On a summer's day, we rode up Mount Washington, passed a hallmark upheaval of a tourist attraction.
Wave after wave of cars and motorcycles move with the percolating hurry of a ferry crossing.
We watched the light glinting off the cars miles away up the mountain.
Little flecks of glass in the granite and the green.
If you didn't know better, you might mistake this for an evacuation up the mountain.
The impulse that sends more than 30,000 cars and trucks hurtling up the mountain each year began with artists back in the 1820s.
Today's tourists may not know it, but they've come in search of an Eden created by a legion of 19th century landscape painters.
Their paintings taught Americans how to look at the wilderness.
Americans were eager for the lesson, and with guidebook in hand, telling them where to see the views and the famous paintings.
They followed the artists.
Their art created a market to the views, filled hotels with tourists, and laid the bounds for state and national parks across the nation.
One of the first artists to paint the White Mountains, Thomas Cole, arrived in Crawford Notch six or seven days after leaving Concord, 90 miles away.
Today, those 90 miles, most of it by an interstate highway, can be covered in an hour and a half.
But our speed undermines our arrival, as if everything we see is still blurred.
The artists who introduced this.
Northern Wilderness to America were walkers.
The great landscape paintings were born at a walker's pace.
They spent days approaching the mountains to the first white settlers.
The White Mountains were not Eden.
The mountains were avoided.
They were a daunting, terrible wilderness full of rocky hills and close to infinite, thick woods.
But the Thomas Combe, the Mount Wilderness, was, he said, a fitting place to speak of God.
In America, he said, we can still see the undefiled works of God, the Creator.
Nature spent for us a rich and delightful banquet.
Do not turn away from it.
We are still in Eden.
America was Eden.
God was present.
A view of eternity awaited in the mountains.
Many of the tourists who arrived starting in 1860 were carrying the era's most popular guidebook to the mountains.
The white hills, written by a hard charging Unitarian minister, Thomas.
There's a sermon on every page in the White Hills.
A moral lesson in almost every paragraph.
At 403 pages, this is an exhaustive and exhausting guide and a mountain of prose to lay before the mountains.
Every view comes with the preaching to throw off your triviality.
Starr King is like a moses of tourism who never ascends the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, but instead lectures his flock on the right way to look at Mount Sinai.
He tells the reader what to see and at what time.
At about 4 p.m. on a summer's afternoon, view the great stone face from the little lake below.
Best of all, if there are thunderclouds behind the stone face, in which case I suggest leaving the lake and not any mountain view will do.
The view must be framed correctly.
Must be more than land.
It must have the qualities of a landscape painting.
Star King scolds tourists in their haste.
He writes a large proportion of the summer travel is in New Hampshire, but the scenery as a man driven by work, bolts his dinner at a restaurant.
Sometimes, indeed, they will gobble some of the superb views between two trains with as little consciousness of any flavor or artistic relish as the turkey has in swallowing corn.
There is no smack in there.
See, seeing his star.
King's great subject slowed down.
I look at the mountain for as long as possible, see it on a misty day and on a day sacred to clouds.
Be there at sunset and sunrise.
He has the dedication of planning our painters.
Look and look again.
Return and look again.
Sketch and return.
And maybe the place opens to you in this daunting, terrible wilderness.
The world shifted for a generation of artists their paintings are a story of first sight, insight and learning to see again.
The Great 19th century landscape paintings or encounters with a little holy terror.
They imply that God was near.
They were about a vast land, about wonder that fled off the canvas.
The huge mountains suggested mountains without end.
They suggested that greatness without in a way that the young nation.
The paintings were exhibited in Boston and New York.
They were news.
They were an advertisement of a great find.
A scenic gold rush.
The tourists followed by the train load filling the big wooden arcs of the hotels.
They stayed for weeks.
They came back to the same hotel year after year.
The hotels expanded, burned and were rebuilt ever larger.
The arrival of each new railroad line spawned more hotels and additions owing here or there for the egg shaped T-shaped L-shaped buildings.
Farmhouses multiplied many times.
Dormer long or longer runs a cloud, birds unrolling like yards of linen, white boxy buildings crisp as a stark shirt.
The hotels advertised the lengths of their piazzas.
Imagine yourself lingering to take in the view promenading after dinner.
They are piazzas, not porches, more.
Artists followed the tourists.
A half dozen of the Grand Hotel, said.
Artists and residents.
Other artists like Benjamin Chaplin, that set up studios nearby.
Chimney was lowered to North Conway with the promise of reduced room and board, and he put the town's name on his sketches.
There were soon 40 artists in the neighborhood painting.
They painted the scenes that tourists saw from the hotels or nearby walking or on a carriage ride.
They painted the same scenes over and over, and they painted them in a size ready to go home.
Ten by 16 inches.
Two by three feet.
The foreground is bucolic.
Sometimes with cattle.
The distance mountains are big, recognizable in profile and not menacing.
They are dignified, familiar, presiding.
Sometimes there's a storm coming or going.
But blue skies prevail.
They are nice paintings.
Easy paintings to live with.
They are paintings with parlor manners.
They would hang on the wall in the front parlor, a hall politely in the background until you chose to look at them.
The great views were domesticated or was downsized to prettiness.
The landscape went from being a testament to a souvenir.
Visitors went from witnesses to tourists on the American plan, a room and three meals, all included.
No burning bush.
The artists no longer insisted.
You must look at this.
They painted pretty pictures.
Ready to go.
For the first artists, the White Mountains was a place awaiting their discovery.
A place they would conjure.
By the end of the 19th century, after all the paintings and guidebooks, it had all been seen.
A visit to Crawford Notch or Franconia Notch was a paint by numbers exercise.
The views and the corresponding emotions were prescribed.
Look here and look here.
Do this and this, time soon for dinner.
A game of cards, a stroll on the piazza.
The best of the landscape paintings are a call and response, a longing.
And its echo is God.
Here, the painter asks, and the land answers.
The paintings are longing for arrival.
a longing to feel at home in this not Europe land.
A longing to find God and God's approval to read the Bible in the mountains, rivers and waterfalls and valleys.
Do not turn away from it, says Thomas Call almost as a commandment.
We are still in Eden.
The modern viewer stands before the grand landscape paintings and the echo is different.
Is God here?
And the Echo returns only his question.
All of us wants something from the mountains.
Activity, repose, renewal.
We ask a lot of granted in pie, water and sky.
On the day that I stood with my artist friend James, upon which watching cars and motorcycles raced up Mount Washington, we were just two more guidebook bound seekers wanting something from the mountains.
James was born in the old mill city of Nashua.
Though he is a native, he had settled in north of the state capital here in Concord.
He described our trip to the North Country as going to see.
New Hampshire his whole adult life.
He has known the White Mountains as the artists had painted them.
He has known Thomas Cole's Mountains and John Frederick Kentsets mountains.
James wanted to know if visual magic was still happening.
I organized James trip to see New Hampshire.
I plotted the great circle route that wielded clockwise through the notches.
Franconia, Crawford and Pinkham heading for home.
We stopped the cathedral ledge.
We were visiting the sites of the great paintings as you might visit.
In some churches, the Stations of the Cross.
Could we see what they saw?
Would the mountains speak to us as they had to?
The earlier artists.
Thomas call loved Echo Lake and his close companion Profile Lake.
Standing here about 180 years earlier before snack stands in parking lots, he was moved to rapture by this wild mountain gorge, Cole said.
Shot in by stupendous mountains, which rest on crags, that tower more than a thousand feet above the water, whose rugged brows and shadowy breaks are clothed by dark and tangled woods.
They have such an aspect of deep seclusion, of utter and unbroken solitude that when standing in the brink, a lonely traveler, I was overwhelmed with an emotion of the sublime, such as I rarely felt the silent energy of nature stirred the soul to its inmost depths.
Franconia Notch has survived extinction twice in the 1920s, the notch was threatened with clear cut logging winner take all.
A national outpouring of editorials and poems and money rescue the notch donation came from bankers and women's clubs.
Children at an orphanage sending their pennies.
Franconia Notch was set aside as a state park.
Then in the 1950s, the Notch was threatened again, this time with an interstate highway.
The blasting and filling for four lanes and shoulders and access ramps would have overwhelmed the narrow notch and buried parts of echo and profile lakes.
After 20 years of court challenges, studies and new federal laws are the clod two Lane Parkway edition of the Interstate slips through the notch.
Not much bigger than the old state route it replaced.
This is the only place in the 46,000 miles of interstate where the mandated four lane highway was overturned.
It was a great victory.
Today, we have a scenic highway, a tame landscape.
It's still beautiful.
But it has changed.
The spirit that moved Cole and many other artists has walked away.
The Japanese, say one encounter, one opportunity or one time, one meeting.
One of the many Japanese expressions tricky to translate for the fleeting use of life for the way moments arise and are gone.
For this time only.
Cathedral Ledge was a favorite of the 19th century landscape painters.
It was one of the most painted scenes.
We drove to the top of the ledge.
James surveyed the valley below the famous intervale.
This broad valley had been which starts.
Their Paintings carry you into the valley, sun quiet and hundreds of paintings.
The intervale provided a bucolic foreground and middle ground to Mt.
Along the Sacco's curving river banks, cows grazed under the elms below us.
On this day at one farm, an old timer on an old red tractor was making hay and the next field, migrants working.
Max bent, were picking strawberries.
In the forest was a beach of a state park, which even at this distance, looked trodden, overused and underfunded.
Directly below the forest was cut into lots A-frame houses.
The wide sandy banks of the Sacco River curved through the valley across the way as the hills climb were a sandpit, a ski resort and a platoon of condos.
Long grain slots in the green.
James got a lemon tasting look on his face.
Forget it was all he said as he turned away.
It's closed us, he said.
But those early painters saw is closed to us.
On this day, at this moment, it's closed to us.
Back in the valley, we stopped at a drive through strawberry stand.
We got out of the car on our way to our last stop.
We passed a mobile home dealership that featured a log cabin model.
A log cabin on wheels.
There's a lot of American history right there on the frontier, on the road.
Daniel Boone meets Jack Kerouac.
Little house at the gas pump on our many trips to the White Mountains.
What did we see?
I have a one word answer.
We saw traffic.
We saw people in park motorhomes.
So friendly over breakfast.
So ready to pack and roll.
Community, the visible in 10 minutes.
We saw cars and motorcycles zooming up a mountain.
We saw people in ropes and gear throwing themselves off a cliff.
We saw a drive through strawberry stand.
We saw a log cabin mobile home.
We saw mountains scarred for ski runs.
We saw motion.
We kept moving.
Driving home, James was thinking about what it takes to make a lump of rock mean something to humans.
After discussing this for many miles, we more or less agree that a good painting makes the unseen visible and once visible, the painting buries it.
The scene becomes obstructed and obscured by what people have been taught to see.
Expectations are clouding the view.
The real thing is covered by an image that is diluted in reproductions, postcards, mugs, tote bags.
The Mountain View disappears.
It becomes a sign, a representation of itself, something they recognize in a blink, in an outline.
Great art promises liberation contact with the real, but ends up too often as yet another obstruction to seeing.
To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees, said the poet Paul Valery.
But naming the thing painting the thing is to forget seeing like a leviathan.
The mountain view rises from the deep is sea is named and then disappears.
We were chasing echoes.
The early visitors to the White Mountains.
Delighted in echoes, innkeepers would fire off a gun or a cannon in Crawford Notch to entertain their guests.
Guidebooks would direct hikers to the better echo points, such as Mount Agassi, where at the right spot they could hear the mountain returning their call five times.
There are two echo lakes, only 45 miles apart.
These mountains are full of echoes in Franconia Notch.
The firing of a cannon was part of the ritual of visiting that Echo Lake.
The echoes broke the silence.
The mountains spoke to them, but nothing in the mountains is moving to the timeline of our short lives.
The mountains are millions of years old, having arisen as continents drifted and collided.
They rose up and up, were scoured by ice for millennia and stand here today.
In this brief moment between ice ages.
The paintings are stories and the stories they tell are of mountains that are there for us to uplift, to instruct, to thrill.
But all for us.
This is a story we tell ourselves about granite and pine water and sky.
What we want to find in the mountains is everything that's missing in the valleys.
A new self.
A new earth.
The hope is that a higher rise of rock, a new angle of light, will liberate us from ourselves.