The White Mountain
By Barbara Neville Wilson
Mount Washington. Just by name, New England’s highest peak, is royalty—or at least as royal as we claim in a democratic society. Looming against the sky, often crowned by white clouds or snow, it is a destination difficult in the doing, but rewarding in the done.
Since Darby Field ascended it twice in the year 1642, “bagging” its peak has become a goal for many. And in true American fashion, it inspires people to reach its heights for a broad variety of reasons and huge diversity of way.
For 365 days in 2017, experiential writer Dan Szczesny lived Mount Washington. In researching his book The White Mountain: Rediscovering Mount Washington’s Hidden Culture, he reached its peak countless times by foot, by SnoCoach, by car and by Cog Railway. He dug deep into its history and culture. He lived in its Weather Observatory. He interviewed its lovers. He followed the trails of people who left the mountain but still found inspiration in it through their pursuits, their character and idiosyncrasies.
Of course, you probably already know the peak is home to the Mount Washington Weather Observatory where the world’s highest surface wind speed, 231 mph, was recorded by man. But do you know the human story behind it? Szczesny tells us weather observer Alex McKenzie, who recorded that speed in a wooden hut literally chained to the mountain, was near-certain he would fly off the mountain in the cabin that memorable night in 1934. Afterwards, he attributed the cabin remaining intact not to the chains, but to the inches of ice accumulated on the cabin by the storm that formed the Big Wind.
You may be aware that the nickname of the Cog Railroad is the “Railway to the Moon.” But do you know that the name was given it in derision when Sylvester Marsh proposed the idea to New Hampshire lawmakers? Plans had hardly been drawn up by the NH native son, and at the time one of the nation’s richest men, when he went before the New Hampshire Legislature with a model of his novel engine and asked for a state charter to build a cog. Not believing his outlandish idea would ever come to fruition, representatives granted his request laughingly, with one quipping that the state could as well “let him build a railway to the moon.” They were shocked when he fulfilled his charter and subsequently sold him a 99-foot corridor up the mountain for a total price of $91.50, just $19.50 more than the cost of a single round-trip ticket today.
Perhaps you’ve heard of records set in the ascent of Mount Washington: by auto, by bicycle and by foot. And you also may have heard of contests that called for descent of the high mountain: teenagers who raced the Cog locomotive to the bottom and in the winning earned the huge prize of …ice cream sundaes. Or the annual winter race to the bottom organized by the “Paul Bunyan of the East,” Joe Dodge, in which Appalachian Mount Club workers were challenged to reach his front porch first by any means necessary. Stories are told of sleds screaming down Tuckerman’s Ravine and wily paths through unexpected terrain.
But it’s likely you have no idea that every year Mount Washington hosts an event specifically for people to create new entries in the Guinness Book of World Records. It’s called Alton Weagle Day, after a native son who claimed dozens of records on Mount Washington, including that he climbed it 531 times—“That would be once a month, every month, since he was one month old,” reports author Szczesny—and that he once pushed a wheelbarrow full of sugar up the mountain without once letting it rest. Every year in late May, competitors attempt to set records while traveling the 7.6 miles of the Auto Road and ascending the 6,288 feet of Mount Washington. Contestants have dressed like the Cat in the Hat and Thing One & Thing Two; jumped up the mountains on a pogo stick, and juggled while on a unicycle. Szczesny garnered his own spot in the Guinness Book by reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass aloud while walking the length of the road dressed in 19th century garb.
The White Mountain: Rediscovering Mount Washington’s Hidden Culture is a well-researched, thoroughly entertaining collection of facts and trivia, heartwarming stories, reflection, and almost-unbelievable connections between New Hampshire’s high peak and the development of a region, a state, and the nation. And it includes a grand bonus: author Dan Szczesny is as thorough and entertaining in his promotion of the book as he was in the writing of it. Last year he lived Mount Washington. Now he is sharing The White Mountain with audiences all over the state.
In his presentations, Szczesny is intent on bringing his audience along as he recounts his adventures, introduces fascinating people, and encourages his guests to share their own stories of the White Mountain that shapes our state. To find out where you can find him next, go to www.danszczesny.com and follow him on his Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/yearonwashington.