The Ring of Fire

Living life amidst long-ago creation.

Time is a crucible. So is life. So is the fragile, shifting, cracking tectonic egg shell of our earth. And so is its molten, bubbling yolk, sometimes erupting through cracks in the shell as volcanoes, sometimes forming a bubble that pushes toward the surface but pops prematurely like vented oatmeal.

Nothing here was ever cooked over-easy.

Welcome to Pawtuckaway’s crucible, on a drive today with stops at more than 150 years ago, and backward 100-150 million years beyond that. Go back far enough in time and you could accurately call this place Jurassic State Park – for that was the period that helped alloy this place.

I said at the launch of this column that not all excellent drives will be just the drives themselves; that sometimes we’ll drive to a spot, admire all that is around us and then exit the car for further exploration.

And so, in a vehicle so appropriate to the geology of the place, the rough roads, the hardscrabble and stubborn Yankee ethos that once so engulfed this place, we are in a 2009 Subaru Forester 2.5X.

I see long-dead people who once used wagons or feet to get from here, where Deerfield collides with Nottingham, to get to Raymond now and again for their victuals, sundries and geegaws. What might they have made of a Subaru creeping with determined stealth into their existence?

We are standing in a ring – a dike ring in geologic terms – the frozen rim of that oatmeal pop millions of years ago. It was formed by a burst of lava bent on a longer mission – feeding one of the massive volcanoes, perhaps higher than the Rocky Mountains, that once towered over the Granite State – but eroded and left behind cooled igneous to help give this state its name.

The three mountains of the Pawtuckaway range – South, Middle and North – when viewed from above (or at form the ring. And within that ring are many steps along the trails of time.

A gash called Devil’s Den, where glaciers gouged the earth like a floor sander with grittiest belt.

A magical place called The Boulder Field, where giant rocks rolled beneath the glacier were nearly rounded and remain towering orbs, geologic jewels on display in the midst of the ring’s display case.

But there is more . far more recent. A story of human survival, death, mystery and of a lingering presence of the long-dead people entombed beneath your feet in a wonderful, lyrical and inspiring family cemetery. This is why you have come here. This is where you stand to contemplate.

To get here you come from either Route 4 as it scribes New Hampshire from Concord to Portsmouth, or from Route 101, linking Manchester to the same Port City.

Off Route 107, coming along either route, there is a back entrance to the park called Reservation Road. A small sign designates the inconspicuous turnoff atop a small rise in the road.

From Route 4 you will have taken Route 43 at the traffic lights in Northwood, and then merged with 107. From 101, you need to find Route 27 and then 107 between Candia and Raymond. Come in from either town.

It will take some careful watching of signs, since there is a tangle of side roads out here. Best bet: just keep following signs toward the FIRE TOWER – which, if you have a hike in mind, can be reached by a quick, if sometimes steep climb to the top of South Mountain.

You park near the head of the Fire Tower trail and then look behind you for a looming tree on the left edge of open space. To the right are hints of a cellar hole and the tactile juttings of headstones in a cemetery.

In the Subaru, the all-wheel drive system helped us climb over wet and slippery dirt, the occasional winter-pushed rock protruding in the road, the small washout. You don’t have to have AWD to get here, but you won’t make it in a low-slung sports car, either.

On the way in you’ll see the high rims of the ring dike above you. You will pass on man-made traverses through swamps that are golden and glowing in the fall, reached only on foot or by snowmobile in winter, awakening in fits and starts in the spring, and lively with water life, gurgling and belching and bubbling as the vegetation on the bottom rots, and yet, year round, a place of travel and sustenance for ducks, other birds, moose, bear, deer and coyote.

The forests are remarkably mixed – clean pine forests obviously planted after cutting; hardwoods and softwoods and grapevines (love those wild purple grapes), and even a hillside of hornbeam from which I once harvested, with permission, fallen trunks of this wood also known, quite properly, as ironwood.

But we are here for time travel, not so much going back millions of years as going back, instead, to the early and mid-1800s, when the Goodrich family wrestled, yanked, chopped, dug and willed a living from this wilderness.

Obviously a hardy and resilient couple, the Goodriches, Sally and Barnard, had seven children.

Only the imagination, and the historic knowledge of disease and deprivation from these rugged times, are left to conjure what came next: Between 1833 and 1844, four of Sally’s sons and her husband were dead. By the time she was 50, only one child, Nathan, still lived.

And here is the true story of pioneer spirit – you can read it on delicately carved accounts of each life on gravestones here in the ring of fire, but mostly you see it on Sally’s stone.

Sally, you see, lived to be 101 – more than half a century longer than all but one of her family.

I’d go here of a crisp fall afternoon.

Linger as the air chills, the sun begins to set and a wind-stirred crackle from the branches of the hardwoods mixes with the whispering sighs of a breeze through the evergreens.

Consider the crucible, presented here in a raw revelation, untouched by development, only by time and the volatile chameleon that is our earth.

Look across the farm that is no more a farm, across a field that is no more a field (Bobby Frost’s idea, those words) and the foundation of a house long gone, only rocks protruding from what was the tactile buttress of a family and its homestead.

But stand now amidst these gravestones, splayed and crooked like bad teeth, enclosed by a stone wall of their own, and remember Sally: the many nights alone of a winter night, listening to the wood in her stove shift and clunk, dreaming in limited light back through the darkness of time.

The sweet springtime scent of lilacs fighting the damp and musty smell of the earth reaching thaw.

The heat of an August evening, after the voracious black flies and mosquitoes have gone away, and flashing meteors, tails afire, on an August night limning the crater, rim to rim in the annual drive-by of wonder of the Perseid showers.

The first hint of winter as leaves crackle and tumble amidst the cutting and splitting and stacking of wood, the putting up of jars of vegetables and fruits, and the stocking of the root cellar.

And then the frozen isolation of winter, huddled, staying warm, as the snows and the winds and the ice have their will.

And all this was left to Sally, a survivor if ever there was one, living out life here, in the ring of fire.

Categories: Things to Do