Looking Up

June 1, 2009

Climbing not to get away, but to go home

Appalachia, Summer/Fall 2009

This story arrives with the force of revelation on a windy, early-November Saturday in 2006 as I’m crossing the open, stone ridge that joins New Hampshire’s Firescrew Mountain with Mount Cardigan. An early snow coats the mountains from 2,000 feet up. I am alone, as I often am in the hills, and I’ve left myself little extra time to complete this familiar, six mile circuit before fall’s long night begins. A flurry obscures the Franconias to the north, and slats of light paint Moosilauke’s broad brow bright white against the dark sky. I’m focused on my footing. A slip and fracture here would probably mean a cold night out and, if lucky, a rescue, and in my summer shorts and fleece top, I’m prepared for neither. I’ve found a rhythm, and my boots are landing precisely. I’m reading the snow accurately—no slip-ups on hidden ice, each step a gain. I find my mind and body joining in a rhythmic dance of ascent. Like a face in a snow-cloud, my father appears.

One hundred miles to the south, he is busy with his day: writing notes, making calls, working on behalf of one nonprofit outfit or another. At least I assume this usual day for him. But I also bear with me knowledge that here, in his 89th year, he has any number of medical fingers pointing at him. There is a balky heart, some dicey blood chemistry, and general gravity that weighs against such longevity. There are also two show-stoppers: an inoperable abdominal aneurysm, first discovered during heart surgery four years ago and since tracked to its current unsustainable size; and a recently scanned tumor that has taken up residence on the business end of his pancreas. And so this visitation could be some sort of sky-sign that things are amiss to the south. But I don’t harbor psychic ability or have much luck with it, and so, as I ramble along I am broadly happy with this visit. My father can’t climb anymore, though we are only three years removed from an epic on Mount Madison, but from the time I was 2 years old, he has given me these hills, and so it seems natural that he would appear. What strikes me, though, is the clarity with which I see his gift to me. It ranges from my precise footwork over slanting rock to the foundation of optimism that still stokes each of his days. It is a gift given over time across the 31 years that separates his generation from mine. It is a gift received slowly. It is a gift of the uplands worth exploring.

At some young age, those of us given the hills begin climbing solo to get away. There is, at that age, much to leave behind, a whole valley full of voices and expectations, a sort of broad version of the aptly named school torment, homework, wherein everyone seems eager to teach you the laborings of life and who you will be. None of us puts homework into a climb-away backpack, however; instead, next to the jam-soaked peanut butter sandwiches and candy bars, along with the water bottle and dry t-shirt, we slip in a knife, perhaps a compass and magnifying glass, maybe binoculars too. Tying your sneakers? Optional. “See ya,” we sing to anyone within earshot even as the screen door swings shut with a single slam.

About a quarter of a mile later, the dirt road narrows to a few planks spanning a first stream. No cars can make this derelict crossing, and so the old road nosing into the hills grows grassy as it climbs fitfully toward the low point in the ridge where it tips toward the next town north. Whatever the destination—the high ledges and their scrambles, the beaver pond and its fat slap of warning tails, the cave and its rumored hermit—we feel a delicious singularity that is freedom. “Perhaps,” we say, “this is who I’ll be.”

Sandy Stott is a teacher at Concord Academy and a former editor of Appalachia. His father Fred wrote his last article for the journal just before his death in December 2006.

The full text of this story may be found in the Summer/Fall 2009 Issue of Appalachia.

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Sandy Stott

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