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Wednesday, August 20, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 8/21/2004

On vacation, we look afresh at life

FRANCONIA NOTCH, N.H. - A 45-mile-an-hour wind doesn't seem like much when you're watching footage of it on the Weather Channel, or when you're in your car in the city, but when you're wearing shorts and carrying a pack and that wind whips across the Walker Ravine and slaps your face on Agony Ridge, you know you are alive.

That's what a summer vacation is supposed to be about, to make you feel alive after your senses have been deadened by the things we have to do to make a living. The perfect vacation - think of it as the analogue to the perfect storm we experienced while climbing up Mt. Lafayette in the White Mountain National Forest - is one that makes you feel alive even as you look, as you might from one of the mountain passes that offer high-altitude glimpses of Cannon Mountain and Mt. Moosilauke, afresh at life, and the way we live today.

We have been taking these overnight hikes in the highest reaches of New Hampshire, a state where forests still account for 85 percent of the land, for more than a decade now. They are a signpost, like the one that tells us that Greenleaf Hut is 2.9 miles away, in the year's passage. We measure ourselves, and the astonishing growth of our girls, by how hard is the climb, how loud the complaints, how exhilarating the view from mountains that we have come to claim as our own, even though our real home is not in a wooden hut with compost toilets on a New Hampshire mountain but in a brick house with low-flush toilets on a Pittsburgh hill.

But my thoughts on the old bridle path that breaks left from the Falling Waters Trail are on the two kids who are skipping effortlessly over the rock steps at the edge of the ravine; and on the storm pressing down on us from the southwest, bringing with it the winds and the rains that will in an instant come down in bullets; and on the paths Mom and I have taken and the ones that the 16-year-old and the 12-year-old will choose on their own. Ours have had magnificent views, plus the chance to stop at the vistas. Theirs are in the faraway uplands, where the guidebooks offer no warnings of the sharp turns, or the great slides, or the bumpy ridges. They are there - we know they are - but we don't know where.

We are drawn here, summer after summer, in a changing world to a place that seems so unchanging, year after year. Presidents come and go, threats to peace arise and are vanquished, the stock market falls and rises, and these hills and the far reaches of this state are here forever. There are changes, to be sure; we note the presence of a new dairy bar on the bluff overlooking Mount Washington.

But some things don't change, and shouldn't. I wandered into a post office in the valley the other afternoon and saw, right there on the wall, a special notice providing guidance on how to send maple syrup through the mail. Never know when you need that kind of advice.

In the storm it was impossible to see that the trail's slope paralleled that of Franconia Notch, a nice bit of symmetry in nature. I worried that the winds whipping at us through the trees might imperil the girls, but our hikers are schooled in what James Fenimore Cooper called the "gentle art of the forest" and thus know which branches will offer support and which won't, and which roots are reliable and which aren't, and never mind that Dad, being older and sadly aware that history is mostly tragedy, prefers roots to branches any day. But that's a metaphor for another morning's homily.

In their classic volume Backwoods Ethics, Laura and Guy Waterman, perhaps the greatest mountain hikers of New England of the last century, explored the reasons we climb into the hills in the first place: "It's not just sitting on a remote summit that matters. It's how hard it was to get there. It's getting there on your own power, testing your knowledge and experience of the woods trails, your judgment, your physical conditioning, and most of all your drive and desire to overcome the difficulties." We don't prove this on a summer hike once a year. We live it every day.

In New Hampshire, like America, the heights are accessible. But the path of the journey isn't always clear, and the test comes not on the top but on the trail. We tell our kids this every year. Someday they may tell theirs the same, but - I know them - they'll never tell us they did. No matter. We'll take the satisfaction in the expectation.

Some years ago I read a wonderful memoir of a life in the woods, A Life in the Bush, by the Canadian writer Roy MacGregor, and one passage, about fathers and the forest, stuck with me: "This is the way we build a better life away from the April muck and November sleet and January-February hopelessness. This is the way we shake off our cluttered city lives and are permitted to pioneer momentarily away from the madness and stress. This is the way we would live, if only we could figure out how. "

In the fog and the rain, when things somehow seemed so clear on this year's summer vacation, I realized that Roy MacGregor had it only half right. Yes, this is the way we would live, if only we could figure out how. But for those of us who can't, it is in the woods that we figure out how to live. How to live, and how to feel really alive.



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