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.
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?
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.
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.