The trail is packed snow, with the occasional boot-shaped hole running a couple feet deep. To my left lay the remnants of a stone wall, the former boundary between meadows that existed here between forest eras. Branches have fallen across these tumbled, snow-crusted rocks, making handy bridges for mice and chipmunks. I snap a photo because, well, I’m not sure why. It’s pretty, but lots of things are pretty. What are the criteria for framing, shooting, downloading and blog-posting vs. just walking by? Can’t I remember on my own?
A mile along, the trail is closed due to erosion and I veer back onto the Old Toll Road. Four middle-aged women pass by, laughing like crazy. What’s so funny? I almost ask. Maybe it’s a girl thing, maybe I don’t want to know, and at the end of the road I sweep powdery snow from a rock and sit down to tighten my shoelaces. The wind whistles faintly, or is that faraway traffic? Air through birch and maple groves, through iron pipes and cardboard filters…
Behind me, at 2,050 feet, there’s a large, stone house with “Keep Out” and “No Hunting or Fishing” signs guarding the driveway. Another sign closer to the private residence reads “The Hermitage” – like the museum in St. Petersburg or the asteroid discovered by the Russian astronomer Lyudmila Ivanova Chernykh (Wikipedia rocks!) or the hotel in Nashville where suffragettes in 1920 successfully lobbied the Tennessee legislature to pass the 19th Amendment, granting women the vote. According to monadnockmountain.com, The Hermitage began as a cabin built by Augustus Chamberlaine, the first hiker to write about the “roar of the mountain,” a thundering noise – like a wind tsunami – that graces the ears of Monadnock’s most faithful hikers. The mountain, perhaps, clearing its dungeon throat? Alas, I haven’t heard it – yet.
Decades ago, I wrote a comic screenplay about suffragettes at The Hermitage. The folks at HBO seemed to like it until one of their readers decided it was highly offensive, not to mention clichéd and sexist, that two characters employed their vaginas to change a pol’s vote.
Here, halfway to the peak, I take to the White Arrow Trail. Quickly it gets steep and icy, but the MICROspikes on my boots meet the challenge. I stop and chat with a hiker about the Halfway House and he makes an annoyed comment about the Hermitage and the guy who “owns the property.” He spits these last three words, as if poison; who, after all, dares claim grubby ownership of even a pine needle, a scrub beetle, a fleck of stone or lichen smear on a mountain as majestic, as G-d given as Monadnock? That, at least, is what I think he meant.
Soon after I run into a descending pair. He’s silent, sunken into himself – exhausted? meditating? – and she moves with a clomping gait, her curly hair staging a crazed escape from its woolen-hat prison. She bumps her pack against a half-capsized tree trunk and almost knocks herself over. What’s it like up there? I ask. “We didn’t summit today,” she responds – not today, so I peg them as regulars. Monadnock worshipers. Instead of summiting they hiked around the peak, a feat which calls for a good deal of bushwhacking. And down they keep going.
I grip and push up an ice-cramped slope – in summertime of olden days, pale professors and hoop-skirted ladies conquered this route with picnic baskets and metal water jugs – and emerge above tree line. Now it’s just “the last hard climb,” as the Halfway Housers called it. But first I stop near a giant rock that looks, if you squint, like a Mayan temple, and let’s say the ice-cascade bisecting the rock’s scarred face is the steps up the Temple of the Jaguar Priest at Tikal. From here the brown-white vistas are broken by shards of evergreen. A white ribbon runs to the southwest – perhaps an electric transmission-line alley cut through forest? Then I resume the climb, determined to make the top without stopping again.