In the late 1970s and early ’80s AMC’s Cardigan Lodge was my wife Joyce’s and my favorite place to spend a couple weeks every summer. We were drawn to its rustic and intimate atmosphere, the camaraderie of a shared interest in the outdoors, and of course the hiking. We had developed a proprietary feeling about Mounts Cardigan, Firescrew, and Gilman: they had become “our mountains.” And Newfound Lake was a beautiful, relaxing retreat after days on the trail. It was also a refreshing change from the heat, asphalt, and bluestone of summer in Brooklyn Heights, where we lived at the time.
In 1985 our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Sara, was with us for the second time at Cardigan Lodge. Joyce and I would either trade off childcare while the other one hiked or take Sara for short hikes together closer to the base of the mountain. Yet one day that summer we decided to climb Cardigan with Sara—our first time doing so. To encourage her to walk we left Sara’s backpack child carrier behind. The strategy worked for perhaps half-a-mile before Sara balked at hiking any further, holding out her arms to be carried. Because neither Joyce nor I wanted to turn back, I hoisted Sara onto my shoulders. With Joyce providing occasional respite for me, Sara kept her bird’s-eye view of the mixed woods and trail as I trudged the remaining 4.5 miles up the mountain.
Finally, we arrived at the rocky dome leading to the summit. I recall thinking, this slope is steeper than I remember it. How is it possible to get a young child up there? Yet having gotten this far we weren’t going to give up now. So, into my arms Sara went. Climbing over sheer rock, I leaned into the mountain holding my 29-pound bundle. Heart pounding, I had to stop a couple of times to rest and catch my breath before continuing.
At last we reached Cardigan’s summit! I let Sara down and she scampered off to one of the fire tower’s supports, where she planted herself for the next 20 minutes. “This is the top of the world!” she exclaimed. Sara’s joy made the rigors I had just gone through worthwhile.
Sara’s excitement and sense of wonder were contagious, helping me see familiar Cardigan with new eyes. I had stood at Cardigan’s summit a number of times by this point, and, while I’d enjoyed it, it had lost a little of its luster over the years. Thanks to Sara I marveled anew at the vista: probably forty miles in the clear mountain air. The rocky summit itself was remarkable, making Cardigan feel even larger than it is. Watching Sara bubbling on her summit perch, I felt that a very young child’s first experience of a mountaintop must have some of the exhilaration that a technical climber feels ascending their first peak.
I still worried how we’d get Sara off the top without mishap. I had noticed on the way up a number of uneven spots on the rocky slope which could be treacherous for a young child still learning the complexities of balance. But Joyce took her by the hand, somehow walked her down to the trail below, and we gradually made our way back to the lodge.
I have tried to transfer this new-eyes approach to other mountains and other experiences in my life. When I start to become blasé about the places or people I know, I try to picture my little daughter on the top of Cardigan.
Sara, in the years since these events, has made the outdoors an important focus of her life, climbing Mount Washington, backpacking in the Smokies, and camping in the Adirondacks. As of this essay’s publishing, it’s been four months since Sara gave birth to a baby boy named Milo, her first child and Joyce’s and my first grandchild. I have no doubt that as Milo experiences mountaintops for the first time—in life and in hiking—he will share the same ebullience that Sara felt on Cardigan in 1985.