This is the view from the summit of Lovewell Mountain in Washington, NH. Lovewell isn’t a high peak: it’s only 2,473 feet tall, well under the height of New Hampshire’s famed 4,000 footers and substantially shorter than our own Mount Monadnock, whose 3,165 summit is, along with Mount Fuji, one of the most-climbed peaks in the world. (For the record, although I’ve climbed Monadnock several times, in the five years I’ve lived in New Hampshire, I’ve only climbed two 4,000 footers. I’m a great walker but not much of a climber.)

Although Lovewell Mountain isn’t a challenge for true mountaineers, it’s a wonderful day hike: the portion of the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway that goes up and over its summit wends through lovely rock- and fern-dotted woods, and the trail is never crowded. On a beautiful Saturday when the parking lots at Mount Monadnock were probably brimming, the dog and I had the mountain to ourselves, the only other humans we saw being a threesome of incredibly fit, lycra-clad men who pedaled to the summit and then “interrupted” our solitary enjoyment of the mountain’s southeastern vista. Although I encouraged these fellows to stay while I enjoyed the view (did I mention they were incredibly fit and lycra-clad?), they opted to head up to the southeastern summit before descending the mountain, and the dog and I saw nothing more of them after that. Alas.

After having visited Washington, NH on my own about a month ago, yesterday I decided to ReTurn with the dog in tow in order to ReVisit Lovewell, which Chris, the dog, and I had climbed with our friend X (of Boys’ Weekend fame) a summer or two ago. I remembered Lovewell as being a moderately heart-pounding but not dauntingly strenuous hike with a vista (and accompanying solitude) that made it well worth the effort. It had been a while since the dog and I had been hiking, so the thought of ReVisiting a semi-familiar place was appealing.

When you ReTurn to a place you’ve been before, one thing you inevitably do is compare then and now. One of the most noticeable changes at Lovewell Mountain is a current real estate boom: not only are the cottages on Halfmoon Pond Road on the approach to Lovewell Mountain dotted with a striking abundance of “For Sale” signs, the woods bordering the fireroad at mountain’s base sport realtors’ signs as well. Although the summit of Lovewell Mountain itself lies within the protected jurisdiction of Pillsbury State Park, the base of the mountain does not: the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway, like the Appalachian Trail, runs through a mix of public and private land. In light of my recent posts on human construction, I thought it only fair to post a picture of a scene that broke my heart: although people admittedly have the right to buy and build wherever the law allows, I’d much prefer that folks build and reclaim property within the already tampered with confines of cities and towns (even if that does translate into “urban blight”) rather than clearing isolated plots of forest land. In the sake of fairness, Lovewell Mountain is crisscrossed by centuries’ old stone walls: this used to be pastureland. But the landowners who ordered this land cleared are presumably looking to dwell in woodsy solitude, their own mountain version of Thoreau’s pondside idyll. I’m sure these landowners “love nature”: they love it so much they want to live right in the middle of it. But the sight of such “nature-loving” construction sobers me more than the bulldozing of some birches next to a factory: by yearning for country solitude, these folks are destroying tranquility in the process of acquiring it. In a word, the philosophy of “not in my backyard” begins only after you’ve built that backyard: once you’ve cleared your own 10 acre plot, then you can start telling others that they shouldn’t clear theirs.

Once you’ve turned onto the Greenway trail from the fireroad that skirts the base of Lovewell Mountain, though, it feels like you’ve ReTurned to an older, more pristine land. It isn’t accurate to call this “land that time forgot” since the signs of civilization are everywhere. The Greenway itself is well-marked with white blazes on trees and rocks. Small wooden signs point toward water sources and vistas, and at the summit itself there is a trail register where you can note the date and conditions of your hike along with any comments you’d like to immortalize. (The entry previous to mine was from a “Florida girl” who’d summitted the mountain several days before: “Just like Miami, but no espanol.”) Although the desire to be the first or the only person to capture a summit seems as deeply pervasive as a toddler’s unwillingness to share her favorite toy, the fact remains that Lovewell Mount has been loved, and loved well, by countless people both past and present. I’m sure every hand that touched the trail register loved their time on Lovewell; I’m sure the cattle and cattle-owners from the days when this land was grazed loved it well as well. You don’t have to be the first to happen upon a place to love it as if it had never been loved before; you don’t even have to be a first-time visitor to love it as if for the first and only time.

Instead of trying for “firsts,” I think it’s more fruitfull to try for ReCollection. What was the weather like the last time–the first time–I set eyes on this cairn: was the sun in a similar or different quadrant of the sky? Yesterday I saw a plump gartner snake sunning himself on the trail only to watch him retreat into piled rocks as I approached: how many snakes did I see the last time I walked here? Who was it who laid these summit-leading stones, and when; how many different hands have painted and ReTouched these countless white blazes? Every step we take on mountains and elsewhere is a new, never-before-taken step…yet every step we take is also a step into someone else’s or even our own prior footsteps, every turn a ReTurn, every place a RePlace.

I think that instead of lusting after our own plot of “virgin” land, we should seek out and then love well those lands that are, like that ’80s Madonna classic, like a virgin: lands that don’t care whether you’re their first or last or somewhere in between, but that love you well and unabashedly. Even mountains that have been tamed and then abandoned and then tamed again–even lands that have had an endless string of hikers and bikers and farmers and homebuilders and real estate agents loving and even abusing them in succession–can sometimes stun you into silence with the shocking green of new moss: surely this spot has never been seen or touched before! And yet I’ve walked this trail before…I’m sure I thought the same thing last year, and I’m sure that Florida girl felt the same thing–en ingles o espanol–only a few days ago. In a word it doesn’t matter how many times (or how many lovers) Lovewell Mountain has loved, only that she loved me well when I needed her, and with an exuberance that suggests she never loved before and never will love again…until (of course) next time I or someone else happens to RePlace me.

    This is my contribution to the Ecotone topic, RePlace.

    AND, please note that Hoarded Ordinaries now has “RePlaced” itself at a new URL: http://www.hoardedordinaries.com. Although your old bookmarks and blogroll links will redirect to the new site, I encourage you to update to the new address. Thanks to Chris for his hard work in effecting this migration.