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.
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: