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.
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.”
A couple of teens, probably tenth graders, come down the trail. The girl has jet-black hair cut in a jazzy bob and chirps a birdy “Hi.” Her companion is well over six feet tall and hikes in size-12, bare feet that slop gracefully from granite stone to stone. “He’s a hobbit,” I comment, and the girl loves this. “Yes,” she says, “you’re Bilbo!” The boy will have none of it. “I’m Frodo,” he says. “You shall call me Frodo.” And they disappear downhill. He’s Frodo before the Ring, I think to myself. Frodo Untroubled. Frodo of the Shire.
The trail, I notice now, is lined with patches of moss, baby ferns and striving saplings, and as I go higher the mountain seems to get mossier, fernier and more striving. The forest canopy is sun-shimmered, glowing a brilliant green. At the tree line the view westward is a fantastic, undulating meadow of green rolling to Vermont and beyond, and just a little higher I come across the year's first Monadnock flowers blazing purple on low bushes. Quick stepping, I encounter rock cairns and a crumpled Budweiser can next to a pile of orange peels, as well as pinkish-white flowers in rock divots. The summit's made by 2:40, a two-hour ascension. Of course, I tap my hiking pole on one of the geodetic plaques – tradition! Eight or nine other human beings have joined me on this exclusive spot – five bucks and working legs are the only entrance fees – including a young couple who ask this stranger to take their photo and then rush to their day packs. “C’mon, let’s crush those sandwiches,” he says to her. Excellent idea – I find a crevice facing north and commence crushing mine.
“I don’t like heights,” he says. “Right now I’m scared I’m gonna fall down the side of the mountain.” The grandson, in a UMASS sweatshirt, retorts: “But you go skiing.” The old man grumbles, “I know, I don’t understand it,” and he lies flat and stares up with closed eyes. Some vestigial fear has been exposed in him, on this pinprick of granite. He’s not so scared to stop complaining, though: “I thought you said there were no bugs up here.” The kid replies, “I guess I was wrong” in a toneless voice…same old gramps being gramps…
As I shovel Trader Joe’s Rainbow’s End Trail Mix down my craw like any good Irish Jew should do, a small, gray bird hops by. Hey, little fella, you’re a long way up. Not lost, are you? She’s got sloped shoulders and an extended, thin tail – a red-eyed vireo, maybe. I toss her a chocolate chunk. Nothing doing, and she bounds away like a bird pogo stick.
“You’re sure this is the way down, huh?” It’s the old man again. He’s on his feet but maintains a protective crouch against tsunami wind, mountain bird attack, G-d’s flicking finger, what not. “’Cause I ain’t going any higher,” he adds, and the kid smirks as they get moving, side by side, peas in the cross-generational pod. Then I notice a tiny spider on my pack. Hello – do you live up here or did you hitch a ride?
A half-hour later, I come upon an ascending couple in their twenties; he’s beefy in white t-shirt with slicked-back hair, she’s sturdy and buxom in purple sleeveless top and tight shorts. I stand atop a knob of granite, thirty feet above the pair, and hear her exclaim, “Your girlfriend, she must be some kind of fitness freak.” He: ‘Yeah, she goes to the gym like six times a week.” She, derisively: “She’s tiny.” He: “Yeah, a buck twenty.” They stop and look up at me. Between us slopes an expanse of boulders, trees and shrubs.
“Which way should we go?” she hollers. Not nicely. Hand on hips, demanding. I retort, “It’s all good. Just pick one.” No, it’s not all good for Ms. Congeniality. She maintains her pose, stares, and I try again: “Go to your right for about ten yards, then cut back to the middle.” This she does, exactly so, and he follows at her smoking heels; no one says thank you, oh wise mountain man. Recklessly, I slide down a steep boulder to avoid them.
An hour later, at the base of Monadnock where 19th century sheep reigned on rocky pasture, I notice old stone walls that weren’t there before. Ghost stones? More likely, there’s no limit to what a preoccupied mind can miss – and, whoosh, a chipmunk scoots across the trail with an acorn in his mouth. A nut as big as his head, lucky guy! He’s got white racing stripes on his fur, and, double-whoosh, he’s gone. At the trailhead parking area, I change into sandals and drive away down the Old Troy Road to the Dublin Lake Club where the wealthy cavort to the Old Marlboro Road to Charcoal Road to the highway.
Yes, I’ve enjoyed myself. Tomorrow morning I’ll bring a bottle of pills to my mom.