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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.