Crawford Notch, N.H. — Strange things happen in these hills. There are occurrences beyond comprehension, events that defy explanation. They stick in the mind, haunt the memory, shape the way we look at the world and cling to our culture.
We sometimes think that what New Hampshire will do in its primary two and a half weeks from now will have a great effect on our lives. But what happened here more than 185 years ago — witnessed by no one, remembered by nearly everyone — did more than almost anything else in the year 1826 to govern the way we look at the great mysteries of that time and ours: the role of God in our daily lives, the fallibility of man’s judgment, the power of human will, the irresistibility of destiny.
For in that year a terrible landslide altered the landscape of New Hampshire and of our inner selves. In that year an avalanche of mud and rock destroyed a fleeing family of seven even as it left standing the family’s mountain home, underlining the dominion of nature and the weakness of human reasoning, the power of Providence and the futility of prudence.
This cruel phenomenon of nature is known to history as the Willey Slide, and to this day it lingers in the American subconscious and in American folklore. Had the Willey family — living in what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “a cold spot and a dangerous one” — done nothing and remained in its cottage, it would have survived serenely and would be remembered by no one. But because it fled the slide all seven were killed and live on in American literature and memory.
This story has been told and retold, by masterly storytellers from Hawthorne to Hammett, but only in recent years has the key to the legend been recognized. Like so many vital details, it was right before our eyes all the time.
For decades, this story has been repeated. Tens of thousands of tourists have traveled to Crawford Notch to contemplate the vanity of human wishes even as they imagined where the Willey House stood and the path the avalanche took.
Then, an old postcard showed the location of the boulders that split the slide, allowing the dirt and rocks to avoid the house but hit the frightened family.
Park authorities realized that the boulders were right there all along. They were hidden in thick brush in an area covered by new forest growth, only a few dozen steps from the tourist wayside that for years had been selling trinkets celebrating the sad fate of the Willeys and the cruel beauty of the White Mountains.
Hiding in plain sight, in other words, were the geological keys to the story that Nathaniel Hawthorne transformed into his classic “Ambitious Guest” and that appears in altered form in Dashiell Hammett’s “Maltese Falcon.” All that was required was an excavation effort to expose the boulders.
“They looked like a bunch of rocks,” says John Dickerman, who for three decades has been manager of the Crawford Notch State Park, “but we realized these were important rocks.”
In the Hammett story, a falling beam transforms the life of a man who was not hit. “He knew then,” Hammett wrote, “that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.” The Hawthorne story has a more direct Willey tie, set as it is “in the bleakest spot of all New England.”
Hawthorne was drawn to the tale during a White Mountain vacation tour, but already the tragedy that defined these hills as dangerous to the body and to the soul had raised fulsome commentary — on the caprice of life, the mortality of man, and the world’s capacity to infuse a spot of reverie and beauty with the curses of danger and despair.
“Like Dashiell Hammett, Hawthorne liked the kind of twist of fate at the center of this story,” says Robert L. Gale, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh and the editor of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Encyclopedia. “He saw human existence as being full of irony.”
It was a twist of fate — and faith.
In his landmark 1855 work “Historical Relics of the White Mountains,” still available at booksellers across this region, John H. Spaulding speaks of the isolation of the site of the Willey tragedy, which first was explored after the Revolutionary War and, then as now, was characterized by sharp cliffs and deeply forested slopes.
“How lonely there is the dirge of the high wind, as it sweeps down that solitary chasm; and the wail of the sunset breeze, with the loud requiem of the on-rushing hurricane, is most mournful, for human bones are there palled in an avalanche’s ruins.”
For years the residents of New Hampshire’s North Country have exalted their hardiness, independence and self-sufficiency. “The granite core of strength and resilience projected by our mountains define and shape the strength and character of its people,” wrote Suzanne Moberly, a writer and teacher from Orford, N.H. Hardly anyone would contest that.
But as another New Hampshire primary approaches — when the state’s independence and character are being employed once again in the nation’s service in helping to select a presidential nominee — it is wise to be cautioned that, in politics and in our own journey, we travel what Hawthorne in his story from this remote part of the world calls “a wild and bleak road, at nightfall and alone.”
We remember, too, that this state, with its peculiar mix of romance and ruin, also has tested man’s faith, challenged his assumptions, toyed with his self-confidence, made folly of his judgment and reminded us that God’s plan is not necessarily our own.