Lessons from the Summit of Mount Eisenhower
Naturalist and author John Muir, known as the “Father of the National Parks,” once said, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” Since about the time I could walk, hiking has been a key part of my life. There is no experience quite like hiking in the mountains, and for me, no mountain quite like Mount Eisenhower.
The first time I hiked Mount Eisenhower, located in the Presidential Range in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, the labor of the climb distracts me from my excitement of reaching the summit. The sun heats my back, making my hair sticky and my T-shirt soaked with perspiration beneath my backpack. A strong gust of wind turns the sweat running down my neck ice-cold, but I am grateful for its coolness. My legs, weights over which I seemed to have no control, move slowly and steadily, as if in a trance. So close! I think. Just a few more steps. I hasten my stride, now moving with purpose. Finally! If the three-hour hike had not taken away my breath, the view surely does. In that moment, atop Mount Eisenhower—known as Mount Pleasant until its renaming after the 34th President in 1969—I feel a wonderful sense of smallness, importance, and connection to the world around me.
The hike had been long, but its length was what allowed me to truly take in the magic surrounding me. From Edmand’s parking lot on Mount Clinton Road near Crawford Notch, the trail weaves its way gradually up through the forest. The trees hug the edges of the path, welcoming hikers as they begin on their journey. In summer, the green is overwhelming, like a scene painted by an artist with only one color on their palette. Throughout the hike, the wilderness transforms as if it keeps having abrupt mood swings. The original forest, dense with a variety of vegetation, quickly shifts to a uniform collection of birch trees and moss. The birches stand tall and strong in contrast with the soft moss, gently resting upon the forest floor. This is only until the forest has another change of heart and remodels itself with pines and ferns. These pines, the kind used as Christmas trees in the smallest of apartments, do not grow taller than four feet but are still the perfect hideout for ferns taking shelter from harsh weather. Even with the weak breeze that breaks through tree cover, the fields of ferns dance spiritedly. Then again, the scenery adjusts into a bare peak, now consisting of only rocks and the occasional shrub that grips the rocks to keep from blowing away, proud of itself for surviving in such severe mountain conditions. Hour after hour of hiking with nothing but my thoughts and beauty around me has gifted me with an appreciation for the world’s complexity. Though nature is seemingly random at times, I know that each birch, pine, fern, stone, and shrub was arranged with reason and intention.
Eisenhower’s summit, although a completely different picture than the majority of the trail, has the same effect. From the very top of Mount Eisenhower, the vast White Mountain National Forest is all I can see in every direction. The hundreds of caps each have their own unique name, wildlife, views, and story. I know that up close the woods are a carpet of green for miles; I had witnessed it only hours before, but somehow the view from the top captures an array of colors I had missed. The mountains fade into the distance and, with it, the colors transform. A bright green fades into teal, a teal into blue, a blue into purple, and the purple seems to just fade away. But the real wonder is above me. In no other place have I been able to see so much of the sky. Often underestimated, the sky’s pigment is magnificent. It looks like a blanket that someone had left to soak in blue dye number one. They had forgotten to wash it out, leaving it to absorb the color for much too long. The blue dome above me alters the complexion of the peaks on the horizon. This blanket is the kind of cloth that rubs off dye on everything it comes in contact with, giving the landscape tints of blue, indigo, and a soft lavender. The mountains complement the sky and the sky complements the mountains. And the clouds complement it all. They spot the sky as if they know they are needed, not to fill the empty space but to help the viewer take in the color and the vastness of the nature surrounding them. If the sky had been left empty, I would not be able to appreciate its color. In this moment, I feel so small and insignificant. On top of a mountain standing 4,760 feet tall, I am only a speck. Underneath the seemingly infinite blue sky, I am only a speck. But it makes me wonder: If every peak and color and cloud is needed to complete the picture, is every person needed to make the world whole and beautiful?
After taking in the view, I see that the summit is a circular plateau with a cairn standing directly in the middle. A cairn is a human-placed pile of rocks used to mark the path or a summit. I had seen many cairns during my time hiking in the White Mountains, but none are like the one I see atop Eisenhower. It had been carefully constructed: Hundreds of stones swarmed together, as if there is a magnet at the center pulling them inward, creating a mound standing taller than me. Though sitting just with my family and a few other strangers, isolated in the center of a wide wilderness, this cairn makes me feel more connected to humankind than ever. Its reflection of collective effort is beautiful. With seven billion people in the world, it’s easy to feel microscopic, like each tiny stone; but each stone that was placed created the cairn and without just one, a gust of wind could send the whole thing tumbling. I now have the answer to my question about the individual’s importance.
The racing breeze seems to be coming in from all directions now. Standing at what feels like the top of the world, I spin around and smile like a toddler to take in the panoramic landscape one last time before heading down for the day. Muir has also said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” The pines allow the ferns to flourish. The rocks help the shrubs stay grounded. The clouds are what make the sky appear so blue. The sky is what makes the mountain’s color so brilliant. At that moment on top of Mount Eisenhower, I know that, like the natural world around me, every person is important, and their existence is intertwined.
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