For reasons subterranean, I've decided to climb Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire every month for a year. (It's no great feat; Larry Davis climbed Monadnock for 2,850 straight days.) I hope you enjoy my trips up and down, across the seasons and on several different trails, and I apologize to Paul LaPage for stealing the line "my great granite friend" from his poem The Roar of the Mountain. The most recent month's ascent sits just below. Or start at the start in November, 2014 by scrolling to the bottom of the page. Each entry can be fully accessed by clicking "read more."
This is about my October hike that took place in November.
Life, and death, conspired to keep me away during Mount Monadnock’s most popular month, as tens of thousands of devotees ascended its well-worn shoulders to witness the colorful glory of peak foliage in New England. The idea was to cap this twelve-month cycle of hikes with a fun romp in mid-October with my wife Elahna and our friends Andy, Leah and Julia, but we postponed due to work demands. Then the rescheduled hike for Saturday, October 24th was shelved when Elahna’s mother, Hadassah, collapsed and was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital. Diagnosed with colon cancer, her condition deteriorated and she died on October 28th at 12:17 a.m. with Elahna and me at her bedside. We picked out a burial plot that same day, stumbled through the funeral and sat shivah for seven, long days.
All this year, I’d been worried about my mother dying. Not once did I consider that Elahna’s mom, age 80 and beset by chronic health issues but mobile and feisty as ever, could vanish in a blink. It just wasn’t on our radar. No one knew she was this sick. And so we torture ourselves with laments. What, I wonder, might Hadassah say to all this? Der mentsh trakht un got lakht, she’d probably say. That’s Yiddish for “Man plans and G-d laughs.” She’d pronounce the words – how she loved words! – in that thick Israeli accent she harbored since her arrival in the USA in 1961, and then she’d ruefully chuckle. The photo above shows toddler Elahna with her proud mommy. In it, everything seems possible.
I embark for Monadnock on the sixth day of shivah, which is the week-long ritual period of mourning in Judaism. Technically, you’re not supposed to pursue activities beyond receiving guests, reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish and remembering the deceased, but I needed a break from the gloom and didn’t want to risk another tragedy or fluke injury or earthquake pushing this hike into December or 2016. As I approach the mountain, the blaze of orange, red and yellow leaves in the surrounding woods has faded to embers. Peak foliage, the ranger at the gate tells me, passed a week or two ago. But “there are patches,” he asserts hopefully, outlier trees still trumpeting peak beauty. This cheers me, but turns out to be untrue.
Today, which is the first day of autumn, feels like the last day of summer. Just a few, scrappy clouds pester the sky and the temperature has risen to the mid-60s by mid-morning. The forest around Mount Monadnock is deep green, not yet acquiring the browns and golds of yearly ruin. Today is also Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and maybe I should be shuttered in shul or home fasting, maybe I should be sitting on my porch contemplating inscrutable sparrows and reviewing my sins, which, by the way, is hard to do while fasting but that’s probably intended. Instead I’ve had my coffee and donut and driven to my monthly temple, Mount Monadnock, where I make teshuvah, repentance, by turning away from civilization and going up the trail.
Psalm 121, also called a Song for Ascents, begins with an apt question: I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? Put it another way: if standing at the foot of a mountain doesn’t impart some humility, doesn’t cause you to take a deep breath, regret your stubbornness and pledge to be more open to change, then what the heck does?
But first, in the parking lot, I watch a fit young woman with her toddler boy. (You can tell they’re mommy-son by the relaxed way he grabs for her hand.) Nearby sits an elaborate child carrier with padded aluminum frame – the Osprey Poco model, $200. With diapers, wipes, water, snacks, sippy cups, stuffed friends, first aid kit, toddler and child carrier, she’ll probably have 35 squirming pounds on her back. This mom must really be tired of dragging junior to the playground. She must really miss going up.
I head due west for a half mile on the Parker Trail – who’s this Parker fellow? The next day I do a little Googling and regret it. Turns out the Parker Trail was cut in 1911 by a Harvard zoologist, George Howard Parker, renowned for “discoveries about the sensory reactions of fishes and the lower invertebrates” – so says The Harvard Crimson. But it’s not his work with earthworms that bugs me; it’s his belief in the coldhearted discipline of eugenics, demonstrated in his article “The Eugenics Movement as a Public Service” in the journal Science (1915). Soberly, Dr. Parker warns against the “defective classes” whose “very growth threatens our civilization with future submergence, if not annihilation.” The solution? Sterilize handicapped people, including the blind and the deaf, in order to improve human “breeding stock.”
Two falls ago, right here, I watched deaf students happily unload from a bus and take this trail named for the man who wanted them neutered.
The definition of “defective classes,” of course, is easily expandable. The Nazis realized this and built their ideology of human destruction in part from the ideals of eugenics. Worth noting on this High Holiday. G. H. Parker lived until 1955 and I wonder if he repented his views after the grisly abominations of the Holocaust, if just in his heart. Probably not – he was an esteemed Harvard professor, after all. Not the humble type. Perhaps we should do penance for him – and for ourselves, for continuing to devalue outsider, suffering groups – by at least renaming this trail. The Freedom Trail is taken. Anyone have a good idea?
Conditions are dry and hot, about 90 degrees – in stark contrast to last month’s wet weather that had me slipping and sliding up and down the mountain. (Allow me to boast that I didn’t fall once today.) Turning off Route 124 into the parking area for the Old Toll Road, I notice a No Pipeline sign. This refers to a proposed natural gas pipeline that would transit rural communities from, according to nhpipelineawareness.org, “the fracking fields of PA to the gas hub in eastern MA.” The website paints a pretty dire picture – eminent domain takings, corporate hubris, exposure to accidents, lack of sustainability – but doesn’t once mention climate change, as in, hey, let’s leave the fossil fuels in the ground before we cook the world but good. Newsflash, as I write this: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announces that July, 2015 is the hottest month since the advent of record keeping in 1880.
And that’s no fluke – but I won’t bore you with stats. Numbers numb, say the communication honchos. Stories sell. Make ‘em cry, not think.
The curly-haired ranger who takes my fiver and gives me a map of Monadnock has a tiny nose stud and a friendly manner. “Any dogs?” she asks, peering into the backseat. I shake my head. Do people really smuggle them in? She directs me to park next to a Subaru with a Trees Not Towers, No Northern Pass bumper sticker. Everyone’s against something, I guess: mothers-in-law, light beer, income inequality, transmission lines on steel towers bringing hydroelectricity from Quebec. I can’t get behind this one much: if we environmentalists want to smack climate change in the mouth, we can’t object to every form of producing and transmitting renewable energy that offends our eyes or, in the e-lingo, “compromises pristine viewsheds.”
On the other hand, if those dread towers try to climb Monadnock…
And so, up the Old Toll Road. It’s mostly shaded, but my t-shirt gets soaked through in ten minutes. This sweaty male of the species takes a right onto the Parker Trail running east across the mountain, and the bugs make a coordinated attack. Liberal application of lotion works well except for the dive bombers buzzing my ears. I take an uphill left onto the Cliff Walk, marked by white C’s painted on rocks and plastic blazes nailed to tree trunks. The trail’s matted with aged oak leaves. After clambering up a log ladder, newly-hewn, I examine lacy moss, ivy, fungi and paint-box lichen. As if saying, hello mountain. Then I slap away, slap away, and finally kill a greenhead going for the vein on the back of my hand, and I feel bad about it. What a softie.
About 90 minutes in, I sit on a boulder with a fabulous view of green woods and retreating hills. There I munch a PB&J on stale challah bread, not bad, plus red grapes gone a bit sour. Bloated clouds plod across the sky. Hippos and ferry boats and wacky perpetual motion contraptions – those kinds of clouds, water-vapor barges plowing the Augusty day. I’m thinking about my 92-year-old mother and how, a few months ago, she lost the ability to walk more than several yards at a time, even with her walker. She gets out of breath easily and suffers from what she calls “jelly legs.” The worst part is that she refuses to be wheeled down to dinner – the crux of her social life – and is taking her meals alone in her apartment. A battery of tests and two new heart medications have made little difference. And I wonder if the change was as sudden as it seemed; perhaps hers was a gradual loss of strength that she'd been stoically fighting until, one creaky day, she fell back. She lost. My sisters think I should just accept my mother’s new status. Maybe they're right. Still, I’ve made a neurologist appointment for next month. A few more tests won’t kill her.
My bumper stick: Vitality Not Frailty. No to Debilitating Old Age.
The Cliff Walk takes a sharp right into thick pine woods. The trees’ lower branches have been snapped off by wind or fire or bears or G-d knows, and I pass a trailside boulder plush-carpeted in moss. Very sleek. Green globules of moss are scattered up and down the trail, as if spit by some monster with a bad summer cold – and there’s that bird call I’ve heard before, the hard, scraping skiiirrkk of the blue-bearded grumbler, or some such creature. A hundred yards more and I come to another stunning vista, this one on a ledge of rock protruding from the mountain. Here I’m completely exposed, beyond the treetops. From this spot I could be picked up by a swooping glider or one of Tolkien’s giant eagles. A helicopter could hover and drop a rescue rope. An alien spacecraft or NSA satellite might even mistake me for a mountain offering. I’m tempted, vaguely, to take a running leap and soar out, soar free, and fall parabolically…instead I just stand there and admire. The world is lush green, a hundred hues of green.
Today we ascend Monadnock from the north on the long, gradual Pumpelly Trail, three dauntless hikers hoofing nine miles up and back in a seamless shroud of cloud, and hold on there, you ask, what the heck is a Pumpelly?
In this case, it’s a Raphael Pumpelly (1837-1923), geology professor, archeologist, explorer (China, Turkmenistan) and beard grower extraordinaire. He “summered,” as the heedless rich say, in Dublin on the northern shore of the mountain, bestirring himself in 1884 to cut his namesake trail. In his autobiography, Pumpelly comments on Dublin’s pampered children – “When not on their ponies they spend their days exploring the mysteries of Monadnock” – and advises his Harvard-bound son to write a freshman theme about the “wild and rugged mass of Monadnock” by camping sunset to sunrise at its peak. There, counsels the old goat, “Watch the unfolding of the eternal drama that inspired religions of the ancient world,” faithfully record what you see and feel, and “don’t use similes.”
In honor of Raphael Pumpelly and his righteous beard, I pledge in this blog entry to work like a trio of Turkmen tinkerers to avoid similes. Alliteration – I make no promises.
My hiking companions are Russell, an old friend, and his girlfriend Bar. We meet at Timoleon’s “Family” Restaurant in Keene, west of Monadnock. I’d last eaten here maybe 20 years ago and the place seems frozen in time. I order two eggs over easy, home fries, toast and coffee, plus a slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie for Russell. The damage – $6.10. My old favorite chicken croquettes with apple and “special” sauces is still on the menu – $5.50. On the back wall hangs an oil painting, Monadnock in Autumn by Helena N. Putnam, featuring a maple tree ablaze and Monadnock’s rocky nib in the distance.
Russell points to an autographed photo of Telly Savalas next to the pie cabinet. It’s young Telly, pre-Kojak, with no lollipop planted in his kisser, no scrawled “Who loves ya, baby?” Nearby sits a framed headshot of a guy with a fat, 1980s tie. “Who’s that?” I ask the man behind the counter who happens to be the 88-year-old owner of the restaurant, Timoleon Chakolos. “That’s Bob Clark,” he says. As in, who else would it be and were you born under a log? It seems Bob was a friend from the insurance agency down the street who came in all the time. A big eater? I ask. Long pause. “He did all right,” drawls Mr. Chakolos.
It takes a while for me to find the trailhead. Bar seems distracted, perhaps skeptical of my competence, but we get started by mid-morning and it’s just us clomping along between tall trees, mossed-over rocks and promiscuous outbreaks of fern. The sky is white-on-white, the cloud bank low. Russell, a fit 60, is a former marathoner; Bar, an even fitter 62, once hiked the Appalachian Trail stem to stern, Georgia to Maine, and she’s contemplating another go, says Russell, “before the window closes.” Within minutes, she perks up. “It’s like a walk in the woods,” she says, and I wonder if she expected a paved trail clogged with tourists.
I’m impressed by their knowledge of flowers and birds – Bar, especially, who hears a ruffed grouse in the underbrush, ruffing and grousing about, and identifies a woodpecker as the fabled yellow-bellied sapsucker. I must admit to hearing no sucking of sap, nor do I spy a yellow belly on this industrious, red-masked fellow as he attacks bugs on a tree trunk, bunka, bunka, bunka, bunka. The Chirp! USA app on my iPod, however, soon confirms Bar as bird queen. About an hour in, Russell points out sheep laurel with its pendent clusters of red flowers and encapsulated fruit. Sheep laurel is especially toxic to, well, sheep, but it can also take down a human. Symptoms include headaches, diarrhea, sweating, excessive salivation, tingling skin, impaired coordination, green froth around the mouth, depression and recumbency (an inability to stand). Actually, I experience many of those conditions on a regular basis. Maybe someone is slipping sheep laurel into my salad.
On the first steep area, we encounter a trail crew of a dozen dirty, sweaty guys in their 20s and 30s, volunteering for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. With shovels and crowbars, they’re moving huge rocks to create a staircase and a water bar to ease erosion. Fixing the Pumpelly Trail, says one, should take about 15 years. Other than two hikers coming down and a gaggle of young folk scarfing Oreos just below the peak, these are the only people we meet on the way up.
We turn onto Shaker Farm Road and the name is apt as the old car dips and bucks ecstatically on the unpaved road. A sign reads: “Road Not Maintained for Winter” and my wife cracks, “It doesn’t look maintained for summer, either.” I drive as slowly as possible without getting bogged in a mud puddle. Scccrrrrraaaaaaape goes a rock along the exhaust pipe. Today we hike the Marlboro Trail on the western side of Mount Monadnock. “Oh, my kishkes,” adds Elahna, referring to her jangling innards; as a pediatric nephrologist (kids’ kidneys) and sole descendant of a Yiddishy mother, she speaks with some authority. Ah, finally, the lot next to the trailhead. We park among a dozen cars – all Toyotas, Hondas, Saabs and Subarus – and lay on the bug lotion. Then get hoofing.
Today, actually, is the final day of spring. Tomorrow is Father’s Day. The day after that, our fifth wedding anniversary. A gift made of wood is traditional for the fifth anniversary, so hiking into this protected-for-perpetuity forest seems a good start to celebrating our eternal union. Last year, on the big day, we attended a Star Trek convention with my daughter; I’m pretty sure trellium-D is not the traditional material for the fourth anniversary.
And yesterday, since we’re time traveling, I joined my brother Sumner for the keynote speech at a conference he attended at Harvard Law School. The speaker, mathematical biologist Martin Nowak, contended that evolution proceeds as much by cooperation as competition. In a basso Germanic accent, Nowak referred to cooperation as an “extraordinary creative force” that’s crucial in this era of planetary resource depletion and climate change – problems that technology alone can’t solve. Rather, we have to “manage the planet as a whole” if we are to “to win the struggle for existence.” Great stuff, but the joke he told had me scratching.
You see, a mathematical biologist runs into a shepherd. If I can guess the number of sheep in your flock, he says, I get one of them. The shepherd agrees. So the scientist calculates, calculates, calculates and says 207. Correct! And he grabs a sheep. Okay, says the shepherd, I get my sheep back if I can guess your profession. It’s agreed. You’re a mathematical biologist, says the shepherd. Wow, you’re right, says the man. How did you know? Because, says the shepherd, you picked up my dog.
The economists and lawyers in the hall just about split their kishkes they howled so merrily at that one. My brother gave his signature guffaw: hhrrr, hhrrr, hhrrr. I chuckled, too, but I’m not sure why. Because the academic was exposed as stupid? Because the shepherd knows about mathematical biology? And why did he settle for return to equilibrium – why not demand the sheep plus the scientist’s shoes? Was this a joke about cooperation? Huh?
It’s in the 70s, a light wind. The sun peeks out now and then, but keeps going back for cloud naps, and the trail is wide and rocky. In this former sheep pasture gone to woods, Elahna assumes the lead, her long legs gobbling up ground. Birdsong above: all gossipy trills and warbling news reports. Our conversation babbles along, too, resting upon her days as a resident, many moons ago, when she applied for a fellowship with a Harvard hospital. Some muckety-muck called her up and asked if she would say yes if they offered her the position. “That’s when I knew what I was getting into,” she says. Yes, she responded, I would. Then the offer was made. And then she accepted.
We sit on a rock and munch Trader Joe’s trail mix. A couple dozen women in their 20s come up the trail, speaking in foreign accents and wearing sneakers in green, yellow and orange fluorescent colors. I ask one of them, a tall blonde, if they’re a group. Yes, she informs us, they are au pairs. “A day off from the noisy kids,” I call out to the nannies as they trip by, and there’s much nodding and laughter. “And from the demanding mothers,” says Elahna – more laughter and zippy comments. “And from the grabby dads,” I almost chime in, but think better of it.
You know, I say to my wife, these candy-covered chocolate discs in the trail mix have thicker shells than M&Ms. Probably to forestall crushing and melting in the great outdoors. She tries one; well, maybe. Definitely, I counter, and vow to take two baggies of trail mix on my next hike in July, one with real M&Ms and one with Trader Joe’s variety. Elahna advises me to augment my field test with a laboratory experiment. Put a handful of M&Ms in the microwave, nuke for 20 seconds, then check for mushiness and cracks in the shells. Repeat with the TJ generics, 20 seconds, compare…
Spring has sprung but good up here. Spruce branches are growing fat, yellowy tips – “Evergreen expansion pods,” states Elahna – and we come across smatterings of white flowers, like miniature daisies, and red flowers in clusters on shrubs. Hard green berries grow on a vine, promises, promises. On a sloping rock shelf I photograph a single white flower – reminiscent of magnolia, but not – set in a bed of leaves. And then I look up – wow, just look at that! The hills and valleys to the west are a rhapsody in green, sunlit, shadowed, rolling to a hazy turquoise horizon.
It's been 36 days since my last climb, a generous dose of time for winter to have unlocked on Monadnock, for sleepy spring to have swung its legs off the bed, and I set my compass to the Dublin Trail on the northwest side of the mountain and set off.
At the Alewife Traffic Tangle in Cambridge, however, I return home because I’ve forgotten the elastic wraps for my surgically repaired knee and Achilles’ tendon; alas, my street is blocked off. I park a quarter-mile away and walk past five Eversource Energy workers watching one worker dig inside a square hole in the middle of the street, and if I were a free-market loving, cult-of-productivity curmudgeon I’d say, see, that’s what you get with union workers, but instead I choose to believe that it’s break time for everyone around the world except for this probationary digger, or maybe nothing can proceed until some thingamabob is unearthed and, besides, how many round men can fit in a square hole? And didn’t the company waste a bundle rebranding itself from NStar to beneficent Eversource?
At the house I call my mom. Mims fell a couple days ago and now struggles to get out of chairs and circumvent her apartment, no less steer her walker to the mailboxes or dining room at her “independent living” facility. I’ve arranged for aides to bring her lunch and dinner until she regains strength, but she insists they didn’t come yesterday and doesn’t want lunch anyway, so I call Janice, the nice lady in Home Support, who reports that the aides did, in fact, show up. Complicating matters, the fall may have resulted from weakness brought on by a bladder infection to be confirmed by urinalysis. Infections can render the elderly fuzzier and more forgetful than usual, which probably explains the differing stories, although Mims has never shied from telling “white lies” to effect desired outcomes.
I should do something, right? So I call her primary care doctor, the wonderful Jennifer Tam – several times I’ve assured my mother that Dr. Tam can afford a nanny to care for her children while she works – and leave a message. Then I take a deep breath and get back on the road.
Halfway to New Hampshire, I notice a message from Dr. Tam on my cell; I guess I didn’t hear the ringing while Stevie Nicks crooned from the oldies station. The urinalysis is still out but she’s decided to “bite the bullet” and write a prescription for an antibiotic. So it occurs to me that I should turn the car around, drive two hours south, pick up the Cipro at the pharmacy, and deliver it to Mims today. Be the Good Son. Or I can hike Mount Monadnock and get the medicine tomorrow. Automatic Rationalization kicks in – what’s another day, she might not even have an infection, I’ve got to take care of myself sometimes, this is minor league baseball compared to her hip surgery, anemia, seizure from hydrocephalus, flu bout, collapsed lung and subcutaneous emphysema – but that only makes it worse.
I crank the radio, nuke the guilt. I keep going north.
In Marlboro, New Hampshire, I’m lost. At a food truck, from a man cradling a hot dog camouflaged in sauerkraut, I get directions that take me to the Dublin Lake Club. In 1940, members of this exclusive private golf club – mostly summering New Yorkers and Bostonians; Cabots and Lodges and that lot – squashed a plan to run a paved road from the village of Dublin to the peak of Monadnock, an abomination that would have brought extra riffraff to their side of the mountain. Good for them, even if their motivations were more elitist than ecological. In the club’s parking lot, an old woman pulls a wheeled golf bag from the trunk of her car – oh my G-d, that could be my mom just ten years ago. She golfed at two country clubs into her eighties and then old age came fast and hard, bitch-slapped her. From here I take the unpaved Old Troy Road a couple miles through thick, shady woods and join six cars parked at the trailhead. Birds are madly tweeting, the self-serve pay station is out of envelopes, and I’m underway by 12:40 p.m.
It’s 75 degrees on the Dublin Trail. The canopy of spruce and maple trees nearly shuts out the sky crowded with puffy clouds. Bugs buzz, the first of the year, and ants patrol a boulder. At first the trail is flat and rolling, all rocks and roots, and, weirdly, it isn’t marked by paint blazes but by rectangles of metal the size of electrical plates loosely nailed to tree trunks. I don’t like this, no sir, don’t like anything man-made or unMonadnockian in my way. I stop at a klatch of five gossiping birches in the middle of the trail and call Mims, telling her that I’ll arrive with antibiotics tomorrow morning, first thing, and our conversation is a staccato mess as she inveighs against the lunch delivery and we go back and forth and all around about what’s happening when, why and by whom.
“Hey, guess what?” I say. “I’m standing in a grove of birch trees on Mount Monadnock. It’s beautiful.”
A long pause.
“That’s good,” she says, “you enjoy yourself.” Her voice has perked up, emerged from the disputatious fog and everyday humiliations of advanced age, and she’s my mother again caring for my happiness, reminding me to live. “You enjoy yourself today.”
I’m ten minutes from Mount Monadnock in my mother-in-law’s 1994 Toyota Corolla and one of those mobile signage contraptions with the black letters – in New Hampshire they tend to spell out Meat Raffle or Praise the Lord – has been rolled in front of the United Church of Jaffrey. Today we learn: Life Is A Gift. Indeed, yes. I believe this. Life’s not a curse, not a things-to-do list and not simply better than the alternative. It’s a gift. My wife, Elahna, often gives me a kiss as she rises in the morning and whispers, “Every day is a gift.”
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.
Up Birchtoft I go – birches, actually, are a minority tree in this oak and pine forest, huddled in groups of two or three, a few solo acts in corners – and the mud-creased trails get me thinking about my mother’s invocation back in the day. “Keep this up,” she’d say to her unruly children, “and your name will be mud.” Our names, it’s crucial to note, never actually became mud; her words served as a perennial threat to counter anti-social behavior. I took it to mean that a dire stain could somehow, magically, by parental or divine fiat, be visited upon my measly self, but I didn’t consider the name part much. So I do now: why ground wet dirt into my very name, as if to cover or even erase it?
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.
This month I start from the quiet, southwest side of Mount Monadnock. The trailhead is served by a circular driveway crammed with about 20 cars, and the ranger’s booth sits empty. So I pocket my fiver: free climb today. Ducking under the one-armed gate to the Old Toll Road, I get underway full of vim, vigor and old-time moxie, the air bracing on my cheeks, the sky dark-blue as the “dungarees” I wore as a child. A coming-down-the-mountain codger hails “Nice day!” “Perfect!” I respond, and moments later I divert onto the Old Halfway House Trail and meander through wintry woods.
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.
Over the next rise, I tromp across the flat, treeless site of the Halfway House, an inn which operated on the mountain from 1860 until World War II; in 1954 it burned to the ground and not a shred of the building remains visible in any season. Many of the inn’s visitors arrived by horse-drawn carriage or motor car on the toll road; others walked several miles in from the train station. It’s said that Ulysses S. Grant and the boxer John L. Sullivan stayed there, as well as hordes of Bostonians seeking the cure of mountain air and marvelous views. J.S. Winter’s entertaining novel Murder on Mount Monadnock peoples the Halfway House with turn-of-the-century celebrity murder suspects, including Red Sox pitcher Smoky Joe Wood, randy young Franklin Roosevelt, vaudevillian Lillie Langtry and a young German who later became the World War I flying ace known as the “The Red Baron.”
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.
In the 40 days following my January hike, eight feet of snow fell on both my house in Somerville and the rocky shoulders of Mount Monadnock. As storm after storm rolled across New England, as I shoveled and reshoveled the driveway and sidewalk like a snow-mad man, a mountain of fallen and tossed-up snow grew in my little front yard, reminiscent, passersby concurred, of the Matterhorn. My attempts to top off the peak, alas, resulted in a strained right oblique, and then temperatures crashed below zero. How, I wondered, will I get in my February climb? So I waited, and waited, and on the month’s last day the sky turned platinum blue, the world warmed into the 20s and my side miraculously healed. Let’s go!
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
To my surprise, snowshoers have tramped down the snow covering the White Dot Trail, good enough that my boots penetrate only a few inches with each step. Swerve a few feet off the trail, though, and you’re floundering thigh deep. I move quickly over the snow pack, scanning the woods to admire tall, shivering birches, unburdened by ice, and the black brushstrokes of tree trunks and branches shadowed on the snow. In places the crisscrossing patterns evoke veiny muscles or brain neurons.
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.
On the frigid peak enshrouded in racing, white cloud, the mountain zipped up in a coat of furry rime-ice, I meet a man wearing a Scottish kilt. It’s a green-and-gold tartan number, over blue jeans. Today is his 60th birthday and in celebration I give him a Nutter Butter cookie made, says the box, with real peanut butter. Oh thank you, he pipes, as if it’s the final piece in life’s confounding puzzle. We stamp our feet and munch our cookies down.
Let’s go back five hours. I’m leaving my house in Somerville, 12 feet above sea level, and I step off the front walk onto an ice-slick flagstone – whoosh, yikes, my limbs go spastic. Somehow, I recover before falling. At least I didn’t snap or tear anything. So I get in the car, not realizing that I’ve forgotten my camera, and my wife comes out to wave me away, as is our custom; whoever leaves first in the morning gets a big porch wave from the remaining spouse, regardless of the weather outside or inside the house. Today she wears her supportive, worried expression.
Halfway to New Hampshire, the oldies station gives me Stephen Stills warbling, “Stop, hey, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down,” and while I can’t remember the name of the song (For What It’s Worth) or the group (Buffalo Springfield), I do recall Stills’ solo concert at Boston College when I was a student there in 1981. He came on stage drunk or high and stumbled around playing incoherent guitar and mumbling lyrics. Alas, no Crosby, Nash, or Young provided harmony, no Wooden Ships sailed across the Roberts Center gym that’s since been demolished for a science building. He seemed old and broken-down at age 36. (Now at age 60, he’s sober and still touring.)
Today my weather app calls for sun, but everything’s socked in. Mount Monadnock hides in grayish clouds with a yellow, sulfurous tinge from wood stoves cranking since dawn. Six cars dot the parking lot. By 10:40 I’m geared up and going up, too.
The ice on the trail is thicker than last month, a translucent seal. Underfoot, black boulders appear like surfacing turtles, like sea monsters frozen in mid-escape. When I stop to rest and hydrate at the Cascade Link turnoff, a young woman skitters by. She's stripped down to a sleeveless t-shirt; I’m wearing three layers plus coat, wool hat and fleece gloves over a new pair of runner’s gloves with metal-fiber fingertips for fine-motor activities like tapping cell phone buttons or unwrapping the short sleeve of Nutter Butters in my pack. I wave to her, unzip my coat a bit.
With a temperature of 33 degrees at the base, and no storms forecast, this won’t be a day for perishing on the mountain. Only one hiker has died of hypothermia here, according to Monadnock: More than a Mountain. That poor soul was Charles MacVeagh, Jr., a 23-year old Harvard College graduate whose family owned a house in nearby Dublin. MacVeagh had climbed Monadnock hundreds of times, and so there was nothing unusual on the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, 1920, when he and friend Charlton Reynders took the Dublin Trail toward the peak. The sky was sunny and blue-jay blue, in the 50s, so they left behind their fur-lined coats and gloves. Just a February lark and back for supper! Then a freak blizzard arose and a tragic series of events followed. Poor Reynders saved himself by firing his revolver into the air, attracting the attention of Frederick Nettleton, the caretaker of the MacVeagh house, who had set out after dark to find them.
This time, I’ve prepared better. I climb with my asthma inhaler, bandages, digital camera instead of iPod and a short sleeve of classic black Oreos, not golden ones, not minty ones, and certainly not the Double Stuf variety that upends the universe’s stuf-cookie ratio. I also bring a fleece hood (balaclava), extra sweatshirt, two pairs of gloves and a shiny pair of spikes for my boots. (The Kahtoola MICROspikes Traction System, in fact.) They look like futuristic spats, with a rubbery red girdle around the ankle supporting a net of chain-metal teeth biting below.
This time, I also leave Somerville early and cross into New Hampshire before 10 a.m. At a country store there’s a Dunkin' Donuts secreted within and I fuel up with java and a slobbery breakfast sandwich thing. Four beefy hunters in cammo gear sprawl across plastic chairs. Done for the day or just starting, I’m not sure. I make the mountain by 10:30 and all of five cars sit in the lot. Yes, Mount Monadnock may be one of the most popular climbing destinations in the world, but not today. And now for a good slap at Mount Fuji.
Fuji, outside Tokyo, claims to be the world’s most-climbed mountain. It gets an estimated 200,000 visitors each year, compared to 100,000 for Monadnock. Okay, fine, but what does it mean to climb a mountain? At Fuji, the trails are marked not with paint swipes and dabs on rocks and trees, nor with the noble rock towers called cairns. No, Fuji’s trails are lined with iron chains between posts, designed to keep Fuji trudgers on track. Fuji has trailside huts with hot tea and rooms for napping. There’s a visitor center on top! Sure, it’s almost four times as high as Monadnock, but you can drive halfway up. The “anonymous monk” who bagged the peak in 663, he climbed a mountain. Last year’s Fuji-toppers, not so much.
Today the White Dot Trail is a rocky, icy snake and the woods are ground-covered with crusty snow, glowing in patches of sun. The random, cross-cutting shadows of tree trunks draw black, irregular lines on the white. Five minutes up, a kid in his 20s long-strides past me. He wears running shoes with neon-yellow strips. “Wow, sneakers,” I say and he responds that he left his boots “in the trunk of my car and I might regret it.” (So go back, I don’t say, and get them.) “I might not make the top,” he adds, as if it doesn’t matter that much. He disappears up the trail.
Thirty minutes in, I rest on a flat, sun-streaked rock in the vicinity of Falcon Spring, just south of the turnoff to Cascade Link Trail. According to the book Monadnock: More than a Mountain, by Craig Brandon, the spring has been “a landmark for over two centuries” and was first called Bubbling Spring. Then it got renamed for William Falconer, “the original forest fire lookout watchman” on the mountain. I like the sound of that: forest fire lookout watchman. Snow’s melting here, a faint tickling, and the rustle of leaves in the wind is like a hand brushing lint from a shoulder. A guy goes by in his MICROspikes and I think, hell, why not, time to put mine on.
It’s an easy adjustment; the spikes grip the ice firmly and don’t get caught on the release. Just like that, I’m ripping along. At first I enact a reverse hiking protocol, avoiding rocks in favor of snow and ice, but soon I stop worrying about blunting the spikes and just climb over dirt, mud, granite and slush, up ice inclines, into snow cavities, across anything and everything. And I get to wondering about Interstellar, G-d knows why, imagining myself defending the movie to a former colleague at Boston University who raved about some pedantic, mediocre film in which a jerky college professor plays bongos in the subway…let it go, Hal, let it go…and it’s not just the amazing visuals, the echoes of 2001, the All-American pluck of Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway that I enjoyed so much. Interstellar expresses the anguished gulfs between people in conflict and especially between people in conflict who love each other.
Many years ago I was a movie reviewer for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. They paid me a pittance to type overwrought stuff like this: The gaps between characters in Interstellar are as galactic as the space-ocean McConaughey traverses. Love in Interstellar doesn’t so much redeem or transform, but sends out stealthy homing signals. It’s about seeking, striving, losing, enduring. Fear not, we’re entangled on the quantum level even as we speak to each other face to face without understanding.
And the robots. The fence-post robots are totally cool.
Around noon I sit on a stone mesa, and off come my sweat-soaked gloves and hat. Here’s the day’s first mitzpe – Hebrew for bird’s-eye view – a panorama of gray cloud, faraway hills and snow-clotted countryside. Closer by, several evergreens have turned a sickly pea-green, and the wind moves sideways on the mountain according to the wet index-finger test. Even though I’m not thirsty, I make myself drink. Two magnificent hawks soar above, swooping, brushing wings – playful or provocative, it’s hard to tell – and their parabolic cries fall smack-dab into my ears. Then they’re gone. Okay, up and at ‘em, and before long the trail becomes steeper, snowier, icier. Slow going and lots of fun.
It’s one o’clock on Election Day in the USA. I’ve done my civic duty at the Dante Club in Somerville, Mass., and now I’m hiking the White Dot Trail with a splitting headache – an angry something’s been axing its way out of my skull since I clonked my dome on a doorway this morning while searching for the wristwatch I’ve worn for 15 years, and things only got worse as I ran around town car-gassing, ATMing and package-mailing. It was like being stuck in tar, but eventually I shook loose and now I’m free and moving in the chill air, happy, very happy, to be ascending my mountain again.
I breathe in, out, climb.
Behind me, at the trailhead, my car is one of 25 vehicles in the unpaved lot. It’s an uncrowded day on the third-most-climbed mountain in the world, cloudy in the 50s. I paid five bucks for admission and a map, and the ranger advised that darkness drops at 4:38 p.m. So far I’ve passed only a man shambling downhill in old sneakers and a hoodie. He grips a small bottle of water and wears no daypack. Just wandered by, went up on a whim. There’s always one of those guys.
I’ve gone up Mount Monadnock a couple dozen times. During my inaugural clamber as a freshman at Boston College – fall of 1978, a dorm field trip – I wore low-top canvas sneakers purchased at Herb’s Sports Shop in my hometown of West Hartford, Connecticut, and I sprained my ankle on the descent but said nothing, didn’t want to be the wuss. I carried a heavy crush for a young lady from New Jersey who I’d danced with the night before. The song we shared, I recall, was Start Me Up by the Rolling Stones, and such is the deceit of memory; Start Me Up and its raunchy lyrics didn't come out until the fall of 1981, my senior year. At that freshman “mixer” we probably bobbed to the flirtatious stylings of Olivia Newton-John or The Bee Gees.
Now I veer north on the Cascade Link Trail and hip-hop stone to stone across a mellow brook, my feet wrapped in waterproofed, air-cushioned Yakota Trail Merrill hiking boots, size 13. Color: walnut with yellow streaks. Made: in China, of course. Bought: at a chain-store shoe outlet, name forgotten. Loping along in my miracle boots, I notice the brook’s surface painted with autumn leaves floating on their backs, lazily spinning. Dark green rugs of moss encircle the bases of trees. I stop; it’s all quiet, or nearly so. I stand alone here just as the mountain stands alone in its environment. Monadnock means “lone mountain” or “island mountain” in the Abenaki Indian language, and indeed it exists without brothers, a rocky knuckle jutting from rolling forests. It looms in southern New Hampshire much like Mt. Kilimanjaro rises from the plains of Tanzania.
Perhaps I exaggerate. Perhaps not. For many New Englanders with but a spark of transcendental yearning, mighty Monadnock is our Kilimanjaro.
And then, birches. Around the corner dozens of skinny birches scatter up the slope, some alone, some in clumps of three or four. The leaves have come off surrounding oak and maple trees, so these birches really pop, shine white. It’s their glamour moment. After all, what’s better than ghost-white birches, trunks flecked with black splotches and stripes, reaching their gangly selves to heaven? These early-November birches go up, up, up. They’re making time before enveloping ice bends them astray, thwarts their ambition.
I rest my 54-year-old bones on a rock at the turnoff to the Red Spot Trail. Sunrays wheedle through cirrus clouds. I guzzle water, but the headache persists. Do I have a concussion? Wouldn’t be the first – banging into this low-flying world is a drawback of my 6’6’’ height. (Another is people informing me that I am, indeed, tall.) Why, I consider, was it so important to find that watch this morning? (It appeared a week later next to a stuffed giraffe in the attic.) A present from Kathleen, a former girlfriend, my watch is a sweep-hand model, retro and expensive, with a wristband of silver chain links. Kathleen picked it out at the now-defunct Filene’s Basement in Boston. She loved me and I loved her and, ultimately, I let her down. Sure, I had my reasons, but still. The watch is the only thing from that period – the years between the death of my first marriage and the day I met my beloved wife, Elahna – that I carry on my person. It keeps me, I hope, humble.
On this sunny rock I peel off my blue windbreaker and fleece, exposing a long-sleeve t-shirt. Beneath that, a regular tee. I’m layered like this forest world, its ragged garments a chaos of oranges, browns and blacks. Stray bird calls break through, clipped like afterthoughts. Bird blurts is more like it. Henry David Thoreau – who confined his Monadnock trips to spring and summer, camping beneath the boughs of red spruce trees – made his last ascension in August, 1860, two years before his death. On that hike he identified a bird that made “a dry, hard occasional chirp, more in harmony with the rocks.” Have I now heard his rock-harmony bird? Wrong time of year, sure, but things have changed a lot since then.