Trail to Life
by Scott Berkley
The sun has just set on a cloudless Indian Summer day. As I pass treeline on the west flank of Mt. Lafayette I flick on my headlamp. It’s the second time that I’ve turned on the beam, a little circle of friendly light amidst the wilderness, during my bid for the White Mountain hut traverse. Nineteen hours earlier, just before midnight on the previous day, I started my watch, put the headlamp on its brightest setting and started jogging down the trail away from Carter Notch Hut. Now, on the other end of the mountain range, my once energetic jog – more conservative than a run but faster than a walk – has turned into a lethargic, sleep-deprived, painfully slow march down to Route 93.
Delicate and brutal. That’s what these dawn-to-dusk efforts are, and the hut traverse is no exception. Fifty miles and 18,000 feet of elevation gain across one of the country’s most jagged mountain ranges. The brutality stems from the relentless up and down, the intense muscle pain, the body’s inability to generate any heat after 18 hours on foot. On the day after the traverse I couldn’t bend my left knee, let alone walk. But there are moments of remarkable grace as well. The sunset, for example, that exploded in its purple hues right as I crested Lafayette. A hutman who welcomed me with a cup of hot coffee and a liter of gatorade. As I staggered down the switchbacks leading to the valley I saw a white deer standing just off the trail. I shook my head and the hallucination dissipated into the misty evening.
A few hours later I finally sat down on the front steps of Lonesome Lake Hut at the end of the traverse. I had expected to cry, to yell, to be and feel redeemed. Instead I just sighed. I was done, but without the intense emotions that I thought would come after such a length of moving time spent alone in the mountains. Yet those 23 hours traversing the Whites turned me into an entirely different person, as if I had shed a layer of defenses that separated me from all of the universe’s other particles. On a 12-hour traverse of the Presidential Range, a subset of the Whites, earlier in the summer I had caught myself jogging down Mt. Washington intensely focused on the lasagna I wanted to make the next day. “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” asks Thoreau in an accurately accusatory section of “Walking.” But this time a certain cocktail of long miles on little sleep had left me no choice but to be at peace with the same route through the mountains that turned my left knee into something resembling a grapefruit.
Even without that cocktail to push me, I sometimes feel that shedding of defenses. Months after the traverse, once my knee had healed and I had started running again, I found myself chasing dusk toward Walden Pond. I approached from the south and, crouching at the edge of an inlet, splashed some water on my face. As I reversed direction and crossed the train tracks I glanced up involuntarily and saw a crescent moon rising over the bare trees. Amazing, I thought, that I could have been so wrapped up in running under 18 minutes back to Mt. Misery that I had missed that moon.
It’s hard to chase that involuntary shedding of oneself that gives way to the universe, and impossible to chase the cathartic emotion that I always thought would follow but had never come. Last Friday, wanting a good leg-pounding but nothing more, I drove south to the Blue Hills. For most of the four hours I was out, I was thinking about time splits and energy fueling and how much auto noise there was coming from the nearby interstate – those normal running thoughts that keep me sealed inside my own head. At the top of Rattlesnake Hill I paused and looked out to Boston and the Atlantic, then plunged down a mile or so of easy singletrack that led me to the parking lot.
My legs felt good on that last bit of trail, and I wondered if I’d be more prepared to go back to the Whites next summer for another traverse. Maybe if I finished in 16 hours instead of 23 I’d cry at the finish, I thought. Maybe if the traverse were 100 miles long and not 50. I didn’t know; after all, it was just a training run, just a building block. Inside the car, I tuned the radio to WBUR, which was broadcasting a press conference from somewhere in Connecticut. Six people were dead, or maybe it was one, or perhaps twenty, in some sort of shooting.
The details emerged, at first slowly and then coming together quickly into “the massacre,” “a tragedy.” That emotionally charged endorphin cloud that had been all around me just a few moments ago suddenly turned in a much different direction. I had been staring at the tops of my shoes for the past four hours, and when I finally looked up, it was to find that I had shed my outer defenses, and the universe around me was not benevolent or delicate but monstrous and brutal. “The universe is wider than our views of it,” says Thoreau.
The night I saw that crescent moon rising, I wrote, “taking off into the woods didn’t solve anything, but I nevertheless made it to Walden, which was all I could do.” It had been a tough day before I saw that moon; last Friday was an infinitely tougher day. Opening oneself to the universe means confronting its monstrous aspects as well as its beauty. The present universe calls me back to the trails; it calls me to confront the monstrous as well.
But that wider, more passionate, more fervent perception is a magical thing regardless of joy or pain.
Scott Berkley is a Concord resident, a once and future AMC hutman and a Middlebury College student. Scott graduated from Concord Academy in 2012.
Trail of Thought
by Sandy Stott
Dec 16th: Awakened early on this cold Maine morning by jumbled thoughts…about animals, Thoreau, the predator within and the way he can so easily arm himself in our country – all of this related to the indescribable killings in Connecticut two days ago. I am, as I should be, as we all should be, haunted…and, as ever, I am baffled by the strain of American thought that believes in arming oneself for life, that sees it as fundamental. Who are you, I ask.
Deep in the papery wood that is Walden, Thoreau leads us to to the essential, human attempt to bring to heel the predator within. “Higher Laws” is a chapter that troubles my students, who, at seventeen, wrap sometimes-happy, sometimes-tentative embrace around the animal within. Who, they wonder, would want to banish him or her? A good question, I think, even from this age some factor beyond seventeen. But bringing this animal into the family of civil restraint also seems a central necessity; doing so allows us to live together, in proximity to each other.
What has also brought this chapter back to mind again today is its opening meditation on hunting, which, by extension, is also about being armed:
There is a period in the history of the individual, as of the race, when the hunters are the “best men,” as the Algonquins called them. We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected. This was my answer with respect to those youths who were bent on this pursuit, trusting that they would soon outgrow it. No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does. The hare in its extremity cries like a child. I warn you, mothers, that my sympathies do not always make the usual phil-anthropic distinctions.
Such is oftenest the young man’s introduction to the forest, and the most original part of himself. He goes thither at first as a hunter and fisher, until at last, if he has the seeds of a better life in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fish-pole behind. The mass of men are still and always young in this respect. In some countries a hunting parson is no uncommon sight.
I realize the risk of bringing this sane, ultimately gentle voice to consideration of an event that defies sanity, that calls out from the most twisted of psyches, but I wonder about our national inability to grow past the “thoughtless age of boyhood.” Are we so in thrall to our passion for individual rights that we will allow weapons of mass destruction into everyone and anyone’s hands? Will we sacrifice any sense of a collective safety and ease with each other in pursuit of our individual “freedoms?” Will we instead be a “mass of men”…still and always young in this respect” and so speckled with armed killers?
Thoreau’s “hunting parson” seems an apt modern figure; today’s armed gun-zealots show a religious fervor. Even if those arms may fall into the hands of the crazed, our gun-happy see it as a necessary cost, see remedy only in further arming and armament. What a sad and tragedy-making way to pursue life. Who are we?