning and ask to see their maple syrup operation. Although I took French all through High School, I remember more verb conjugations and tenses than actually useful conversational phrases, but still bumble through conversations. They are impressed and grateful that I can keep talking past “Comment allez-vouz?” (How are you?) to “Allons-nous manger des beignets?” (Are we going to eat donuts?) and they let us eat donuts and we get to pour as much maple syrup as we want on the donuts!
They have wallpaper in Quebec, just like we have in the States.
I get in the car with an older Canadian gentleman who is my Grandmother’s cousin’s husband (not sure what you call that relationship en Francais) who doesn’t speak a word of English. He directs and I drive down a series of small roads to first see some young boars that are being raised for meat and then on to the cabane à sucre to see what this is all about. If my French is right… they tapped 2,350 maple trees for their operation this year and should start boiling it down for maple syrup and maple sugar next week.
When it comes to driving, I’m a city slicker. I rarely have an opportunity to engage 4-wheel-drive around the small streets of Somerville, so when it’s time to turn the car around and drive us back to my relative’s house, I get us stuck in the snow. I’m not good at following instructions in English, let alone in French, so I hand over the steering wheel to the man and let him pull us out. With ease, he does. The rest of the drive he tells me how to practice driving. I’m told to put cans on the road and practice hitting them to learn to drive straighter on snowy roads. I promise to drive better next time I’m up here.
We head off to visit Roger, another distantly connected relative who doesn’t live too far down the road and also doesn’t speak English. It turns out that we went the wrong direction from the start (it’s hard to remember which one is droit and gauche) and I get to stop at a mini mart to ask for directions in French. My teachers would all be so proud.
Roger was a woodsmen and hunter for his entire life and has continued to hunt even after being confined to a wheelchair. I tried to ask him what his favorite Canadian National Park is, just like I’ve tried to ask all the other French speaking Canadians we’ve met on this trip, and he also doesn’t understand me. I guess I need to work on my park vocabulary.
My grandfather waiting for me to get my act together.