I sit on the warm ledge and dip my hand, palm down, into the icy water of the North Fork. I’m above Thoreau Falls, looking out across Mts. Guyot and Bond. I’m alone.
I let the rushing water pour around my hand, my wrist, until my skin begins to tingle, and I feel a cold numbness creep up from my fingertips.
It’s been a beautiful day. My route took me from the trailhead at the end of Zealand Road, past Zealand Pond and hut, along the old railbed of the Zealand Valley line under Whitewall Mountain and finally here at a waterfall I have never visited.
It’s 4.6 miles to Thoreau Falls, a waterfall at the edge of the Pemi Wilderness that Henry David would be proud to have his name attached to. Too far for mere tourists but close enough for sidetripping thru-hikers and those looking for a little peace and quiet with their trees and rocks.
The feeling is gone from my hand and I puzzle at the experience, being connected to the Earth, more rock and water than flesh and bone. I pull my hand out of the stream and watch color return to my white skin.
“Life in us is like the water in a river.”
Earlier, I had stopped for a snack near a large flat boulder in the middle of the Ethan Pond Trail. The rock seemed too perfect a perch to be coincidentally placed there by a slide or glacier movement. And yet, too large for trail builders to roll or carry.
Could it be a remanent of the railroad that once nearly laid waste to the west side of Whitewall Mountain?
James Everell Henry was 23 years old when Thoreau published Walden in 1854. Perhaps the history of the White Mountains as we know them would be different today if young James had read that book. Because in 1884, the machinations of James Henry’s Zealand Valley Railroad began turning the Zealand Valley into a nightmarish logging wasteland. The railroad line tore into the wilderness from what we know now as Route 302, came all the way up to Zealand Falls where the line spilt. One line continued on past Whitewall Mountain all the way to Ethan Pond. The other, jumped Whitewall Brook and carried on into the Pemi south of Thoreau Falls.
Thoreau would have been horrified at Henry’s empire. The press nicknamed the logger “The Wood Butcher.”
And yet… in a way, the amazing Zealand Valley exists today because of James Henry. The rock on which I sunned my weary body, the amazing view from the open slides of Whitewall down toward Carrigain and the Pemi and the wonderfully graded and moderate section of the AT that winds around toward Crawford Notch; all first roughly created by James Henry.
And now, 100 years later, as the wilderness continues to overtake the once mighty railroad, what’s left is this amazing trail. In a cosmic irony, James Henry’s railroad helped make it possible for us to experience Thoreau Falls.
“At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
Thunder in the mountains sounds different.
At the falls, it was easy to forget about everything – including the storms predicted for that afternoon. With the rush of the falls as my companion, I had sat for too long in the empty wind, eyes closed, warm on the ledges.
When I re-entered the world, thick clouds bunched above the ridges and a stiff wind whistled down the river and over the collapse of the waterfall.
Now, as I hustled passed the S bridge along Zealand Trail, less than two miles from my car, the sky opened to a tremendous roll of thunder, rippling and crashing amid the peaks and valleys. I stopped in mid-stride, stiffening to the roar, freezing like an animal hoping that immobility would make me less a target to the unseen threat.
The rain was coming, soon. After the last echoes of the thunder strike faded into the Earth, I double-timed it down the trail, tearing past the pond and creek crossings, head down, strident, with purpose.
But even as thunder continued to crash and the first hot drops of rain hit my forehead, up the trail toward me came a calamitous noise: two dozen young hikers, all with huge packs, on their way to an over night at the Zealand Hut.
I stepped aside to let the pack go by, irrationally irritated that they had impeded my flight from the rain. But as they passed, each offered a greeting, each with a smile or grin, each with the intoxicating expectation of a new adventure with nature.
They were where I was just hours ago. They were entering the woods. I was leaving. They were happy, I was not. Still, how dare I feel anything but pleased at their joy, rain be damned.
So, as the clouds finally opened up and the rain poured down, I, only a few hundred yards from my car, turned my face to the sky and let the hot shower drench me. And I smiled.
“Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”
For a complete album of Dan’s walk with Henry, here’s a link: Thoreau Falls