A Wander on Monadnock
by CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON
“That don’t look so hard.”
“That doesn’t look so hard.”
“I doesn’t care.” That would be Matthew, my ten-year-old son. He opened his mouth as wide as a cavern and let out a bellow of a laugh. “Take that, Mr. Editor!”
“Smart aleck,” I said.
“Just like you, Dad.”
I just had to crack up at this kid of mine, the one with the mouth and the nut-brown skin and his mother’s stone-brown eyes. “I can assure you that I never talked to my father—your grandfather—like this. Yes, I can most assuredly guarantee you of that.”
“Right,” he said. He knew what I meant about his grandfather.
“So anyway, what doesn’t look so hard?” I asked.
“Climbing that,” he said, pointing toward Mount Monadnock. “Most of my friends have done it. They say it’s easy.” The squat mountain, in southern New Hampshire, sat five miles north of us. It rose symmetrically from the surrounding landscape, and unlike Mount Washington and the other peaks of the White Mountains—a hundred miles or so to the northeast—this mountain stood alone. Thousands of trees marched up the sides of the mountain like wooden soldiers.
I remembered reading that during the colonial period, the forests were so thick that a squirrel could scurry along the forest canopy from Maine through New Hampshire and all the way to Minnesota. I pictured what it must have been like three hundred years ago with those thick, beautiful forests. Then I thought of the Hawthorne story “The May-Pole of Merry-Mount,” in which supposedly deranged colonists migrate into the depths of the forests to dance around a maypole and commit all variety of sin and degradation. Being a modern person, I thought of the Puritans as being somehow unenlightened. Even so, I had an inkling about forests and mountains as mysterious and a little bit dangerous.
“Monadnock is the most climbed mountain in the United States,” Matthew announced. He absorbed facts like a gigantic sponge. Got that from his mother.
“What’s the most climbed mountain in the world?” I asked.
“Right,” I said. “How did you know that?
He shrugged. “Don’t know. I just know it.”
It was the summer of 1984. It had been three years since we’d relocated from Chicago to Boston. Barbara and I were and always would be Midwesterners, but our two children—this adventurous son and our equally inquisitive daughter, Emily—were growing up New Englanders. They said things like “wicked awesome” and “bubblah” and “tawnic.” Matthew and I had gotten an early start that morning, driving up from Framingham in our brand-new 1984 blue Toyota Corolla with the stick shift.
Before actually reaching the mountain, I’d pulled the car over. I wanted to stop and soak in the view—get the lay of the land, so to speak. To the east of Monadnock, I could see a lake, gleaming like a diamond. Trees, so many trees, crawled up the sides of the mountain, but then stopped abruptly, maybe three-quarters of the way up. The crown of the mountain was bare naked granite, which the winds of centuries had rounded into smooth contours. Well, I thought, that’s the way God or nature or the forces of the earth did it, just throwing up this mountain all by itself and then shaving the top.
The day was cloudless, the sky azure, the sun midway in its climb toward noon. We returned to the car and continued to listen to sports talk, which was going over and over the Red Sox loss the day before. Starting at one o’clock, their Sunday afternoon game would soon penetrate all corners of New England. I’d discovered pretty quickly after moving to Boston that the Red Sox fed New England’s sense of itself as a place of optimism and tragedy doled out in equal doses by uncaring Fates.
Twenty minutes later, we stood and looked up at the White Dot Trail, which embarked immediately outside the visitor center and headed in a northerly direction before it turned northwest. The almost two-mile trail was well-worn with the sneakers and hiking boots of weekend adventurers like us. We started to climb. Matthew, all galloping legs and frenetic arms, careened fifty yards ahead of me, turned around, and shouted, “Hey, old man, hurry up!”
“I’m enjoying the climb!” I said. “I’m studying the trees!” That was somewhat true, but mostly I just couldn’t keep up with him. “And I’m not an old man. At least not yet.”
After forty-five minutes of climbing, we stopped for a drink from our canteens. Then we both noticed something strange about one hundred feet off the trail—a tree as crooked and misshapen as the Wicked Witch of the West. “That’s cool!” Matthew said. “Let’s go look at it!”
“Nope,” I said. “We’d better stay on the trail.”
He looked at me with those olive-shaped eyes. “C’mon, it’ll be an adventure.” I wanted to stay tethered to the trail—the preordained path that countless others had marched upon to reach the summit of this mountain. I hesitated. “Oh, OK,” I said. “But let’s not lose track of the trail.”
We abandoned the White Dot Trail and cut through the woods toward the twisted tree. When we reached it, we could see that it was really quite extraordinary. Entwined around its trunk wound a vine, with its fingers flying out. The tendrils of the vine resembled a child’s arms and hands reaching toward the sky. The tree felt chillingly alive. “That is weird looking!” Matthew said.
“Nature works in strange ways.”
“Let’s keep going into the woods.”
I looked back and caught a glimpse of the trail. “Well . . .”
But before I could say no, he was wandering ahead of me, leading us deeper into the forest. We came to an enormous pine—massive and straight and soaring to great height. “White pine,” I said. “That was the tree that the colonists valued above all. They used it for everything—ship masts, houses, what have you.”
“How old do you think this one is?” he asked.
“Older than you and me put together. Twice as old.”
“Absolutely ancient!” I stepped back and stared at the canopy, with its branches and needles spreading above us like an enormous umbrella and blocking most of the sunlight. A few rays broke through the canopy, though, and touched the forest floor—missiles of light that connected heaven and earth.
We tramped a little farther and saw two trees grown together like conjoined twins. Matthew walked up and touched the tree, let his fingers trace over the rough trunk. “This is really a weird one,” he said. “How did they get like this? Are they one tree or two? How did they grow together like this?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just don’t know enough about trees to answer.” We stared at the twinned trees--an unexpected mystery of the forest. I thought of more questions: Did the trees share a root system? Did they nourish each other? I felt frustrated by my own lack of knowledge.
Then I looked around, and of course—of course—we had lost track of the trail. I looked at Matthew. “Damn it! We’re lost.”
“Cool!” he said. “It can’t be that far back to the trail.”
“I suppose not,” I answered, frustrated. At the age of ten, he was more comfortable with being lost in the woods than I was. The White Dot Trail might as well not exist. It was completely out of sight. I looked at Matthew. He wore skin the color of leather, and his eyes were black olives shaded by long eyelashes. He’d had long hair when school ended in June, but then he went to a barber and had almost all of it shaved off.
When we first moved to Massachusetts, we’d taken him and Emily to Walden Pond. There, something clicked with Matthew—something about Thoreau living alone in a cabin in those woodlands that belonged to Ralph Waldo Emerson. For his ninth birthday, we bought him a children’s edition of Walden, and he read it and read it again. The lure of nature, of adventure, of independence, of marching to the beat of one’s own drum.
I looked back. No sign of the White Dot Trail. I felt a gnawing uncertainty. I knew in the rational part of my mind that this was a very modest forest that carpeted a modest mountain, and there was little chance of being dangerously lost. But I liked to stay on trails. With trails, I knew where I was going. With trails, I had clear goals. But now we were off the trail, and I felt . . . not fear, but anxiety. How could I have allowed us to wander off like this? The trees were thick around, the leaves black, the forest floor carpeted with ferns and saplings—one generation of trees preparing to replace the previous one. “We should have brought a compass,” I said, letting frustration creep into my voice.
“I think the trail is that way, Dad.” Matthew pointed over my shoulder.
“Well, let’s try that way then.”
The forest floor was thick with the trunks and limbs of dead and dying trees and were slowly returning to the earth. We lifted our feet to step over branches that lay strewn on the forest floor. As we marched through the forest, the vegetation seemed to grab at our feet. I had no idea if we were moving in the right direction, but at least we were moving.
We came to a glade, which stood completely open to the immense blue sky. Across the open space stood a deer, tawny in the sun. It regarded us with intense curiosity and then skittered away.
“It seems like we should have gotten to the trail by now,” I said.
“I still think we’re going in the right direction.”
A fantastic carpet of wildflowers spread through the glade: mountain asters of royal purple, cinquefoil blazing with sun-bright yellow, mountain cranberries with red globes hanging below the leaves of the plant—beautiful, plentiful, bounteous, the fruits of the living earth.
A downed tree trunk beckoned to us: Sit! Rest! We sat down, we listened. The knock knock knocking of a woodpecker rang through the forest. I folded my arms around my knees and felt the lumpy bark against my backside. Silence. Then I turned to Matthew. “I’m remembering things,” I said to him. “Don’t know why, but I am. Haven’t thought about these things for years.”
“Well, there were these woods, these great woods, near where we lived outside Cleveland when I was a kid. There were these kids on our block, and we formed kind of a gang.”
“You were a gangster!”
I laughed. “Not a gang like that. More like the Our Gang comedies from Grandma and Grandpa’s time. Ever heard of them?”
“Sure. Spanky and Alfalfa.”
“That’s right. Well, we had this sort of gang. Tom was a real good boxer and wrestler. He was built like a fireplug. Jerry liked critters and especially snakes. Robert was a real nerdy kid with glasses and buck teeth. And me. I was kind of nerdy, too.”
“Every summer,” I went on, “we spent most of our time in those woods. We went every day. No adults around. We caught tadpoles. We put salt down on the ground to attract deer. Did you know that you could do that?”
He shook his head.
“One time Dad—Grandpa—took me fishing at a pond in the woods. He’d brought a pitchfork so we could dig for worms. Grandpa didn’t want to spend the money to buy worms, so we were going to dig for them. We were walking toward the pond, and he stopped and said, ‘Let’s dig for worms here.’ I raised the pitchfork and brought it down—right into my right big toe.”
Matthew laughed, and I joined him, and our laughter rose through the forest. “Believe me, your grandfather had doubts about me sometimes.”
“Did you have to go to the hospital?”
“No, but I had to wear a big ugly bandage around my toe for about a week. We never did go fishing.” I fell quiet. “Those woods,” I finally said, “they’re gone now. They plowed them all up and built a subdivision. The woods took up only about an acre, but to me at that age, they felt like this huge wilderness. I’ll never forget when the earthmovers and the trucks came in and started to knock all the trees over and carry them away. The workers gradually leveled the ground and poured concrete for streets and built houses.” I paused. “When those earthmovers came in, I cried.” Matthew looked at me.
Silence. In that silence, I was intensely aware of the presence of my father and those friends in memory and of the mysterious way in which memory creates continuity and connection from one generation to another. That silence—it was beautiful. Gradually, memory released its hold on me. “Maybe we should look for that trail,” I said.
Matthew nodded. “I think it’s that way.” He pointed over my shoulder. We bade farewell to the glade and once again entered the forest. The undergrowth grew thicker than ever, and the forest floor was carpeted with ferns, saplings, bushes, fallen branches, and uprooted trees with ten-foot-wide roots torn from the belly of the earth. The thick, pungent vegetation pulled at our boots, slowed us down, stood in the way of our progress.
I glanced at my watch, and it was almost noon. I looked above us. I knew that the sun was overhead, but the thick, clotted canopy of the trees hid Old Sol from view. The sun had seemingly ceased to exist. The forest was dense and dark. The trees stood in fantastic shapes and sizes. The forest enveloped us, stood in our way, exerted a mysterious force of its own. “This is hard going,” I said.
“I know,” Matthew said.
“But that’s OK.”
“It’s the way forests are, isn’t it?” he said.
“I like it.”
“I do, too.”
It was true. I welcomed this. I welcomed the forest. I felt rooted in the forest, as if, with each step, I reconnected to the earth. We zigged and zagged, but I knew that we would find our way back to the trail. The forest continued black and thick and unyielding and mysterious and teeming with invisible insect life. The forest didn’t want to let us go, and we didn’t want to leave it. The anxiety I’d felt—it was gone, dissipated. I felt boundless patience and confidence as we wandered.
Then, ahead of us, a slip of blue. The sky! And then voices—the voices of people—the voices of fellow human beings. Matthew said, “We’re close!”
Still the forest floor pulled at our boots, reluctant to let us go. We kept walking until we reached the White Dot Trail. We spilled out onto the trail. We saw people hiking, climbing, talking, laughing. The sun shot its light downward and crashed into the trail. The light reflected back to us, embracing us in its warmth.
I looked at my watch, and now it was noon. I looked at the straight and narrow White Dot trail leading unambiguously to the summit of Monadnock. Even though we’d taken the detour off the trail, we decided to continue climbing. Now it became a different climb, limned by the experience of being lost. Matthew leaped ahead of me like a mountain goat, bounding from one granite boulder to another, filling me with wonder. “How do you do that?” I said. “How do you stay balanced?”
“Natural talent,” he grinned. He catapulted ahead of me with mountain goat hooves that clung to the rocks.
I felt my feet against the soil, my legs driving me upwards. I imbibed the odor of the pine trees, drank in the verdure of the forest, felt the beating of my heart. I felt my animal strength—of a bird—of freedom—as we climbed higher into the sky. We came to a vista. “Look!” I said, pointing east. “There’s the pond we saw when we were driving up here.”
“It looks tiny from here.”
We unloaded our backpacks, took out our canteens, drank deeply. The water was cool and slipped down our throats like liquid silk, sliding into our bellies. Without the backpack, I felt my T-shirted back drenched with sweat. We finished our water and hoisted our backpacks onto our shoulders.
“How are you doing, Dad?” Matthew asked.
“I am doing just fine, Matt,” I answered.
We veered left onto the White Cross Trail. Boulders filled the trail like huge rough marbles, and the trail became steeper, and I felt the physical part of me taking over the mental part. The mountain was something alive, it was sentient, I was listening to it, and it was whispering secrets. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be alone. The earth is with you. You are part of the earth, and the thousands of trees that surround you, they are part of you, and you are part of them.
Finally, we reached the summit. It was naked and rocky. It too had once had trees, but fires in the nineteenth century burned the topsoil and stripped it bare. Trees were making slow progress up the sides of Monadnock, leaving the summit open to the stars, the moon, the sun for now. Matthew and I crossed the huge granite bulwarks that capped the mountain. Sixty miles to the southeast was Boston, and I could make out the shimmering skin of the John Hancock Tower.
Matthew and I sat next to each other, took out our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apples, and devoured them as if we had not eaten for many, many days. We finished eating. Silence. What were we going to say to each other? It was father and son, an archetypal relationship. What was there to say? Then words came, carried along by the tide of feeling. I turned to him and said, “I loved getting lost in the forest.”
“It seemed like you were worried about going off the trail.”
“To be honest, I was. I really was.” I paused. “What was your favorite thing?”
“The two trees joined into one.”
“That was a real mystery of the forest.”
“Did you used to get lost in those woods you were talking about when you were a kid?”
His question released another stream of memories. “We sure did,” I said. “The woods had this secret place, this little grove, kind of like where we saw the deer today. Oh, it was beautiful, all surrounded by trees. Tom, Robert, and Jerry, and me—we’d get together there and bring our lunches and eat there. Then we’d go exploring. There weren’t any paths. We just walked through the grass, going wherever our hearts led us. We’d go the pond—the one where Grandpa and I were going to fish—and we caught tadpoles. We put them in a Mason jar and we looked at them real closely and studied them. Jerry, who knew all about nature—he’d tell us all about the tadpoles and how they grew into frogs.” These memories—they overwhelmed me. I turned away from Matthew.
He said, “Are you all right, Dad?”
I turned back to him and smiled. “I’m great, Matt.” I paused. “I’m great, being here with you.”
We packed up the wax paper in which we had wrapped our sandwiches, gathered up our apple cores, packed it all into our backpacks, and hoisted the backpacks onto our shoulders. We began to descend Monadnock. About three-quarters of the way down, the trail paralleled a glittering stream that tumbled over the harsh New Hampshire granite. I hadn’t even noticed the stream during our ascent, but now it captured my full attention. The stream murmured, and I heard the wind whisper as it came off the summit of the mountain and swept through the forest.
Christopher Johnson's love of nature grew during many hours on trails in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He has continued to hike and observe since returning to his native Illinois. He also taught English and edited textbooks for many years. He is the co-author of Forests for the People: The Story of America's Eastern National Forests, published in 2013 by Island Press.