When my husband, Dave, and I first moved to Milan, NH, our ideas about community were largely based on our experience working for Outward Bound in Ely, Minnesota. Our Outward Bound community was an enclave of young idealists who hungered for adventure and a better world. It was easy for us to connect with people who shared our values and interests, and we formed deep friendships. In truth, though, it had not provided us with a road map to for how to build a sense of belonging in our new place.
After moving to Milan, to our happy surprise, we discovered that the region offered countless opportunities for connection. Attending school and community events built familiarity.
Loving mothers commiserated and offered support to each other over story hour at the local library. An international dinner club provided sustenance in its offerings of delicious food and conversation. Perhaps the most reliable way I have bonded with my neighbors is swinging a hammer or wielding a paintbrush, shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Over the last year I witnessed this bonding as I worked with the Nansen Ski Club.
Ten years ago, the club was forced to move locations when the land it had leased for decades was sold. Nansen’s champions, in fear of losing the club’s title of the longest continually operating ski club in the United States, scrambled to find a new home. They settled on the Milan Hill State Park and, with the help of resourceful, dedicated park employees, built a world-class 14km groomed cross-country ski trail system.
In the spring of 2016, the club began building a timber frame warming hut, and over six short months, volunteers (ages two to 70, including three generations of our family) spent more than 1,200 hours staining, hammering, heaving and stacking and then stood back in awe of a beautiful building complete with solar panels and a metal roof. (That’s our three-year-old son, Henry in the photo — one of the youngest members of the Nansen Ski club — at one of the work days for the new warming hut.)
At an event celebrating the achievement, Nansen’s treasurer reported that the club had raised $46,000 through donations and grants and that local businesses had donated more than $37,000 in materials and labor towards completing the project. Amidst this activity, Nansen’s membership grew by more than 50 percent. While these numbers are impressive, the greatest value can be found in the sense of camaraderie created by working together with a common, shared purpose.
It is hard to describe the sensation of watching families mingle in the completed warming hut sipping soup and cocoa, the kids outdoors chucking snowballs and crafting snow creatures. I think it is a feeling of true belonging, a feeling essential to human vitality and happiness — it’s what a plant must feel like when the sun is shining and the soil is just right and the bees are abuzz.
There has been much talk recently of how to attract young people to settle in the North Country. If our experience is any guide we just need to get them involved — hand them a hammer and a paint brush!
Newcomers will count themselves lucky to have found their way here, and those who grew up in the region will be happy to have returned.