The International Writers Magazine
: USA Climbing

The Beginnings of Strength
Eric D. Lehman

Time does not often allow us to apprehend true beginnings or endings. Usually, we realize something vital has happened long after the event has passed. But I had been weak for so long that the moment I realized I was strong was the moment it occurred.

My friend Ryan and I had been on the trails in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for five days and had not done well. I had dehydrated and become sick and Ryan cultivated knee problems. We had taken the hiker shuttle and cheated our way out of ten miles of the planned route. One long day remained, from the Lakes of the Clouds to Madison Hut. This was the longest day of our journey, and we were told in no uncertain terms that it was the hardest.

We awoke that fateful morning to a rousing, melodic rendition of "Take Me Home Country Roads." The sound urged us from sleep, guitar chords ringing in the clear mountain air. The voices of the hut crew melded and swelled. A smile came across my face and I tumbled out of the bunk, peering out the window of the mountain lodge to a miraculously rainless day.

We headed out early towards the far-off Madison Hut, having perfected our breakfast and packing routine. Stepping out into the warm June air, Ryan turned to me. "I’m back in the game," he said simply. Two cobalt lakes perched nearly five thousand feet over the valleys below. The Presidential Range spread out roughly east and west of us, really one large green massif that distinguished itself from the rest of the Whites by the tracts of tundra above treeline. Rockstrewn slopes led to the visitor center on Mount Washington, where the temperature has never risen above 72 degrees farenheit, where the world’s highest wind speed was recorded. A place full of unpredictable and dangerous weather, but not today. Today it shimmered like some god’s fortress in the high, clear air. Ryan and I had been on that almighty apex yesterday, though we had certainly not earned the privilege.

The rocky, jagged trail required skilled attention, but strangely seemed quite easy after our travails of the past few days. The views of northern New Hampshire opened and changed fantastically every step of the way. Green, grassy slopes and grey boulders stretched out before us. A fairy-tale bird followed us with a magic song for several miles. We passed under the shadow of the highest peak and under a bridge of the railroad that took lazier visitors to the top. Yesterday we had been among those lazy souls. Today we forged ahead across the plateaus, for the first time finding rhythm in our pace.

A rambling, itinerant bum approached from the wrong direction while we ate a second breakfast. He had slept at Lake of the Clouds last night, though I’m not sure how he swung that. Tall, with a long shock of gray hair covered by a beret, he wore a button-down shirt and jeans, completely out of sync with the environment. He left early, not having paid for breakfast, but we caught up to him with our steady marches. He carried only a battered knapsack, which held no supplies of any use.
"That is a good idea," he said, pointing to our water. "I’ve just been drinking from the streams up here."
"Oh, really?" I gawped, amazed by his ignorance.
"Yeah, it hasn’t harmed me yet." We gave him directions and he continued up the trail, leaving Ryan and I at the rock-strewn crossroads on the slope of Mount Jefferson. As he left earshot, I chuckled and shook my head.
"Of course, ghiardia doesn’t show up for two or three weeks."
Ryan laughed. "Maybe he’ll show up on the death wall at Mount Washington." Our humor betrayed a lack of concern for a fellow human being, but it also showed how far we had come. Our lore grew stronger than this idle traveler. We were beginning to know what was needed for life in the wild.

We continued on the trail, peering down the steep slopes into the Great Gulf. Our steady rhythm, a ground-eating pace, was so different from our scattershot starts and stops of the first few days. I had known for years of this simple technique, but had never turned that knowledge into a reality. We sang a song as we marched, our failures of the past week melting away. "Can you take me higher?" Ryan shouted. As we reached passes and heights-of-land, I punctuated our accomplishments with a hearty "bum bom bum." I easily performed on-the-road surgery on my fading blisters. We did not hurry, but seemed to effortlessly outpace nearly all other hikers. The doubts that had assailed us during the last week died. Our minds had stopped fearing and begun to live in that simple place where success is certain.

Near the last peak, we heard the fairy-tale bird again, sweet and sad. And then, at twenty after two, we reached Madison Hut at 4800 feet, by far the shortest day, the opposite of what we were told. Ryan seemed baffled by our accomplishment, but I was beginning to understand. We were becoming strong.
The "captain," an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, arrived shortly after we do. Another thru-hiker came in a minute later. The bearded captain and his first mate mechanically devoured the lunchtime food the Madison hut croo has left out. They gave thanks and loped outside, continuing down off the Presidential Range to the next distant hut, lords of the trail.
"Jesus, those guys are machines." Ryan marveled.
"They put us to shame." I admitted.
"Did you see the Captain? He’s so damn lean."
"They’ve been on the trail since March."
"Can you imagine doing that?"
I thought about it. I didn’t have any need to accomplish something which would inevitably be a topic for conversation at dinner-parties in the future. However, I wanted to be tough enough to do it. I wanted to be able to. And that was the first day of my life I felt up to the challenge, like I had the capacity to spend months walking a long and difficult trail. I felt ready, like a whole new mountain of possibilities was rising.
That change finally showed me what being strong truly means. Not physical fitness or endurance, though these are necessary to put strength into practice. Not even willpower, which comes with age or experience. But the persistent transformation of knowledge into practice. My woods lore, learned during long hours poring through books, had started becoming skill. I began my journey into the wilderness that day, and more importantly my journey into strength.
© Eric Lehman October 2005

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