The final melting mounds of Chunky Monkey ice cream were trickling down our throats, like fluffy pillows on clean sheets, cool and soft, when she hit me: A sudden, sharp whack on the back of my head that caused me to spit out my spoon.
It was for yelling at her. I immediately denied doing so.
“You did, too.” She insisted. “Before we got to the hut. I couldn’t go on. You told me to get up, ‘that the trail wasn’t going to hike itself.’” I gazed at her tender brown eyes and measured them. “I was just encouraging you.”
“I needed a hug.”
“You needed to keep moving.”
“You wanted to leave me there. I bet you were thinking that.”
“No, I was thinking that we couldn’t afford the $150 to spend the night at the hut.” She shook her head, her pupils flashing. Then she hit me again. Finally, we laughed.
When it comes to romance, I’ve always been rather slow on the uptake. In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, for instance, where I am essentially a certified expert, I tend to take on the role of tour guide, and tour guides make bad dates.
My goals for a hike are simple. I like variety and challenge. I’ve already done all the popular climbs and routes, so I take pleasure in the spots that few know about, and I prefer to get there the hard way.
Michelle’s agenda is subtle. She’s an athletic woman with above-average stamina who loves exercise, but isn’t so concerned with experiencing the whole remote wilderness adventure thing.
More than anything she wants a campfire that dances in my eyes as I slowly lean forward to kiss her.
In short, her ideal is all about the relationship. Mine, on the other hand, can be accomplished alone. This, I learned, is a problem.
Our hopes and spirits were high as we parked the car. We stopped several times to adjust pack straps, remove layers, and catch our breath, and were making steady progress along the moderate rolling terrain. We didn’t talk much. Suddenly, the trees fell away on both sides and the trail thrust us onto the boardwalk bridges built over the backwash of Zealand Falls: a sunny, wet opening in the forest full of tall reeds, birds and the lapping sound of water against the boardwalk. A cheery couple volunteered to take a picture of us together. The picture sits on my desk today. My wife, radiant joy on her sunlit face, and I, our huge packs one with our bodies, looking every bit the seasoned and confident pair. The mid-September sun was unseasonably warm as it lit up the valley beneath Zealand and Whitewall mountains.
After seven miles of hiking, we came to the Thoreau Falls Trail, and took the quarter-mile diversion to Thoreau Falls, a spectacular, terraced waterfall complex that spans hundreds of yards. We took off our boots and socks and lay in the sun on the exposed granite, listening to the water gurgle around us. Michelle wanted to camp there. With rain in the next day’s forecast, she questioned the wisdom of forcing the planned loop over the Bond Cliffs. I bristled at this, as it meant giving up on the bulk of the trip. She became quiet and put her boots back on.
Oh, to have the wisdom of later reflection to draw from in the moment; we would save ourselves so much heartache.
(Above: Thoreau Falls)
Another 4 miles of gradual but consistent downhill through dense forest, and dusk was fast approaching. Encased within the folds of the massive peaks all around us, the shadows quickly swept over the woods like a mother casting a quilt over a small child. Finding a campsite was becoming somewhat urgent.
At Desolation Junction, we diverged onto the Wilderness Trail, in the direction of the river. We started along it until we could hear the rush of the river ahead. Then I spotted the island. The river was only three or four inches deep between the mainland and the island. Michelle crossed at my urging, and we set up camp. I felt vindicated.
The island was perfect. Under a brilliant star-filled sky, their lights glimmering upon the turbulent water rushing over smooth stones, and a small crackling fire at our feet, we ate our hot soup and drank our tea, sitting together on my pack. A steady cooling breeze cuddled us together. I put my arm around her, removing it occasionally to add a stick or two to the fire, and we pressed our cheeks together. The surge of river water drowned out the spooky creaks and cracks of the dark forest, which seemed so very far away from our secluded slice of paradise. I angled my chin and kissed her.
“Cheap.” She said. I kissed her again.
“Cheap.” She said again. I giggled. I kissed her again, long and passionately. Her cheeks glowed in the firelight. She rested her head in the crook of my shoulder.
We slept soundly and peacefully, and awoke to birds, the incessant river, and sunlight. During breakfast, the sky darkened and the breeze stopped. It became muggy. With the stillness and heavy air came mosquitoes.
“We need to move. They’ll be on us until we do.” I stated. She hoisted her pack and waited for me to lead. I kissed her nose. We made our way across the river, then turned and stared at the island once we reached the mainland. Our camera had malfunctioned and we both wanted to etch the memory before leaving. We stared at it for a moment longer, knowing it was the only picture we would have. Then, like that, I marched down the trail, with Michelle trailing.
The hike along the river to the Bond Cliff Trail, while at times interesting, was mostly hot, sticky and dehydrating. It felt too warm for the middle of September in the mountains. Vegetation heavy with the previous night’s rain soaked our legs and arms as we pressed through, increasing the tropical feel of the morning. Michelle’s hair was clinging to her face and neck. At the junction of the Bond Cliff trail, which was also the end of the easy part of our hike, she lowered herself slowly onto a log and asked if there was another way back to the car besides going over the mountain. I said yes, but it would still involve climbing the ridge at some point and would also include river crossings and a much longer route. She averted her eyes from mine and stared at the ground. I asked her to lead, to slow my pace. The route started moderately but became unrelentingly steep. Three-quarters of the way up, she needed to poop, which at that elevation was somewhat challenging, since there were few places to do so. I passed her the hand sanitizer and she finally uttered an official protest of the hike. I knew this was coming and didn’t argue.
“This is too hard, David. I’m really pushing myself. It makes me feel unsafe.”
I tried to suggest that the views on top would be worth it. She didn’t care. We continued on. A particularly rugged and challenging scramble up the last pitch brought us to the top of the Bond Cliffs. The trail runs near the cliffs, which have a sheer drop of many hundreds of feet to the thick forest and rocks below in spots. But we could not see this, since the entire mountain was socked in with thick swirling fog.
I’ve experienced all sorts of interesting and dangerous weather in the mountains, but this was different. My lovely bride was tired and scared and discouraged, and I had no good news to give. There were no views.
I realized, suddenly at that very moment, that I had planned this trip selfishly, expecting her to enjoy it as I would.
She wasn’t going to, and I should have known this. I didn’t mean to be selfish. I honestly thought that, once she was here, in the middle of this wilderness, that she would appreciate what I loved about these experiences and would share it with me as a special treasure. So, I didn’t consult her. I just planned it and told her it would be great.
Had I asked her, we would not now find ourselves in the middle of a thunderstorm cloud at 4,500 feet with no tree cover.
I tried to stay positive. Camping was not an option here. We needed to get over the mountain and back down the other side. We had to stay focused. We kept our eyes on the rocks ahead.
(Above: The Bond Cliffs on a clear day)
After an arduous and draining traverse over the Cliffs and up to the summit of Bond, we encountered a group of Canadians hiking together. It was mid-afternoon. I started to talk to them, but Michelle was hushed and seemed to grow increasingly impatient as I carried on. When they all stood up to get moving, I did likewise, following them down, chatting as we went, and Michelle quietly followed, but the group quickly went ahead of our pace and we were hiking alone again. Just as the grade of descent, which had been very steep, started to lessen, the clouds cleared and the Loon Mountain Ski Resort Trails could be seen far in the distance. I made mention to Michelle that Loon was the only sign of civilization which could be seen from Mt. Bond in any direction on a clear day.
Then my heart sank. I remembered that Loon could only be seen from the south side of Mt. Bond, not the north. We were supposed to be traveling north on the ridge. I had followed the Canadians assuming that they were headed in the same direction as us. Minor panic overtook us both.
Michelle collapsed onto a small scrub tree and declared herself to be done. She began to cry. I was motionless, speechless.
Then, in a surge of energy, I began consolidating her pack with mine to lighten her load. I helped her up, then helped her put her pack on. She wiped her nose on my shirt in the center of my chest and I held her for a moment. We prayed. There were wild blueberries growing in abundance on the ridge. I picked a handful of the small treats and handed them to her, trying to cheer her up and give her some quick energy. She took and ate them, attempting to smile. It was nearly 4pm and it would be getting dark in the woods soon. I could see deep shadow and pockets of black in the valleys.
Perhaps buoyed by the energy which comes from fright, we raced up the mountain with a speed we didn’t think was possible. Our legs were beginning to cramp. Every step was a vibration of pain through our thighs, calves, and mid backs. She had a blister forming on her big toe. Eventually, once we crested the peak and traversed the long connecting ridge between Mt. Bond and the next height-of-land, we made it down the ridiculously steep access trail to the camp and to our tent platform by the light of our headlamps. We quickly set up the tent, ate a food bar, drank the rest of our water and went to sleep.
Neither of us heard the violent storm which raged overnight. We slept straight through it.
The third day dawned sunny and much cooler. The views were spectacular along the Zeacliff Trail and the hiking was splendid, but Michelle had lost both her joy and her interest. She was spent. Several times we stopped to treat her feet for hot spots. Finally, a mile from the hut, after a grueling and thigh-busting descent from Zealand Mountain, she refused to get up. Her voice cracked when she spoke. I didn’t know what to do for her.
(Above: The hut at Zealand Falls)
“You have to get up, hun. The trail won’t hike itself.” She glared at me, but she rose and we continued on. Zealand Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Whites, but she barely glanced at it. Not until we went into the hut and purchased some homemade bread and soup, did her spirits lift. We spent a considerable amount of time in the hut. I massaged her calf muscles while she read a children’s book which was on the shelf above our heads. Two couples, an older and a younger, connected with us as we left the hut and hiked the final five miles with us to the car. Michelle happily engaged in conversation with them about family, life and love. Her pace quickened, and the miles flew by.
I contemplated these things as I loaded my $400 backpack into the trunk of the Buick. I stared at it after placing it next to hers. I remembered the hours and hours of research I conducted before buying it. The comparisons, the pricing, the pros and cons. It had been bought proudly for the right reasons and for the right purpose. Now, if I could only put that same focus on shopping for the correct perspective to have when trying to love my wife. Not the way I want to, but the way she needs me to.
Why is it that the most important people to us are sometimes the hardest to love correctly? Why are the most important memories we create at the mercy of circumstance and clouded sight? Forget hindsight; I want foresight.
The trees seemed to fly past impossibly as we drove home. A landscape that we could just reach out and touch moments earlier was now careening past our wheels like a carnival ride. The sugar rush from the ice cream left us feeling thick and slow once it faded. I took her hand and squeezed it. She held tight.
I’m still climbing that hill. And I’m just beginning to learn what devotion really is.