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.
I can’t, however, fit sledders, sleds, mountain and impossibly blue sky into my camera’s frame. So I step backwards and just like that – Wham-O! – tumble off the rock and vanish to my waist in a snow drift. I list over like a turtling sailboat. I eat snow – but I don’t drop the camera! The guys rush forward and help me back onto the boulder. Are you okay? Yes, I’m fine. Are you sure, really? Yes, of course, and I order them to reassemble. “The show must go on,” I shout, channeling Ethel Merman. And I get the money shot.
Print it, boys, put it in the can!
This episode, oddly, energizes me. Up, up I go. Twenty minutes later, lungs heaving, I’m at the sun-spangled peak and once more I tap my hiking pole on the U.S. Geodetic Society plaque. About a dozen hikers congregate among the rocks. The wind is light, the view spectacular. A rosy filament, like cushioning gauze, floats between the sky’s blue dome and the faraway White Mountains to the north. It’s cold up here, sure, but not “stone-cleaving cold” as Emerson warned. I give him credit, though. He may not have surmounted Monadnock before writing his poem, but he knew what it felt like on top. He understood the power of realizing one’s insignificance in the face of overwhelming beauty; he grasped the freedom of looking beyond yourself and trying to recall what in G-d’s glorious earth is so important about the stuff you’ve been fussing about lately.
Hither we bring
Our insect miseries to the rocks,
And the whole flight with pestering wing
Vanish and end their murmuring,
Vanish beside these dedicated blocks,
Which, who can tell what mason laid?
I spin about: behind me, two young women pose for a guy holding a smart phone. I scoot to one side, but not without making a lame retort about their photobombing my reality, and besides, I didn’t realize I was in the way. So begins, between myself and three other crazy people on the summit of Mount Monadnock on a clear, blue day in latest February, 2015, a spirited discussion of the phenomenology of photobombing. It is strongly asserted by my new friends that intentionality in photobombing is irrelevant; indeed, you must assume responsibility for the act even if you wander into the camera frame searching for a dropped water bottle cap. Is photobombing, I ask, an obnoxious offense? No, no, the millennials inform me, photobombing is a creative means to insert “flavor” into someone else’s constructed reality. What, perchance, is “flavor”? Personal style, says the youngest of the lot; she wears, for instance, flavorful fleece boots.
The upshot is that I’m clueless regarding photobombing. Not as clueless as my wife, I interject. She didn’t even know the term until she witnessed Benedict Cumberbatch photobombing Meryl Streep – or was it the other way around? – at the Golden Globes. The young folk shake their heads at my wife's ignorance, but when I add that she’s a doctor preoccupied with saving lives and stuff, they let her off the hook. The conversation migrates to other digital pursuits. I learn from fleece boots, as she shoulders her pack and departs the mountaintop, that “podcasting is the future.”
Yes, that may be true. Podcasting, very futuristic. Lava lamps, however, were the future once. Pet rocks, eight-track cartridges, Richard Nixon, electric football and The Flip Wilson Show, too. And that takes me to junior high school. The future is a teasing, elusive bugger. But I’m pretty sure that Mount Monadnock, absent a direct meteor hit, will be around for this forever-becoming, forever-improving future. Snow-snug, harboring ancient heat, it’s got staying power. “Old as the sun,” wrote Emerson. “Old almost as the shade.”
Ages are thy days.
As I start to head down, I almost step on a nine-year-old girl in a pink snowsuit. She’s hopping about, as my mother would say, like a flea. A snow flea. I ask her dad if she climbed all the way up by herself and he nods vigorously. Proud papa. On cue she rolls down a slope, lands in a snow-divot and pops up giggling, a ball of pink rubber. And a traumatic head injury waiting to happen, but I don’t say that.
I chase the sound – knees churning high like a Budweiser Clydesdale – and make it back to the main trail where Dylan, Christian and Tim go rocketing by on their foam sleds. Whoa, baby, one goes airborne over a boulder, landing in a snarl of branches! Whing, another swerves down the trail like a runaway snow bunny! Woo-hoo, the third shudders past, legs held high and hollering. All three, joy in motion. All three, unleashed.
I’m wearing a pair of gray rain pants over my jeans, to keep them from getting soaked. They’re part of a Jack Nicklaus rain gear set I received from my first-marriage father-in-law. He wanted, I suspect, a son-in-law who never lets a little water ruin the annual golfing vacation to Myrtle Beach. The kind of guy who cleans his short irons with a Brillo Pad in the depths of February. Well, sorry for disappointing you, Frank, and I take several running steps down the White Dot Trail and leap onto my ass. Whoosh – instant sled! I hurtle down the mountain, Larry-style, picking up speed at an alarming, exhilarating rate. The green-and-white world whips and whirls by, my body buckles over the snow-slick ground from tailbone to toe tips to skull-top, and I’m photobombing images snapped by satellites spinning above. And suddenly I flash on the last time I went sledding, twelve years ago, an adventure that ended in the emergency room.
Oh, who the hell cares. Woo-hoo! Woo-hoo!
A couple hundred yards along, I brake with my boots to a stop. The world ceases and I stand up, drunk-dizzy, smiling. I gulp draughts of cold air. Nothing, apparently, is broken. And one of the three sled-dudes calls to me. “Wow, man” he says. “That’s a good sled.”