Chapter Ten: The Little Old Lady In The Woods

NOTE: "Semi-Rough: A North Country Journal," is now available as a complete book, that includes these on-line essays and more. If you'd like a free pdf to download to your computer, send me a note at symbios@condortales.com and I'll email you a copy.

Sunday 28 June 1998 - We chatted with Bill Higgins and his son John, who live on Paris Road, and were out on a motorcycle. They both have been in to camp in the past. A 'reminiscence' of Calista: Bill remembers visiting with her, drinking tea she had made from things growing in the field, and watching deer with her.

Saturday 28 July 2001 - While I was gone, Sally visited with Mr. Huckins from Cedar Pond. He says he hasn’t been in since Calista died, but Sally and I both think we’ve seen him fairly recently. Anyway, he told her some more new stories about Calista. He remembered that, before the propane refrigerator, she stored all her perishables in a hole in the ground.

Sunday 11 September 2005 - In the afternoon, Bob and Debbie Goddard drove in and visited for about an hour. He is a North Country native, went to BU (engineering), worked in the huts, and seems to know everybody in the area. He visited with Calista several times, and said that he brought her grouse to eat on several occasions.

Tuesday 8 August 2006 –On the logging road, I met a man (“Jerry”) from Cedar Pond. He had met Calista, and remembered her fishing and living off the land!

Thursday 17 September 2009 - Two hunters drove in around 1600, just checking out places to hunt. They were locals, but I didn't get their names. They remembered the old lady who used to live here - saw her cutting wood in the Glades, and used to hear her call in to 'The Forum.'

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Sounds like quite a woman, right? Well, she was, and she deserves her status as a local legend. But did she make tea from things growing in her field? (No.) Did she store her perishables in a hole in the ground? (No.) Did she cook grouse at Camp? (Possible, but not likely.) Did she fish and live off the land? (No.) Did she call "Forum," the local talk radio program? (No, that was her daughter, Sally.) And, no: if your ran across a little old lady in the woods, smoking a corncob pipe, that wasn't her, either.

I've introduced you to "Cal" (Calista [Crane] Harris), Sally's mom, in previous chapters. Born in Boston in 1902, she grew up in Massachusetts, the daughter of two medical doctors. She earned a Master's degree in Geology at Boston University, and worked for a time at the Boston Natural History Library, precursor of the Boston Museum of Science. Her experiences in New Hampshire's mountains began in her teens as an attendee and then a councilor in summer camps for girls; developed into longer and more rigorous trips with various friends; continued for nearly 40 years with husband "Slim" Harris; and after Slim's death, went on for almost 20 more.

For the first 10 years at "Camp," Cal and Slim shared it with Sally and her brother. But for the next ten, it was mainly just the two of them, sharing the isolation and solitude, and mutually involved in the accompanying adventures. When Slim died of cancer in 1969, Cal could have considered herself too old, too frail or too inexperienced to continue the rustic life by herself. After all, she was "old" (67), small in stature and slim in physique, and (although not without her own experiences and skills) a product of those generations when men were supposed to be the leaders and protectors, and women the followers and the protected. Still, she loved Camp, and had a lifetime of memories to treasure and (hopefully) to add to. When, only a month after Slim died, we accompanied her to Camp, it was with her avowed intention to begin to make new memories there.

It wasn't going to be easy for her. She would be living by herself most of the time, over three miles from the nearest neighbor, and - even at the best of times - almost a mile from her car. Everything she needed at Camp - food, clothes, whatever - had to be packed in, at least that far, and (depending on road conditions) sometimes farther. She would have no electricity, and no telephone. She would have a wood stove for cooking and warmth, and windows to open or close for temperature control. No matter how much one liked the solitude, nights would be lonely, dark, and sometimes a little scary. Some of her friends thought it was crazy for "a woman of her age" to be taking such risks. She needed to try it.

Her first full summer on her own was 1970. We were living in California, but were able to spend a week with her in July. The rest of the time, except for occasional visits by friends and other drop-ins, she was alone. She couldn't phone us often, because of the time differences between New Hampshire and California, and because the nearest phone for her was three miles away. We heard from her by letters, and it sounded like things were going well. We haven't found a copy of her August letter to us, but Sally's response gives some idea of what was going on.

"We had a lovely time imagining you pushing the lawn mower into camp. It's a shame there wasn't anyone around to see it!" (Remember, this is a "little old lady" transporting a push mower almost a mile through the forest primeval, to get it from her car to Camp.)

"The bear and cub must have been quite a sight." (Bear sightings were pretty uncommon in those years, and these ursines must have been quite near where she parked her car.)

"I'm glad Bob got the woodshed fixed up. That will keep it useful for quite awhile." (Over the years, a number of North Country folks helped her with some of her bigger or more difficult needs.)

She went on making memories at Camp for 20 more years, staying alone from May to October, sometimes earlier and sometimes later. She read, did crossword puzzles, worked on a portable loom (and gave weaving lessons to some of the local girls adventurous enough to hike up the Hill), and listened to the Red Sox on her portable radio. She kept a small vegetable garden. Because she knew some of her local friends worried about her, she usually restricted her wanderings on the Hill to the home field and the roads, where - if she did have trouble - she would be easily found. When she had been on the Hill for several days with no outside contact, she would walk the three miles down the Hill to Mrs. Bacon's, just to let people know she was okay. She didn't want to inconvenience anyone.

During those years, she also found her own new place in the mountains. While Slim was alive, she was well known and liked, but she was "the Professor's wife." On her own, she was regularly encountered on the trails in the White Mountains, sometimes with friends but often on her own. She often stayed at Appalachian Mountain Club's huts (overnight lodgings reached by trail), sometimes as an official AMC visiting naturalist, and often just as another trail hiker enjoying the mountains and the company. Everybody either knew, or knew about, "Cal" Harris, and everybody had a story about her. In contrast to the stories about the little old lady of Dummer Hill, the stories about the little old lady of the mountains were mostly true.

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You know from my description that Cal Harris was not Amazonian in looks or physical strength. Obviously, she had some other "toughness" to call on. Even so, it wasn't always easy. She regularly admitted to being uneasy - at times, even a little bit frightened - all by herself out there in the woods. Ten years before her last mountain trip, she was thinking about how "wearying for my old muscles" the hikes were getting, and wondering if "I can still do it." But she wanted to, and so she did.

Sometimes, people with an inner drive and toughness are not that easy to be around. Suggest that to Cal's hundreds of mountain friends, and see what laughs you elicit. Or, think of all the mother-in-law stories you have heard, then picture me, her, Sally, and our two kids living (happily!) together in a one-room cabin for weeks at a time. That should tell you something about her.


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