Ornery

September 2001. The wife and I are looking forward to a fishing trip in Montana, just a month away. Smith River, wilderness. The scent of spruce needles, fish scales, and B.O. wafting merrily about as we and friends match wits with small-brained icthyoids.

But you know what happened. Deluded zealots crashed some planes and shut down the country. Though planes would be flying again in time for Montana, our friends cancel, and we look for something else to do.

“How about a bike trip?” says the wife. “Why not?” say I, and off we go to New Hampshire, via Boston’s Logan, of all places. We meet up with an eclectic group, including four moms from North Carolina on a girls retreat, an interesting and friendly nearly-retired couple from Arkansas, and a creepy single guy from Florida, among others. It turns out that guided bike trips tend to attract an older sort of crowd. My bride and I are the youngest there by about a decade. “No matter. It’ll be interesting,” we think, and we were right.

And so we rode New Hampshire’s and Vermont’s byways on dorky bikes, braving fast-moving cars and seriously sore nether-regions. The idea of the trip was to experience New England’s fall foliage while getting some exercise, and then relaxing in various inns and B&Bs along the way. Most of the places we stayed were pleasant, but one stands out — an old New Hampshire estate postured on top of a nice little hill.

The centerpiece of the grounds was a log cabin embodying a character of the sort you just cannot re-create these days. Upstairs were about eight guest rooms, all sharing two toilets and adorned with the most magnificently ancient red shag carpet. Downstairs was the dining room sporting a table big enough to sit about fifteen. Around the corner a hearth the size of a small Buick managed to warm everything within a radius of eight feet and nothing beyond.

The estate had been subjected to several abortive attempts at commercial viability. Among the earliest, some time in the 1930s, was a downhill ski resort. Keep in mind that this was New Hampshire, not the Rockies. Apparently the prospect of whisking jovially, but not quickly, down nearly two hundred vertical feet of fairly shallow slope, then grasping a rickety-looking tow rope and repeating the process did not a make for a solid business operation.

The subsequent owners, recognizing the flaw in the previous business plan, thought to install a cross-country ski resort. Unfortunately, cross-country skiers — at least the kind that would stay in a resort — tend not to heartily embrace trudging not-so-jovially up nearly two hundred vertical feet at the end of the day to get to their warm beds.

So the cross-country skiers were replaced with boys whose parents thought they needed a good old-fashioned camp experience. How a boys camp could fail to make a profit year after year takes little imagination, once you consider the costs associated with boys. The damage caused by ignited flatulence alone could put you (and some of the boys) in the red.

By the time we arrived, however, it seemed that this fine hilltop had found its niche. An elderly couple ran the inn with flair and dispatch. The husband tended a huge garden whence came many of the ingredients in the delicious meals crafted by the wife’s expert hands. Fresh chocolate chip cookies — better than your grandmother’s, I’d wager — greeted us on the second floor balcony that overlooked a lovely rolling landscape. The beds were clean, the grounds were mowed, the food was exquisitely down-home, and the whole place just felt like a throwback to a halcyon yesteryear, the kind that never existed except in our collective white-washed imaginations.

Yet something was off. The husband-wife team were not so much a team. She was a pistol, quick with a verbal crack and consumed with a pessimism so grating one could not be sure of its sincerity.

He was a beaten man, looking as if he had tried to tame the shrew and lost. The practiced, ornery banter between them was the kind that had obviously been nurtured and aged, like a good wine, to achieve that perfect blend of biting wit and resigned frustration. In the hands of less-skilled combatants, such exchanges may have resulted in divorce many years before, but these folks were masters. They relished their grumpy repartée and wore their ornery as one would a too-heavy parka on a not-quite-cold-enough day. Throwing it off would be too much. Keeping it on leads to overheating and a rising temper.

Watching the interaction between these two former lovers made me wonder about the devolution of affection. Presumably, they were once a man and a woman, each impressed with the other. They had a first kiss, a first night together. He confessed his love, she opened her heart. And now, years later, they bicker constantly.

At the very top of the hill stood a flagpole, the Stars and Stripes still flying at half-mast. The flag, if nothing else, is a reminder of history. The history of this patch of ground was one of missing the mark. What is it that they say about history?

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