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.
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.
When I make the summit – 1:10 – I tap my pole on the bronze benchmark put there in 1931. My mom, now home from rehab and chafing against her aides – was seven then. She attended a Catholic school across the street from her home on Phipps Street in Quincy. Her brother Paul, who died two years ago of Parkinson’s disease, had just been born. The nuns at her school, my mom says, weren’t allowed a Christmas tree and stared across the street at their family tree glimmering in the living room window. Now alone atop Monadnock, I hunker behind a tall rock to avoid the whipping wind, but it’s impossible. No loitering today and I quickly unpack my lunch and take off my gloves to scoop granola. Rookie mistake! Yikes, cold! Fortunately I have a second, puffier pair of black gloves. They’re shabby, starting to tear. I remember my daughter Kelsey, now grown, wearing these gloves to shovel snow when she was a wacky kid; they flopped on her hands like penguin flippers.
Two middle-aged women appear from Monadnock’s northern side. They wave and one calls out, “No Boston today.” Indeed, the Hub of the Universe is shrouded behind the dark ring of cloud circling the mountain like an atoll. The women share a couple of high-pitched laughs and then go back the way they came. I follow suit down the southern side and my foolish hands don’t stop stinging for 15 minutes.
Before making the tree line, I run into a group of African-American hikers without poles or spikes; one wears sheepskin boots and tells me that the mountain is more challenging than she expected. Behind her an overweight young man struggles up a rock slab, gulping air. He’s got no coat, just layers of shirts topped with a faded flannel. His two friends watch him anxiously. Okay? I ask, and he nods. no problem. Two minutes later I cross paths with a man in his 50s, fit and moving fast. He’s got primo gear, of course, and he’s positively Presbyterian in carriage, giving a stiff “hello” while ever-so-barely turning his head.
Hooray! The same old blather!
Whoa – wipeout! Down on my flat ass I go. A pole leaps loose, skittering downhill, and I jam my right shin against a jutting rock. Then I butt-scooch to my pole and fit my hand through the handle loop. It won’t go – huh? And so ensues five minutes of trying to adjust the loop – I’ve only had these poles for a year, after all – and why on earth am I such a slow learner? A slearner, I say aloud, and chuckle. Then I get out my cell and call my wife at the hospital. She’s on call, between patients, and we have a quick chat. “Who,” I wonder, “will get home first?” “Too early to tell,” she says, and we laugh at the idea that it’s a race. Correction: that’s why I laughed, I can’t really speak for her, no less understand her half the time – but it doesn’t matter as long as our tethered cords pull us together.
Still on my butt, I take a few notes. Great, my Farmer’s Daughter Hotel pen has died. I haul up and resume the trek and, no, if you’re wondering, tall people don’t have an advantage going downhill. The reverse, actually. Three reasons. One: on the downhill, it’s better to have a low center of gravity to maintain balance. Two: our knees are achier than yours and downhill braking puts pressure on tender knee bits. Three: from our vantage point, the ground seems a long, long way down.
Three o'clock, and the slope eases. The trail has been groomed with the occasional log step or water bar and I hear distant water rushing – or is it traffic? An ascending hiker appears in a college sweatshirt, holding a water bottle. Boots, yes, but no poles or backpack. There’s always one of those guys. Can he make the peak and back before dark? And then I see my old friend from last month, the portly guy coming up the trail with his stuffed Osprey backpack and a headlamp strapped across his forehead like a third eye. His pants are spandex, red-striped, awesome. And his shaggy beard – did he have a beard last time?
“How’s it going?” I ask, slowing down. “It’s going great!” he says, and I think, maybe, he recognizes me but he doesn’t stop because he’s a monster of momentum, he’s working those poles, and his MICROspikes are grabbing but good. Up, up and away…
At the base I remove my spikes. Walking is sorta loosey-goosey for a minute. Hey, there’s my friend’s gray van; it sports no bumper or back-window stickers, nothing to give a clue. Next time, I should introduce myself. At my car – which also makes no statements except I’m red, I’m a sports car, and you’re not – I change socks. The big toenail on the right foot, a yellow crust of its former self, is starting to fold over – the last nail to go after my autumn hike in Israel. I check my shin boo-boo: bruised and scabbed, not bleeding. Doesn’t hurt much. My wife will fuss over it, though, and I must admit I’m looking forward to that.