We had beaten the traffic out of the city, had weaved our way through the commuters of Connecticut, and had filled our bellies at the tables of Polly's. Our arrival at Mountain Lake Campground was ahead of schedule and the unpacking and set up of our weekend rental cabin went off without the slightest hitch. We were now faced with an afternoon open to possibilities. There were nearby options and we could just relax on the cabin's porch, of course. Or we could take the 50 mile run up to Pittsburg and try an impromptu self-guided moose safari along the Daniel Webster Highway.
The decision was easily made and after a short break to allow the kids to blow off some energy in the camp's park and a little snack, we all piled back into the truck. The fifty or so miles from Lancaster to Pittsburg were the same vibrant swath of color our eyes had finally started to acclimate to. It was one breathtaking scene after another, each bend in the road bringing yet another wonder of nature. With so much to look at, we reached Pittsburg in no time at all. And then the sign loomed ahead, "Brake for Moose." All the other signs we had previously passed were low-key moose crossings, not any different from the deer crossings signs that litter the sides of highways. This particular one, however, was a billboard, bright yellow and unmistakable. It served as the starting point, the gateway to Moose Alley.
Moose Alley is a simple twenty mile stretch of two-lane blacktop from Pittsburg, NH to the Canadian border. It is touted as one the best spots in the Northeast to see a moose, and possibly see one without ever leaving the roadway or your car. As we started down the lonely road, for there are no services along this last U.S. section , the trees seemed to grow larger and tighter to the road. The feeling was almost claustrophobic as the flora strangled the roadway. At some points, the trees grew so tightly together it did not seem possible to walk between them. If an animal, especially the size of a moose, somehow found a way onto the pavement, it was highly questionable whether or not it could find a way back into the forest because of the trees. The kids sat at attention in the backseat, windows open, eyes tearing from the wind, trying not to blink for fear of missing that one fleeting chance to see an elusive creature.
We passed the first two of the Connecticut lakes and several dirt road turn-offs without seeing anything more than reds, yellows, and oranges. The final Connecticut Lake arrived with a warning sign that this was the final turn-out before Canada, a mile further down the highway. Pulling into the little dirt parking lot brought another wonder of nature, as the spectacle of the fall was reflected in the crystal waters of that lake. The mirror image was no less impressive than the real thing that rose above it. Time had stopped, no sound was heard, no breeze brushed our skins, all was still. It was just the four of us standing there quietly. And then the lightbulb flashed, minds raced, children hollered across the silence, "Let's walk to Canada." To avoid an international incident and the whining about the absence of moose, I found the nearest dirt turn-out and headed into the Great North Woods.
What was noted as a road to a fire tower quicklty turned into something less than a jeep trail. Again the foilage was blinding and suffocating. The truck bumped slowly through the wilderness. Grouse continually flushed in front of and beside the vehicle. Everyone jumped each time the feathers broke the air. This was grouse hunting nirvana, flush after flush, thicket after thicket, berry bush after berry bush. The unmistakable smell of Christmas hung heavy in the air. My wife and kids breathed deeply, greedily, trying to capture as much of this air as possible, afraid it might disappear at any moment. And then the trail ended, right at an embankment, a port-a-potty, and a steep mile hike to the Mt. Magalloway fire tower. With the sun quickly fading behind the treetops and the air beginning to nip at our faces, we decided to mark this spot on our GPS for a return trip and start our run home.
We bumped our way the eight miles back to the Alley, passing fly-fishermen trying to land the last bit of sunlight before calling it a day and leg weary bird hunters resting on the tailgates of their pick-ups. Returning to the paved road brought a screeching halt the quiet. The highway, at dusk, had become a traffic jam of holiday weekend tourists idling along in an attempt to spot a moose. Not a single car had a destination, just a purpose, a four-legged furry purpose. The passenger seat started to grumble about food and cold and hunger and food and cold. The daylight was gone, our asses were sore from bouncing down the jeep trail after eight hours of commute, and Polly's was a fond memory. The only solution would be to find a place to grab a bite along this desolate path.
The sure sign of a good place to eat for any driver should be the amount of trucks parked in the lot. Outside of the normal truck routes, the second best way would be the number of pick-ups in the lot, fortified further by the number of hunters and/or fishermen contained within those trucks. But what really set this parking lot apart, and a trick I learned in rural Pennsylvania, was the number of ATV's (during snow months look for snowmobiles). I yanked the steering wheel and slid the truck into a spot outside the Buck Rub Pizza Pub. It was a race to the door of the little log cabin and the warmth of the woodstove inside. The place overflowed with people and character. It was a showroom of camo, Carhartt, and trees. The table tops were rough-cut trees with the bark left on with matching chairs. The bar was the same as the tables only it must have been cut from one large fifty foot log nearly three feet in diameter. I asked the barmaid to return with us to the city to teach the servers down here the art of serving a frosty mug so cold the foam begins to freeze and tickles the upper lip.
A pub fare menu hid the quality of the food there. What was described as a cheeseburger was actually an half-pound of perfectly grilled meat piled high with mushrooms and onions and held firm by crafted cheese. The onion rings hinted of beer and freshcut. The cheesesteak was really an honest-to-goodness steak slathered in peppers, onions, cheese, and I don't know what else riding in bread that had never seen plastic. My kids wanted soup but were handed stew instead. One received french onions with cheese and a little broth as an afterthought, marvelous. The other feasted on clam chowder done right, with bacon, potatoes, and more than a fair share of clams. The oatmeal dessert should have been on the entree menu and should come with a disclaimer, especially for children. This is where outdoorsmen go to stoke the fire after a long day afield. This is a place where one does not leave hungry. This is a place worth relocating for, or at least revisiting whenever the craving arises and maybe before that.
The ride back to the cabin was quiet, as everyone contentedly slept, wrapped in blankets. The miles flew by as I listened to quiet country songs on the radio. I had to bundle the kids tight to ward off the mountain chill inside and outside the cabin walls. My wife snuggled against my back trying to steal my warnth, as I drifted off to dream of woodstoves, cold beer, and hearty meals with the smell of Christmas still strong in the air.