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First Person: Peak experience

Last year, I climbed Mount Monadnock, in southern New Hampshire, on the Sunday before Columbus Day, along with some 4,000 other people. The serious hikers — one of which I used to be — stay away on holiday weekends, but my two friends and I were eager for an outing, and this was the day we had. And by joining the holiday crowd, we saw another side of the mountain.

We hiked slowly up the Old Toll Road, then proceeded even more slowly up the rocky trail, since none of us are as young as we used to be. We scrambled over the boulders step by step, limb by limb, each of us taking the time to find the footholds and handholds that fit her size and shape. This was much more strenuous than we remembered it, we grumbled.

We stopped often, first to rest, then to step aside for the people who had already reached the summit and were coming down. These were not the mature, experienced hikers we might have seen on another day, with their sturdy boots, adjustable walking sticks and backpacks stocked for any emergency, but rather people encountering the mountain for the first time. We hadn’t seen so many children outdoors in a long time. We envied their sure-footedness as they skipped from boulder to boulder. But some of the parents looked as tired as we were. Ascenders asked descenders, “How much farther is it? How much harder does it get?”

Lunchtime found us on Bald Rock, a bare, smooth outcrop that gave us a broad view of the surrounding landscape. We enjoyed the bright leaves and blue lakes spread out below us as we rested and consumed our peanut butter sandwiches. The summit loomed above us, covered with tiny people perched on it like a flock of pigeons. There’s no rule that says we have to get all the way up there, we said to one another. But we packed up our trash and moved on.

The trail led us up and down, under the cool conifers and then out onto bare rock again. We grumbled at each downward trajectory, then huffed and puffed through the climb that followed. But eventually the summit was in plain view, and then we were there. We sank down on the rocks and breathed.

As we sat, we heard intermittent whoops of victory as another youngster reached the summit. With a 360-degree view, we could see that the foliage was brighter on the north side of the mountain. Houses, roads, and lakes were laid out in neat patterns beneath us. We could see the route we’d driven and recognized landmarks in the towns we’d passed through on the way to the mountain.

Whenever I look down from a mountaintop, the view reminds me that I’m only a small piece in a pattern that’s much greater than I am, and whatever burdens I’m carrying in my own life grow lighter. And as much as I might not have wanted to share the mountain, I was glad to think that all these people — especially the kids — who’d climbed up to see the natural world from here might continue to care about it, even after my own maturing generation of conservation-minded outdoorspeople is gone.

Finally rested, we headed down. Now gravity was on our side, but our knees ached and our feet smarted. We clambered, slid and grumbled along. Eventually we reached the gentler lower slopes and resumed our former bipedal stance. We passed a family making its way uphill, all the kids wearing flip-flops. They asked us, “How much farther is it? How much harder does it get?” We suggested that they enjoy the view from Bald Rock and then turn around, if they didn’t want to get stuck in the dark.

By the time we reached the parking lot, we were achy, grimy and sleepy. Taking off our hiking boots was ecstasy. As we settled into the car and began the trip home, we all agreed that it had been a wonderful day and started making plans to hike together again soon.

Norma Sims Roche lives in Northampton. She is an editor of college science textbooks and, when not working or hiking, can often be found whitewater kayaking on the Deerfield River.

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