Rocks and Roots

by Janet Banks

I sit in my chair with a stack of unread New Yorker magazines that I’m determined to read or toss, overcome by a sense that life is slipping through my fingers. I’ve no zest, just guilt about feeling as I do—a person who has everything she needs, except…what? Has age crept up so insidiously and ground me to dust, with me unaware? Fear rises like acid at the back of my throat. Am I already a little dead?

By the time my husband, Art returns from the car wash, I’ve booked three nights at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center Lodge in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. “We need to get out of Dodge before winter sets in,” I say, relieved to have a plan.

The late October sky threatens more rain, but we’re prepared with rain pants and hiking poles. An AMC guide assures us that the moderate, 3.4-mile trail to the summit of Middle Sugarloaf is well within our capacity as experienced hikers in our early seventies, and that the 270-degree views are worth the effort.

Ours is the only car in the parking lot. We slog through mud to find the trailhead. The Zealand River gushes alongside us until we reach a bridge and cross it. More mud. The forest of balsam fir and yellow and white birch looks primeval, inviting, and intimidating. Art is the navigator. As a former pilot, he’s flown over forests like this one and is confident in his map reading skills, but I’d feel better if we had evidence of other humans on the trail. He points to faded paint blazes on the trees ahead; I stifle my fear of bears.

Golden leaves shimmer in the trees and cover the path that is wet and slippery from early morning showers. I’m grateful for my new waterproof hiking boots and wool socks. “Not so fast,” I say, stumbling over the knotty lump of roots covered by leaves. Up ahead, enormous boulders, big as small cottages, flank the trail. They look out of place, as though an angry god threw them down from the heavens. We climb for a closer look. The ferns and mosses, the lichens that grow on the granite, are every shade of green, from pale to neon.

“Glacial erratics,” Art says, running his palm over the stone. “Erratic, because they were carried and left here by the glaciers more than a hundred thousand years ago.” Rain begins to fall; the temperature drops. We move on.

The trail ascends to a much steeper pitch to a col, a saddle between two peaks. We follow an arrow to steps, a collection of boulders, one atop the next with others placed alongside to prevent hikers from sliding off the edge. Whoever labored over these slabs did not have me, a five foot woman in mind. The rain is letting up, but the wet steps are too steep.

Art reaches back for my hand and helps me stretch up, step by step. “Just take your time,” he warns. He’s worried I’ll fall, but what if he’s the one to slip? Neither of us asks the obvious: Should we be climbing a mountain alone in weather like this? Both of us want to get to the summit. When the sky brightens, the trail flattens out. Birds chatter in the trees.

Sweating, I tie my jacket around my waist just as a teenage boy with a golden Lab bounds down the trail in front of us. He looks as if these woods belong to him; my relief is palpable. I ask how much farther, and he shrugs. “When you see the ladder, climb to the top and you’re there.”

“We’ll make it,” I say, but the incline becomes more challenging. The path, a cascade of rocks and tree roots, is tough to traverse. An iron ladder, hammered into a large boulder at what appears to be an 80-degree angle, has no handrails. “You go first,” I say.

“It’ll be easier going down,” Art says, offering me a hand.

“No, it won’t.” I say, and give him a look.

In only a few short steps, the vista opens before us. We’re standing on a ledge of rock about a quarter-city block square, with jaw-dropping views. The sheer cliffs are dizzying; mica sparkles in the rock floor. A small boulder provides a perfect place to rest and contemplate the majesty of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range far across a deep valley. The simple turkey on rye tastes so good; the scent of pine is delicious. We are in a world of our own, a castle with no walls.

When dark clouds roll in, we suit up quickly. The descent in the rain is painstakingly slow—I doubt I’ll be able to walk tomorrow. More rain; more rocks and roots. Still only one car in the lot: ours.

Back at the lodge, we store our muddy boots, then collapse, hand in hand for a rest on the bed before dinner. I am totally spent and totally alive.