HART'S LOCATION, N.H. - There are only a few days left.
When it started, this year's vacation - like last year, and the year before - looked like the White Mountains themselves, an expanse of peaks that seemed endless, a horizon so long that it seemed to have no end. And now it is almost over, like last year, and the year before.
As we arrived at my favorite place on Earth in these New Hampshire hills, there was world enough, and time - time to visit all of my haunts, time to explore the paths I know so well and to examine the trails I have been meaning to follow, time to eat my favorite foods at my favorite places, time for all that and, because this was summer vacation, time to spare. For what is a vacation if there is not time to spare?
And now - how did this happen? - it is almost over, and all that time is gone. I'll be back in the office soon, worrying about all the things that go wrong, fidgeting with next year's budget, trying to calculate how we, like everyone I know in these tough times with crowded hours, might do more with less and somehow reimagine the physics of work.
But for a few days more - and then, I know, it will be for a few hours more - I am here, where, as the painter Thomas Cole, who hiked through the White Mountains 180 summers ago, found "an awfulness in the deep solitude," an awfulness that must be the admixture of fear and awe.
In that time, we'll sit by the lake and ponder why, from this distance, the prickly firs on the side of the ski hill across the water look like Polartec fleece, and we'll climb up beyond Bemis Brook to see the water cascade down Arethusa Falls with such speed and such volume that we wonder whether the water will run out, and we'll look out upon the mountain vista and think that this isn't God's workshop, but His art studio.
"The huge peaks are infested with flashes of color that change every moment," a writer said of the White Mountains in the 1890s, "and open their sides and kiss their summits and awaken their emotions."
Awaken their emotions - and awaken our senses.
The other afternoon, we went down the Swift River and rode it as it snaked past a jangle of rocks and ripples. This is the 39th summer I have done this, first with my father, then with my wife, then with our older daughter, now with the younger one.
It seemed a miracle in 1969 and no less so now, a miracle that some 30 miles away, at an amusement park, people were paying to replicate the experience of racing down a river on their backs when, for free, you could do it right here, and have the mountains for a backdrop.
But vacations are for miracles, and then we are ungrateful when denied the final miracle, the one that would let us remain here for another week, or another day, or another hour.
I remember vividly the betrayal I felt one year when I had to leave the New Hampshire lake where we swam and picnicked and laughed and had to head for the car and then the airport and then the tie and suit coat that would be my uniform in less than a day's time.
That afternoon, a sparkling afternoon where the color of the sky matched the color of the lake, I swam underwater for as long as I could, trying to make the moment last, trying to capture, if only for a moment, if only in my memory, the way it felt to have the cool water surround me, head to toe, front to back.
This vacation ritual of thinking a lot while doing very little has been going on for countless years here.
Karl Harrington, who helped create the trail network across the White Mountains, identified it in 1926: "In this out-of-doors age many adults like to break away from honking cars and jingling telephones for a week or two and breast the breezes, mount the cliffs, and rest beside some lovely lake in the manner of the simple life."
We may do nothing on vacations, but that doesn't mean that nothing is happening.
So much is happening, and that is the scary thing, the awfulness in my deep solitude this summer.
So much is unchanging here, the hills and the valleys and the sunrise and the funny chill - I felt it tonight, while on a short stroll - which is New Hampshire's way of telling us not to be lulled into a false sense of summer security. The unchanging backdrop reminds me of how so much is changing.
Our older daughter is in her summer term at college over on New Hampshire's western border, and when I visited her amid the many sighs and many cheers of the campus, I sensed it again - the feeling that time is forever but we are not.
When we started taking our girls up here, loving them so much that we dared hope they would love what we loved, their childhoods looked like the White Mountains themselves, an expanse of peaks that seemed endless, a horizon so long that it seemed to have no end. And now those childhoods are almost over.
I need not belabor the point. You know what it is. I'd like these days to last a little longer. I want another day, a few more hours.
I write this column, or one very much like it, every year, on vacation.
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