I spent last week in Rumney, New Hampshire.
In the first week of September, the mornings are crisp. I put on a sweater and slippers when I wake up, but by lunch it’s t-shirt weather until dark, when it promptly cools off and I again look for my sweater.
My house there, which I purchased this past winter, is in the center of the small village - population about 1,500, founded in 1767. My house is a five-minute walk from the tavern, where in the evenings everyone who wants to socialize goes for beer and live music and perhaps a large pizza.
If not, you can stay home, cook a meal, maybe sit on your deck and breath clean air, maybe build a fire in the pit in the back yard and invite some friends for drinks. One afternoon a middle-aged guy in a truck pulled up in front of my house. He got out and asked if he could pick some apples off my apple tree, which everyone passes on their way up to and back from Stinson Lake.
I said sure. The apples were falling off the tree faster than we could eat them, can them, or even make apple pie with them. He planned on making hard cider later, he said.
In the afternoons, as long as there’s not a passing thunderstorm, you can go climb. The Northeast’s best sport climbing crags are a mile down the road. The approach trails are anywhere from one minute to thirty minutes. There is a lifetime of climbing there.
My partner and I went twice in the five days we were there - we don’t rush to our climbing now that I own a place there. Both days, we went after working on the house, leaving mid-afternoon and returning in the evening around dinner time.
The first time we walked back from the crag and, turning the corner onto Main Street - my street - we saw crossing from the other direction two friends we’ve made in Rumney. They had just finished fixing a leak on one of their roofs and were headed for a beer at the tavern. We didn’t have our wallets on us, but no matter - they bought us a round.
Meetings can be surreptitious like that, and if they’re not, time with friends is thrown together at the last minute and under the assumption that everyone is more or less around. The only question on Friday and Saturday nights is whose house we’ll drive to.
The community is friendly, open, supportive, and available if you need help or advice or if you are in search of a climbing partner. It is not at all insular - many of my new neighbors work in Boston in high-powered jobs and only come to Rumney on the weekends. They bought houses there either because they are climbers, or maybe just to one day retire.
If the apocalypse comes, you could choose worse places than Rumney to ride it out. There is abundant water and wildlife, and many people farm or at least keep extensive gardens. I maintain that in a civilization-threatening crisis you will want to get yourself to a small, tight-knit, capable and compassionate town like Rumney.
And then, there is Washington DC.
Technically, I live in Silver Spring, just over the border in Maryland. It’s an urban center, with 12- and 14-story apartment buildings packing the center, two movie theaters, three grocery stores, three microbreweries, and every convenience of modern life within a few blocks.
If I needed, I could walk two blocks from my apartment and ride the metro to the airport in 40 minutes, or go see the monuments, or even walk half a mile over to Rock Creek Park and hike a trail along the creek for a few miles, where I could almost convince myself I’ve gotten out of the big city and into some nature.
In a civilization-threatening crisis, I am certain I would need to get out of here as fast as possible. The systems that sustain urban centers will be the first to go down. The county water system would go off, or the water would become undrinkable. The electricity could cut and not come back. None of the buildings are designed for the swamp environment here - they all depend on extensive climate control. The aisles of the grocery stores would quickly run empty.
But it’s not the potential for crisis damage that depresses me here. It’s everything else.
For example: I don’t know any of my neighbors, despite running into them repeatedly. I’ve never once stopped to ask their name, and they’ve never stopped to ask mine. All I know is they have a dog that sometimes barks incessantly through the day while its owners are off at work.
Our kids, when they are in Rumney, may wander freely around the village, exploring to their heart’s content. Here, they are somehow inexplicably drawn into activities which require me to drive them across the suburbs: their school’s 50th anniversary party; or two-day long sports tryouts; or the dozenth bar mitzvah of the season.
There is climbing in the area - it’s called Carderock on the Maryland side, or Great Falls on the Virginia side. At either location, it’s a few dozen short, overcrowded climbs of variable quality, which require at least a 25-minute drive on the Beltway to access, or longer if there’s traffic, which there almost always is.
The rock there is slick, polished by a million beginner climbing courses organized by REI or by the local gyms, which make a killing on monthly memberships precisely because the outdoor cliffs in the area are so poor.
Most of my friends have moved away from D.C., some for lifestyle reasons, others for work reasons. I do still have a close friend here - he lives a few miles away, but it takes at least half an hour on the bus, or twenty minutes in the car. We try to see each other as often as his schedule and his new baby permits, which is roughly once a month.
I haven’t figured out how to make new friends in D.C. to replace the ones I’ve lost. I have tried. But the friendships trail off. They are unrequited. People are just too busy. Their careers provide all the meaning and purpose, and all the social structure. After just a few months of visiting Rumney, I have more friends there who I could randomly call for dinner or a drink that night than I have in D.C. after living here for the past eight years.
That can’t be about just me. It has to be the environment.
There was a time when D.C. was the most exciting place I could be, in the U.S. at least. I was 25, I worked for a nonprofit focused on climate issues, I went out with my work colleagues, on the weekends I got drunk in Adams Morgan and stumbled back to my studio apartment at two or three in the morning. I spent my money mainly on beers and eating out. It seemed like a good time, and it was.
Now, not so much. I feel so much more at peace in Rumney. I don’t care as much about politics there. Somehow waking up to breathe the clean air on a September morning clears your mind of everything except that: the land, the air, the apple tree, the blackberries, the cliffs, the friends just down the road, and river nearby, swelled with last night’s thunderstorm, which thankfully did not cause a roof leak.
But if it had, I would climb out the window onto the roof and get to work on it, before it got too hot up there.