The International Writers Magazine: USA Climbing
Beginnings of Strength
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
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. "Im 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 worlds highest
wind speed was recorded. A place full of unpredictable and dangerous
weather, but not today. Today it shimmered like some gods 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 Im 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. "Ive
just been drinking from the streams up here."
"Oh, really?" I gawped, amazed by his ignorance.
"Yeah, it hasnt 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 doesnt show up for two or three weeks."
Ryan laughed. "Maybe hell 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? Hes so damn lean."
"Theyve been on the trail since March."
"Can you imagine doing that?"
I thought about it. I didnt 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
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
Eric D Lehman on friendship skills
Eric D Lehman on The White Mountain
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