Found at Freethinker’s: The White Mountain

Dan Szczesny reading from Invincible One at Freethinker’s Corner, March 15, 2019.

I first encountered Dan Szczesny’s work at a reading and open mic at A Freethinker’s Corner Books in Dover, New Hampshire. I enjoyed his poetry reading, but when he read from the chapter, “Voyage of Life,” in The White Mountain, I knew had to buy the book. In this passage, he describes taking his six-month-old daughter to meet his father for the first time. His father has had a stroke and is in assisted living:

This is a place of finality. I don’t recognize that as a bad thing, but to be here is to be in a place where life will extinguish. To bring a six-month-old here is like holding a brilliant, burning lantern up to those who have little glow left. (102)

You see, I had made a similar trip with my eight-month-old daughter to meet my grandmother Velma for the first time. Velma was in hospice in the final stages of cancer, and she died shortly thereafter.

My review:

Click the book image to purchase The White Mountain from A Freethinker’s Corner Books.

The White Mountain, published by Hobblebush Books in 2018, is the culmination of a year-long project by New Hampshire journalist Dan Szczesny to explore Mount Washington’s hidden culture. Mount Washington is perhaps best-known to people outside of New Hampshire for its weather: record-setting winds and heavy snows. Particularly when winter storms are forecasted, television weather reports will show video clips of begoggled observatory staff struggling to keep their feet against hurricane-force winds, buildings and weather-recording equipment unrecognizable under rime ice.  

It is fitting, then, that The White Mountain opens in a snowstorm as the author churns up the White Mountain Auto Road in a snowcoach to spend a week with the meteorologists at the observatory to learn what they do and how they live. In true participatory journalism fashion, he has been given the opportunity to assist the cook in preparing their meals.

After introducing us to the ecosystem of Mount Washington and the workings of the observatory, the book delves into the mystique of the mountain. What is there about this “6,288-foot rock pile” that compels so many to climb it, photograph it, paint it, touch the summit sign in talismanic reverence?

Szczesny answers this question by telling us the stories of people who have interacted with Mount Washington in one way or another–from hikers who have lost their way and died to the ninety-seven-year-old man running the Mount Washington Road Race for the twelfth time to the nineteenth-century inventor of the Cog Railway to a group of steampunks riding the Cog as part of their annual festival.

One of the highlights of the book for me was the chapter, “Kindred Spirits: Seeing Mount Washington through the Eyes of the Artists,” which explains what exactly the nineteen-century painters who came to be known as the Hudson River School were doing with those soaring mountain vistas on those impossibly large canvases.

I was particularly impressed by Szczesny’s ability to present a wide range of detailed and well-researched information–as evidenced by a three-and-a-half-page bibliography–in a consistently engaging way. There were no sections of the book that lagged or tempted me to skim. I enjoyed them all.

Ultimately, The White Mountain is an ode to place–how we define place and what place means in our lives–which transcends the White Mountains of New Hampshire as it inspires readers to reflect on the meaning of place in their own lives. Nowhere is this transcendence more in evidence than in the chapter, “Ablutions of a Goddess: Mount Washington Meets a Toddler,” in which Szczesny takes his daughter to the summit and introduces her to the place that means so much to him and her mother. You won’t want to miss it.

Here are a few of my own Mount Washington pictures:

Mount Washington, May 30, 2019
Mount Washington Auto Road Mystery, May 17, 2003: How Did This Old Car Roll Down the Embankment?
The Talismanic Summit Sign, May 17, 2003
View from the Summit, May 17, 2003

59 thoughts on “Found at Freethinker’s: The White Mountain

    1. No, Florence doesn’t appear in the book, just women who made the summit on foot. Thank you for including the link to the postcard picturing her with her dog team. Another interesting tidbit of New Hampshire history!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Hi! Actually I did a bit of research on Ed and Florence and dog-sledding in general but alas, not everything can make it to the book! But, do you know anything about the family? (Clark’s Trading Post) I’m considering writing about them for the new series. Please feel free to drop me an email at danszczesny@gmail.com and thank you!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi Dan! I can’t imagine you didn’t have room in your book for every piece of White Mtn. history and trivia (haha). I don’t have any special knowledge about the Clark family or the Trading Post. I bought that postcard of Florence from a dealer in Germany, and then read what I could find about her online. I’d love to read whatever you write about the family. Cheers from Vermont, Brad Purinton

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s a great image Brad! If you’d like, send me an email and I can drop you a link to the upcoming Mount Washington monthly serial and I’m happy to let you know when or if that story makes the cut. Feel free to reach out on Facebook as well. Cheers and thanks!

          Liked by 2 people

  1. Your review is quite compelling, Liz. It made me think back to when we went up the mountain about 1970. In fact, to be sure, I just sent an email to my Dad to see what he can tell me about that trip (a good family history question!). I thought my friend with the last name Strnat had the corner on too many consonants.😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Eilene, it’s been amazing to hear about how many families have great memories of their vacations and trips up the mountain! I’m wondering – even though he doesn’t remember much – if your dad has any old pictures? I’d love to see them, my email is danszczesny@gmail.com And yes, I need to buy a vowel or two!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Liz. Thank you for the book recommendation. Obviously it is terrific. A year or so ago the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, NH had an exhibit, The White Mountains. The art on display was from many museums. It was some of the best art of the White Mountains I have ever seen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jennie, it’s great that you mentioned the Currier exhibit. Research for the book began in the fall of 2016 when I was invited to the opening of that show. And in fact, there’s a whole chapter int he book dedicated to Thomas Cole and the Hudson Valley School of artist. I took landscape art classes to try to get into their heads. I’d be happy to send you some photos from that chapter, just drop me an email at danszczesny@gmail.com

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi, Dan! That’s so nice of you to reply to me. Thank you. What an honor to be invited to the opening of the exhibit. Were you as taken with the art as I was? Overwhelmed might be a better word. It was one of the finest art exhibits I have seen. How cool that you took art classes to get into their heads. Thomas Cole was a master! I have a pair of primitive Hudson Valley paintings done on academy board. I love them!

        Did you get to meet the Currier Museum’s curator, Karen Papineau? She is so nice. I was her daughter’s preschool teacher many years ago.

        I will email you. Would love to see some photos. And of course I will be buying your book. Thank you again, Dan.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve just added “The White Mountain” to my (too-long) reading list, as what sounds like an ideal example of the type of creative nonfiction I love to read and wish I had the writing chops to do myself. And having spent practically no time in that part of the world, I appreciate your introducing me to both the book and the place. Thank you, Liz!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are most welcome, Ranee! I am so pleased you will be reading “The White Mountain.” I do think you will enjoy it. Dan is working on a follow-up book of short stories, and I’ve subscribed to video previews.

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  4. I’ve come back a couple of times to this post, Liz. The idea of reading aloud is a profound confirmation of community, of integrating another’s story into our story, of having that close association based on separate experiences. I am fascinated. You have inspired me to record my poetry readings. It provides additional clarity which gives power to the moment. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I just finished a podcast that featured the Brazilian poet, writer, artist, Mário de Andrade. The poem was the valuable time of maturity. I am working on a couple of other poems. My interest in returning to poetry was influenced, in part, by the poet David Whyte. I attended a conference where he recited his poetry. Check out this link: https://www.davidwhyte.com/biography Now, you have given me courage to record poems that are meaningful to me. Hugs!!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ll look forward to listening to your podcast. I’m so glad to hear that I’ve given you the courage to record poems that are meaningful to you. Thank you for the link to David Whyte’s site. I just spent the last several minutes reading through the poems he has posted. I love how succinct and trenchant they are. I particularly appreciate his description of what good poetry does: “. . . but only a few are able to speak to something universal yet personal and distinct at the same time; to create a door through which others can walk into what previously seemed unobtainable realms, in the passage of a few short lines. ” Hugs back to you!!

          Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s an excellent, though harrowing book – Sandy is the survival and rescue editor of Appalachia Journal and that book is an important behind the scenes look into how amazing those teams are. Another great book along those lines is “Where You’ll Find Me” by Ty Gagne.

          Liked by 2 people

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