Some months ago the family decided to spend a couple of days all together at a hundred-year old family resort upcountry in New Hampshire—my husband and I, our daughter Alyson, and Alyson’s sister Susannah and her husband and three boys. After our Alyson died, the rest of us felt we wanted to go anyway. The mountains are always there, unlike people, and might offer a quiet respite from the social and practical requirements of bereavement.
It turned out to be a good decision. While Susannah’s family sported in and on the resort’s lake and pool, my husband and I headed for the high mountains to hike. He and I are members of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s New England 4000-Footer Club, which means that we have climbed all 65 of the mountains found in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine which are over 4,000 feet. We love to hike but for various reasons it has been a while since we really did.
We drove north about an hour and reached AMC Pinkham Notch Lodge. It’s at the foot of the greatest mountain in the Northeast, Mount Washington, 6,288 feet high. A fan of trails leads away from the lodge, most of them ending up on the summit one way or another. Of course we were not equipped, either practically or physically, to go up there (we did that back in 1981), but we thought we’d just hike for a couple of hours on one of the trails.
We chose Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which brought us in a few minutes to Crystal Cascade and the little wooden bridge across it. Thousands upon thousands of gallons of bright water leaped and roared down the mountain under our feet as we stood on the bridge. Though this morning came sunny and blue, the previous day was nothing but steady and heavy rain, hours of it, and so the waters were much engorged, even more violent than usual, though they glittered in the sunlight.
Contemplating this force respectfully, we also admired its beauty. And set off up the trail.
Picky, picky, picky. Even with our hiking sticks, this trail demands total attention to foot placement. Nothing but rocks, the sort of mid-sized ones that you can’t just ignore as you place your feet (at least those of us in our mid-70’s can’t). The trail guide describes it laconically as “unusually rocky.” Steep too, no respite from the up. And wide, highway-wide.
Well, we have done this trail before, and we can do it again. Pick, pick. Plod, plod. Yesterday’s draining rain poured briskly down the stony way and enthusiastically covers our boots.
Hobblebush just coming into fruit, gone-by Lady’s Slippers with only their strappy leaves remaining, Canada Mayflower garnished here and there with a single brilliant red fruit, and some Maples showing a few bright colors—these line the way.
In the olden days, when we were so much younger, we were always the ones politely passing slower hikers. Today though, older and somewhat less agile (and more cautious), we are the ones passed. Here comes one of those light-weight runners-up-mountains, tripping grasshopper-like from stone to stone and quickly out of sight. Here’s a family group, a couple of really young kids ahead of mom and dad and bouncing effortlessly up the rocks. The little girl has wonderful purple boots, tiny but real hiking boots. Dad has a baby in a front-back. Never too young to start in the mountains! It’s a comfort and a gratification to see. These kids will be climbing the 4000-footers long after we are gone.
I suppose the young families actually look at us and think, “My goodness, look at those old people, and they’re still hiking! Isn’t that inspiring!”
So we picked and plodded for an hour or so, and came to a big trail junction. The Tuckerman Trail continued to the left, in its implacably stony, uppy way, but on the right, invitingly narrow and green, was the trail to Huntington Ravine and then the great summit. Let’s go there, we decided.
Now, the Huntington Ravine Trail, if you are bent on using it to summit Mount Washington, is “the most difficult regular hiking trail in the White Mountains.” That’s what the AMC guidebook says. Of course, we were not going to be summiting but just going along and see what we could see and do. Nobody else turned off onto it and that was fine with us. Tuck was too crowded anyway, and we sought solitude.
The first delight was an absolutely enormous glowing red squirrel, so large that when he went leaping off through the trees he seemed to me to be as big as a fox (my totem animal).
Next up was a gigantic toad the size of a grapefruit. The three of us stared at each other and he allowed me to take his picture, as he crouched in the leaves there.
Moss and lichen and fallen trees and peeling birch’s bark and tiny forests of fungi and bright red mushrooms and yellow ones and once a purple one. Everywhere green and silent except for faint trickling and gurgling of water, hidden somewhere under our feet but making its inexorable way down, down, in helpless acquiescence to the laws of physics. Primeval. Perfection.
Picking our way so very carefully up and around and aside of rocks and trees. Rejoicing in our skills and the satisfaction of knowing we could do this. Why don’t we go another fifteen minutes, suggested my husband, and see where we get to.
Came the tumult of the Cutler River, crossable at regular waters, uncrossable—at least by us—in its rain-water raging. We laughed. We took its picture. We hugged each other. I wept briefly in grief for our missing daughter.
But we can do this.
Ineffable, unnamable grandeur of our universe, numinous and sacred, infusing every thing and every being with holiness, goodness, and perfection. Today we hope for all that we truly need. We hope to be forgiven for our wrong-doing in the same way that we try to forgive wrongs done to us. We hope not to be brought to the test, and to be preserved from evil things. For our universe, and all that has been, is now, and shall be a part of it, is radiant and sacred, unending and forever.
Jen Johnston 10:54am, 08/30/2014