Mornings in Coös County are the best. Mondays and Thursdays are my consistent early days in Berlin, with an 8 a.m. meeting police department for the weekly log. In winter my drive over the notch starts before sunrise, but now that the days have grown the sky is usually bright and unspoiled.
The city streets are always still, and all the parking spaces on Main Street are empty. It’s a gift to roll in and watch the city wake up. The mist burns off the river, shops unfurl their open flags, and cars start to roll out of driveways. Morning has always been my favorite time of day, and in the North Country it’s the way always remember it.
I have come up a few times at 6 a.m. or earlier to shoot photographs before dawn. The streets are always eerily quiet. I always wonder if people wonder what the heck I’m doing, as I pull over on the roadside and duck under fences, dragging my camera bag with my tripod under my arm. As of yet no officer has wound up tapping on my shoulder, so I’m guessing people either don’t notice or don’t care.
Between the area’s landscape, architecture and industrial infrastructure there are always ghosts poking out of the darkness. Trying to capture them in interesting light is a fantastic challenge. The mornings, of course, are the time to do it.
When I come up for work, as I’ve said before, it’s like I’m leaving one world for another. I leave a town largely devoid of community, where neighbor is a geographic distinction, not a reference to personal relationships. I come to a city and a region undiluted by fast-paced existence. There is no rat race here. People know each other, and they still attend community suppers and barbecues. Berlin still fosters community, builds it and wrestles with how to preserve it.
The premiere of On the River’s Edge this weekend exemplifies this quality. More than 400 free tickets to the local showing disappeared almost instantly, and the historical society sold more than 200 DVDs of the documentary. It was a remarkable show of local pride for a city constantly on guard against its own demise.
Berlin residents have a sense of pride, however, that grew out of the city’s reputation. They loved Berlin even when others ridiculed it for the smell of the mill and its remoteness. Today the mill is gone but the pride remains. Along with it, however, are the scars left by being the butt of too many jokes. The armpit of the state and Stinktown USA are no longer, but the affects remain.
But today the view of Mount Madison is crystal clear. The river runs clean, and the woods have more trails than loggers. Every morning I come north I marvel at the country Coös County residents live in, and I wonder how it can sustain itself so they can keep living there. The answer is there, I am sure of it, but the recipe hasn’t been discovered yet.
The mornings, however, convince me that recipe is worth searching for.
This morning, after police log, I was driving along Riverside Drive, when I looked over the river and saw a sea of white dots: seagulls, perched on the boom piers, huddled together during a rain shower. The sky and the river were almost black and the birds popped from the background. They were so numerous and so brilliant I had to turn around. I walked to the river’s edge with my camera and tried to capture the moment. Instead I got a few snapshots of birds too far away to make an impact. But they made their impact on me. They woke me once more to the many things northern New Hampshire has that other places lack. A river through town, for instance, that hasn’t been completely overrun with construction. A sense of wildness and life even in the downtown.
It’s hard to appreciate, I think, when you are there all the time. But try leaving and coming back and see what it is you first see. See if you notice the morning sun on the mountains turning the snow shades of gold, or the mist rising off the river in trails. See if you notice the muskrats in Tondreau Park searching for fresh grass, or the birds soaring around Mount Forist. Ordinary? Drab? Not for a moment, particularly in the mornings.