Ever since I was a child, I have loved to travel.
I was the perfect travel kid. Even when I went places with just me and my parents, I could always find things to do to keep myself busy. Of course, being a Gen X kid, I had no fear and would wander off wherever we were and do my own thing. I was given a wristwatch and told to meet my parents at a specific time to head back to the hotel. I was about 12 or 13 when that started.
I remember being in Wildwood, NJ, with a pocket full of tickets for rides and a few bucks. I’d spend an entire evening riding the same rollercoaster repeatedly because I enjoyed sitting in that rickety old car on that old wooden coaster all alone, watching the lights of the boardwalk and hearing the sounds rising from the boards and the ocean.
When I was sixteen, I flew by myself to San Francisco, CA, to visit my sister Diana. We’d started a pen-pal-type relationship months before, and I wanted to see her and California. She invited me to stay the entire summer, and I begged my parents to let me go. The summer prior, my other sister, Edna, had made the same invitation, but she lived in Greece, and my parents refused. They said it was too dangerous for me to fly to a foreign country alone at fifteen. Pfftt! Vetoed and sad, I got a part-time job after school and on weekends to save money for whatever my first adventure would be, and it ended up being California.
However, this story will be about the following summer when I was seventeen.
My sister Edna and her husband had returned to the United States from Greece and were living in a little town in New Hampshire named Jaffrey. I had no idea what I was in for, and I didn’t care. I just wanted to go away from Baltimore, my friends, my other family, and everything and just be somewhere new.
My father purchased my plane ticket, and I used the money I’d saved for everything else I’d need while I was there. It was only a couple hundred dollars, but once I arrived in New Hampshire, I quickly realized I didn’t need much money anyway, and my sister and her husband provided for me just fine.
I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t even realize I’d have to change planes at LaGuardia airport in New York City. All I knew was check my suitcase, hand the person at the counter my ticket, get on the plane, sit down and wait for it to land. We’re going way back to 1981 in our pre-911 world, so things weren’t as complicated and stringent. The airline people were amiable and answered my questions freely and eagerly. Honestly, I looked a bit older than seventeen, but they saw my identification, so I suppose they were extra nice because I was a minor.
At LaGuardia, I was pointed toward the correct terminal for my next flight. When I arrived there, I noticed that no more than a dozen people were waiting for this flight. Little did I know, the plane I’d be flying the rest of the way was small and a prop plane. It held maybe two dozen passengers at best. There was a horrible electrical storm going on over New York headed north, so we were all stuck sitting there in the airport for nearly three hours for the storm to pass before we could board.
Boarding the plane was interesting. This plane had a fold-down door with steps you walked up to get on. This is how I remember this, so if I’m wrong, so be it, but that is what I remember. I just recall feeling a little nervous because it was still raining, and the plane was so small. After a bit more delay, we were finally in the air…in a thunderstorm, heading north to Keene, NH, where the closest airport was to Jaffrey.
I sat near the back of the plane. It dipped. It tilted. It swooped. All the while, I tried not to look out the window at the lightning that lit up the plane’s interior. I read my book. I pulled out my sketch pad and did some drawings, but for the first time, I remembered being truly afraid for my life.
It was nearly midnight when we made it to Keene Airport.
I had left Baltimore at 3:00 pm that afternoon. I was starving, tired, and scared, but when I headed down those steps, I wanted to fall to my knees and kiss the ground. However, nothing matched the relief in my sister’s eyes when she finally saw me, safe and sound. When I look back on that flight, I think the universe was testing me. “Oh, you want to travel, do you? Well, I’ll give you the ride of your life and get it out of the way now, so we’ll see if you have what it takes!”
Did I mention my sister was an Army veteran and an RN? Boy, was I in for a rude awakening, albeit in a good way for the most part. I’ll get to that in a minute. Her husband Vaughn was awesome. He was cool and smart, and his family was from the area. I assumed he grew up there because he knew where everything was.
It was so dark by the time we made it to my sister’s house that I couldn’t really see what it looked like except for the tiny bit of light on her front porch. The house was an A-Frame cabin in the woods on a lake called Contoocook at 362 Woodbound Rd. I walked into the tiny house, dropped my suitcase, and quickly passed out. Little did I know what breathtaking beauty awaited me when my sister woke me in the morning with a hot cup of coffee and a huge smile.
Imagine this teenager from Federal Hill in South Baltimore waking up and walking out the front door to see a beautiful lake, mountains, and the sky.
The real sky. I was stunned. I was also stunned when my former Army sister decided that for the rest of the summer, she would wake me at 6:00 am with a cup of coffee. At 6:00 am, we’d start our day. Usually, this included coffee, breakfast, watching the morning news, and deciding what we would do that day. To this day, I blame her for my coffee addiction.
One day, she introduced me to her lawn mower. It was a manual mower. Exactly. No motor. I was the motor. Thankfully the yard wasn’t huge, and the blades were very sharp. Then she introduced me to laundry day, where we would bag everything up and drive into town to the laundromat. I wasn’t a stranger to those because back home when our washer or dryer wasn’t working, I’d walk a few blocks with my mother to a laundromat. While in town, we’d stop by her inlaw’s house for water. Her house was on a well, and the water was contaminated by the lake and was not drinkable. It was orange. You could take a bath in it, but that was all. We’d unload the huge jugs, fill them, and then load them back in her little station wagon.
One of the best parts of heading home was that she’d let me drive. I had been through driver’s education but didn’t have my license yet because I needed more driving time. Once we were off the main highway, she’d pull over and let me take the wheel. She survived.
The best part of this whole summer was the weekends.
Every weekend we packed up the wagon and drove about 90 minutes north to their campground—the road wrapped around the side of these huge hills of granite. I imagine the roads were carved through them, but I remember sitting in the back seat gazing out the window, wondering how old these hills and mountains were and how long it must have taken to cut through all that granite. The scenery truly took my breath away.
Once we reached the campground, we’d meet up with my brother-in-law Vaughn’s family. His brother, whom my sister called Hosie, owned an auto repair shop in Jaffrey. He was my first older man crush. He was tall and handsome with dark hair. He and Vaughn looked nothing alike and were as different as night and day. There was probably a reason for that, but at the time, I didn’t even seem to notice they looked so different. I knew Hosie made my dorky 17-year-old heart skip a beat, and I was sometimes awkward around him.
God, that makes me laugh now!
My sister and Vaughn had a small camper that was adorable inside and out. My sister was quite the decorator, and I remember it being warm, cozy, and welcoming. It reminded me of my dad’s boat back home. There was so much to do at the campground, but the most fun was at night. We’d all sit around the campfire and eat and talk, and Hosie’s kids and I would take their big German Shephard and a blanket and head out to the middle of the field away from everyone with a flashlight and lay down and stare up at the stars. I’d never in my life seen stars or a night sky like this. It was like magic. I really liked those little kids. They were a boy and a girl, and they were around 9 or 10 years old, I think. I wish I could remember everyone’s name. I remember Hosie’s wife, but she wasn’t very talkative to me. She mainly laid out all day on a lounger, getting a tan. That’s about all I can remember of her.
At the lodge, you could rent canoes.
One day, we all went down to go canoeing. Hosie and the kids were in one boat, and my sister, Vaughn, and I were in the other. Somewhere in the middle of the lake, a water battle ended up with our canoe flipping over. I was not a happy camper. Before the trip, I’d used some money to buy my first pair of Nike tennis shoes. I’d taken great pains while there to keep them clean and nice. I had taken them off and tossed them in the canoe before we set off because I didn’t want to get them wet. I swear I almost cried watching those shoes sink to the bottom of that lake.
Unable to climb back in once we righted the canoe, my brother-in-law decided to take off swimming for the shore, which was about a quarter to a half a mile away, leaving my hysterically laughing sister and me to fend for ourselves with the canoe. Thankfully, we were wearing life vests, so he probably thought we’d be just fine. I was not okay. This lake was loaded with lily pads, vines, fish, and God knows what else! Thankfully the paddles were secured, but this wasn’t one of those little canoes. This was a big one that held three people. I summoned every bit of grit I had and told her to hold onto the back. She was not a good swimmer, but I was. I pulled the bow line around my shoulder and swam—one-armed, pulling that damn canoe and my sister back to shore. It took me nearly an hour, but I did it.
Once we reached the shore, the rental person was looking none too happy. I took off my life vest, handed it to him, said, “This was NOT my doing,” and huffed off barefooted all the way back to the camper with my sister far behind me.
“I’m not mad!”
I kept saying when she’d call out for me to wait for her. Of course, I was mad. I was also exhausted, thirsty, and hungry and lost my new shoes at the bottom of a lake. She’d figured all that out by the time she reached the camper and apologized. Later that night, I guess to make up for the incident, she made a blender full of pina Coladas and told me to enjoy myself. I was only 17, but way up where we were at a campground at night, who was going to say or do anything about it?
I got over it pretty quickly. My brother-in-law, who’d arrived back long before we did, also apologized. He took a beef eye roast, seasoned it well, wrapped it in foil, and put it on the grill about 10 feet away from the camper. How could I be mad knowing that was on the menu for dinner? Plus, my sister made some delicious sides to go with it. So, we grabbed some snacks, the pitcher of pina Coladas, and headed out to our usual spots by the campfire for the evening.
I got pretty drunk. We all got pretty drunk. We were laughing, singing, carrying on, and having so much fun that we completely forgot about the roast. When we went inside, my sister said, “Oh no! Sue the roast!” My family all called me by my middle name. Drunk and laughing, I stumbled out of the camper and over to the grill to find no roast. I only saw the empty aluminum foil on the ground a few feet away. Apparently, something had decided the roast was for them and carried it off—most likely raccoons.
All summer, this was my life. It was glorious, full of adventure and fun, and I bonded with my sister. Maybe I didn’t mention it, but I am the youngest of eleven children. Edna was 36 years old at the time, more than twice my age. I had six sisters, and the closest in age to me, Sheila, was 12 years older. There were two boys between Sheila and me. So my older sisters were more like bonus moms; they were all so different and unique. I learned a lot from the ones I was able to have a real relationship with. Edna was definitely one of them.
We shared so many incredible and ridiculous moments.
Even when we were changing to go to the beach. Edna was extremely big on top and a lot shorter than me. We were up in the loft putting on our swimsuits, and it was the first time she’d ever seen me naked. What did my sweet sister say? “Gee Peg, what happened to your boobs?” (Insert laugh, snort, laugh) I answered, “Well, sis, after you were born, there wasn’t any boobs leftover!” We laughed hysterically and headed to the beach.
At some point, Vaughn asked me if I’d ever climbed a mountain. I said the only climbing I’d ever done was to the crown of the Statue of Liberty in New York City in the sixth grade, and that was no fun at all. He said he promised me that climbing a mountain would be much more fun and the view a thousand times better, so of course, miss up for anything agreed, and we scheduled our climb up Mount Monadnock for Friday of that week.
A few other people that Vaughn knew went with us, but Edna stayed home. They were very nice people and had apparently done this before. Without my precious Nike’s, I was left to wear my hiking boots which ended up being the dumbest thing I could have done. Hiking boots are good for one thing—hiking. They are heavy and do nothing to help you climb. I think I still have scars from the blisters.
From this website, “Monadnock State Park is located in and around the 3,165-ft. Mount Monadnock. The park is surrounded by thousands of acres of protected highlands. In 1987, Mount Monadnock was designated a National Natural Landmark. The park offers year-round recreational opportunities.”
This was a very long, rigorous, and fun day.
We took the trail with the least incline because I was not an experienced climber but don’t get it twisted. It was HARD. My hands were raw, and my legs ached when we finally reached the summit, but I was so proud of myself! Vaughn was so right. It was a thousand times better than the Statue of Liberty, and the view was unlike anything I’d ever seen! I took many pictures that day but unfortunately, somewhere along my life path, I lost or misplaced them and have never been able to find them. I can still see it all in my mind, though. Thank goodness for beautiful memories. Getting down was, of course, a lot easier. I did lose a lot of the butt out of my jeans. Many of the large granite rocks are smooth, so you can slide down them on your butt if you dare, and I absolutely dared. I tore the pockets off my Wranglers too! I slept pretty darn good that night!
That summer, I also went horseback riding, ate ice cream at a dairy that made their own—the best ever, dodged huge bats in the evening taking clothes off the line outside, and heard so many scary noises in the night that I knew NEVER to set foot outside after dark and even watched Prince Charles and Lady Diana get married when my sister woke me up before dawn with you guessed it…coffee. We laid across my sofa bed on our tummies, drinking coffee and oohing and aahing at the pomp and glory of that royal wedding.
Although very far from home and in a completely other world and way of life, I was happy.
I was content. I hardly ever thought of Baltimore, my friends, and even my parents. I felt a little guilty, but I did get to talk to my Mom on the phone a few times, and she and I exchanged letters. The last letter she sent included a photo of a blue Chevy Nova sedan. She said my dad bought it for me to use for school, but we’d have to share it. I was okay with that. I’d been riding four city buses daily to get to and from high school, so this was a dream come true. Although I never got homesick, I was ready to go home and get ready to start my senior year of school.
Then something happened that neither of us could believe. While watching the news one morning, it was announced there was an air traffic controller strike, and they didn’t know when the planes would be in the air again. I had a plane ticket to leave a week later and no plane. My sister thought the perfect solution was for me to just stay in Jaffrey and finish high school there. I thanked her for the offer but told her I really wanted to go home and finish school with my friends. After all, I had worked so hard to get that Western High School diploma. She believed it was about the car, but it really wasn’t. I loved my high school and missed my friends. There weren’t any kids my age I knew in Jaffrey or nearby Peterborough where I’d have to go to school. I promised her I’d come back for Christmas, but unfortunately, that didn’t work out.
We decided that I’d have to take a bus home due to the strike. I was okay with that even though I knew it would take about twelve hours. Plus, I’d have to change buses twice. I was a big girl, believing this was just another test to see if I had the right stuff. So we cashed in my plane ticket and headed for Nashua to the Greyhound bus station. I was packed and wore my white scooter skirt, as they used to call them, and a cute copper-colored top. Back in those days, people used to dress up a little to travel.
Edna went over my itinerary with me. I’d ride this bus to Boston, where I’d get off and get the next bus to Port Authority in NYC. I’d catch the next bus from Port Authority to Baltimore. If it were only that simple. I believe this was the day I truly realized I was an adult and that I had a guardian angel.
Let me explain.
When we arrived in Boston, I got off the bus and asked the driver about my suitcase. He was very kind, told me they would put it on the next bus for me, and pointed me towards the bus. I asked him how much time I had, and he said about 30 minutes. I asked him where I could get a snack and a drink, and he pointed me towards that too. Twenty minutes later, I was settled on the bus to New York City.
I was excited to see the New York skyline, and the ride was uneventful. Unfortunately, Port Authority was not. As I was getting off the bus, I stopped again to ask the bus driver about my next bus, and he said I had to ask at the counter and not to forget my suitcase. I was like, “What do you mean?” He said, “You have to take your own suitcase to the next bus here.”
My suitcase weighed a good forty pounds, and it was the old-fashioned kind with no wheels! I thought to myself, “You’ve got this!” and I went to the side of the bus, showed the man unloading the suitcases my ticket, and he swung my suitcase towards me, sat it down, and said, “Here.” I picked it up, adjusted myself to the weight, and walked into the terminal and toward the counter. The person at the counter looked at my ticket and told me which terminal I needed to go to. She said my bus wasn’t leaving for at least an hour. I asked her if there was anywhere I could store my suitcase and find something to eat, and she said they had public lockers. “That way,” and I was dismissed.
I headed toward the public lockers lugging that heavy suitcase, and when I reached them, I thought there was no way this suitcase would fit, but it did! I hurried, closed the locker, locked it, pulled out the key, and shoved it into my purse. I was amazed. Then, I suddenly got this strange feeling that someone was watching me. I glanced to my side, and about ten feet away, a man was leaning against the wall staring at me and smiling. I looked away.
That fast, he was standing next to me.
“What brings you to New York, sweetie?” He asked. He had a sandy brown complexion with dark hair and a mustache.
“I’m going to Baltimore,” I said, turning to walk away.
“Where you going so fast?” he said quietly, walking behind me. I didn’t know where I was going; I was just going.
Just then, two older women with short, cropped grayish hair came up to me. They were kind and smiled. “Are you all right?” one of them asked me. I glanced back at the man and said, “I don’t know. I just want to get something to eat before I catch my next bus.”
“Why don’t you let us take you to lunch? There’s a deli right across the street.”
I don’t know why but I immediately trusted them. Something in their eyes said, “Don’t be afraid. We’ll protect you.”
They led me out the side door and across the street to the delicatessen. They asked me if I had money, and I said yes, but they insisted on buying my lunch. I’ll never forget it. I had half a tuna salad sub with lettuce and pickles, a soda, and a bag of potato chips. They asked me where I was coming from, where I was going, and checked my ticket to see what terminal I needed to be at and what time. I asked them who they were, and they only told me they were sisters at some nearby church who watched over young girls at Port Authority and looked like I could use some help. They didn’t eat or drink anything. They just stayed with me until it was time to go.
After I ate, they escorted me back to my locker, and one even carried my suitcase to my bus to Baltimore. I asked them to let me call my Mom and let her know when I’d be arriving in Baltimore, and they took me to the pay phone closest to my bus. They did not leave my side until they watched me get on that Greyhound bus.
They waved goodbye to me as the bus pulled away.
The bus was crowded, but we had to stop in Atlantic City, and over half the bus got off. I was sitting near the middle of the bus, and a few people got on, and a man in a scruffy Army coat came and sat right next to me. There were plenty of seats, but I pulled out my book—I believe I was reading something by Stephen King and ignored him. After about fifteen minutes, he started talking to me. He told me about being in the Vietnam war and about his life and showed me faded photos in his wallet. I was uncomfortable but not afraid. However, I looked up and noticed the bus driver watching us in the rearview mirror. The next thing I knew, he called out to me, “Hey, miss? Can you come up here, please?”
I excused myself from the scruffy man, slid into the aisle, and walked to the front of the bus. The bus driver said, “I want you to sit down right there in the seat behind me and do not move except to use the bathroom until we get to Baltimore, understood?”
I said, “Yes, sir.”
I talked to the driver about Baltimore for the remainder of the ride.
When the city came into view, I started pointing out landmarks to the other passengers, and they asked me questions about the city, places to go, and things to see. The sun was setting over the city, and it was pretty. It was home, and soon I’d plant my flip-flops on concrete and asphalt again, and I was okay with that.
When the bus finally pulled into the station, it was dark, and I was so tired but excited to see my Mom and dad. I grabbed my suitcase, thanked the bus driver again, and then headed toward the doors. I saw my dad standing next to that blue nova and my Mom waiting with her arms open to greet me. Once inside that hug, I felt happy and a little sad at the same time. I already missed the lake, the little A-Frame house, camping, fishing, mountain climbing, and picking blueberries off the bushes in my sister’s yard. I even missed that stupid manual lawnmower.
My Mom asked, “So, how was it?” as my dad loaded my suitcase into the car’s trunk.
I answered, “It was amazing. Have I got some stories to tell you!”
I think I was asleep before we even made it to the inner harbor.
To this day, the New Hampshire state motto is my most favorite because it speaks to my wandering heart.
“LIVE FREE OR DIE.”