I peeled up two more strips of bacon from the paper sheet and put them into the plastic bag with the others. I handled them delicately so they wouldn’t break apart. Zipping up the bag, I nestled it in the box of frozen hamburgers, pitas, and bagels.
Sunday afternoon in the storehouse bay was always painfully slow. I’d gone through all my CDs on the boombox and most of my co-workers were on drives in the North Country.
My boss always said that in the storehouse, calm was an illusion. Until today, I didn’t believe her.
The door slammed open and Jack walked in with a tense energy and a wild look in his eyes. I’d only seen him like this when his boss was on his case about something.
“Can anyone here go on a SAR?” he said. His hands gripped a small notecard. I was the only one in the room.
What was a SAR? If it was in fact a real thing and not something he made up, it had to be a disease. I raised my eyebrows and stayed silent.
“A search and rescue,” he said. We’ve got three French Canadians up on Huntington’s and we need some first responders to hike up and see what’s going on.”
“French Canadians? Uh oh.” These were a particular brand of tourist mountaineer, ones with notoriously ambitious itineraries and sub-par preparedness.
Gray clouds hung low over the Wildcat ridgeline across the highway, frosting the summit and the lower peak nearly to the base. I looked to the right where the fridge and freezer had their lights off and doors closed. To the left, there was the deserted loading dock and towering box pile.
In weather like this, Pinkham Notch Visitor Center was always deserted. Staff were too adventurous to let a little gloomy weather hold them back from hiking and most tourists got scared away. The resulting deficit of fit and knowledgeable bodies to send on a SAR explained why Jack had come to me. Don’t get me wrong; I can hike. I grew up in the White Mountains and can get up and down them fine, but I’m not the fastest, strongest, or most experienced climber out there. The toughness scale here runs real high, and working your way up it takes years of living in the mountains, not to mention many close calls.
“I would go, but I’m working,” I said to Ben, relieved to have an excuse to bow out without looking like a wimp.
Jack left to check the employee housing for anyone hanging around who wasn’t working. I went back to packing food in boxes.
Ten minutes later he was back. “There’s no one around. Can you go?”
My boss overheard us from his office. “Get your gear together. Make sure you have some layers because it will be cold up there. Bring overnight stuff as well. And don’t forget your water this time. You know the drill.”
He knew I had some French Canadian hiking tendencies, but whether or not I was ready, fate had decided on me. It was time to punch out.
Back in my room in employee housing, I stuffed my essentials into my day pack: fleece layers for top and bottom, rain coat, two wheat bagels, half eaten jar of Nutella, chocolate, a lighter, headlamp, and map. I walked over to the front desk where Ben told me two of my co-workers would join me in the ascent up Huntington’s Ravine from where the French Canadians had called down. A little lump of nerves pitted in the top of my stomach. Huntington’s Ravine, more lovingly called Huntington’s, is one of the top ten most difficult trails in New England. Steep rock scrambles littering the second half of the trail allow hikers to climb 2000 feet of a glacial cirque on the East side of Mount Washington. I’d heard plenty about the trail from coworkers but was waiting for the prefect day and a hiking buddy to make the trek up.
Ben was about to hand me the radio when Abdull and Sky bounded up to the front desk and grabbed it.
“Where are they?” Sky said. The three proceeded to have the same conversation I’d had with Ben minutes earlier. I was going to have company.
“Ready?” said Abdull.
“Yup, let’s go,” said Sky.
I caught up with them halfway to the door. “Wait! I’m coming too!”
Huntington’s splits off Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail a little more than a mile up. It’s the easiest way up Mount Washington and functions as a super-highway to the 6,289-foot peak. We headed out around 4pm, and a steady stream of weekend hikers headed down the trail while we hustled up it. My hustle was supremely slower than that of my co-workers. Ten minutes in, I could just see their blue and black-suited figures bounding up the rocks. Bounding is too heavy a word. They nearly flew.
My steps got heavier and heavier. Sweat poured down my back so that all my clothes were soaked in the murky humidity. In elementary school at the end of every school year, we would have relay races for our grade. Out on the soccer field, all the classes would compete against each other. I can remember the movement of my body in these races, the pounding legs and thoughtless mind. But even more I can remember the feeling of desperation, of longing to be the fastest, the winner of my heat so my class could win the whole race. Thoughts from after the finish line come too, the looking back, the assessment of my own performance, the feeling of inadequacy. In hiking with these men, all those feelings came back. As usual in the mountains, there was no buffer of noise from electronics, machines, or people to shield me from myself.
I lifted my sopping wet face to see Sky and Abdull stopped on the trail in front of me. “The last thing we need is another search and rescue,” they said. My breathing had gotten so strained and out of control that I sounded like a sad and noisy cat. I was embarrassed.
“Sorry!” was all I could squeak out as I gulped down water. I felt it had been a mistake for anyone to let me go.
Abdull and Sky put me at the front of our little pack after watching me scuffle for air and slow my breathing to a just a slightly shreaky inhale. Much better than before. I felt relieved, yet demoralized hiccuping along the trail in front. Behind me they chatted about all the weight they’d lost since coming to the mountains and all the girls they’d hooked up with and the girls they’d chosen to keep for the time being. I’d lost a total of three pounds and found a total of no one to hook up with. I sighed and pushed on up the Huntington’s cutoff.
I led us over three gushing streams filled with rocks covered in a lush green moss. The moss cushioned the pounding of footsteps and I loved the soft scruff of the moss between my fingers. The rush of the water drowned out the sound of my breathing. The path narrowed and the mist thickened. I slowed down. By this point, those two men could deal with me and my slowness, I thought. We were hiking to rescue some people, not racing each other up the hardest trail in the Whites.
“This is very mystical,” I said to no one in particular. After that I got quiet. I started listening, really listening to everything on the mountain that wasn’t me.
There wasn’t much sound now. Even Abdull and Sky had quieted down as they passed in front of me and hiked up into the clouds. There were no birds to make a song and even the air was still; no wind whistled.
Sky and Abdull had stopped again, and when I caught up, they relayed to me that they’d gotten a call from Ben. The Canadians had made it down from the steepest part of the ravine and we were to continue hiking until we found them on the trail and could escort them to the Notch.
A rocky mile or so later, I could see three dark outlines above us in the foggy middle of a steep boulder field. They spoke in lovely French-sounding accents.
“Hello! So good to reach you.” Our rescues were all in good spirits despite having bitten off more of Mount Washington than they could chew. They were eager to get down to a hot supper and shower that night before returning to their jobs in Montreal the next morning. As we descended the rocks, they told me about their dreams to summit Mount Washington for the first time on the most difficult trail. This sounded a little foolish, but I still can’t deny that I can get caught up in the “go big or go home” mentality myself.
Spiders were our only non-human company as we came down. Their webs spanned the huge gray boulders catching the day’s condensation in their spindley gray threads. Although I was told the headwall stretching up to the summit loomed directly above us, my only awareness contained myself, the people I was hiking with, and a massive sense of space all around the bubble of our hike. I whistled a little tune from one of the CDs I’d played earlier that day. Now in the damp dewy air and spongey moss, I was okay listening at last.
Two days after graduating with a degree in cultural anthropology, Bethany Clarke found herself in the White Mountains National Forest of New Hampshire working for the Appalachian Mountain Club. She’s living out of her suitcase in her home state.