Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

On the Trail with Noah
Laurie Levinger

"I've decided this is an absurd activity," my son Noah called to me. Staring at his huge backpack I was trying not to agree. Our first 3.8 miles stretched before us -- mostly uphill -- and we were getting a late start. "I've been thinking about it,” he went on, “what's the point of leaving my room where I have everything I need, packing it all plus food and a tent, putting it on my back and carrying it all uphill..." His voice practically cracking at the outrage, "... for miles!" That question lingered in the air as we set off to the first steep climb.

The things learned on the trail are primary: the reds, blues and yellows of hiking. After fifteen minutes, I remember them from hiking years previous: watch where you step, it's hard going up but it hurts even more going down, understand with renewed appreciation where the cliché "the rocky road" comes from, treasure with gratitude the flat section of each trail, when climbing use the hiking mantra to set the rhythm -- one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other. Then there are the signs. They appear out of nowhere providing relief from the beauty that quickly becomes monotonous -- rock, root, tree, rock, root, tree. They are small -- white block print on a green background – and announce the important things: “VIEW,” “WATER,” “SHELTER.” Of course there are also the trail blazes and weathered signs that tell you how much farther you have to your destination. Sometimes I make Noah stand in front of one so I can document where we've been and where we're going. He gazes out at me, irritated at having his picture taken, squinting into the sun.

At the next “VIEW” sign, Noah's nowhere to be seen, so I head down the detour alone and find him sitting way out on the edge of a rock ledge, admiring the vista. I pause quietly to admire him sitting way out there, knowing I'd never do it myself. "Hey," I say. "Hey," he responds, "look at this view! It was all worth it." I drop my pack and join him, standing with my back against the rock face. We can see the hut we came from far below, and look straight across to the summit of Wildcat Mountain. The view made even more marvelous with the pride of ownership. For now, it's our view.

The next time we stop, we're on the summit of Mt. Hight, one of the “4000-footers,” as they're called. I don't really care although there are people who do, and keep lists of all the mountains they summit. I just want to stand there above the tree-line and know I've climbed up there myself; to feel what it's like not to have anything higher than I am. I have a short person's sensitivities -- sometimes I need to be the tallest. There's a young couple climbing up behind us -- tan, shiny with health and energy. I ask them to take our picture beside the summit sign. I climb onto the rocks to make my head even with Noah's. The young people look at us blankly then, click, the photo's taken. “How long have you been on the trail?” I ask. "Since March," the young man says. "Five months." "Wow. That's a long time. And you're still talking to each other?" He gazes at her, radiantly. It's like a sudden shaft of brilliant sun lights up the air between them. "Oh, absolutely." They shoulder their packs and stride off, leaving me with the slightly sour taste of that question in my mouth.

Next summit, next young couple, smiling, talking. Noah is teasing me for being so slow; after walking twenty minutes he has to stop and wait ten for me to catch up, which means I never get a good rest because he's ready to go when I finally arrive. We step aside -- good trail etiquette -- for the faster couple to pass. “He's making fun of how slow I go," I say to them, really just kidding. The young woman pauses and looks Noah straight in the eye. "Each person can only go at their own pace," she says, then continues down the trail. Her partner follows close behind. "She has to wait for me on the uphills," he adds, while she calls back, "and he's faster going down."

We'd already been walking for several hours and I was starting to get shaky. Usually I stop to drink water or eat something when this happens but I was trying to catch up with Noah so he didn't have to wait so long. And that's when I fell. I caught my toe, my pack threw me off balance and I slid down the long face of rock, landing on my knee in packed dirt. I lay there, feeling all the parts that hurt, grateful that at least nothing was broken. I got up, first on all fours, then standing. I retrieved my pack, relieved that no one had witnessed the fall. My pride was what hurt the most. Time to listen to what people tell you on the trail: go at your own pace.

That's when the conversations started. First, it was the quads: "How could you ask us to do this for so long? Don't you know anything about preparing for a long hike? What kind of a moron are you, anyway?" Then the collar bones chimed in: "Yeah, and how about more padding up here. The rest of you is padded enough obviously, but we're sticking out here taking all the weight." And far off in the distance, a whimper from the feet I could barely make out: "Don't pay any attention to them. We're the ones taking all the weight here." Then the toes started to argue among themselves: "And why did you put Bandaids on the middle ones, don't you think we deserve some padding too?" Louder whimpers, "We'll make you pay for this!" So it was me and my complaining body that made it down the trail to the next stop where Noah was waiting. Needing to save face I mentioned my fall like it was a minor mishap. I decided to keep my arguing body parts to myself. We drank some water and headed off again.

Suddenly there were so many other people on the trail that it didn't feel solitary any more. In fact it was starting to feel like a Pirandello play or an outdoor circus. Jack #1 -- skinny and frenetic, and Jack #2 -- stolid and sincere, appeared. The first Jack tried to engage Noah in a discussion of his plans for next year: “Where do you want to go to school? What do you intend to study?” Noah was reluctant to reveal anything personal. Then, the comment that unlocked the gate from Jack #1: "So it's not like you know you want to be an electrical engineer or something like that?" Which is exactly what Noah thinks he wants to be and said so. That was all the response Jack#1 needed. He started to extol the virtues of MIT, his alma mater, and described his meteoric career path. He asked Noah's SAT scores and allowed as how they weren't half bad, while saying , "I got six 800's and one 795," this thirty-five years after the fact. Still dealing with that 795, apparently. To change the subject, I told the Jacks how hard the downhills were on my knees, how much they were hurting (I didn't mention that they'd been screaming at me and calling me rude names); a perfect introduction to the topic of correct downhill walking. Jack #2 gave the lecture while Jack #1 started to leap nimbly from rock to rock, to illustrate. It was an impressive demonstration since he wasn't even wearing hiking boots, only Tevas and socks. The dialogue that went with it was straightforward and direct: "Walk on your balls, walk on your balls," they chanted in unison.

As we headed away down the path, Noah and I giggled under our breath. "They just like to hear themselves say ‘balls,’" he whispered. We shook our heads and continued to admonish each other whenever the conversation slowed, "Walk on your balls!"

Who knew how many hours later -- I was so tired I lost track of time -- there was the sign for the cut-off to the shelter. I couldn't remember how long this new trail was. Stumbling, resting, calling out for Noah. He was so far ahead, he never heard. Then, there he was, coming towards me. I was so used to following his back I didn't know what to think. Was he okay, was he falling down with exhaustion, too? What would we do then? But no, he didn't look exhausted and he didn't have his pack with him. "Here, Mom, let me take that for you." He reached for my pack. I leaned against a rock, whimpering. "How much farther is it?" "Half a mile. Look, I'll carry it," picking up my pack and heading off.

This time I followed his back with my smaller pack much farther than half a mile until we finally reached the shelter. "I thought you said it was half a mile." “I lied,” he said, a wry smile on his face. “I thought you needed some encouragement."

I didn't even care about eating. A cup of tea would do. All I wanted was my sleeping bag. But there was one final trail character before sleep -- Jason, calling himself “J.” the shelter caretaker. He came to collect the fee and chat after Noah made dinner. All I could think about was lying down, but J. had some important information about wilderness camping he was determined to tell us -- like not to pee in the privy. Peeing on the trail was best, even though that didn't afford much privacy. Everything from the privy was composted and it was easier if the poo was dry. He added, seriously, "I know. I work with the poo." Noah and I looked at each other, silently shaking our heads at J., both knowing we had a new line to use when things got rough: "I know. I work with the poo."

It was just dusk when J. left but I crawled into my sleeping bag anyway. At last. My legs were screeching but I was tired beyond caring. I lay there remembering Noah as a little boy, how I fortified him with handfuls of M&M's for those long uphill climbs. This is our ninth year hiking together. Now he has beard stubble after one day on the trail and my knees aren't as young as they used to be, but we still tell each other jokes, we still relish the characters along our path, we're still out in the mountains... together. “Noah! Noah! I've got it,” I say, resisting sleep. “I’ve got the point of all of this!” I looked over to tell him, but he was sprawled out on the ground beside me, dead asleep.
Laurie Levinger lives and writes in Norwich, VT. She's gone hiking in the White Mountains with her son Noah every year since he was eight. This year -- now that he's nineteen and her knees have gotten old along with the rest of her -- may, unfortunately, have been their last hiking adventure together.