But some gifts are ugly ties and slice-o-matics, and some climbs up Monadnock aren’t worth blogging home about. April’s hike had its moments, sure, and I was glad to explore trails on the mountain’s eastern flank, but the day was mostly this: chilly, cloudy and muddy. My hat and gloves got soaked with sweat. My right knee ached, I wasted 45 minutes wandering around Gilson Pond looking for the trailhead and I saw but five sentient creatures – four humans and a shy chipmunk. Most distressingly, I didn’t feel empowered by the looming prospect and, then, the magnificent sight of the mountain peak; joy avoided my heart as I made the chilly-cloudy-muddy ascent; alas, it was a meh climb, but I got it done.
So, bear with me, this won’t take too long. And there’s some merit in field-testing the gift hypothesis, right?
I park next to a snow bank in the Gilson Pond parking lot and it starts to hail. Teeny-tiny white balls bounce off the Corolla’s hood. Winter’s cleaning out her junk drawer. I set out and stupidly march past the turnoff to the Birchtoft Trail – marked only by a huge sign – because I’m musing on the hot dog sandwiches I chowed down as a boy. You see, several split logs lay across a muddy area and, bizarrely, they remind me of the boiled dogs that I long ago sliced open, drenched in A&P catsup and shoved between white bread. Disgusting, but I liked it.
A nice moment: I watch a ruffling of white-water move across the pond’s surface – a tide of some sort, a squad of fish? No, it’s the visible manifestation of a gust of wind, and I stand and wait as the ruffling come closer, and there it is, cool upon my cheeks, and then gone.
LaCroix means “the cross” in French. It’s an odd name for a Jew, certainly, even for this converted one; at a conference of Jewish learning, a fellow with a knitted kippa squinted at my name tag and remarked that LaCroix was a “hell of a statement.” Of course my name is not a statement of any kind, not about my spiritual life or the Crucifixion or the constellation in the northern sky or the crossroads at the heart of every hometown, but it is a record of family behavior and movement. In fact, LaCroix was frequently acquired as a dit, or alias, by Europeans on the lam from the law or various persecutions. So my real name on my father’s side may have become mud out of necessity or desperation. LaCroix could be a cover story. There’s something very Jewish about that, I think.
About a mile up, the trees begin to bloom snow. The trunks and branches are snow dusted only on their sides facing east, away from the summit. Wind patterns, the sun’s track? I sit and drink water and chat on the phone with my daughter Kelsey in Pittsburgh. We’d had an argument a week ago – a rare occurrence; I strive to keep conversations with my out-of-state daughter productive, upbeat – and it’s good now to talk casually, to reassure each other that all is okay. Then the sun, hello, peeks out and within minutes clumps of snow begin to fall from the high boughs. Bam, boom, smash! Melty mush crashes to earth. Delicate snowflakes that descended in February now coalesce and take an April suicide dive. Bam, boom, smash! The forest sheds the last shreds of winter.
Soon I’m walking again, and beside me a stone wall undulates into a ravine and back up the other side. A stone snake, very cool. It’s thickly built, collapsing – is there a subterranean wall, a mirror image, sunk into the earth? It probably stood three or four feet high in sheep-farming days. The forest is sparsely wooded here, branches as bare as trunks, the ground tree-to-tree carpeted with crunchy, light-brown leaves that emit a nutty aroma as I churn through. Abruptly the wall ends, as if the farmer got tired lugging rocks and went home, and the way devolves into a muddy stream. I pick along the sides of the trail but can’t prevent my left foot from getting soaked to the sock, skin and bone.