Reflections on the path less traveled
The sun came out last Sunday for the first time in as long as I could remember.
“Is it just me, or has it not been sunny in forever?” I asked Seth as I sat at our dining table slurping the potato soup he’d cooked up from scratch for lunch.
“I definitely haven’t worn my sunglasses in a while,” he confirmed as he slathered a pat of vegan butter on a hunk of homemade French bread from the bakery downtown.
“Too bad there’s no snow for skiing,” I lamented. Normally, Seth and I would spend these sunny winter days skijoring with our dogs Baxter and Laney, each of us wearing a waist belt tethered to a bungee leash connected to the back of a dog’s harness, allowing their four legs to propel us down the trail. There hasn’t been enough snow for a single cross-country ski day this year— though to be fair, it’s still the first half of January.
I’ve been cooped up a lot lately, letting the cold, gray days of winter roll by uneventfully. A few years back, I’d have been scaling an exposed mountain summit in crampons, wearing a 30-pound backpack full of enough gear to survive a below-zero night if anything went wrong (which, fortunately, it never did). Hikers here in the White Mountains call sunny days like this Presi Days—the rare clear, calm windows of weather when it’s safest to traverse the exposed alpine terrain of the Presidential range, the highest peaks in the Northeast.
I spent five years peak-bagging the New England Hundred Highest in winter—tagging every summit on a list of the one hundred tallest mountains in New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont. Some are challenging because of their elevation and exposure. Others are tricky because they’re remote, trailless, and require arduous bushwhacks through knee-deep snow while negotiating blowdowns, spruce traps, and all manner of obstacles.
I’m not hiking right now because I’ve already completed all my peak-bagging goals; because Laney is recovering from surgery and can’t work on her canine 4,000-footer list; and because my fertility doctor doesn’t think I should elevate my heart rate above 140 beats per minute if there’s a chance I might be pregnant. This, I learned during my last pregnancy in May, is about the pace of a brisk walk or slow jog, but not a steep climb with a heavy pack.
I don’t know how carefully I should follow this advice. My first two fetuses each scaled a handful of 4,000-footers with me, though I lost both of those pregnancies in the first trimester. My doctors at the time told me to keep up my regular activity levels, and hiking 10-mile days over multiple high peaks was pretty normal for me. They said it was not why I miscarried. But my fertility doctor doesn’t want me taking any chances. Yet even though I followed his advice last spring during pregnancy number three, our fetus lost its little heartbeat at 8 weeks.
Truth be told, I rarely climb mountains for fun. Hiking for me has always been a goal-oriented pursuit; a bucket-list item that need not be repeated once it’s complete (unless repetition is required for the next goal—say, hiking each of the 48 White Mountain 4,000-footers in all four seasons, which I completed two years ago.)
Still, I found myself at noon on this sunny but snowless winter Sunday slurping soup and feeling a little guilty for not being outside.
I resolved that I would do something, but as the hours ticked by, I distracted myself by plucking the clean pots and pans that Seth left drying in the sink and returning them, one by one, to their rightful hook or cabinet. I went outside in my flannel moose pajamas to test out the blackout window coverings Seth had made so I can sleep in my Honda Element. I finally remade the guest bed since my parents visited over the holidays.
By the time I managed to pull on my black fleece tights, blue hoodie, and trail runners with nano-spikes stretched from heel to toe, I had less than an hour of daylight left. I couldn’t go too far. I felt annoyed at myself for not leaving earlier so I could drive closer to enjoy the views of the snow-covered peaks that lay 20 miles south and east of me. Laney was annoyed at me, too, when I gave her a bone and told her she had to stay home from our adventures until she gets her stitches out. I dropped the tailgate and loaded Baxter into the back of the Element and drove up Corrigan Hill to the parking lot for Mount Prospect, a small state park at the edge of town.
I couldn’t decide which trail to take—and there were only two options. Baxter and I could jog a mile and a half up the paved and gated auto road to the summit, with its open lawn, historic buildings, and panoramic views of the Whites, or we could take the 3-mile around-the-mountain loop trail. The auto road would have better views but also more people; the trail would keep us in the woods, but we’d have it all to ourselves.
I had a Robert Frost moment as I stood at the junction deciding which path to take, and I almost went straight up the road so I could enjoy the unobstructed views from the mountaintop on this clear, sunny day. But a part of me couldn’t help veering right onto the muddy, rooty, snow-dusted trail in the trees. Baxter took off ahead of me on her 16-foot retractable leash, and we picked our way along the trail, dodging mud pits and ice patches and downed trees and limbs. I leapfrogged her every time she stopped to sniff a log or pee on a branch, and as soon as she was done, she went barreling past me until she reached the end of her leash, stopped, I caught up to her again, and the dance repeated itself.
If this round-the-mountain trail were a square divided into four equal sides, the first section we traveled down was the southern side, about the width of an old logging road. It’s open enough that in summer and fall the brush grows waist-high and scratches my legs with brambles. Winter flattens the weeds but leaves wide mud pits where seeps of water percolate downslope. It’s my least favorite section of the loop, so usually I get it over with first.
The first corner of the square is where the trail turns hard left when a wide, sloping field appears on the right. The last time I brought the dogs on this trail, we had to bushwhack across this field to evacuate a wild-eyed Laney as she bucked against her leash and pawed at a mouth full of porcupine quills. Seth picked us up at the road at the bottom of the field for a trip to the emergency vet.
Laney would not be allowed off-leash on this trail again anytime soon, and even though Baxter was smarter with porcupines, I kept her tethered to me to make life easier. We turned onto the second leg of our trek, an undulating stretch of trail on the back side of the mountain. This was a narrow sidehill section where the slope dropped off below us into an open hardwood forest, the straight gray-brown trunks of maples and oaks rising to a woven canopy of bare branches.
Just as I started to second-guess my decision to take the wooded trail and miss the mountain views, I saw them: the towering peaks of the Presidential range, rising in a wall of white behind the sparse trees. The snow-capped monoliths of Mount Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Monroe, and Eisenhower stood like sentinels dominating the horizon, glowing gold as they reflected the setting sun. I wanted a better view, and hurried Baxter along the trail until we found a break in the trees where we could see an unobscured slice of the ridge.
“Look at the mountains, Bax” I said. “They’re glowing.”
She was more interested in sniffing under every branch and log for signs of chipmunks she would never catch, so we carried on as the trail climbed the back side of Prospect. Dodging mud puddles felt like a game of hopscotch until an ill-placed step broke the frosty crust and sucked my sneaker several inches deep. A trickle of cold water seeped through the mesh and dampened my toe.
“Damn it!” I cried, but Baxter pulled me forward, and I danced along the edge of the pit until we hit solid ground.
As we reached the crest of the wooded trail, we turned our backs on the Presidentials and angled northward toward the Kilkenny range. Now as we approached a sugarbush of old maple trees, I looked through tangled branches and saw the horizon on fire. Alpenglow painted the serpentine silhouette of Mount Cabot in radiant peach, transitioning to orange and lavender down the U-shaped slope of Bunnell Notch and into the valley below. The stunning display stopped me in my tracks. It had been years since I’d found myself in the right place at the right time to catch the reflection of sunset on snowy peaks. My chest filled with awe until my lungs tightened and I remembered to breathe again.
I strained to get a clear view, and I thought about bushwhacking uphill toward the summit, but I knew the scene would be over as soon as I turned my back. Instead Baxter and I jogged ahead and I marveled at the glowing horizon until we rounded a corner and dipped downslope into the twilight. By the time we reached the last bend in the trail and saw the pink wisp of sunset in the western sky, I needed my headlamp to navigate the final stretch back to the car.
This feels a lot like my life lately: an exquisite beauty lies on the horizon, and I catch glimpses of it through the bare trees, but there is no path that leads there. I run parallel to it, trying to get a closer look, trying to find my way in the fading light, until it vanishes into darkness.
Should I have taken the road to the summit, I wondered—the one with the guaranteed views?
I could have, but I was satisfied with my wooded ramble. I didn’t need to keep my toes dry or my sneakers clean or have a bench to sit on with the panorama stretched effortlessly before me. I needed to slip on the patchy ice and sink into the thawing mud and trip on the exposed rocks and roots. I needed to hear the rhythm of my footsteps on the snow-crusted dirt and squint through trees at the glowing ridge and be alone in the woven embrace of the forest.
I got a view that day that no one else did, and maybe—just maybe—I savored it more.
And besides, Baxter reminded me: there were way more chipmunks to sniff.
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