ALBANY, N.H. — It wasn’t ideal, but somehow, it strangely was. Here was a travel writer whose current geographical boundaries seemed to be collapsing by the day, accompanied by his niece, who was recently laid off from her job at a museum. We were trekking through ankle-deep mud while surrounded by thirsty mosquitoes.
As we hiked, we talked about going to the bathroom in the wild, as one does while walking through the mud in search of a remote covered bridge in the White Mountains during a pandemic.
“When I need to go, I just squat and hope an insect doesn’t bite me,” said my niece and all-around nature gal Jennifer. She camps in a tiny tent, climbs cliffs, and does other crazy things that essentially scare the bejesus out of me. Meanwhile, my definition of roughing it is staying in hotels where the thread count of the sheets is below 800 and there’s no turndown service.
I planned a trip that suited both our tastes, in one of the few states where we could stay based on quarantining restrictions thanks to COVID-19. By the time you read this I’m sure those restrictions will have changed. We were at a glampground, staying in a tent that was more like a cabin. There was a full bathroom, a partial kitchen, and two bedrooms, one with a queen bed, the other with a bunk bed.
Camping was a strategic move. I’m a travel writer with frayed nerves who was apprehensive about traveling again after more than three months of hiding while the world went to hell in a Hermès handbag. Baby steps. I needed baby steps to get my travel groove back. I wasn’t keen on being around crowds, getting on a plane, or taking a long, adventurous road trip. In other words, all the things I loved doing just a few months ago.
I wanted to find a place that would alleviate anxiety rather than produce it.
Enter the glampground. Our tent was at Huttopia White Mountains, which is located about 2½ hours from Boston. Its website promised “little French touches,” as the concept was developed in France before being exported to New Hampshire and Maine. I couldn’t really spot those touches, partially because we kept to our campsite, and partially because I’m currently not much for community activities. Huttopia has a heated pool, volleyball, and bocce, but I didn’t seek out the yoga, live music, or magic shows. I was more than fine to skip it. My current idea of community is an occasional Zoom meeting or viewing endless hours of “Match Game ’76” with my cat.
That left Jennifer and me in our own little world. During our first day at Huttopia, we went swimming in the pond at the campground. (I’m done saying glampground.) The last time I swam in a pond, Culture Club was singing about chameleons and Roger Moore was playing James Bond. While I bobbed around in the slightly murky water I tried to remember why pond swimming had dropped out of my life. Oh, right, I tipped over in a canoe once in junior high and lost my apple green nylon and velcro wallet.
That night we did traditional camping things, such as make turkey burgers, try to start a fire with some suspiciously inexpensive wood we bought at a roadside stand, and burn Jiffy Pop. The campground was maybe half full and never felt suffocating. With no one around I could doff my face mask. It was one of the few times I had been outside with a naked face since the CDC suggested that Americans begin wearing masks.
We sat staring into the fire, happily brought together by the worst of circumstances. If my travel wings had not been clipped and my niece hadn’t been laid off, I’m 99 percent certain we wouldn’t have been catching up on life, laughing, and burning Jiffy Pop at a campground in the White Mountains. I refuse to say “This moment was made possible by COVID-19,” but it kind of was. Still, I refuse to say it.
The category of tent we rented at Huttopia, called the Trappeur, was equipped with nearly everything we needed. There was a kitchen (the cooktop was propane and located outside), an indoor dining area, a small deck with a pair of butterfly chairs, and a picnic table. If you’re a large person, you may have difficulty trying to move in the very tight shower, but otherwise it was comfortable. Linens and towels were provided, but I’d stop short of calling it glamorous because the toiletries were criminally generic, and there was no conditioner for my hair! What kind of an operation was this? I took a breath and reminded myself that I was here for an escape, and not to walk about with silky hair smelling of bergamot and pomegranate.
Given that my nature-loving, potty-squatting niece was familiar with the area I let her plan our itinerary for the following day. She suggested we start at Diana’s Baths, a series of small waterfalls that are located near the campground. It appeared that everyone else in North Conway had the same idea. The lot was full, with a line of cars circling like vultures hungry for an empty space. If the cars couldn’t maintain social distance, what hope would the rest of us have?
Her second suggestion was Echo Lake State Park. But when we arrived, entry was reservation only with capacity capped at 50 percent. Before we left the parking lot I made a reservation on my phone for the following day.
Feeling emboldened with my unconditioned hair, lack of bergamot scent, and mosquito-ravaged ankles, I decided to start calling the shots. We set a course for the Kancamagus Highway. It’s 34 miles of gorgeousness that stretches east to west through the White Mountains. More importantly, it’s filled with beautiful trails that are relatively easy to tackle and well-maintained. Most of them run along rivers where there are places for swimming. Just ignore the occasional snake, and you’ll do fine.
COVID be damned, we had the kind of glorious, carefree day that I hadn’t experienced in months. It was filled with scenic overlooks, bare feet dangling in toe-numbing snowmelt streams, and yet more mosquitoes. I’m fairly certain the mosquitoes of the White Mountains are resistant to any kind of repellent. In fact, I think they’re drawn to the scent it, much the way that fay travel writers are drawn to the scent of bergamot and pomegranate.
We began at the Lower Falls Scenic Area on the Kancamagus Highway, where there were plenty of people swimming and hiking, but there was enough space to remain six (or more) feet apart. Despite the hefty mosquitoes, it was a treat to be in nature and oblivious to whatever terrible news was happening outside of the White Mountains. From there we went to the Lincoln Woods Trail and ambled across the suspension bridge and then through pine trees and alongside the river. When was the last time any of us actually ambled without dread?
The following day we showed up for our reservation at Echo Lake, which was quiet except for children splashing and playing in the water. Having proven our hiking mettle the day before, we took a longer hike up Cathedral Ledge, which is about six miles total, with a bit of elevation. When we reached the end, my niece went straight for the lake, which was crystal clear and filled with tiny tadpoles at the edge.
I dutifully found a picnic table, pulled out my phone, and started catching up on e-mail. My niece urged me to come into the water a few times. I begged her off, needing to respond to work requests and questions. But when I looked up and saw Jennifer swimming as a family of ducks glided past her, I realized my priorities were misplaced. There would be no lasting memories from catching up on work e-mails.
I put the phone away, put on my bathing suit, and, like the nearby ducks, I swam with my family in the tranquil lake.
Huttopia, 57 Pine Knoll Road, Albany, N.H. 603-447-3131. Prices for basic tents start at $175.