Running in the New Hampshire winter requires preparation. In my old bedroom in my parents’ house, I keep a collection of hideous but warm fleece hats and gloves—all in a color scheme reminiscent of the stuffed Barney I had when I was 4. Vanity usually precludes me leaving the house in such an outfit, but here in the town of North Hampton, population 4000, I feel pleasantly invisible.
Only a few towns managed to snag a spot on New Hampshire’s 13 precious miles of coastline, and this is one of them. In the summer, the putt-putt of motorbikes on coastal roads and calls of gulls hang in spacious, salty air. Now, it’s December, so the beachside houses are hibernating—like many of the residents—until summer’s return. Their little wooden colonial facades trace the edge of the coastline, like figurines arranged by a child’s hands; a pink door here, a blue door there.
On a late, sub-freezing afternoon, I jiggle the garage door closed behind me and set out—a vision in green and purple—down the driveway. My feet carry me through a stretch of old-growth woods between my parents’ house and the road. It’s a Narnia-like tunnel, paved with bricks that move with the marshland’s sighs. Suburban New Hampshire is a far call from the tundras further north in Maine and Canada, but still, I feel a little closer to wild things.
My parents bought this house when I was 15. For a while, I was dismayed and a little disgusted that we were moving onto the site of an old plantation. Only later did I learn that Cotton Farm Lane was not named after the labor-intensive plants—which would freeze to death up here—but an enterprising local named Mr. Cotton.
When I reach Woodland Road, I turn right to begin my 6-mile loop. The roads are crumbling from seasonal cycles of freeze and thaw, their edges patched up by black criss-crosses of sealant. There’s something comfy about running a route you already know well. You know where the worst hills are, which turns are blind, and where the young deer hop gingerly across the road, a tangle of gangly legs and bobbing white tails.
I chug through corridors of slender pines like a slightly out-of-breath steam train, leaving a trail of cloudy exhalation past renovated farmhouses and hand-stacked stone walls. My hands begin to sweat in professional-grade ski gloves, while my thighs begin to freeze solid. The repetitive beat in my headphones propels my legs, even though they’re so numb that they seem to belong to someone else.
I pass a gnarled tree gently draped in moss, a regal, unmoving sentry. The dusting of snow on front lawns has melted patchily, as though stepped on by a thousand tiny paws. What are those red buds on the tips of the branches—fuzzy and soft, like caterpillars, yet oddly hard and wet to the touch?
I run north, into the neighboring town of Rye, and then head east. By the time I can see the ocean’s gleam, the sun has nearly set—an early 4:30pm bedtime. My cheeks are pink as the sky, which is so bright it’s erased the seam of the horizon. Far offshore, the rocky outcrops of the Isle of Shoals hover like a piece of the mainland that wandered and lost its way home.
Sometimes I pass another jogger or walker along the coastal path, and I smile, but nobody knows me, and I know nobody. I’ve been visiting New Hampshire nearly every year of my life—sledding down snowy hills and eating Froot Loops at my grandparents’ house—and it’s been my family’s home base for the past 8. I’ve accumulated many memories; driving to and from high school, singing along to poorly chosen rap music, many summer, christmas, and thanksgiving vacations home from college. I’m not sure it will ever feel fully like home; but the perpetual feeling of visitor is liberating.
I quicken my pace southwards along the coast, trying to beat the oncoming night, back towards North Hampton. Today, the beach is quiet, but a few days ago, a warm rain had riled the ocean into exuberant waves. Local surfers, like opportunistic gulls, were out with wetsuit hoods over their heads and boards under their arms, trudging across the beach from pickup trucks weighed down with old snow.
On Christmas morning, my grandparents went to church for their sermon; I ran down to the sea. Swells appeared and disappeared on the surface like a morse code. I stopped, panting, to admire the glorious churn of white waves against rocks, foam nudging between the granite cracks, running across the seaweed draped on flat planes of rock like fingers combing through hair. We can cut down trees, construct houses, and groom the coastline with walls, quarry boulders, and truckloads of fresh sand, but the ocean will never be tamed.
Dusk has accumulated, like thick dust, before I make it all the way back. My eyes begin to lose acuity, color vision fades and crude black and white perception takes over. As I turn inland, I’m intermittently blinded by the passing flash of headlights. I can still make out the silhouette of the old racehorse breeding farm, now a home to heavy-set, black Friesans with flowing manes. There’s still a big wooden sign advertising the farm’s Kentucky-derby-winning offspring: the larger-than-life filly stands shyly with the wreath around her neck, jockey on her back.
I make it back to my parents’ house in the quarter-light—just enough to see the outline of skinny, towering pines. I pull out my headphones and let my body lose momentum, coming to a stop. In the hush of the cold wind, the trees sway, and I feel closer to them—vast, flexible and strong.