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The International Writers Magazine
: White Mountain New Hampshire

Few Have Gained Such a Victory
Eric D. Lehman

With exuberant, too-brisk pushes, Ryan and I tramped up the Bridle Path in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The trifling three and a half mile trail seemed unusually difficult with our full backpacks.

We stopped, too soon after our last break, and sampled some dried papaya. Ryan also devoured our supply of homemade bannock, but I found the thick bread hard to swallow. And then, after the last of our cold water disappeared, we hit a cliff and at last had views of Franconia Ridge, green and grey and bare. Rocky peaks sloped into tree-lined dells and valleys. The forest spattered with warm sunlight. Sounds of birdsong and rushing brooks down in the valley brought me back to why I was there. Adventure.

My friend and I were making a week-long traverse from hut to hut. Not the greatest challenge, perhaps, but we had never done anything like it before. I had hiked on several overnights through the years, but nothing like the six night trek we were attempting now. I had spent months preparing, poring over the topo maps and visualizing each day. Ryan did not know what to expect and was excited, thrilled, and scared when he first saw the mountains, driving past Mount Moosilauke. "Oh, wow!" At the National Forest headquarters I showed Ryan the three-dimensional map of our route. It looked intimidating. I wasn’t worried, though. In my mind, the journey was already complete.

Still, as we reached the alpine zone, dwarf forest, rocks, and meadows, I began to doubt. The pack felt oppressive and my lungs wheezed for air. Had I planned poorly? Were we ready for this? Hiking was nothing new to me, but the weight on my back was. These thoughts stayed with me until we finally reached Greenleaf Hut. After scarfing down a meal, we headed to the lookout point west of the hut to watch the sun set over the Green Mountains of Vermont, fifty miles away. High above Franconia Notch, Ryan and I sat alone with our thoughts. I did not share my doubts, but I’m sure he had his own.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, my desire for victory returned. We hiked the rest of the way up Lafayette. The misty clouds blew all around us and lichen covered stones took over the landscape. The famous writer of Backwoods Ethics, Guy Waterman, had walked to the top of this ridge the previous winter and laid down to die. I couldn’t imagine that. I wasn’t tired enough yet. There were many worlds to conquer.

At the top Ryan and I spent too much time writing in our journals, huddled in a stone foundation of some sort, imagining ourselves in a world of long ago. I was confident that the seven mile hike would be effortless. We finally headed down through clouds along the north side of Lafayette. After a couple hours we rambled along a rolling area of small ridges. The underhanging of the trees steamed with wet moss. Whole kingdoms of the verdant green ground cover spread away under the boughs. We stopped to drink water and eat several times, lounging on the boulders. I’d completely given up on the bannock and vainly tried to eat the gorp. "Birdseed! I am so sick of this stuff."

By afternoon we reached Mount Garfield, which we plodded up without too much of an effort. However, the other side dropped crazily in a cascade of boulders. We clambered down huge overhangs backward as if rappelling. From this sheer ‘trail’ we could see the Galehead Hut, still far in the distance.
"That’s just…nonsense." Ryan looked indignant. "That is way too far."
I checked the map. "It’s probably even farther than we think."
"I rename this hill Mount Doom."

The Old White Mountain Railroad
By this point we had become a bit demoralized. The trail after Garfield seemed to take an eternity. And then a thunderstorm blew in without warning, instantly drenching us. We trudged through the downpour, and I’m sure if Ryan wasn’t right there with me I’d have given up. I didn’t have the trail mind yet. I was miserable. The rain beat heavily on my head and shoulders, soaking through my jacket and running down my legs into my boots. Lightning flashed in the trees. We had messed around too much on the path, uselessly contemplating the distances. I needed too many breaks uphill and Ryan moved too slowly on the downhill. At quarter past five, Ryan called out in relief. The unfinished pine hut loomed to our right and we stumbled to it, gasping and trembling on the porch.

Once inside, we were assailed by a foul stench. The composting toilets had stunk up the whole hut. Just what we needed after that demoralizing day. Nevertheless, we ate dinner and got to know the Wild White Mountain Women, a group of friends in their forties who hiked together once a year. They easily beat us to the hut and a few of them had skinny-dipped in the lake near Garfield. We cursed our slowness. They discussed the wonders of Vitamin I, which I figured out was ibuprofen. The pizza soup tasted like liquid heaven, warming and soothing our bellies. I recovered my mental attitude slightly, and with a little Vitamin I, prepared for sleep. I climbed up to the top bunk, ten feet off the pine floor. After about ten minutes of dozing by the ceiling, snoring from hell began. Wearily, I stumbled out to the hut store and bought earplugs, which numbed the buzzsaws to a low hum.

The next day was supposedly easy, but the steep trail quickly disabused us of that notion. The wet rocks, trees, and our clothes steamed in the sunlight as we ascended South Twin. Ryan’s feet and knees were aching. I was leading, still in good spirits. The view from the top of South Twin was incredible, a three hundred sixty degree panorama of mountains. To the south lay the vast Pemigewasset Wilderness. North rose North Twin and Mount Hale. And far to the east, the Presidentials, where our trail led. I pointed out Mount Washington, which humped far above the rest into the white puffy clouds. Ryan seemed impressed but complained of foot pain and probably didn’t appreciate the moment as much as I did.

That contrast was about to disappear. I trundled down the rocky trail and periodically waited for Ryan. However, as the hike dragged on, I realized I wasn’t eating anything. My feet started to hurt, as well. Ryan began to lead and continued for the rest of the day, as my lack of appetite turned to nausea. Near the last drop into Zealand Notch, a nice Canadian couple who was hiking the AT in segments gave me some Gatorade powder. By this point Ryan had lost all joy in the journey and groaned as his foot stuck in the mud. I said nothing as my stomach rolled and heaved. We were both thinking about tomorrow. Two trail girls passed us, galloping down the mountain with ease. We trudged towards the hut on autopilot. Ryan could barely summon the energy to jump the last stream. My desire was still strong, but my body was shutting down. We couldn’t appreciate the amazing falls by Zealand Hut, which cascaded over rock for long, sloping drops, weaving through boulders. I lay down while dinner was served and finally struggled outside and puked. While I vomited tea and gatorade, a large brown jackrabbit zipped by, glancing at me in horror.

Ryan took care of me and then talked with the Wild White Mountain Women and with the Canadian couple, who were over sixty and still hiking much farther than we could. I lay in my bed and felt ashamed at not participating. Ashamed that my desire to finish was waning. My muscles felt sore beyond next-day healing. My feet were burning griddles. These would not have been enough to stop me, but my strange illness was. I couldn’t know how bad Ryan’s knees were, but he seemed convinced he was risking permanent injury. Things were not turning out as I had pre-visualized. If I had known how difficult these mountains were, I would have scheduled an easier trip, something within our limits. Of course, I hadn’t known those limits.
So, after some discussion, weary and humiliated, we approached the trail girl who was tending the hut store. "Can we switch huts? Have an extra night here and skip Mizpah?"
"We’ll have to call it in tomorrow morning and see." The trail girl nodded and went to make a note of it.
I turned to Ryan. "I hope so. I’m dyin’ over here."
"We failed." He moaned.
A line from The Lord of the Rings came to me. "No, we have conquered. Few have gained such a victory."
Ryan laughed and I joined him. But I didn’t believe it. Despite the calm beauty of our recovery day by the falls, despite our later success in the Presidential Range, I still saw the journey as a failure. It wasn’t until years later, when I ended a hike across Connecticut with twenty miles to go, that I really understood why resting at Zealand was the right thing to do. That it was a good thing, the smart thing. I had always seen the White Mountains trek as a lesson about accepting limits, but had never understood completely. Our subsequent conquest in the Presidential Range was a great accomplishment, but it was not the goal I had set myself. That always rankled me.

When I stopped fifty miles into a self-imposed trek across Connecticut, I did it to prevent permanent injury, and because the joy had gone out of my hike. Because although I could have probably pressed on and succeeded, the price may have been too high. The same held true at Zealand Falls. I had always seen this decision as a failure – an important lesson about limits, yes – but a failure nonetheless. Now I realize that the entire journey was a success. Not a failure of body or will, but a triumph over ego and desire.

© Eric D Lehman March 2005
Eric is an English professor at the University of Bridgeport and has traveled extensively throughout the world.  He has been previously published by various web journals, such as August Cutter, Niederngasse, Simply Haiku, and of course Hackwriters.

The Perfect Drive
Prof Eric D Lehman in the USA

A Moment of Weakness
Erid D Lehman climbs Old Smokey

The Perils of Comfort
Eric D Lehman on the joy in inconvenience

Active Relaxation
Prof E Lehman
Too Much for Comfort
E Lehman


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