This story was originally published in the Summer/Fall 2008 issue of Appalachia.
My wife, Stephanie, peeked her head into the garage as I balanced on a ladder trying to locate my backpack in the above storage area. It was the highest elevation I had reached in six years. My old Kelty external frame lay crushed under an old baby car seat. The pack, that relic of a way of life of spontaneity I’d left behind when Ian was born, had waited patiently. It was time.
During the past year, all spontaneity had succumbed to the anguish of endless appointments and lack of control as Steph and I had struggled to complete our family with another child. Now she was pregnant. Regardless of the outcome, however, it was time to get back at living. Even though she would stay behind, Steph knew it was important for me to go and refocus on our son who had waited so patiently.
The itinerary was simple: an easy hike on day one in New Hampshire’s White Mountains to the Zealand Falls Hut, where we’d spend the night, and then a longer trek on day two to Galehead Hut via the Twinway. On paper, it appeared doable. The one thing in my aged guidebook that gnawed at me as I popped in a John Denver CD for inspiration was that hiking was a sport of self-reliance. “Keep in mind,” the book warned, “that at any time we may have to rely solely on our own ingenuity and judgment, aided by map and compass, to reach our goals or even make a timely exit from the woods.” Pre-Ian, ingenuity consisted of wrapping duct tape around the jar of peanut butter in case I needed it. As for judgement, I reacted to things as they came my way. Now, I realized, it wasn’t just about me. I had to get Ian back alive as well.
Despite the self-doubt, it felt great to be back in the Whites. After we pulled into the trailhead parking lot, I helped Ian with his Blue Trax pack, strapped on the Kelty (it felt heavier than it had at home), and off we went.
Within minutes, it all came back to me. The gurgling brooks, sunlight beaming through the trees, and leather hikers on my feet—all had not changed since I had left them six years ago. As Ian tromped alongside, making sure to step in mud wherever possible, I reflected on the years when I had hiked with friends or girlfriends, never imagining that I’d be on the trail with my own child.
And so it went for a quick two hours, until we reached the Zealand Falls Hut at 2,630 feet. So far, so good, I thought. A perfect way to start. Zealand was always one of my favorites because of its location. Crystal clear pools interrupted steep cascades of flowing water. I imagined Powhatan bathing in them long ago during hunting journeys. Inside the hut, little had changed since my last visit. Ian had followed me into the bunkhouse as I leaned my pack in a corner against two unoccupied bunks.
“Daddy, let’s take a top one,” Ian said. As I looked up, what would have been a no-brainer pre-Ian now filled me with dread. Ingenuity. Judgment. The top ones were more than ten feet from the wooden floor. I pictured Ian’s body tumbling down headfirst.
“Buddy, let’s try the middle ones.”
“No Daddy, the top!” The top it was. He climbed the wooden ladder with glee, then threw Blue Trax next to the wool blanket that might have been there the last time I made it to the huts. When we checked in, too, everything was familiar: rows of red hardcover journals, heavy green plastic coffee cups, black-and-white photos of carpenters building the hut in the 1930s, and the friendly college-student croo that checked us in.
I gave Ian a tour. “Ian, the toilets here don’t flush. There’s no electricity.” I couldn’t resist listing the lid and shining the flashlight inside. “Ewwww, Daddy, that’s disgusting,” he said, holding his nose and smiling. We laughed.
After a jaunt through the falls and brief dip in a bone-chilling pool, we sat down to a delicious chicken dinner. “Ian,” I said as I passed him a plate of rolls, “did you know that the croo carries everything you’re eating on their backs and brings all the trash down?”
“No,” he said, looking as if he didn’t know whether I were telling the truth or not. “There’s no supermarket on the mountain, buddy. They have to carry it up. Just like you did with your apples.”
It was a path not taken, the croo life, which I had passed up in the 1980s to work at a local lumberyard. I pulled from the shelf several of the journals dated around the time I last made it to Zealand Falls and looked for my entries. Ian played Jenga at one of the tables with a Canadian couple’s daughter. I smiled at my son’s ability to adapt, making friends at the top of a mountain. And then I saw the familiar cursive, words from the past echoing like a Harry Potter journal coming to life.
June 5, 1999. Arrived after a late start. Caught in the rain but glad to be here at last. The view is unreal and puts all of the things we consider problems into perspective. Steph loves it up here as well.
Pre-grad school. I had recently returned from the Peace Corps and was working temp jobs trying to figure things out. I got lost in the entries, flipping from the 1970s to the 1980s, 1990s, and back again. The scope of experiences was incredible. People had come from all over the world to the Whites. Franz from Berlin, Germany. A couple from New York City had spent their honeymoon on the mountain. A girl from Texas wrote about her sadness over the assassination of John Lennon
“Lights out in fifteen minutes,” the croo chief called out. I hastened Ian back to the unlit bunk room as the croo extinguished the overhead lamps.
I felt ridiculous getting out my heavy plastic flashlight with its large D batteries as people passed by with their headlamps. But Ian loved it. He laughed when I put the flashlight under my chin and turned it on, making faces, one thing the headlamp crew couldn’t do. That, and one more look in the latrine hole.
I passed a sleepless night during a ferocious rainstorm. Thank God we weren’t in a tent. I worried constantly that Ian would fall from the bunk to his death. Ian giggled as he awoke to the morning wakeup song, “Morning Has Broken.” I helped him down from the bunk, and we made our way to the common room. We filled our faces with as much oatmeal and pancakes as we could take. We plotted our trip, packed up, and said our goodbyes to his Canadian friend.
“Where are you guys headed?” I asked her dad.
“Oh, we’re taking it easy, just heading down. How about you?”
“Galehead.” His eyes squinted, Clint Eastwood style, and the room went silent.
His Canadian accent had a question-mark inflection. “It’s long? But take your time? And you’ll be fine?”
Two hours later, we stopped for sandwiches along the first leg of Twinway. I stared at some very dark clouds forming over distant mountains. We were way off schedule even though it felt good to be above treeline. I watched the krummholz, haunted by the ghosts of ingenuity and judgment. The view was breathtaking.
“OK, Daddy, I’m ready for my treat.” One of the best pieces of advice from a friend had been to pack a healthy supply of unhealthy snacks. I got out another piece of a Rice Krispies treat, which I was doling out Hansel and Gretel style.
At what I hoped was the halfway point, I asked an athletic couple heading the other way if they had passed Galehead. “Oh, you’ve got quite a ways to go,” the man said, looking at Ian. “We left five hours ago and we’re moving.” Looking at the sweat-drenched shirt of the man and the rosy glow of his girlfriend, I knew we were in trouble.
When Steph and I had hiked to Galehead seven years earlier, It had never crossed my mind that we wouldn’t make it to dinner, let alone before sunset. I knew I had to find a distraction so Ian wouldn’t sense my trepidation.
“We’re a little over halfway, buddy,” I said. “That means we’re closer to Galehead than Zealand.”
“My foot hurts, Daddy.”
“Want some M&Ms?”
A mile or two on, as we made our way over the shoulders of several large rocks that blocked our path like the Patriots’ defensive ends, Ian began a conversation like many we had at sea level. I really listened: it was the perfect distraction.
“Daddy, why did Obi Wan Kenobi attack Anakin? Weren’t they both on the same side?”
“Yes, but Anakin went to the dark side.”
I noticed fast-moving clouds sliced in half by a mountain. It was as if the world were in fast-forward.
“Why did he go to the dark side, Daddy?”
Ordinarily I would have dismissed the conversation at this point, trying to concentrate on where I was driving or distracted by some annoying problem at work. But today was different.
“You know, Ian, that’s a good question. Why do you think he did?”
“I think the mean guy made him or Yoda think that something was wrong with him and he turned into the bad side.”
I broke into my Yoda voice. “Yesss it is the dark side you see; I sense it on this mountain. The force is with us, little Jedi.”
The wind picked up. We stopped meeting hikers. I kept forcing myself to talk. I reassured myself that we were going to be all right. We were almost out of water. I had two treats left for Ian and one apple for myself.
“Daddy? My legs really hurt. I don’t want to talk about ‘Star Wars’ anymore.”
We took a break. A half hour later, the water and conversation ran dry. Ian hit the wall. He sat down on a large rock and began crying. “You said we were almost there. My feet hurt, Daddy.” I put my pack down, removed his shoes and rubbed his feet. It was nearly dark.
Steph and I had been on this same path in our late 20s, when we thought we had everything figured out. I rubbed Ian’s feet, thinking about the many turns that future had taken, how much of our life hadn’t gone according to plan, like our recent setbacks in trying to have another child and our decision to pursue adoption, faced with “secondary infertility.” I realized that this was the last time Ian and I would be together alone before our family would—hopefully—be changed forever. It dawned on me that there was a reason we were alone on this mountain. Ian’s mother and I had been distracted for so long trying to expand our family that Ian hadn’t been the center of attention. The Whites were changing all that. Now he stopped crying as I pulled his socks back on and offered a sip of water. I kissed him on the forehead. Ingenuity. “What was that for, Daddy?” he asked.
“Nothing, buddy. Let’s go.” I threw my pack under the trees. “I’ll be the horsey, just like Luke in ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’”
“But Daddy, he falls off the horse and it dies.”
“Right, but this is different. It’s not snowing, right?”
I wondered what passing hikers might think should they find my pack before I could return for it, but I didn’t care.
My legs were like rubber. Ian’s mood lightened. He laughed as I bounced from one rock to another, singing. His little arms around my neck made me strong.
Forty-five minutes later we jumped over one last muddy brook as darkness made its final sweep. The lights from Galehead Hut reflected on the trail, and I smelled cooking. The trail ended at the front porch. I put Ian down and kneeled to his height, giving him a hug that made him gasp for breath. “We made it, buddy,” I said, wiping a tear I tried not to let him see.
The front door swung open like a Dodge City saloon as a roomful of hikers looked up from their plates. A croo member looked up from pouring a pitcher of water. “Hey, you made it!” she said. “I’m really happy to be here,” I said.
“We are, too,” she smiled, holding out her hand. “I’m Janine. Aren’t you a party of two?”
“Oh, my son’s right outside. Sorry. It’s been a long day.”
“Here.” She handed me a pitcher of water. “I’ll be right back with a cup.”
Janine turned her back. I poured the entire contents down my throat, a skill I had attempted in college with other liquids. She returned seconds later, her mouth open as she held the cup at her side. “Where’d you hike from?”
“That’s a good distance.” Ian walked through the door. Ian sat with the hut croo as they worked on trays of leftover lasagna. I sat down and pushed enormous bites into my mouth. “Your son’s a brave kid,” said croo member Josh. “That’s one heck of a hike for the first time. He did great.”
“Oh no!” I jumped up. “I left my backpack on the trail.”
“You want one of us to go with you?” she offered.
“I’m all set. If you could keep an eye on Ian….”
“You like Jenga?” she asked Ian, as I headed out into the night.
Stephen F. Dexter Jr. was assistant principal of Westwood High School in Massachusetts when he wrote this story in 2008. He is now upper school principal at the International School of Zagreb, Croatia, where he lives with his family.
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