North, from Boston. After evading the 30-mph speed traps outside Jaffrey, I proceed west on Route 124 past a textile mill converted to apartments, the town’s red-brick library and a stone-relief sculpture of a WW I soldier carrying a wounded or dead comrade. One word carved below: Buddies. And then on a rise in the frost-heaving road, Monadnock leaps into view. Snow-streaked, beckoning. Soon I find 36 vehicles parked at its southern base. A crazy person convention? Have they not read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem Monadnoc?
Many feet in summer seek,
Oft, my far-appearing peak;
In the dreaded winter-time,
None save dappling shadows climb.
That’s the mountain talking, by the way. Emerson didn’t actually climb it until he was an old man, long after the poem appeared in 1846. That’s all right. Monadnock is the one landmark, natural or constructed, that’s visible from all six New England states, so it’s a good bet Ralph Waldo saw the peak from afar before writing his 2,440-word celebration. Ages, a hiker tells Monadnock in the poem, are thy days. I’m glad I’m not climbing you alone, I say.
At my wife’s insistence, I made a list of stuff to bring and even remembered to bring it:
Cell phone – charged
iPod, charged, in soft case
Hat and balaclava
Two pair gloves
Head lamp and batteries
Backpack w/food and water
Notebook and pens
Then, whoosh, I meet Larry sliding downhill on his ample posterior.
He lets out a whoop, coming to a stop about ten feet away. “Hey, Larry,” shout a couple of hikers who have arrived behind me, and Larry, a short, stout fellow lugging an overstuffed pack, bounces to his feet. He’s dappled in snow, from snow pants to knitted hat, and he smiles big-time and slaps his gloves together and suddenly I feel like I’m in an episode of Monadnock Cheers. Larry!! The hailing hikers keep going and Larry and I get to chatting about his recent trek up Mount Mansfield, the highest peak in Vermont. Windy up there, he says, damn cold. Then his girlfriend arrives, slowly picking her way downhill. She sports a powder blue snowsuit and yells, “I’m not going down on my ass, Larry!”
How might Emerson have captured this moment?
O’er icy crag and snowbound cleft I tarry
For I’m not going down on my ass, Larry…
It’s tough going from here to the tree line – I’m climbing a snow pyramid, after all. To the south I make out ski trails on Wachusett Mountain. To the east, the misty outlines of the Green Mountains. I stop to drink from a bottle of water I bought at Dunkin’ Donuts and fumble its white cap into the white snow. Oops. Aren’t they making these stupid things smaller than they used to? And then boasting about how much plastic is saved by their patented “eco-cap” that goes atop a bottle that’s all plastic anyway, that could choke a sea turtle if not recycled...fishing about, I somehow find it. Add to master list: bring water bottles without removable caps.
Nonetheless, what a day! I unzip my coat, whip off my hat and gaze at the summit outlined against a sky that grows bluer and bluer as I crane my head heavenward and search for the point of ultimate blueness. On the mountain, last month’s rime-ice coating has been replaced by streaks of snow between enormous rhomboids of bare granite. These big rocks, I’m told, collect solar radiation and melt their ice sheaths even in temperatures below freezing. Now my iPod camera freezes up after a few shots of the vista, so I slide it beneath my coat and give it the old armpit rub. Thirty seconds, good to go.