When the third police officer arrived and Janelle instinctively began to inch closer to me, I couldn’t help but wonder how I had gotten us into this mess, and how I was going to get us out.
Saturday had started off cool but clear. Following the success of our hike last weekend to Piscataquog River Park, Janelle and I decided to explore another Manchester trail system, Nutts Pond off South Willow Street. Located in a more industrialized section of the city – the strip – the pond and area around it never-the-less one time played an important role in the history of the city.
It was the site of a wooden fort, built by Archibald Stark (John’s dad), and was heavily harvested for ice at the turn of the 20th Century. A large ice factory was built on its shore.
Perhaps the most fascinating tidbit of all is the pond’s namesake – “Commodore” George Washington Morrison Nutt, whose family owned the pond in the late 19th Century. Nutt was a 24 inch circus performer who toured with Tom Thumb and wore military outfits while singing to an adoring crowd.
Now, unfortunately, as Janelle and I parked in nearby Precourt Park and made our way over the small bridge that led to the pond trail, it was clear that the pond’s glory days as a popular swimming hole and recreational attraction were long gone.
The pond is trashed, literally. Shopping carts from nearby super markets litter the bottom of the pond like skeletal remains. Garbage is everywhere; in the water and in the woods along the trail. The trail is saturated with graffiti. It covers everything, from the sides of the bridge to the remains of the concrete weir to the park benches along the water to the paved trail itself. Every flat man-made surface is tagged.
I briefly considered leaving and finding another area to explore, not because I felt any physical danger, but because Nutts Pond is a joyless, depressing place. The strip of “woods” between the pond and the development to the west is only about 50 feet, and the only thing of any real interest is the remains of the railroad track that used to run behind the pond. Janelle and I talked about the history of the pond as we walked, and the kid loves anything to do with ice for some reason, so the ice house and the idea that people used to buy ice kept her attention.
We had a photo of the pond from the 1920s and found what we thought was the rough area where the picture was taken and compared the two settings. I was glad to see that the history of the place held her interest and we spent some time exploring (carefully) the strange variety of trash in the area which including electric calculators, tires, articles of clothing, batteries, concrete bricks, record albums and many, many empty spray paint cans.
The paved section of the trail is about a half mile long, before becoming a dirt path behind a variety of warehouses and businesses. Our plan for the day was to continue down the path to Goffs Falls Road, where we’d check out the old trestle and then hike up to Barnes and Noble to await a ride back to our car from Meena and Aaron.
Eventually our hike became an exploration of graffiti. We marveled at how high the graffiti was, and methods spray painters must have used to get under the overpasses and high on the walls. We looked for actual pictures as opposed to just lettering and found a really beautiful picture of a skull against an old warehouse wall. The day was turning out to be pleasant after all.
Then the police showed up.
As soon as I saw the officer walking up the trail toward us, I knew someone had called something in about us. Before he got within ear shot, I pointed out to Janelle that a police officer was on the trail, and spun it as a good thing that a back trail like this was being watched over by the police.
And sure enough, according to the officer someone had called the police to report “an older man with a young girl in the woods.” Just reading that out loud sounds terrible, but consider that this description could describe any father and daughter taking a hike. But more on that later.
The fact is, I’m not Janelle’s dad, so when the very polite officer asked me what my relation to Janelle was, I did what I’ve been taught to do in a situation like this; I told the truth. I said I was a next door neighbor, but made the mistake of saying I was doing the “big brother thing” for Janelle. The officer took that to mean the Big Brother/Big Sister Program. By now a second officer had shown up, and when Janelle’s grandma was called for verification, the police dispatcher did not give grandma my name, but instead asked if Janelle was currently with someone from the city’s Big Brother/Big Sister Program. Grandma said no, Janelle was with Meena Gyawali.
My heart sunk. As a third officer arrived, images of me being hauled off in handcuffs and Janelle freaking out were all that I could think of.
I tried to remain casual and conversational. I explained that Meena was my wife, and grandma likely just didn’t realize that we had each taken one of the kids out this morning. I politely suggested that the dispatcher give grandma my name. That did the trick. The officer asked Janelle a few direct questions: was she happy, did she hike a lot with me, was she ok being out here, etc. After 20 tense minutes, they let us go.
The incident left us both without an appetite for further hiking, so we bee-lined Barnes and Noble and celebrated our not getting arrested with two large hot chocolates and a hot pizza pretzel.
In retrospect, the incident left me questioning not the actions of the officers who were professional and polite. Rather, it makes me sad that we live in a world where an older man with a young girl out for a hike is indeed a questionable activity.
On one hand, someone cared enough to see us together, feel concern for the child and call the police. Because after all, when it comes to kids, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
On the other hand, it’s a reminder that we live in a time where everything is questioned. Had I actually been her father, would that have made the situation easier to deal with? What does that say about the role of an adult supervisor? Should I pick only “safe” activities for the child where no one would question us being together?
Would anyone have given us a second glance if we were together in Toys-R-Us, or even hiking in the White Mountains for that matter?
Janelle is a tough kid, with the ability to put incidents like this into perspective. And ultimately, this provided us with a great opportunity to talk about the role of police in our city and what it means to be a responsible citizen. And in a way, it bought us closer together as we considered the fact that sometimes, being a family goes deeper than blood – sometimes it’s just about caring for each other.
But in practice, it means something else. It means that I will now carry a permission slip from grandma when I’m with the kids. It means that if Janelle really wants to learn to hike and pursue the 52 With a View List, then my role becomes much more than a baby-sitter. It means that being a big brother is more than an expression.
And I’m ok with that. And I hope she is too.
If you go: First, I wouldn’t suggest it. While the soccer fields at Precourt Park are perfectly fine, there’s no real reason to hike the Nutts Pond Trail in the condition it’s in. The trail and pond is in bad shape. Further south, when the trail become a dirt path, it’s industrial and depressing. The full trail, from the pond to Goffs Falls Road is about a mile and there are some interesting historical reasons to be there: the old trestle for example. But if you are looking for a safe, enjoyable walk in the woods in the city, this is not the place. If you bring kids, keep them close and be prepared to answer a lot of questions about why the place looks so terrible.
Here’s a link to the city’s information page about Nutts Pond: http://www.manchesternh.gov/website/Departments/EnvironmentalProtection/SEPP/PondRestoration/NuttsPond/tabid/1190/Default.aspx
Here’s a link to the pictures we took on our hike which include several shots of some of the more colorful graffiti: http://danandmeenakshi.phanfare.com/5385498