For forty years my in-laws have lived in a shut-in, overbuilt suburb of Nottingham, England, and will jump at any chance to get out in the open countryside. So for their fortieth wedding anniversary they hesitantly requested a driving trip around New England. None of us knew, as we bundled ourselves into the car, that we would spend the entire journey looking for a decent cup of tea and finding it in the unlikeliest place: the top of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, home of the world’s worst weather.
Traveling with my in-laws is one of the delights of my life — no sarcasm here. My in-laws are interesting and interested people with unfailing delight in driving through foreign countrysides. The hitch comes when it’s time to take a break. Or several breaks. Say, three or four times a day sitting down to a leisurely cup of tea and a cake.
Problem with that is, of course, that America doesn’t do tea. Not something the English are always prepared for. I can still remember the tragic expression on my mother-in-law’s face over ten years ago, when she came to the US to see Montana, and, after her very first shattering transatlantic airplane ride, a waitress presented her with an iced glass of brown liquid with a fat slice of lemon wedged to the glass.
“Is this tea?” she had asked me, desperate. The hot stuff that came wasn’t much better, but it revived her enough to make the generous quip that she supposed Americans weren’t that fond of tea, “especially after that business in Boston,” referring, of course, to the tea party that mythically launched the American Revolution.
This time we started driving from Cape Cod. I watched in pity as each day my poor in-laws drooped a little more when they were brought a pot of tepid water beside a bag of some of the worst tea even I’ve ever tasted; and then had to beg for milk instead of half-and-half.
This continued for over a week and took its toll as my in-laws were denied an English person’s lifeblood. We didn’t expect to find anything at the apex destination of our trip: the train ride up New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington.
This was not just any train. Mount Washington boasts the world’s first cog train, in vintage condition with a steam engine, powered by coal and heaved up a 37% grade by deep-grooved teeth, your bike chain’s big brother.
“This is fantastic,” grinned my father-in-law as the train chuffed further into the mountain’s icy fog blanket. When the brakeman, also the guide, jumped out to manually move the train switches, his blue coat melted into the dim light.
Mt. Washington has some of the most brutal weather in America, which makes it the perfect location for one of the country’s most advanced weather observatories. Winds up there can move at a knifing 100 miles per hour, and the mountain top still holds the world’s recorded wind record of 231 miles per hour. It can snow in midsummer. They say it’s worth risking the hypothermic hike for the view—if you can get one of the four clear days a year.
At the top, we bundled my husband’s parents through the gray murk to the observatory/cafe/post office kiosk.
“Tea?” I asked my mother-in-law.
“Um,” she said noncommittally, looking frozen and resigned. Her face said everything she was too kind to say aloud: another cup of hot liquid that tasted remarkably like dust?
And that’s when I saw, up over 6200 feet above sea level, in a place that advertised itself as ‘home of the world’s worst weather,’ on a rack of herbal teas, a green tin sitting lopsided on a bed of Lipton bags: Harrods Best English Breakfast. I slid unfeeling fingers around the lid and waved the bags under my mother-in-law’s nose. Her eyes, the same sea-gray-green as my husband’s, brightened.
“How long do we have up here?” The Styrofoam cup was in her hand before I could offer to pour.