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Summit houses

08/16/06 12:00AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) A recent trip to the mountains got commentator Vic Henningsen thinking about vacations long ago.

(HENNINGSEN) I was on a mountaintop recently where half the people were using cell phones. Doing business - even while sitting on top of New England.

We lead such crowded lives. There's never enough time for what must be done, let alone what we'd like to do - even on vacation.

It's difficult to imagine the reverse: not juggling too many things in too little time, but having time to fill.

That's what "time off" meant to wealthy Victorians who could afford to take vacations - vast, empty spaces of time, where the challenge was not getting enough done, but finding enough to do.

To solve that problem, many traveled to the mountains, vacationing at one of New England's famous summit hotels. You can see what they were like by visiting the old Tip-Top House on Mount Washington, which re-creates the look and feel of an 1860's "summit house." Sitting in the parlor, you can imagine the ease of an August day with nothing more to do than read Dickens and anticipate afternoon tea. The rigors of Mount Washington's weather added spice to a visit, though the cold and fog weren't for everyone.

Those seeking less Spartan conditions migrated to the friendlier Green Mountains, where many peaks boasted hostelries. Killington, Snake Mountain in Addison County, Camel's Hump, all had them. The hotel on the ridge of Mount Mansfield operated for a hundred years.

Just getting there was an adventure. The train dropped you some distance from the peak, Waterbury, say, or Rutland, and a stagecoach carried you the rest of the way - the last bit a perilous stretch up a steep mountain road. Scary roads were good business: the more faint-hearted needed several days at the hotel to recover before facing the frightening journey down.

On fine mornings, visitors were awakened by a man ringing a bell, shouting "Sunrise!" Eager guests rushed out for a look before a hearty breakfast.

The days were languorously long. Reading on the porch; short walks to collect ferns; writing letters on birch bark thoughtfully provided by management; simply gazing in the far distance - these filled the hours. Mount Washington's guests contributed to the summit's daily newspaper, Among the Clouds. Killington and Mansfield offered croquet.

In the evening, concerts, lectures, and the occasional dance entertained guests not exhausted by the rigors of dinner and viewing the sunset.

It's fun to imagine those unhurried figures of a hundred and fifty years ago: hoop-skirted women with parasols daintily picking their way along the ridge, gallantly assisted by gentlemen in frock coats and stout boots. They're admiring the view, stopping to identify flowers, and discussing last night's lantern slide lecture.

Unlike us, they had time to fill. But as I sit among the cell phone addicts, I picture those Victorian vacationers in my mind and I must say that they do look like they're enjoying themselves.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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