I’m now five or so weeks into my teaching semester, and my own kids even longer into their elementary school year. Simon, our five year old, boarded the school bus for the first time in August. I’d thought I might feel at least some little twinge: our younger child off to school, no more babies for real now. But I felt no particular emotion (aside from the sense of freedom that came with his getting on that bus). When I tell people that, many of them appear a little unnerved, as if it indicates an overall lack of sensitivity to the passage of time, or to the bittersweet nature of kids growing up. As to that last, so far, it’s really only been sweet since I genuinely disliked caring for babies and toddlers. From here on, I suspect it may get harder.

With our elder son, we focused on the firsts. With our younger, the lasts. It’s a typical pattern, and one probably partly responsible for the defining personality characteristics of birth order. I am attuned to all the lasts in my second child like I never was with my first son. A couple months ago, Simon said, “Wow, now I can have gum like a big boy,” and it must have been that he’s gradually stopped using the phrase “big boy” or I wouldn’t have noticed it this time. But he doesn’t usually talk like that anymore, and he hasn’t used the term since. I was, at that moment, I think, listening to him describe himself as a big boy for the last time, and as he stopped calling himself one, he became one.

Kids aren’t good at understanding these subtle and slow sorts of shifts. They like the grand gestures, the clear delineations. One day, when Simon was much younger, I was carrying him down the stairs and reciting a poem to him. “And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow, imagine being Kevin. Which is he? Self-forgetful, or in agony all the time?” and before I could give the next line, Simon blurted, “in agony all the time.” It had to be one or the other, and I suppose he heard more music in that one.

This fall, I started a new job on the science faculty at my local community college. I moved into my office, set up my science books and my posters of marine life, and settled into my schedule teaching chemistry. Settling down to something has never been my strong suit. After my undergraduate degree in English literature, I went off to veterinary school for a general sense of how animals are put together, and how they fall apart. After that, teaching biology, animal science, and now chemistry. Unlike my colleagues with PhDs, my knowledge has never delved very deep, but has stretched very wide, my interests ever broadening. I couldn’t settle to one thing, drill down the way they needed to, become immersed in an exclusive subject. This job though, has an air of permanence. I’ve signed the pension papers with every expectation that I will be here no less than ten years, and hopefully far longer. I have stepped onto the tenure track. If all goes well, I will still be teaching here in thirty years.

across disciplines: drawings in the science halls.

Across disciplines: the drawings in the science halls.

Some people, when they hear about my educational trajectory, assume I got my English degree and then came to my senses and found something more practical, more marketable.  But I have been veering like this all my life. I have a notebook from when I was 11 and assiduously recorded everything I heard on a PBS special about neuroscience. By high school, I had vague ideas about being a writer instead. At the end of college, I thought maybe a poem-writing veterinarian– the animal doctor version of William Carlos Williams, but I could find fewer and fewer people who said anything aside from “pick one.” The English background was a benefit of course (“We need more scientists who can write,” one professor told me) but it was meant to be only background. Whatever I settled to for my graduate degree would be who I really was intellectually.

My office is on the third floor of the science building, but our hallway shares space with the art department. Our big corner classroom is a studio, and the bulletin boards outside are a revolving gallery. This week, it was figure drawings, skeletons in charcoal, and paintings of some large, bovine skull. Some of my colleagues find it irritating that so much of our hallway is consumed by art, but I love it. I’ve spent this first fifteen years or so of my adult life deflecting off one thing and veering into another. The longer I stay in this job, and the greater the proportion of my life I devote to science, the more I wonder what happens to that humanities part of me. The English major part that was not, despite what anyone thinks, a frivolity, or a luxury I indulged in before I got down to serious, marketable work. I am fortunate that I also love science, since the gods right now are smiling down on science education. Blessed be the STEM instructors. But I will always have my secret affinities, however many years of science teaching may encase them. Science is what I do, it’s what I teach, and I love it. But the humanities are who I am. And when I wonder if that true self can survive this commitment to a fundamentally different way of looking at the world, I suppose I know it will. It’s not a choice after all. Things grade into things. Little boys become big boys, a writer teaches science, and what we call everything is not always by its true name.

Last night, all the phones in the house began ringing simultaneously. This is always an indication that an alert is coming out from the school system–snow days, an incident of violence at the middle school, that kind of thing. Last night, it was to tell us that Emma Jacobs, a 17 year old from our small town, had died in a car crash that afternoon. With that terse message (“crisis counselors will be available at the high school,” etc.), a bomb detonated in the life of our little town. The crater that opens up at the death of a child swallows up her family and friends entirely, and the concussive pressure wave rips through all the concentric rings of neighbors, acquaintances, friends of friends.

I did not know Emma or her family, but I am walking through this day with a thickness in my chest for everyone who did–for the neighbors who’ve known her since she was a baby, the elementary school teachers who taught her and who teach my kids now, for the kids at the high school who knew her, played lacrosse with her, sat in class with her, and, being teenagers, have neither words for what is happening, nor mastery over their inchoate feelings. Everyone wants to talk, and no one knows what to say. On Emma’s Facebook page, high school kids post “Rest easy,” and “I didn’t know you well, but you were always really nice,” still speaking to her. Her page says she goes to Exeter High School. There are still people who haven’t received the news yet, and knew her, and to them, she’s still alive. We are still in the period after the bomb blast when everything is chaos; the shrapnel is still in the air.

IMG_5659We cast around for what to say, or what to do. People leave notes or send emails to the family telling them, “Anything you need, just ask.” “Reach out to us–we want to help you.” I have never been at the bottom of such a dark hole myself, but from what I’ve seen of this kind of grief, it will have to be us who do the reaching. The pit in the stomach, the nausea, it’s partly the sorrow we feel for what’s happened, but it’s tangled with embarrassment, with fear of saying the wrong thing, with guilt that our own kids are sound in their beds. Despite this, we must say something. Pray for them, if that is your tradition, and tell them you’re doing it. Bring food, or just go scrub their toilets or mow the lawn. Do not be afraid to speak her name, either now, or in the long weeks, months and years to come. You will not remind them of something painful they forgot, you will remember someone they loved and cannot ever forget.

A man I went to high school with died, along with his son, in an avalanche last winter. His father visits the memorial Facebook page for them from time to time, looking for new stories people have shared about his son and grandson. In the immediate aftermath, there were many. Now, they have stopped almost completely, but still, he posts from time to time, asking, or just thanking people. I can feel his fingers searching in the dark, sifting for more fragments of memory. It is a kindness we do, when we say the names of the dead to the people who loved them most.

We hope that the people who are bereft will tell us what they need, because we are ready to offer anything, but we don’t know what to do on our own. It takes courage to go so close to a grief this large. It has its own gravity, and it isolates those within it. But we have to be the ones, up here on the crater’s rim, to reach down to them. They are in utter darkness, and the walls are steep. When they emerge, there will never be a way for us to close the hole up behind them. We will all, forever, be stepping around it. They will be living very close to its rim. In time, they will, with help, be able to look away from it more often, and see the rest of life going on farther from it. But it will always be there, at the center of their lives. What we can do, however far we are from the epicenter, for now, is help them on the long climb out. The heavy feeling in your chest that is grief and fear and dread, it has a use too. It is an anchor point. Lower your line from that. Set your heels into the dirt and brace for the weight. It’s going to take all our strength to raise them.

In wilderness

Mid-week, I headed up to the White Mountains for a solo overnight. It was the first time I’d be backpacking alone in my life, and the first time without children along in two years. I had an idea to head into the Pemigewasset Wilderness and possibly do the Pemi loop, a 31 mile circuit that climbs the spine of Franconia Ridge and the Bonds, with their views, I had been told, unparalleled in the Whites. I got to the trailhead at Lincoln Woods around 10am, and after a brief stop into the Ranger station to talk about bears, headed out on the flat, broad old railroad bed that begins the trip. It was easy striding along the first four miles, but I knew I was settling into a pace that was too fast. Liberated from the excruciating slowness of kids, and also craving the physical anesthetic of exhaustion, I flung myself up Bondcliff Trail. I had some rational reasons: I wanted to get to Guyot campsite by late afternoon, and if thunderstorms were coming, I needed to scramble across the mile and a half of exposed ridge over Bondcliff before they arrived. It was a hot, humid day in the valleys, and a cold front predicted, so the possibility was real, but by the time I came up to the ridge, the sky was blue with only a few innocuous clouds. I had driven myself up through the dank lower woods, speeding past the stream crossings, and now was nauseated and trembling at the top of Bondcliff and I leaned against a rock and sobbed.

I tried to name what it was, and thought of a yoga class I took in vet school, when, at the end of the session, everyone would lie flat in the dark for relaxation. Sometimes, someone would begin crying quietly. Our instructor said it happens all the time–after the exertion, things can come up out of you unexpectedly, if you give them a moment to. My viscous sobs came bubbling up out of me, slumping alone on Bondcliff, and I thought about it. There was the anxiety that had pursued me up the trail, chasing me out here onto the exposed summit with thoughts of the new job I start next week, my son starting his first day of kindergarten, the simple fact that I was eight miles or so from my car and planning to sleep alone out here. I longed for my family, at their schools and jobs at that time of the afternoon, while I stood on this scoured ridge. There was not a soul to be seen in any direction, and mountains ranged on mountains. The flat jut of rocky fist where people stand to have their pictures taken was vacant, and I had no one to take my picture for me. I took its picture, forced down a handful of nuts and strode on, as if this hadn’t been my destination at all.


Bondcliff summit

Crossing the exposed ridge line over to Bond, I passed a pile of fresh bear scat seething with flies. People always mention bears when I say I’m going backpacking. They think of bears, and of rapists or murderers. I worry about more quotidian things–the weather, filling the hours when I’m finished hiking, loneliness. I got to the top of Bond and stood by the cairn feeling another wave of craving set in for my sons, my husband. I have been away from them all for days, a week on end and not felt this urgent need for them. Had I really wanted to, I knew I could have turned around and gone straight back to the car and been home that night. I felt miserable, standing up there, viewing the views unparalleled in the Whites, but I scurried back down below treeline and pressed on for camp.

The view backward from Bond.

The view backward from Bond.

By 3pm, I’d reached Guyot campsite. The caretaker, Justin, was friendly toward my hammock setup and found me a few likely spots to sling my shelter. I set it up, and then went to watch the comings and goings of other campers from the porch of the log shelter. There were the usual solo hikers and pairs set up at the various tent platforms, but three college groups were also staying that night and the cooking area filled up with their giggling and their banged up cauldrons of mac and cheese. I sat up on my perch with the supper I was slowly forcing myself to eat and spoke rarely. I know a lot of backpackers deride the campsites for this reason–so many people packed into one spot, talking, interrupting one’s pensive solitude. But I’d had enough of solitude, and also I appreciate the metal bear boxes for food so I don’t have to spend an hour finding an appropriate tree for hanging my food.

Near sundown, another large group arrived to use the shelter too. The campsite must have been beyond capacity. I headed down to my hammock to read, but got distracted by all the chatter around me. Two guys at the nearest platform talked food, “This one is a sweet, kind of roasty flavor.” “This one is more chickeny-beefy. But we need some fiber. It’s important to have fiber on the trail or you can’t poop.” “Definitely,” said the other, “Have you pooped?” “No,” said the first. “Me neither. I tried. Did you try?” “No,” said the first. And so on. On the other side of me, two college women made up medical facts about exactly how toxic shock syndrome occurs as a result of tampon use. But they spoke with conviction, and that’s more important. There was a 30 something Harvard grad who now builds chairs hiking with his dog, and a middle-aged man talking at two sullen teenagers about water filtration. We were a band of pilgrims in an inane, contemporary Canterbury Tales.


The view from West Bond.

Fortunately, the college students were all so utterly exhausted that within a half hour after sunset, they were asleep. I slept only fitfully, but during one of my dozes, I woke to a guy in one of the college groups moaning in his sleep. He yelled out “No!” a little while after. Then, clear and drawn out, he howled, “Frogs and stones!” None of this bothered me; I was glad to be in this gathering, rather than alone in some narrow berth in the trees the requisite distance from any trail or water. In the morning, I made myself some tea and ate a few handfuls of granola. A French Canadian man sitting on the log next to me farted exuberantly. I was back on the trail by 6:30, headed out to hike West Bond without my pack. I got to the summit to look across to Bondcliff’s ridge and down to the green knit of unbroken trees on all sides below. Fog was closing in–the weather reports had promised that all summits would be “firmly in clouds” today, and I watched, transfixed, as it descended, closing down my vision beyond 100 feet or so. It was the last summit view I would get that day, so I decided to save Franconia Ridge for another time and head home straight down the trail from Galehead Hut a few miles west.

Along the Twinway (part of the Appalachian Trail).

Along the Twinway (part of the Appalachian Trail).

I crossed over to South Twin Mountain on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The long corridor of balsam and spruce reminded me of the murky col where I’d read The BFG to the boys on our backpacking trip earlier in the summer. By the time I reached the summit of South Twin, the clouds were opaque and white as a cataract, obliterating anything much more than a few paces away. I barely paused and dropped back down into the trees for Galehead. The hut was empty but for a morose pair of preteen girls bandaging their blisters under the cheerful gaze of their persistently optimistic father. Staying only long enough to eat a quick snack out of the clouds and wind, I headed straight down Twin Brook trail and was quickly leaving behind the boreal forest and grading into paper birch. A stand of hobblebush, already deep red for fall, reminded me of Simon, who, once he learned the low growing habit of the plant, and its notoriety for tripping horses, now blames it every time he falls, even when he’s on a suburban sidewalk or inside the house.

Beaver Pond along Franconia Brook Trail.

Beaver Pond along Franconia Brook Trail.

Once I reached Franconia Brook Trail, I made quick time on the flat, easy trail, and traveled the six or so miles back to the trail head without stopping at all. On that stretch, I thought about my sadness up on the Bonds, my anxiety and loneliness. It hadn’t been the distance, or the time away. It hadn’t been missing my younger son’s report of his first day of kindergarten. It wasn’t guilt, or homesickness, or even the exhaustion. It was what I had gone to the wilderness for. I had emerged up above tree line to look out on the immensity of this remote place, terrible in its broad indifference. It is awesome in the traditional sense–unnerving, unsettling, and not always pleasant. I was utterly alone, days or even weeks from rescue had anything gone seriously wrong. It was beautiful in the disturbing way of open water; it leaves a person dwarfed, obscure as any individual tree in the brindled forests on the mountains’ flanks. As the elevation fell away, I felt the pang of leaving the alpine zone behind again and reentering the familiar, comforting northern forests of home. I had not felt comfortable on those mountains, but I had not come for comfort, or ease, or even pleasure. The mountains had done what I had actually needed: to be obliterated, for a little while by their immensity. And if I needed to huddle with a group of strangers for the evening, it was only to recollect myself and do things on a human scale again.

This summer, Malcolm became transfixed by the story of the North Pond Hermit in Maine, who lived alone in the woods for 27 years one pond over from where we rent a cabin each year. The man had walked into the woods when he was twenty and between then and when he was captured and arrested last year for repeated burglaries of nearby homes, he spoke only one word to another soul. I know many backpackers who avoid campsites and huts for the same reason. They seek a solitude that is absolute. Maybe I’m just not as good at being alone with myself yet. Maybe it’ll come. For now, I’m glad of other people, despite the aggravations they come with. I’m not sure I will ever come to a point when I can see something like what there is to see from that ridge, and not long to say to someone else, “Look at that.” Without it, those views have some small measure of hollowness at their core, a little cavitation in the awe. But I would consider myself poor indeed if I did not have people I longed to show it to, and instead, I am rich with them.

For keeps

Last Saturday, my youngest sister got married. It was a brief ceremony in a riotous garden. We stood for the bride, my sisters and I, and her oldest friend, and her back was to us. We could see her groom’s face and hear the vows he’d written and was now making. When it was Mary’s turn, I could neither hear her words nor see her face, only the reaction on Josh’s face, on the brink of becoming her husband. A bumblebee bounced drunkenly off the portico above their heads. Another crawled under the layers of tulle in her dress. Across from me, standing up for the groom, my baby brother swiped at tears.

After the ceremony, my elder son and I danced for three hours straight. His younger brother found the music too loud and stood, like a curmudgeon, out by the pond behind the tent. After an hour or so, my husband took him home. I stayed to dance and the next day, my neck was sore from inclining my head down to look at my seven year old dance partner. By the last dance, when the remaining couples were slumped against each other, swaying almost imperceptibly, I was jerkily rounding the floor with my son. My husband and I are in the last years of rearing very young children, when so many of our interactions are transactional (“You have the diaper bag?” “Can you make them sandwiches?” “I can’t meet the bus today, can you get there?”) and we can see the the golden light of the mid-childhood years creeping in at the windows–the years when they aren’t so desperately needy, but have not yet been lost into the wounding teenage rage for freedom.

During one of my brief dance breaks, I talked to my brother for a bit out in the garden. He pointed out that he’s the last of us five, and the only one still unmarried, and so far, everyone’s gotten married and stayed that way. My parents for more than thirty years, me for more than a decade, my other two sisters for six or seven years apiece. “Nobody’s jaded,” he said to me. And I’ll grant him that. It’s not to say that no one’s struggled, just that we all still see this commitment as worth making, and worth working at.

IMG_5891The week since my sister’s wedding, I’ve been helping out my dad. He and my mother own and live in a five apartment building, and they have a new tenant moving in under a tight deadline after another of my sisters and her family moved out into their first house. The whole apartment needs the usual repairs, cleaning, and painting. For three days, I painted, the wedding manicure disappearing under smears of primer and paint. The house is old, well past one hundred years now, and was once a barn. It’s been added to, renovated, and painted over so many times the rooms must be substantially smaller now for all the pigment layers. All the corners are eased and rounded with a shale of paint. In corners and awkward spots, there are glimpses of a canary yellow, turquoise, and a rosy pink. There are divots in a bedroom door just at the height of a toddler’s swinging foot. There are pencil marks on the door jamb where my sister recorded the heights of my nephew and niece. Throngs of spiders inhabit the corners, and they high step through the drying paint. A wolfish one huddles in a ceiling crack. The house is old and peculiar. I lived in that apartment once too and know the quirks of its window sashes, the cant of the floor, the sweetly Victorian doorbell and knobs. It’s always in need of something, always threatening to crumble. In the few places where my father has added a new closet, or shelves, the paint goes on over harsher angles, and the wood itself feels lighter, less significant.

Old houses are exasperating. Old marriages the same. But my young brother is right. I’m not jaded, and I am up for the work. We Faheys do things for keeps.

After just about thirty five years of service to the Town (City) of Amesbury, Massachusetts, my father, Joseph Fahey, at last retired. He did not stop working; apparently they are still contracting his assistance, but the official day came, and the official party too, and now he is much more at liberty to garden. This is a pastime he manages to extend about year-round, even when it becomes the spectator sport of seed catalog perusal in winter.

For many years, he had no time to garden. Taking the job in Amesbury in the office of Administration and Development, as I believe it was then called, he took on a day job and also all the night meetings: hearings, Board of Selectmen, Town Meeting, then City Councils, Zoning Boards, Planning Boards. When I was little, I remember him being gone a lot at night, and when he came home, he carted a brown briefcase with him. I didn’t understand what he did, or why; the minds and motivations of our parents are not so much impenetrable to children so much as they are of little interest, compared with our own crises and fears. My mother was cooped up with me and an ever increasing number of other children, and no means of ferrying us around town, my father being in possession of the only car. Now that I have children, I recognize what a misery that can be.

Dad's gotta work (a letter dated one week after I was born).

Dad’s gotta work (a letter dated one week after I was born).

As I approached adolescence, I took gradual notice of what it was my father was up to. Already, he had affected great changes in the town. The old Upper Millyard, which had become a parking lot for hulking tanker trucks and construction equipment now was made up instead with a path by the river and bridges over it, tree-lined walkways, flower beds where I had crouched, grinning, not more than a toddler, for a newspaper photo as we all planted tulips and then, later in the season, marigolds. In summer, the concrete amphitheater they built hosted concerts, plays, and one summer, on my very birthday, a magic show in which I was selected to come up and volunteer to help with a trick. There was a pancake breakfast in the pines, a firemen’s muster, a downtown that struggled and vacillated between its old self (full of townie bars, an ancient hobby shop whose owners seemed to detest children) and its new self (the brief lifespans of a book shop and a soda fountain that I loved and then mourned when they did not survive.) I could not list all the people who worked on and helped with the many projects my father had underway, because I would forget some of them, and that would be no good since I know them all personally, or did. They came for my parents’ dinner parties, where I would crouch in the dark hall to listen to them all talk town politics (or gossip).

Downtown Amesbury now is a charming nest of streets and squares and parks with plenty of restaurants and little shops and places to get coffee or nice chocolates. There’s very little grit left, just a bit swept into the corners here and there. Christophe and I lived, briefly, in an apartment in a rehabilitated mill building verging on the Powwow River above the dam. We could look straight down from our window to the begging ducks. When I walk through town now, I can see the underlayment of what used to be here. It’s taken my whole lifetime for these changes to be put in place. My father spent nearly his entire professional career in civil service to this one community. It’s not glamorous work, and though he had a hand in nearly everything that’s gone on these three decades, rarely did he get the full measure of the recognition he deserved. His was not an elected position, and when he started, we still followed the Town Meeting form of governance. There were no mayoral campaigns, and the Selectmen were hardly a flashy bunch. He was caught up in politics plenty, to be sure, and he is, fundamentally, a political animal. But not having to be elected, he was more at leisure to concoct strategies and angle for plans. His job was physical, on the ground, intimate with the town and its inner workings. My sisters and I found a series of VHS tapes at home once, and settling down to view them, discovered they were footage of the sewer network below ground. Hours of grainy, gray, sloshing straightaways, turnings, and side tunnels. We called them “the sewer tapes,” and, inexplicably, watched them more than once. He might resist the analogy to the rest of his work, but it’s apt; the job required rubber boots, determination, and the courage to keep on in the dark when the future was lit with only a thin beam of light.

On a freezing wedding day, a stop in the Millyard.

On a freezing wedding day, a stop in the Millyard.

I have since moved to a town five miles from Amesbury, but the rest of my family still lives there, at least for now. I was married there, in a stone church downtown, and we had our portraits done on the bridges over the Powwow as it began to snow. I know my father sees our attachment to this town as one of the greatest marks of his legacy. We were raised there, and didn’t want to leave. I see it as larger than that still. Most of us, when our parents come to retire, don’t really understand what they did all day. What drove them, what frustrated them, what they hoped to leave behind. I didn’t really either, but I have the great good fortune to see it all around me whenever I walk through my hometown. I can see what mattered to him. He was pragmatic, diligent, and focused, but there was the dreamer in him too, all along. A part of him that hangs on to the Kennedy rhetoric, a commitment to a progressive agenda that goes beyond preservation of open space, mixed use zoning, and walkable communities, though all that mattered too. He was the Director of Community and Economic Development, and he balanced them expertly, but I know, in his heart, that it’s that first part of which he is most proud. And not only have his children elected to stay in that Community, we’ve learned, trotting along at his heels to work sites, or listening in on meetings, or reading the papers, that this is what you do–offer yourself into public service. We are all of us committed to public art, public education, global governance, conservation and an environmental ethic, town service. That’s not solely his doing, but it is a partial accounting of his work. When the last major project he’s been pushing for, the Lower Millyard rehabilitation, comes to fruition, they tell us there will be a plaque with his name on it somewhere or other. I think there should be some grand monument instead. Then I realize, there already is.

Entering the Sandwich Range Wilderness.

Entering the Sandwich Range Wilderness.

The day after my elder son finished school for the year, we set out for a three day backpacking adventure in the Sandwich Range of the White Mountains. This is backcountry camping–no shelters, no designated campsites–just find a likely spot and hang the hammocks and make some supper. So we did, following the easy grade of the Dicey’s Mill trail up to the Wonalancet River for our first night. We found a length of rope tied to a tree by some previous unruly campers who had also left scorch marks on the boulders and a wide swath of burnt away vegetation. We tried to tread bit more lightly, and the boys spent a few hours messing about in the river with the rope. We kept the rope, but somehow, Malcolm misplaced his beloved fishing hat, the one that makes him look like a very prematurely retired person. Should you be hiking along Dicey’s Mill Trail and come upon such a hat, with a navy and red band, perhaps you might help it find its way home.

Recreation by the Wonalancet River.

Recreation by the Wonalancet River.

Next day, we headed up the trail for Mount Passaconaway’s summit, but our pace was so slow (the youngest of our party being only five) that I elected to skirt the summit and take the east loop to the Walden Trail instead. We intended to camp wherever we came upon water, and the afternoon wore away as we crossed the waterless, windy ridge and then a sheltered col with a boggy stream where we stopped to snack and for me to read a few chapters of the BFG aloud. We couldn’t camp there, as it would have left us too many miles to cover the next morning when we had an appointment to keep. So we pressed on, and the trail turned into the steep, scrabbling sort of dropping down that make these mountains notorious. Staring down the umpteenth of such stretches, Simon moaned, “Mom, please can you call Mountain Rescue and they can carry me out?” “I can’t,” I told him, “even if we wanted to, my phone can’t communicate with the outside world.” “Mom,” said Malcolm, “We’re in the outside world right now. We’ve been in it since yesterday.” “Oh, yes,” I said, “The inside world then. Civilization. That’s what we can’t reach.” We saw only two other people the whole day: two young Quebecois men, speaking heavily accented English and warning us that the trail was about to get worse. That is when I admit to the feelings of dread that inevitably strike me at some point on a backcountry venture. What if I can’t get them out of here? What if we can’t walk to water before dark? What if, one of these times I am sliding down a rock face or teetering on a ledge, I fall, and crack my skull, and my children circle my insensible body for hours, howling in a literal wilderness? What if I can’t get Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover” out of my head this entire trip?

The indignity of sharing a water source with one's little brother.

The indignity of sharing a water source with one’s little brother.

There was howling. There was crying. There was carrying of the younger son. And I could not shake Dreamlover. As we traversed that ridge and descended though, the dynamic between the two brothers and me came clear. When one boy was in a trough of despair, and my spirits tugging down with him, the other would announce, “But I suddenly feel a turbo boost of energy, Mom!” and indeed, Malcolm hauled himself uncomplainingly down some frightening terrain. Then, when he began complaining of blisters, Simon offered to carry his water for him. We made it to the end of the Walden Trail and turned down Old Mast Road, and I dropped my pack and applauded them and nearly cried into their hair with relief. Old Mast Road is an easy stroll, though we did not find the stream indicated on our maps and by the reports of hikers earlier in the season.

The view over to Chocorua.

The view over to Chocorua.

As evening approached, I realized we’d probably be all the way back to our car before we found water, and it was so. A clear, sand bottomed stream came into view two tenths of a mile from the trailhead. Though Malcolm wanted to camp again, I offered a consolation prize of candy and Gatorade at a gas station on the way home. And so it was decided. As we finished the last bit of the walk, Simon, in his piercing, piping voice, yelled, “Another toad!” and something big went crashing off into the underbrush. Then, a few moments later, a young, rangy black bear loped across the trail a hundred yards ahead. We stood there, watching it go, and Malcolm whispered, “In my whole life, that’s the first time I ever saw a bear.”

Would it were so for us all, that we need wait only seven years of a lifetime to see a bear, to cross a ridge with a view to Mount Washington and be alone and away from the “inside world.” I don’t know what possessed me to start coming to the Whites like this; my family never even went camping, let alone backpacking. I suppose it came upon me like the urge to travel the world comes to other people. Whatever it was, it gets more deeply rooted all the time. I still get nervous, and sometimes genuinely scared, but it’s my hope that these trips will seem so normal and routine to my sons that they will feel even more at home out there than I probably ever will, not having been reared in that sort of wildness. So we take these trips, covering six miles in almost ten hours, our progress so slow as to seem imperceptible. I shoulder loads approaching my own body weight to keep their burdens light enough. Sometimes, I long to be able to stride at my own pace, though it’s been so long since I was able to, I’m not sure what it would be. But I remember that these trips are an investment. That one day, they will be bigger than I am, and able to hike fast and carry their own provisions, and I will sometimes long for the feel of my little boy’s weight in my arms, and the stink of him in my nose, and his arms around my neck and his face buried happily against my shoulder as I stagger down the trail. Even the little miseries are fractured with joy.


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