Pemigewasset

I. The Forest, Undisturbed?

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Figure 1: A stable deciduous forest community dominated by spruce, beech, and hemlock.

It’s a ritual by now: toss the packs into the trunk of the CRV, turn up the tunes, and scoot over to I-91, northbound. We break out the almonds within minutes—Dad and I are not known for our abilities to stave off hunger with grace, and we just received a 50-pound almond shipment, anyway. (Yes, 50 pounds—we’re official Nuts.com’s Most Valued Customers.)  Miles melt away to the melodies of Good Karma, the playlist Dad meticulously curated to be the soundtrack for this very ride, and we settle into this sacred space we’ve created for ourselves.

It’s Pemi Loop time.

The Pemigewasset Loop is a classic White Mountain circuit traversing 31.5 mountainous miles through the western half of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Some conquer it in one day. We’ll take four, thank you very much. Along the way, we’ll bag twelve (fourteen, if we’re feeling ambitious) of the NH48, the 48 peaks in New Hampshire over 4,000 feet in elevation.

We know the drill, though. In years of family and father-daughter backpacks, we’ve tackled much of the loop before, and as we drive north again, we rattle off old triumphs with an eager desperation that keeps them real. “Remember that time in King’s Canyon?” I say, “with the snake? Remember the barbecued beef? And that crazy park ranger? Remember that time we made it to Franconia in 3 hours?” (Waze predicts a healthy five and a half.)

Fueled up following a pilgrimage to Top of the Hill Grill, our favorite Brattleboro lunch establishment, our energy amps up even more as Good Karma escalates from Tracy Chapman to Delbert McClinton to Queen. Deer crossing signs are replaced with moose crossings, and roadside oaks give way to stately birch and scrappy little evergreens. Hurtling through that highway tunnel of Great Northern Trees never fails to transport me into a fairy world of outdoor adventure and untapped wilderness, the land of the loon and the moose, where a good fraction of cars carry rooftop canoes and where mountains, not metropolises, blanket the horizon.

It was this romantic vision of a great wide open that originally lit an environmentalist fire in me. Young Jordan worshipped the laws of “Leave No Trace,” loved biomes, and hated invasive species with a passion. I’d bushwhack into the “woods” behind my yard, squint my eyes to blur away the fences and litter and scattered reminders of suburban reality, and imagine I was in the Siberian taiga, or Colorado, or maybe the great frontier of Alaska. Nature was special if it was authentic, and authentic only if it was wild. Untouched. Wandering the wilderness without another soul in sight, the lone spirit can access a level of self-awareness unattainable in “civilization.” Stripped of society’s stimuli and pressure and tensions, she can see into herself.

Luckily for me, my family shares my thirst for outdoor adventure; tucked into Mom’s chest in my Baby Bjorn, I made my first summit (Mt. Greylock) at six weeks old. As soon as I could walk on my own, I was hiking, equipped with a plastic baggie for collecting interesting rocks and leaves along the way. And as I grew from toddling curiosities-collector to ambitious adolescent adventurer, my dad became my partner in crime. He’s Mr. Super Enthusiastic Go For It, a gung-ho perfectionist who latches on to lofty ambitions and hits the trails and the books with equal ardor. I idolize him.

He’s wearing his striped beanie when we step onto Osseo Trail up Mt. Flume (4,327’) to begin the Loop. It’s a recent acquisition, purchased after an exhaustive search of every thrift store in sight on his Quest for the Perfect Beanie, which was, of course, immortalized in documentary form by my 13-year-old brother. Yet to be completed is the accompanying Vest Quest—he says we’re looking for “psychedelic,” “earthy chic,” “moonbeam.” That’s for the future, though.

Now, we chatter about dreams… retirement plans (Colorado or Vermont?), restaurant concepts (Schmolie Bear Bistro, of course), and billion-dollar ideas (we generate a lot of these). A peanut butter jar whose bottom can be pushed up as you eat so nothing gets stuck at the end, like a push-up popsicle! He suggests an on-the-go GORP dispenser a la Camelbak, and I counter with a built-in backpack umbrella button, or GROP that’s just peanut M&M’s. We snap summit selfies at every peak and laugh when the sole of his left boot comes flopping off. The caretaker at our first campsite is excited to hear we’re headed for Guyot the next day, and when she asks us to deliver a letter to her friend there, we eagerly (and more than a bit dorkily) accept our role as mail-toting heroes, deterred not by snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night.

II. Disturbance

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Figure 2. Agriculture, logging, and development clear the forest ecosystem.

As the wind whips cold and wet atop Mt. Lafayette (5, 249’), I feel a thick, warm dribble down my crotch. “Shit, I think just got my period, hold on.” Burrowing my finger beneath rain pants, shorts, and underwear, I swipe. Back into the icy air, and it glistens bright red. “Yup.”

“Are you sure?” Dad’s eyebrows rise in disbelief and a smile spreads slowly—probably equal parts amusement and discomfort. “What do you need to do about it? Do we need to stop?”

The rain slices sideways through mist that carries a forty-degree bite, despite the calendar’s insistence that it’s July, and as we pause on exposed ridge rock, we wobble in the wind, forced to lean into the gusts just to stay upright. Stopping is unappealing, not to mention exposing bare butt cheeks. “Let’s just keep going, I’ll put a tampon in when we cross treeline.”

So we trudge on. Though hours have passed since breakfast, and hunger claws at our stomachs, we don’t dare to stop for even a handful of GORP.

Crusty lichens, sedges, and the occasional runty tree cling to life between bare boulders and serrated stones. They squat close to the thin soil, their waxy leaves and woody arms honed by millennia of cruel natural selection to hoard sunlight and moisture and warmth in an environment that doesn’t seem to want them there. This is the alpine tundra; an archipelago of these alpine islands dots the tallest peaks of the northeastern United States. I spot the delicate white flowers and waxy red leaves of Diapensia lapponica, most at home north of the sixtieth parallel, and I feel transported.

A soupy mist smothers the sublime vistas just beyond the slopes of the summit, cloaking the tundra in extraterrestrial white.

After miles of ridgewalking followed by even more in the shelter of treeline, the fog-blurred outline of Galehead Hut is a welcome sight. A roof over our heads and gray, watery bean soup for lunch—we’re in the lap of luxury. As I revel in the privacy and cleanliness of an individual bathroom stall, I discover that my shorts have by now been thoroughly blood-soaked, and what I thought were piercing period cramps reveal themselves to be something different altogether. I bend over the toilet, and there goes my bean soup.

We don’t have time for vomit breaks, though, because it’s been a slow morning, and we need to beat the incoming thunderstorm up South Twin (4,902’) and get down to camp before dark. We’re facing 1,100 feet of elevation gain over 0.7 rock-scrambling miles—classic Whites.

While Dad bounds ahead, I drag behind, heaving myself up every boulder with burning legs and a churning stomach. I’m too proud (and too competitive) to ask him to slow down, please, and instead I just simmer and seethe at the caboose of our two-person train. Maybe on some level I expect him to read my mind, or at least to make the seemingly reasonable conclusion that I am dragging because I’ve just puked and I feel crampy and miserable. But I don’t want to have to tell him, and I certainly will never ask him to slow down.

Simmering in my own self-pity—my uterus hurts! my dad doesn’t understand me!—I suddenly feel ridiculous. Since when was I the whiny one to slow us down? So I pick up my feet, launch myself up the next rock shelf, and start booking it. As the sweat starts beading under my rain jacket and collecting in my braids, I pass Dad, and I don’t stop. Now it’s about winning.

I used to look at my dad and marvel at how he knew just everything. Naturally, it became my job to accumulate knowledge at a steady rate until I reached the zenith of esoteric enlightenment he represented. I figured that as x (years of my life) increased, y (information in my brain) had to increase at a constant slope. If Dad was 37 years old and I was seven, I would possess 7/37 of his knowledge, and it was perfectly acceptable not to recognize four out of every five of his references to obscure historical figures, scientific concepts, or vocabulary words. Once I started spouting facts he didn’t know, it was a smug victory.

Now I climb to a physical summit rather than a peak of intellectual achievement, and I need to beat him there. Lost in my competitive fervor, I lose sight of him, and when I realize that all I see below me is trail of rocks without a trace of Dad, it just reminds me that I’m winning.

The stirring wind flips my hood off my head, and I hear him calling, yelling for me to wait up. Seeping guilt draws me to a stop. I locate a log and plop down to wait. Minutes later, I spy the traffic-light-colored stripes of his beanie below, and then he’s there, huffing and puffing and fuming just a little. “What the hell?” he demands—he’s angry. Oops.

I struggle to maintain my strong façade, to swallow back tears—I messed up. “I don’t wanna slow you down,” I say, my voice only barely cracking.

I guess he thinks I’m mocking him, because he just looks at me with his mouth open. “Go fuck yourself,” he spits. I’m floored.

As we continue to shuffle up South Twin, my tears slide through rivulets of sweat.

III. Pioneer Species

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Figure 3: Secondary succession begins following farm abandonment as pioneer species such as white pines are dispersed by wind.

Garfield Ridge Tentsite is busy tonight. It’s a challenge to find an unoccupied tent platform, but once we do, Dad and I simultaneously collapse onto it, tearing off packs and chucking boots aside. My back and shoulders and feet sigh, freed. Dad groans. He complains that he’s sore, that he’s tired, that the sky dares to rain on our hiking trip. I say we need to set up camp and get dinner going—it’s getting dark, and the rain isn’t going away—but he “just wants a little more rest.” With an eye roll and a sigh, I set up the tent and get dinner going, coaxing our fidgety old Whisperlite stove to life while Dad remains on the tent platform, arms and legs splayed out. Classic, I think. Another man waiting for a woman to wait on him.

When I come by to ask whether he wants pad thai or chili for dinner, he looks at my now thoroughly bloodied crotch, pauses, and asks, “Do you, um, need to deal with your…flow issue?”

“My flow issue? You mean period?” I might raise my voice just a little—I know his discomfort at saying such a word in front of others was exactly what led him to a euphemism as clumsy as my “flow issue” in the first place. He deserves whatever embarrassment it brings.

“I just thought our neighbors,” he says, urgently gesturing to the nearest tent with a jerk of his head, “might not want to hear about that.”

I walk away—the water’s boiling, and my blood might, too.

But once the noodles have hydrated and Dad has risen, it’s time to eat. As dinner warms our bellies, tension melts away. We huddle, safe from the rain, under the makeshift tarp designating the campsite’s informal cooking area. Sharing the “kitchen” with us is a handful of teenagers on some sort of trail crew program. They discuss the merits of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” before transitioning into a hearty debate about the exact melodic nuances of Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried.” Dad and I roll our eyes and laugh together as a particularly pimply young man sings “cold beer on a Friday ni-ight” for what must be the thirtieth time—incorrectly, I might add.

By the end of the meal, we’ve gotten to know all of the rest of tonight’s Garfield Ridge residents. An elderly couple out to scale all of the NH48. A group of Honduran twenty-somethings studying at UT Austin, here for a glimpse of the New England wilderness. The guy in the tent next to us is an army veteran, twice divorced, who’s taken on the Appalachian Trail in sections since his kids went off to college, trusty Labrador in tow, despite his faulty knees. And a northbound Appalachian Trail thru-hiker called Antman—he claims he can carry five times his own weight, like an ant—with a Dumbledore-esque beard and tattoo-covered arms is just weeks away from the terminus of his 2,100-mile journey. He doesn’t want to go back home.

We share the tarp for an hour and emerge with a set of life stories. Somehow it’s nothing but natural. You share a fifteen-square-foot elevator for five minutes with a handful of strangers in New York City, and no one so much as makes eye contact. But here, “hello’s” and “how’s it going’s” are exchanged without hesitation. Conversation flows, trail talk boiled down to the Cotton Eye Joe—where did ya come from, where did ya go?

Our common stake in this shared, somewhat manufactured experience thaws us all. We’re a motley bunch, but, tossed by the same gust of rain-heavy wind as we dine, we share awe for the landscape and a restorative triumph after the intense physical struggle to get here. Though worlds apart in background and experience, we’re joined by a hunger to explore our natural surroundings, and from this mountainside, perched over I-91 and its network of New England towns, though physically distant, I somehow feel closest to the humanity below.

IV. Intermediate Species

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Figure 4. “Old-Field” white pines give way to hardwoods including red oak, white ash, red maple, birch, and black cherry.

Sometimes we walk in silence. Friends tend to tease me for turning down the radio when I need to find a parking spot or read a distant highway sign. Maybe they’re right, but I do think a clear ear makes space for open eyes. In silence, I see the forest. I try to hug each tree with my eyes as we pass—gnarled elbows and bony roots, beads of shining sap—and I identify its species if I can. I did take Field Science the semester before last, so you could call me a certified expert.

Occasionally we come upon a squat little stone wall. These guys crisscross New England—they’re pretty standard, and I’ve always hated them. How pesky, to reach the edge of the wilderness and be reminded, “Someone was here!” But did I mention I took Field Science the semester before last? We learned a lot about these stone walls, their past, and their poetry. Most date back to a period between 1775 and 1825, when decades of deforestation left soils exposed to cold winters and the resulting frost heaved ancient glacial rocks up to the surface and into the hands of farmers eager to claim their land. Each wall whispers of a lost history. “Single” walls once enclosed pastures. “Double” walls with central troughs more often marked the edges of a crop field. Sometimes, a stately old maple stands guard. It’s a “wolf tree,” two hundred years old and still standing after those farmers used it for firewood and shade for livestock and also for maple syrup. When I find one, I stand in awe.

Soon there are no more maples, though. As our altitude climbs with us, the trees beside us shrink and the canopy overhead recedes. The rain falls harder now, and no leaves shield our heads; Dad mumbles about the rain. But a surplus of slugs—they’re loving this—lead the way to the summit. It’s our ninth one, and still no views; the clouds steal the panoramic vistas we’ve earned so hard. I know it’s killing Dad. He also makes that pretty clear.

So we don’t stop long at each peak. Mount Guyot (4,580’), West Bond (4,540’), Mount Bond (4,698’)…beneath a misty veil, every mountaintop resembles the last. But then we reach Bondcliff (4,265’)—our twelfth and final peak—and it greets us. For just a moment, four hundred feet below the summit, the fog parts, and the sun waves to us through its feeble window. Dad drops his hiking poles, spreads his arms wide, and lifts his face to the sky. It looks like the scene from Shawshank Redemption when Andy finally emerges from the sewer, a free man at last. I think maybe this moment offers Dad a sort of redemption of his own.

By the time we summit, the window has widened, and suddenly we can see out. It’s still just a window—most of the mountain remains capped by clouds—but it’s something, and we’re starving for it. The cliff face tumbles down, plummeting towards the green-carpeted valley below. There’s Mount Bond behind us, and last night’s campsite somewhere beyond that, not so far away. Only now can we see the bigness of this place we’re in—days of sweat-soaked labor barely make a dent. We bask and beam and run around taking photos, worshipping this slice of the sublime granted to us by the whims of the winds.

We settle at the cliff’s edge, munching on our last fistfuls of GORP while we sit side-by-side and cross-legged and stare out in silence. The hills, older than the continent itself, roll out to a hazy horizon. I’ve always thought there’s something tremendously dignified about the Whites; they’ve aged gracefully. Out West, the jagged Rockies are scrappy, eager to impress, a bit show-offy, if you ask me. The Whites don’t beg for awe—they’re ancient and indifferent.

“You know,” Dad eventually says, “I just wish I could push the clouds apart just a little bit more,” gesturing with his hands as if parting invisible curtains. “And maybe wipe away that cell tower there while I’m at it, and that highway too.”

“But isn’t this enough?” I pause. “I mean, now this is even better after so many days of nothing, right?”

“I just think it’s a bummer that all we can see is that cell tower over there, you know? It kind of ruins the wilderness vibe.”

I step in here—this is my chance, a chance to reinvent the landscape in his eyes, to prove that the wonder of nature doesn’t lie in its wildness, but in its resiliency and flux. I don’t do that so well.

“Did you know there used to be luxury hotels up here? In the 1800s?”

“Seriously?” His gaze turns from the landscape to me, eyebrows raised.

“Yeah, and cog railways, too. Plus most of this land was farmed or logged at some point. There’s actually very little old-growth forest left in the Northeast, you know…basically just a little bit left over in Pisgah…so the whole idea that this is wilderness is really pretty arbitrary.”

He starts to look a little annoyed, but I won’t step off my soapbox. This view is all we asked for and it’s pretty damn good. “I mean really when you think about it, even just the idea that a state of true ‘wilderness’ is the state of the forest when Europeans first came here is pretty problematic. Native Americans had been here interacting with the landscape for centuries. It’s never been ‘wild.’” I pause. “That doesn’t make it less special, though, I mean if you just accept it’s been altered by humans and take it for what it is—still powerful and sublime and magnetic. It’s really pretty beautiful, cell tower or not.” I look back out, maybe a little bit smugly satisfied.

“Alright Jordan, maybe you can get off your high horse now?” is Dad’s response, and my gaze snaps back to him, surprised—he looks hurt. Guilt hits me hard. “I’m not trying to be the bad guy here….I was just hoping we’d have some views.”

His anger softens to sadness, and suddenly an alternate interpretation of the past few days’ events flashes before me. That his somewhat clumsy (but sincere) attempts to be sensitive to my “flow issues” left him vulnerable to my suggestion that he’s not enlightened enough to utter the word tampon. That my leaving him in the dust only reminds him that suddenly his middle-aged body can’t always keep up. That his anger at the rain and cell tower and lack of views isn’t some sort of maniacal need for a controllably flawless experience—maybe he feels helpless that our big adventure of the year isn’t as perfect as it could be. Here’s his oldest daughter home from college to go hiking with her old dad, and he wishes he could will the rain away.

And now I’ve hurt him. I’ve drawn out the worst in him and made it stay.

Suddenly, I remember a fourth-grade ecology lesson. We learned that ecological succession marches inexorably and predictably to the “climax community,” an end-goal steady state that will remain eternally perfect and unchanging. It turns out that doesn’t happen.  The changes in this forest can’t be reduced to a schematic with five simple stages, and they have no inevitable conclusion. It’s complicated, and that’s beautiful. And I realize it’s like my dad.

As much as I idolize my father, his heart has been furrowed and glaciated and carved with canyons; it’s not pristinely infallible. I can come in and tear it down with my words, leaving it raw and bare and ready to lash out. He’s just human, just like me, and still he manages to play the hero I know. This forest has been beaten by human centuries, and still it beats on. It is more interesting and fragilely beautiful for its growth alongside humanity, for all the ways it’s interacted so delicately with the people who inhabit it and cross its paths. Dad’s not so different.

When I look back at him, he takes another handful of GORP. “I know, Dad,” I start. “I’m sorry.” He extends his hand, full of peanut M&M’s, and I accept.

V. Epilogue: Climax Community?

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Figure 5. Shade intolerant trees die off to yield a mature, modern forest composed of maple, birch, oak, pine, fir, and hemlock.

We stop for pizza on the way home. I say I don’t want any, that I’m not hungry, but Dad gets extra for me anyway; he knows I’ll change my mind once it’s ready. He’s right. The same strip mall boasts a thrift shop with bins of free stuff just sitting on the curb. I ransack them—no vintage vests for Dad, but I do find a fun turtleneck sweater.

As we motor on back to the ‘burbs of New York, Good Karma hums along with us. Paul Simon’s “Father and Daughter” comes on, and Dad says he couldn’t resist, even though he guesses there could’ve been a better Paul Simon selection for the playlist, but I think it’s perfect.

Now our hiking boots are back on the rack and our packs are in the closet under the stairs; I’m in New Haven, and he’s in New York. We still sometimes wonder how that old NH48 couple is doing (did they hit them all?), or whether Antman finished up the trail before winter caught up with him. We FaceTime often—we each depend on those calls, I think.

And when winter break rolls around and I sit Dad down to talk about this piece, he gives me a hug, smiles wide, and tells me something new. He tells me that when he meditates, as he’s begun to do since our Pemi Loop adventure, he likes to envision a place of peace. He pictures those mist-laden White Mountain summits. He wants to feel foggy, to let go of everything concrete or defined or certain and lose himself in the haze he used to hate—in the Whites, he can float, suspended at altitude between reality and a dream in the mist and the fog.

That sounds about right to me.

Jordan Schmolka is an avid list-maker who believes the top five nuts are almond, pistachio, pecan, hazelnut, walnut (peanuts don’t count) and the top three biomes are alpine tundra, chaparral, boreal forest. If you dare to disagree, you can send her your counterargument at jordan.schmolka@yale.edu.

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