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Jim Kenyon: A spring day in the Upper Valley feels both familiar and strange during pandemic

  • Clayton Richardson, 97, right, takes a seat in a lawn chair brought by his son Fred Richardson, to rest his knees at his home in Sharon, Vt., Tuesday, May 19, 2020. They were preparing to plant beets in the garden. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Roofers from left, Josh Keaton, Ariesky Martinez, Arty Solowinski, and Curtis Carlson, of Mahan Slate Roofing, take a break from removing roofing from the Union Village Dam in Thetford, Vt., Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Henry McGillen, 5, of Hanover, plays soccer with his mother, Petra McGillen, a Dartmouth College assistant professor of German studies, left, and doctoral fellow Jessica Resvik, right, on the green in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to XxxxxxxxxJames M. Patterson

  • Heather Benson, of Norwich, a volunteer for the food shelf at the Upper Valley Haven, right, tosses Donnie Beal, of Claremont, a package of meat that had been left out of his order in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, May 19, 2020. It was Beal’s first trip to the food shelf since the beginning of COVID-19 restrictions in mid-March to collect food for his three-person household, including his girlfriend Sandy Berry, back left. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Jonathan Courchesne, of Springfield, Vt., skates a bowl at the Rusty Berrings Skatepark in West Lebanon, N.H., Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Hannah Hibbard, of Lempster, cleans in preparation to open at Wade’s Place in Claremont, N.H., Tuesday, May 19, 2020. Hibbard is a paraprofessional at North Charlestown Community School and has worked summers for 10 years with Wade’s owner Mercedes West, who works at Disnard Elementary in Claremont. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • A masked cyclist passes through White River Junction on South Main Street Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

Valley News Columnist
Published: 5/23/2020 9:12:03 PM
Modified: 5/23/2020 9:12:01 PM

Holding two fishing rods in one hand and a tackle box in the other, Mike Allen picked his way across rock ledges until he reached a sandy beach on the edge of the White River in Royalton.

It was 8:21 Tuesday morning.

Allen, 62, quickly set up shop. He pierced a plump night crawler to each line’s hook and cast into the icy water. Hook, line and sinker landed in a deep pool.

In his second fishing outing of the spring, Allen didn’t have a particular trout species in mind when he started farther up the river at 6 a.m.: “Rainbows, brookies, browns,” he said. “Whatever they stock in here.”

Allen, a retired fork lift operator who lives in White River Junction, had the stretch of river to himself. Only the honking geese passing overhead broke the morning’s tranquility.

“Just being outside feels good,” he said. “It’s beautiful here.”

Spring days are growing longer and warmer (finally). The stay-at-home orders issued near the end of March in Vermont and New Hampshire in response to the novel coronavirus are beginning to ease up.

A late-spring Tuesday in the Upper Valley still rings familiar in some respects. Shortly after sunrise, a lone jogger lumbered out from the shadows of the sugar maples along Academy Road in Thetford. A few hours later, a construction crew, working 50 feet above the ground, prepared to put a new slate roof on the brick gatehouse atop Union Village Dam.

But other scenes would be hardly recognizable this time last year, like the blinking sign that announced a food bank organized by the National Guard in Thetford.

I spent the day with Valley News photographer James Patterson, covering 170 miles — in separate cars, for sake of social distancing — and a dozen communities. Here’s some of what we saw:

9:01 a.m. In the rectangular plot of freshly rototilled soil in front of his house on Route 132 in Sharon, Clayton Richardson was getting ready to plant beets. On Monday, he had planted potatoes.

A metal rake and hoe rested next to the garden. “I’ve had a garden ever since I moved into this place back in 1950,” Richardson said.

On April 2, he had turned 97.

With the coronavirus putting a party or a trip to an upstate New York casino (his first choice) out of the question, his daughters placed a happy birthday sign next to the road.

The sign encouraged passing motorists to tap their horns. Sitting outside in his lawn chair, Richardson waved to well-wishers.

Helen Richardson looked out a window to find her husband talking with two visitors and his son, Fred, who had stopped by.

“You need a chair?” she shouted.

“No,” her husband replied.

“He’s stubborn.”

Fred Richardson retrieved a lawn chair and set it next to the garden. Steadying himself with a shovel, Clayton Richardson sat down. “I’ve got a bad knee,” he said. “It’s about ready to buckle.”

After putting in beets, what’s next?

“Beans, cucumbers and summer squash,” Richardson said, rattling off his planting chores for the spring days ahead.

11:12 a.m. On the Dartmouth Green in Hanover, 5-year-old Henry McGillen crouched in a soccer goalie’s pose, urging his mother to shoot the ball.

“Hold on,” said Petra McGillen, an assistant professor in German Studies at Dartmouth. “I need to make sure your brother is not getting into the diaper bag.”

Petra McGillen excused herself long enough to check on 8-month-old Charles, who was crawling across the blanket that she had laid down.

“I think he’s trying to eat the dry grass,” she said. “At least it’s organic.”

McGillen and her husband, Michael, who is also on the Dartmouth faculty, aren’t teaching this term. While her husband focuses on his research, a good chunk of her day is spent in Zoom meetings — mapping out fall classes with colleagues and talking with professors at other colleges about a book project.

“With children this age, it’s very challenging to get work done at home during the day,” she said.

But it’s just not just working parents who suffer from quarantine fatigue. Two months of self-isolation has been “really hard on young children,” McGillen said, noting how much her son, Henry, misses playing with friends.

11:45 a.m. From their front porch, Rosalee Holmes and her longtime companion, Tom Forward, took in the steady stream of traffic passing along Route 10 in West Lebanon.

“It’s noisy, but there’s sunshine,” said the 77-year-old Holmes. “It’s nice to be outside.”

A sweet smell wafted through the air. The rhubarb custard pie that Holmes had made that morning was still baking in the kitchen.

Last summer, Forward, 78, suffered a stroke, which impacted his speech. “We just went from the stroke to the virus,” Holmes said. “It’s been terribly isolating.”

There’s not been much reason to leave home for the last couple of months, other than trips to the grocery store on Route 12A. “I just run in and out,” Holmes said. “I always wear a mask.”

Holmes, an avid walker, was glad to see more retail stores were allowed to open their doors last week. “All I would like is a new pair of sneakers,” she said.

The oven’s timer sounded, and Holmes turned for the door.

12:20 p.m. In the parking lot of the Upper Valley Haven in White River Junction, the trunk of Donnie Beal’s aging Honda was filled with plastic bags of groceries.

Contents included fresh broccoli, onions and cucumbers. “All the good stuff,” said the 54-year-old Beal.

If not for the Haven, Beal said, he and two other people he was picking up groceries for would “probably be eating a lot of ramen noodles.”

At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, the nonprofit Haven’s food shelf moved outdoors. Volunteers, wearing masks and gloves, work out of a large tent in the parking lot.

The Haven has started calling people who haven’t visited the food shelf in a while to make sure they’re OK, Executive Director Michael Redmond said.

Beal, who lives in Claremont, got a call on Monday. Earlier this spring, after seeing the blinking signs at the Vermont border, asking nonresidents to self-isolate for 14 days, Beal stopped crossing the Connecticut River.

“I didn’t know if New Hampshire people could come into Vermont,” he said.

1:28 p.m. Willis Hayes, 23, drove from the Concord area on his day off at a grocery warehouse to practice tricks on the quarter pipe at the Rusty Berrings Skatepark in West Lebanon.

“This is the nicest skate park in New Hampshire,” said Hayes, a fan of the park’s smooth concrete surfaces.

By early afternoon, activity at the skate park, which was renovated in 2016, began to pick up. A half dozen teens glided through the bowls and grinded the rails.

Craig Bee and his 10-year-old son Orion represented the opposite ends of the park’s age spectrum. After Orion finishes Ottauquechee School’s morning Zoom classes, they often both bring their boards to the park.

After the ski season ended this year, Orion, a fifth grader, showed an interest in taking up skateboarding — a sport his father enjoyed as a kid.

Bee, 45, is a technician for an alarm company, installing and maintaining security systems. Since the coronavirus hit, “business has been slow,” he said.

On the plus side, the coronavirus pandemic has increased their father-son time. “It’s fun to hang out with my dad,” Orion said. “It’s cool that he likes to do things with me.”

He’s looking forward to his dad teaching him a “strawberry milkshake.”

It’s an old-school trick. But from what Orion’s dad has told him, it doesn’t involve ice cream.

2:30 p.m. Wade’s Place, an ice cream stand on the outskirts of downtown Claremont, couldn’t open until early May — two weeks later than planned.

Ice cream lovers, however, have made up for lost time. Thirty minutes before Wade’s opened, a line was already forming. (Signs placed 6 feet apart helped with social distancing, which was a good thing since only about half of the 30 people in line at 3 p.m. were wearing masks.)

“This is the busiest opening we’ve had in the 20 years we’ve been here,” owner Mercedes West said. “It’s been crazy. I think everyone is just tired of being inside. Ice cream is a good reason to get out of the house.”

Wade’s Place — named after West’s grandmother who started the seasonal business — burned through 50 gallons of hard ice cream (peanut butter cup and cookie dough are among the top sellers) and 50 gallons of soft-serve mix in the first week or so.

“Can I get a half-gallon?” asked Francis Adams, who wanted enough ice cream to take home to his three grandchildren.

To avoid servers and customers meeting face-to-face, West fixed clear barriers to the counter. Customers are handed their orders under the barrier, which can get tricky when three scoops and cones are involved.

The small area next to the Sugar River, where Wade’s Place normally sets up picnic tables and benches, has been cordoned off with yellow tape. In the age of the coronavirus, there’s no room for mingling.

“We’ve had good luck with people following instructions,” West said. “They know if we have to close for some reason, it will be a long summer without ice cream.”

5:02 p.m. The line outside the nonprofit Listen Community Dinner Hall in White River Junction was just starting to move.

More than a dozen people had arrived ahead of the 5 p.m. opening to pick up “to-go” meals that are provided six nights a week to people in need.

A mother, with her 5-year-old son in tow, stopped at an outdoor table for a quart of skim milk to go along with their meals. A man on a bicycle left with a loaf of bread.

Bob Blanchette, 78, returned to the parking lot with a boxed three-course meal that included slices of pork loin, roasted potatoes and carrots.

Blanchette, who worked in Dartmouth’s dining halls for 32 years, had been waiting since 3 p.m. After running errands in West Lebanon that afternoon, the Enfield resident saw “no use going home and having to come right back here,” he said.

“I was the first in line. I usually am.”

For several years, evening meals were served in Listen’s dining hall that looks out onto a park adjacent to the White River. The coronavirus outbreak brought the community gatherings to a screeching halt.

“It’s not just about the food,” said a woman, who asked me not to use her name. “People come for the company, too.”

Like the early-morning jogger I came across on Academy Road in Thetford, we all await the day we can step out of the shadows.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at

Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784


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