This month, I took my older son backpacking. He just turned six, which seemed old enough to me. We gave him his own kid-sized pack for his birthday, and I planned a route for us. I have a dubious reputation for taking people on hikes that turn out to be overly ambitious for them, and what seems moderate to me ends in expletives, staggering and limping for them. This time, I genuinely tried to rein myself in, charting our course from Crawford Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire up to the Nauman tentsite in the trees near Mizpah Spring Hut on the side of Mt. Pierce. It’s three miles from the parking lot to the site, and we managed it fairly well. There’s a bridge over a clear pool within the first half mile, and just after that, Gibbs Falls. The last 0.7 miles where the trail to the Hut and the tentsite veers off isn’t bad either. But the not-quite-one-mile in between seems longer than it is. Hiking takes patience, fortitude and resilience, and six year olds are not deep springs of any of these. Luckily, we have camp songs, and I only had to carry his pack for about a quarter mile of the way up.
We ate our supper at a table inside the Hut where an older gentleman scribbling in a small notebook offered me a cup of red wine from a two liter Poland Springs bottle. I accepted this mountain hospitality as Malcolm and I wolfed down oranges and our peanut butter walnut and chocolate burritos before retiring to our tent down the hill. I read Lord of the Flies while the wind swept up the side of the mountain from down in the Notch.
The next morning, we were up before anyone else at the tent sites and ate our breakfast on a rock. People staying at the Hut began gearing up to hike, and I noticed we were being openly stared at. Finally, a man with two kids a few years older than Malcolm approached. “What’s the story with this kid?” he asked, gesturing with his trekking pole. “How old are you, bud?” Turns out, no one could get over a kid so young on the trail with his own pack. Given, he carries only his own sleeping bag and pad, but he looks the part, and we, after all, had not slept in the relative luxury of the Hut’s bunks either, but in the woods, by ourselves.
Rather than hike straight back down, Malcolm insisted he wanted to climb to the summit of Mt. Pierce first. It would be his first 4,000+ foot mountain and would add almost a mile and a half of steep climbing to our day’s travels. I vacillated, asking him over and over, “You really want to?” and the cautious parent in me hesitated, knowing I’d pay for the choice on the forced march back down, but I wanted to climb Mt. Pierce too, and the selfish ego parent, the part that swells with joy when a child likes something I like, made the decision and we headed for the summit at our excruciating pace.
Just the least little top of Mt. Pierce is above treeline, in the alpine zone of fragile, low groundcover and wind-raked granite, but a little is all I needed. Looking over the ridge to Mount Eisenhower, and Monroe, I could see Mt. Washington, shrugging off a cloud, and the runnels down Ammonoosuc Ravine. We couldn’t pause long, knowing the 3.1 miles back down would take several hours, so we had a snack, added a rock to the last cairn above treeline, and began the descent: a long, and to a six year old, unchanging and featureless expanse of mossy boulders and bubbling streams. His feet hurt, his pack wore on his collarbones, he couldn’t stop dreaming of the Falls and the pool way far down. We played Fortunately/Unfortunately (Me: “Fortunately, the man was able to escape the sharks by grabbing onto a passing helicopter.” Malcolm: “Unfortunately, the sharks could fly.”) and I had to carry his pack a while, and then both his pack and my pack and himself. When I set them all down near the Falls, I almost leapt into the air at each step with the unaccustomed buoyancy.
The last half mile, we finished the game. Me: “Fortunately, they found a pizza place.” Malcolm: “Unfortunately, the pizza had teeth.” We lapsed into silence on the flat path on the way out to the parking lot as thunder threatened from north of the Notch. His rhythmic footfalls, and mine, summoned to my mind the last line of Frost’s Hyla Brook, and I marched the last bit of the trail to its steady drumbeat:
We love the things we love for what they are.