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Better part of valor

IMG_0053.jpgThe plan, for this overnight backpacking trip, was to hike in to a backcountry camp site in the shadow of Mt. Jefferson, camp out, get up in the morning and hike to the summit, and return out the way we came. Malcolm, my elder son, was my companion, his younger brother having opted to stay home with his father. Malcolm, for some reason, has taken to backpacking the way I did, when, out of the blue at the age of 16, I announced my wish to begin sleeping in the woods from time to time. No one in my family had ever done, nor desired to do, such a thing. We did not even camp at campgrounds. Every summer, we rented a cabin on Lake Ossipee and that was the extent of things. But I had some splinter in my soul that would not work out until I’d ventured into the woods.

My parents bought me a pack and a few other items that year for Christmas, and away I went from there, doing occasional trips into the White Mountains, with no particular goal in mind but to walk in, sleep, walk out.

Since then, I have found out about peakbaggers, and redliners, and sectionhikers–all outdoors people working on particular lists of achievements: all the summits in New Hampshire above 4,000 feet, or every trail in the White Mountains, or the whole Appalachian Trail in fits and starts. It’s hard not to get swept up by goals like that, and I do keep a list of which 4000 footers I have climbed, though I am not in any rush. Still, it’s hard not to feel an urge to climb all the way up a mountain when you’re halfway up anyway, and that’s where Malcolm and I found ourselves when we camped five miles in on the Great Gulf Trail, at 3,000 or so feet of elevation.

We set up camp there Sunday evening, with no one else anywhere around. We ate, and as the temperature declined into the 40s, retreated to the tent to read. He ran out of books and asked me to read to him from what I had, so he listened to a magazine article about the sodium levels in frozen pizza, and one about the search for a natural-origin  blue dye for candy. Eventually, he fell asleep.

img_0059In the night, the forecast winds picked up. Tucked up by the headwall in the ravine below Jefferson, we could hear the wind tearing down the Presidential ridge from the north over and over. The force of it bore down across the exposed reaches a thousand feet and more above our heads. Hardly any wind reached us down where we were, but my stomach tensed all the same for the biggest gusts. We were like mice crouched under the floorboards as a great cat swept its frustrated paw across the knothole where we hid.

I slept fitfully as I always do the first night out, and in the morning, Jefferson was rimed in ice and the winds had not diminished. It took me a few moments to understand that snow was falling already at our elevation. It was not a day to venture above treeline with what gear we had. I told Malcolm, telling him why it was unwise to go up, though I was trying to convince myself as much as him.

We headed back down Great Gulf Trail; the temperatures moderated with the elevation loss and the sun’s progress. I had to look back at Jefferson again and again to see its ashy gray and white complexion, and be reminded of the wisdom of my choice.

img_0078We drove home, with no additional peak to record on the form that shows my slow progress on the list since I first climbed Mt. Washington in 1997. Malcolm is closer to the age I was then than I am now. I have a picture of me sitting in a log shelter in the wilderness that since fell into disrepair and was dismantled. Malcolm is fascinated by how long ago that was. He’s fascinated by how long it is taking me to get around to all 48 4000 foot peaks. He’s fascinated by how very, very old I am.

In my turn, I am fascinated by him too. He is like me in certain ways, small, and so bony we can’t ever seem to get our packs cinched tight enough around our hips. Diffident. He talked at length as we walked about BMX bike tricks, a subject about which I know nothing. He’s on the brink of not being a little kid anymore. He can hike about as fast as I want to go. There are few things on Earth I love to watch more than his beautiful stride at a full sprint.

I was disappointed at having failed to reach Jefferson’s summit. I can console myself with the usual saw about the journey being what matters, but I do crave those mountaintops, and it’s clear that he does too. But I had one more day of the numbered days when he will still curl up with me in the tent, and ask me to read to him. He will no longer hold my hand, but he will be my ballast when the morning comes and the wind finds us there finally, hiding in our hole, thinking better of it, scurrying down in the spindrift.

Last week, the boys and I did an overnight in the White Mountains. We broke what is generally a day hike for adults into two days, staying overnight at the Nauman tent site down the shoulder from Mt. Pierce. We arrived at 2pm, with hours to go before our supper, and still longer to sleep. Boredom sets in, and they whittled sticks into supports for a tiny lean-to, and Simon found a slug to live in it. He built a bridge of sticks and then smashed it. He found a spoon in the woods.

Malcolm, at nine, can hike at an impressive speed, but his seven year old brother still whinges and foot drags if given too ambitious a course, or too heavy a pack. We modulate, though he too is remarkable in what he can do. They are of an age now that I think I might possibly miss one day. So far, I have never felt that sensation. I have never missed having babies or toddlers, and have found the ever increasing freedom of older kids to be liberating. Both kids are now in the window of elementary age where they are easy to tend, independent, but still unabashedly enjoy our company. They still want to be read to, and the books are actually good.

IMG_8442.JPGIn the tent that evening, Simon sat next to me silently, looking down at the New York Times word puzzle we were working on. He made “clout” and “trout” of the letters after several minutes of hard staring. They read by headlamp for a while before sleeping.

In the morning, Malcolm was trying to zip his pant legs back up and couldn’t get the zipper to unjam. Exasperated, he threw up his hands and said, “Mom, can you help me?” and I found myself leaping to the task. He is nine, and almost preternaturally self-assured and mature. To be asked for help by this boy particularly sprang something inside me. I know the times when he will think to ask me for help are dwindling, as are the nights I will spend reading to him of bands of pirate ghosts and teenage boys in perilous wilderness situations. I don’t know if either of them will continue to want to join me on these trips. I suspect Malcolm, at least, will, but I have seen enough craigslist ads for youth backpacking equipment “used once; he didn’t like it,” to be a realist.

As we ate our breakfast, I heard sounds in the trees unlike the red squirrels and usual birds. This was a purposeful sound, and I turned to see six or seven gray jays gliding down the ridge and into the spruces around us. The first dropped onto Simon’s arm and lunged at his food. One jumped to me and jabbed a chisel beak into my granola. Malcolm mantled like a raptor over his own energy bar, but Simon gleefully offered up our expensive dried figs and apricots. A boy from the next site stood staring and I gestured to him to see if he wanted to offer them a morsel. He mutely shook his head, mouth open.

After a few moments, I thought to take a picture or a video of Simon’s beaming face, giggling as the birds leaped between his hands and the trees. But my phone was frozen. I pressed the button over and over, and could watch Simon through the screen, but nothing was captured. I powered the phone down, thinking a restart would help, and went back to watching Simon while I waited.

The birds yanked a few more bits of food free from our hands, but then, suddenly as they had come, they moved on to the tents further down the ridge. It was clearly their daily routine, arriving and making their systematic plundering, moving on.

After they were gone, my restarted phone had indeed regained its photographic capacity. It was as if the birds had drawn an electronic disturbance in with them when they came, and that dissipated once they left. The birds had broken the ice between Simon and the boy who’d been watching, Henry, who now became his fast friend for the morning.

We packed up and headed off for our seven mile trek up over Pierce and Eisenhower, plodding at our 1 mile per hour pace in the humid day above treeline.

IMG_8460I thought about the gray jays all day. I thought about all the people who say, “cherish every moment,” about raising children as Simon and Malcolm bickered, and Simon whined for snacks, and Malcolm strained at the bit to walk faster than his brother was able. Children plunder you, ransack your life. They are messy, boring, tedious, and exhausting. Not every moment is precious. If I’d been told my children would remain toddlers forever, I would have wanted to die. The gray jays didn’t stay as long as I wanted them to, sweeping in from the trees, bead-eyed, the youngest one disheveled in molt. They moved on before I was quite ready. Their presence was outsized; they seemed larger than they were, more than their weight, which was never greater than when they pushed off us to go.

Solitary animals

Last week, I went off on my annual solo overnight backpacking trip in the time between when I finish teaching and when my kids finish school. I headed up to the trailhead on Haystack Rd. to hike over North Twin mountain on my way to Garfield Ridge. Easy walking brought me to a crossing of the Little River that, though not at all high water, looked daunting. This was not a dry footed crossing. A sign across the water clearly indicated where the trail picked up again, but on my side, a bootleg trail ran up along the water’s edge where countless hikers had paced up and back, nervously scouting for a better crossing spot. There were none to be had, but I also followed the worn herd path out of the same vain hope. I passed a garter snake, to which I spoke briefly. I turned back after a while, trying to find the main trail and the official crossing spot again. The trails faded and reappeared, approached and left the river’s edge. I looked for the turn where I had taken a little connecting path, and saw the same snake. Normally, animals make poor landmarks, but this one was distinctively teal blue in its markings, and was sunning himself just where I’d left him. I thanked him and faced the river again.

IMG_8297 2There was nothing for it but to roll up my pants, unbuckle my pack straps, and pick my way across. For part of the way, there were rocks to step on just under the surface, but most of the time, I had to cross in water mid-way up my shins. I gripped my trekking poles, probing with them into pockets in the rocks, and I heard the Voice of Authority in my head saying, “Six inches of fast moving water can knock a person over.” Stepping down in places, my leg went sideways. Moving up river, I fought the drag of my waterlogged shoes. I reached the other shore. There were two more crossings like this, and I cursed the trail, and tried to trust in the wisdom of the trailwrights. After the second crossing, I met a woman coming down the trail toward me. “Have you seen a bald guy?” she asked. “I haven’t seen a soul,” I told her. She kept going, and then five minutes later I heard her behind me again. “No sign?” I asked. “We’ve been crossing back and forth at different places. We were scratching notes in the dirt, Bs and Es, but I haven’t seen anything in a while.” I didn’t see her again after that, but I did come upon her symbol in the dirt: a capital E with an arrow showing which way she’d gone. I decided her name was Evelyn, though this was ludicrously old fashioned for how young she was. Her hiking partner was Bald. I never saw his sign in the dirt. After a mile, even her signs disappeared. I wondered about Evelyn and Bald, star-crossed river crossers braiding their paths into the mountains. Was Bald her friend? Husband? Father? I was alone on the trail again, thinking solitary thoughts about what I would do if I were the last person on Earth. Probably commit suicide. Though how to know you’re the last? What if there’s a small, tenacious community somewhere in Mongolia and you go and kill yourself? But then, they’re dead to you because how would you reach them? There are no pilots, no captains to bring you across, and the Bering land bridge is currently closed.

IMG_8300 2I got up over North Twin and then to South Twin, which had been socked in by fog when I last came through a year or so before. I stopped in to Galehead Hut for water and to talk with passers-through and to choke down a meal bar that gave a chemical burn sensation in the throat. Then I headed for Garfield Ridge campsite a few miles on. My overnight there was quiet, and I was up at 4 to head back down. I’d decided I never wanted to cross the Little River again, so I took the Gale River trail down instead, electing to take a long road walk at the bottom to my car. For the last two trail miles, I followed moose tracks in the mud, smeared over and fresher than any human ones. Big as plates, each a cloven heart, they pointed down the trail where I looked and looked, hoping to see my first ever of the giant creatures. By 7:15 I was at the Gale River trailhead, crestfallen at the kiosk map that indicated a much longer road walk than my map had shown. I began trotting down the road, walk-running and calculating how long it would take to cover the five or so miles. A pickup truck came trundling up the gravel and a man leaned out the window to ask the way to Galehead parking, and I told him he was very nearly there, and then, making a fast assessment, determined him to be neither rapist nor killer, and asked if he’d give me a lift back to my car.

IMG_8302 2His name was Stephen King, a name, he tells me, that gets hotel clerks’ attention when he calls to book a room. The cab was strewn with hiking gear, maps and old water bottles. I’d never been as grateful for transportation. On the slow ride over dirt roads, he told me about his misadventures—hypothermic staggerings in Vermont, a November fall into the icy, cursed, Little River, sleeping on the porches of empty summer cottages along the Appalachian Trail, encounters with many, many snakes. On Route 3, just as we prepared to turn off onto another dirt road, I saw a moose loping across the road into the woods on the far side. We were pulled over onto the shoulder, and other cars slowed to look.

When we got to my car, he asked if I wanted to go hike Mt. Hale with him, a summit we’ve both, as it turns out, been avoiding or putting off. Reluctantly, I declined, having to get back south for an appointment. He went barreling down the road in his truck while I cautiously picked my way down in my low-slung Prius. I was back home in southern New Hampshire by 11am, unpacking my things and stowing them away. I thought of the solo hiker, a woman, who’d drowned in the Gale River last fall, swept miles down in the rain-bloated current. She was found eventually, after a protracted search, snagged up someplace near where we saw the moose. Maybe she’d have died anyway, even if she’d been with a companion, or a group. But at least someone else would have known where to look for her. Lone hikers lost are found by bands of searchers. Search parties. More eyes to see with.  I went into the woods alone, but when I saw the moose, I had someone to show it to.

Last week, I was sitting outside a classroom at the community college where I teach. My eyes were leveled at the floor, watching student and faculty feet pass by in sneakers, or heels, or grimed Ugg boots. Then, a pair of sockless feet slipped into worn boat shoes, and above that, bright red chino shorts. I looked up and watched this out of place prepster pass down the hall and disappear into the crowd, and then I trailed this ghost back to Phillips Exeter.

I was fourteen when I started classes there, a smart kid from a run down former mill town ten miles from the Academy. I was a day student, driven to school each morning and then retrieved by my father each night while the boarding students remained in their stolid walled dorms. I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into. In our class portrait that first year, I am in the front row, flagrantly violating dress code in a faded flannel shirt and jeans, the thrift store blazer that never fit me well tossed somewhere out on the quad.

People didn’t talk much about money directly at Exeter, but we knew who among us went on the day trips to Boston to shop for clothes on Newbury Street, and whom one might see in the lending library in the basement of the admissions building borrowing a paperback copy of Hamlet instead of buying one.

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1st year, class of 1998

I was in agony in most every class at Exeter. Classes there are discussion based and small, and the oval tables at which we sat had no corners and thus, no places to hide. Cripplingly shy, I rarely spoke, and every semester took my grade reports with their tone of head-shaking bewilderment that I would not open my mouth even to save my GPA. I sat through every class sweating, heart pounding, willing myself invisible.

The past few weeks, stories have appeared in the local and national press about teachers at Exeter who had sex with students decades ago. We have received several carefully worded letters from the school administration attempting to explain to us what happened and why it was handled the way it was. On the closed Facebook groups for alumni, the tone is varied. Disappointment, anger, frustration, defensive crouching, but also frequent pleas to our better natures and to the training we were taught there–to assemble, to listen, to argue from evidence.

I was listening to NHPR the other day, and a guest on the show, speaking about these cases at Exeter said, “Well, you have to understand, these schools are a different world.” I know what he means, having been an alien in that country. The money flowing through that place, and the power, and the privilege that I cannot resent because without it, they would not have their stockpiles of scholarship for a kid like me. The reserve, the hush, the eye to reputation and name, the Latin above the great doors, the cupped divots worn into the marble stairs in the Academy Building by generations of students, the instinct to “handle it quietly.”

At the very beginning of my first year at Exeter, we gathered for Assembly and to sing “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” It’s a plodding Protestant hymn I’d never heard before, and I had never learned to read music either, so I kept my head low until it ended. I knew Catholic hymns, post-Vatican II 60’s style guitar and choral numbers, and the chanting of the priest while I stood by his elbow as an altar server. The secret, sanctified dark of the sacristy where I pulled my robe on and cinched and knotted my rope belt. Where I learned the names of all the vestments, the chasuble, the alb. Where I learned poetry.

My father grew up in a parish that Father Geoghan rotated through as he was passed from place to place abusing children. I read about the priest sex abuse, watched Spotlight and all that, and felt my guts twist. As a child, I was alone in the church with the priest many times before the early morning services, in the broken, multi-colored light through the stained glass. I fetched and carried, eager as a dog, and I would have done anything I was asked by this man who was our magical bridge to God, who whispered words only I could hear as I poured the water to wash his hands before communion.

I know many people, wearied of these abuses, want to throw off all the tradition and ritual that surround them, and oftentimes obscure them from view. These institutions are slow to change if they do at all, and quick to draw in and protect themselves. They are conservative in the original sense of the word. I know that, if not for pressure to modernize, liberalize, I would never have worn those server’s robes in the Church, and I would never have set my shabby sneakers into those marble toeholds at Exeter. The feet on those stairs over the last centuries were all Wasp boys’ first. Then they were the feet of a black boy in the 1860s, and of the four white Kentucky boys who demanded (unsuccessfully) that he be expelled. The feet were boys’ feet exclusively until the school turned coed in the seventies.  In 1996, while I was a student, a new Latin engraving added girls to the summons to come and be educated.

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Exeter’s student body, ca. 1903

The teachers at Exeter who admitted to the sexual encounters with students claimed they were consensual. In at least one case, the student was under the age of 18. Some of the voices on the alumni fora online decry the sullying of the the school’s reputation over questionable circumstances. In any context, sex between a teacher and student is beyond questionable. At Exeter, where the majority of students live on campus, teachers serve not only as teachers, but in the place of parents. All the usual teenage angsts and anxieties are compounded, breathing that rarefied air while scrambling to keep up. It’s high altitude education. The normal susceptibility of adolescents to special attention from a figure of authority is greater in such a place, with parents nowhere nearby, and those authorities must therefore be even more restrained. There were so many days I felt erased at Exeter, trailing my scraps of self confidence behind me, swooning in my juvenile crushes on teachers. To feel seen, recognized, by one such man would be heady enough. To feel desired by one would be another order of magnitude, overwhelming the capacity of an adolescent frontal lobe. Exeter students often seem unusually poised, the way precocious children so often seem old for their age. The ideas and arguments they make in classes are sophisticated and intelligent and they are young and beautiful to look at. And of course, teenagers all think they’re adults, that they can handle it, that wisdom does not exist, or, if it does, that it is doled equally to sixteen year olds and sixty year olds alike. For a young teacher, it’s not hard to see where temptation might creep in along with a retinue of justifications. But where the individual is weak and cannot take the strain, the institution must step in, must be the conscience of the place, and must be the absolute defenders of these vulnerable kids. The Church’s failure in this is utter and obvious. Exeter’s is less so, but still, there have been failings.

Despite everything, all their failings, I love the Church I grew up in, and I love Exeter, which changed the whole course of my life. I met my husband there, and our children came to be because of Exeter. My elder son serves at the altar now, though in the Episcopal Church of his father’s upbringing. Though I am lapsed, I feel the memory of all those Sundays, kneeling, attentive, in service to the Mystery, then standing, ready to wash the priest’s hands, our heads bent toward each other, I would tip the silver ewer as he said, “Lord, wash away my iniquity and cleanse me of my sins.”

The year in trails

I know this blog has been something of a fallow field lately; this has been partly an ebbing of energy as the semester wore me down, and partly a deliberate effort to focus on a larger writing project I am drafting which I hope many of you will enjoy just as much once it is finished.

In the thin slivers of free time I do have, I try to make sure the boys and I get outside as much as we can. On the first of January of this year, I decided to document that time, taking snippets of footage while we were out and about. I compressed it into a mere four minutes, and I hope you might watch it and be swept along with us from sea level up to Mt. Washington, and from our little, local town forests to the far jutting point of Quoddy Head, Maine, and a short jump from there over to Canada.

They traveled in snow hip deep and through teeming mosquitoes. Malcolm acquired the set jaw and horizon staring mien of an adventurer; Simon sobbed through part of many trips and skipped through the other half. In wilderness are their personalities revealed. And I took up all the positions I hope to hold as long as I live–sometimes ahead of them, sometimes behind, sometimes beside them setting their feet, and ever curious where they’re about to go.

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!