One of the many activities Deborah had planned for our stay here in New Hampshire was to go and climb Mt. Monadnock.
Now, I need to back up and tell you another story. Several years ago, before we were married (I guess that'd be 12 or 13 years now), we visited New Hampshire, and one of Deborah's relatives invited us on a hike with her kids. I went, of course, happy to do some real hiking. I was disappointed — the only thing they could have done to make the trail easier would have been to pave it. They had talked it up like it was some great hike. I was unimpressed.
So, fast-forward to the present, and everyone around me is talking up this great hike we were going to go on. I kinda shrugged, and figured it would be fine for our group. The kids could do a few miles on those trails, sure. Might wear 'em out a bit. We had a grandmother, a three-year-old, a five-year-old, two women carrying babies (Deborah, externally, in a wrap; Sara, internally, at 8 months) plus Paul and I. Totally appropriate choice for an afternoon hike.
It was once we got there that I started to realize that this was not the same hike. In the restrooms at the trailhead, there were signs all over that, in essence, said, "please arrange for your own rescue." Hmm. Either they were being overly dramatic, or maybe this wasn't the pleasant walk I'd imagined...
It started out quite pleasant, a nice path through the forest, like I'd imagined. Soon the trail started going from roots and logs, to large rocks, and on into the range of "you've got to be kidding me." I fancy myself a hiker, but even I had to stop at some of these and figure out how I was going to get up. After a while, the question was no longer how I was going to get up, but how Aiden was going to do it.
Aiden utterly amazed me. He's three. Three! And he went all the way up the side of that mountain. Teenagers coming down after abandoning the summit attempt gawked at him, gave him wild blueberries, and kept asking how old he was. Aiden was bemused by the attention. Still three, guys, same as the last time you asked.
We went on like that for hours. I was a bit of a funny sight, as I was carrying one of the backpacks. Mine had eight bottles of water, some snacks, jackets and sweatshirts for everyone in case it got cold, and, poking out the top, a box of tissues. I forget why we decided to bring the latter, but it was an inspired choice; I got very good at reaching over my shoulder and whipping out a tissue for anyone who needed it. To my sweaty regret, we didn't need the jackets, and we needed a lot more water than we brought.
Finally, the terrain flattened out for a bit, and we could see the summit. It was encouraging, and it was heartbreaking. We were still having fun, and we wanted to get all the way to the top since we were so close.
Aiden was slowing down, and I stuck with him as my climbing buddy while the others got a good distance ahead of us. I was getting a bit worried about this. My instincts kept telling me to head back down with Aiden, but person after person coming down assured me that we were almost there, and that it would be a shame to miss the summit. I asked Aiden, and to my amazement, he wanted to keep going. So we did.
The last hundred vertical feet were more than I thought Aiden could handle, up or down, but fortunately Deborah, Sara, and Grandma Renaud were camped out below it on a nice overlook, and Deborah artfully told Aiden that he'd made it all the way to the side of the top. He plunked down for a well-deserved rest.
I scrambled up for a look from the very top. It was amazing to look out and see hawks wheeling below you. This is what makes mountain climbing worthwhile.
We reveled in making it to the top for a while, but it was getting late, and we still needed to get back to the car before dark. So we heeded the advice of the ranger at the beginning, and took the White Cross trail down. It was about at this point that we all realized something significant: going down was harder than coming up, not only because of the perspective, and the tendency of a body in motion to stay in motion, but also because we were tired.
We plunged downwards as fast and as safely as we could go, but it wasn't enough. My role shifted from getting Aiden where he needed to go (often by carrying him) to helping Deborah, who was steadily losing it. As dusk began to settle, Sara took Fiona on ahead, and I asked Paul to get Aiden off the mountain any way he could. He pulled his hand-crank flashlight out of the pack, and forged on. It was just me, Deborah, Risanna, and my mother-in-law left. At this point, the baby was crying, and Deborah was worn out and at the point of tears herself, but I coaxed her on, trying to squeeze as much mileage as possible out of the quickly dwindling daylight. I felt badly about it, but a break now would all but ensure that we wouldn't get off before dark.
Dark descended anyway.
We walked into the darkness as long as we could, trying to discern the path by the shapes around us, but that strategy failed soon enough, as well. We came to a standstill; we couldn't see where were were going, and we certainly couldn't see what we were stepping on. We already had some tweaked ankles and a sore rear end from missteps. What were we going to do?
Right about then, we heard voices, and called out to them. A few minutes later, small glowing squares started bouncing down to us in the darkness. Three college students were making their way down the trail as well, lighting the way with the screens on their iPods. Someone produced a working cell phone, and the Rangers were called. Remarkably, one of the college students knew the trail very well, and was able to tell them exactly where we were. The rangers sounded relieved — we were only an hour from the gates by now, not all the way at the summit, as they'd previously heard, and confirmed that Fiona and Sara had made it out just as total darkness had fallen. Half an hour later, a new flashlight bobbed up the path towards us, and the Ranger on duty met us with a great deal of relief all around.
Once we were all back at the cars and mostly rehydrated, we started swapping stories about our separate adventures coming down. Sara and Fiona made it down in good time, and Fiona even seemed to have some energy left. Paul, with many pauses to rewind his flashlight, had basically carried Aiden off the mountain. I asked him to kneel, and I took my staff and knighted him for his heroism.
I've made a few notes to myself for next time we go hiking: take more food, more water, flashlight, a working cell phone, and start a lot earlier in the day!
Then again, what's a vacation without a little adventure...?