5/30/2013 - New Hampshire is a hiking paradise, with webs of trails that vary greatly in difficulty. There are trails for novices and experts, for people who want a quick walk toward a gorgeous scenic vista or people who want to spend a weekend camping on a towering summit. Because of all the options, the White Mountains are the perfect place for kids to try out hiking.
The Adventures of Buffalo and Tough Cookie by Dan Szczesny, associate publisher of the Hippo, is a peak-by-peak trail guide to “The 52 With a View,” one of the state’s mountain summit lists. It’s a journey Szczesny himself experienced, climb by climb, with a 10-year-old. The book chronicles the rewards and challenges of hiking the Whites with a kid and is a personal account of what happened when Szczesny and his wife became, unexpectedly, the part-time caretakers of twins.
The following is an excerpt from The Adventures of Buffalo and Tough Cookie.
When the third police officer arrived and Janelle instinctively inched closer to me, I couldn’t help wondering how I had gotten us into this mess, and how I was going to get us out.
Saturday had started off cool but clear. Following the success of our hike the weekend before to another local park at the other end of our city, Manchester, then 9-year-old Janelle and I decided to explore another city trail system, an old park called Nutt’s Pond. Located in a more industrialized section of the city — the strip — the pond and area around it played an important role in Manchester’s history.
But now, unfortunately, as Janelle and I made our way over the small bridge that led to the trail, it was clear that the pond’s glory days as a swimming hole and recreational attraction were long gone. The pond was trashed, literally. I briefly considered leaving and finding another area to explore, not because I felt any physical danger, but because Nutt’s Pond was a joyless place.
Our plan for the day was to continue down the path to Goff’s Falls Road, where we’d check out an old railroad old trestle, and then hike up to Barnes & Noble to await a ride back to our car from my wife, Meena.
But then the police showed up and our lives changed. I should mention that Janelle is not my daughter.
They were our neighbors, Janelle and her brother, Aaron. We knew them slightly, the kids who lived next door, who got in my way when I tried to cut the lawn, who went screaming down the alley out back in the summer, who lived with their grandparents, Sara and Jim.
In the spring of 2011, all our lives changed when Meena lost her job and Jim passed away. We came together in a terrible burst of pain and confusion, two families adrift and looking for comfort.
The twins suddenly began navigating toward us, and with Meena home that summer, I began to come home to a full house, kids running around, helping in the garden, playing in the basement, coming with me as I took trips to the market or the movies.
The twins adopted us. And we let them.
But we had no experience in dealing with pre-tweens. They just were there. So we went on living, and hiking, because that’s what we did anyway. It seemed natural to take them along.
The White Mountain National Forest is a 750,000-acre swath of timber, tourists and trails. There are hundreds of mountains, and an equal amount of trails, some as challenging and terrifying as anything the Rockies could throw into a hiker’s path.
That summer, it all began with a short hike up Bald Mountain, a small, family-friendly mountain in Franconia Notch State Park. We took the twins, along with my niece and nephew. The summit is open and there’s plenty of rock for kids to scramble around on. After, on her own, Janelle asked me if we could do hike again.
I said of course, but that we’d have to coordinate something with Meena and the rest of the kids. Looking back on that day, I still remember very clearly how she responded. She said, “That’s OK, you can just take me.” I should have known then there was something special happening.
Mt. Kearsarge: (11/5/11)
On a cold but cloudless November day, Janelle and I take our first steps toward Mt. Kearsarge and toward a journey that will ultimately change both our lives, though we don’t know this yet.
I walk up the road with this child, pointing out late-season chipmunks, trying to gauge how easily, or not, she gets cold. I have no clue how this is done. I have no clue who Janelle is.
She is eager, and strong. That much I know from the few small hikes we’ve taken prior to this big one. And she does not complain easily.
I’ve never hiked a serious mountain with a child before. Alone. So, I’ve loaded my backpack with so much emergency gear, it feels like we could be out in the woods for weeks.
There’s a road walk to the trailhead first, only about a mile, but she begins asking me when we’ll get there about half way up. I wonder if this is going to work. I’ve heard horror stories from other parent hikers about the difficulties of getting their kids on the trails, away from the electronics, willingly into the wilderness.
“Is this the trail?” she wants to know. “Are we hiking?”
I wonder which way this is going to go.
Stinson Mountain (7/18/12)
“Neat,” Janelle says. Then quickly adds, “but gross.”
We are watching an enormous Leopard slug ooze its way down the side of a rotting maple. The sight is particularly fascinating as the tree has apparently died from a lightning strike, the split branch still charred black and flaky.
She’s repulsed by the four-inch, slimy creature, but doesn’t want to leave.
We’re nearly a mile up the Stinson Mountain Trail. The day is warm but breezy. We’re both feeling strong. We have nowhere to be and plenty of time to get there.
So, I just shrug off my daypack, get out a snack, and together the girl and I settle back to watch a slug crawl across a tree.
And I think to myself, yeah, this really is the life.
Mt. Potash (8/11/12)
“Jump,” I tell Janelle over the roar of the water, “you can do this.”
It’s her first bridgeless water crossing. We’re half way across, but she’s stalled at a tricky three-foot jump. She makes jumps like that all the time at soccer, running or just playing in the backyard. But she’s never done it with a pack, over the loud rushing current of the Downes Brook.
“Go ahead,” I say and reach my hand half way to her over the water. “I’ll catch you if you slip.”
She takes a deep breath, and leaps. Turns out we’re both wrong.
She doesn’t have enough forward momentum and as her foot lands she immediately begins to fall backward, her arms pinwheeling wildly. Without an arm to grab, I take hold of one of the shoulder straps of her pack. But she followed my directions before we began crossing and unhooked the waist strap of her pack, so my hold only throws both of us off-balance.
And now we’re both tipping, and all I can wonder is will I be able to hold on to her when we hit the water?
Mt. Cardigan (8/16/12)
The mountain glimmers in the ever-changing sunlight.
We tuck in under the stairs of Cardigan’s old fire tower to get out of the wind and settle back to people watch. The summit is busy this day.
A group of girls not much older than Janelle from a nearby camp is getting ready to leave, giggly and excited. One of them gives us a Hershey bar. A dad takes pictures of his daughter on a ledge; she wears a brightly colored tie-dye and twirls in the sun. Two dogs, a black poofy poodle and a tan and white terrier, run circles in a summit puddle, around and around, until water flies off them with every shake and soon they have everyone at the summit laughing. An older man with an ancient wide-brimmed hat and a canvas canteen stands back away from the crowd, looking off into the distance, smiling.
And so we lean our heads back against the weather-beaten concrete foundation and eat yogurt raisins and let time roll by, not a care in the world.
Mt. Success (8/31/12)
“I’m stuck!” Janelle wails.
Her predicament seems funny to me; she’s standing there in the rain, up to her calves in mud. Both her feet are completely submerged in the thick, swirling mud between two wooden plank bridges. I imagine her feet are cold, too.
We are nearly two miles up the Success Trail and everything is wet. Despite a forecast that called for warm, clear skies, the heaven’s opened up on us 30 minutes ago, and it’s still drizzling. Now, Tough Cookie is stuck. Literally. She can’t move her feet, and she sways back and forth, trying to figure out some means of extraction.
She senses my amusement and it irritates her. “No, really, I can’t move!”
There’s a hint of desperation in her voice, so I find some solid ground to brace myself, reach under her armpits and lift her out of the muck. She breaks free with a squishy “pop!”
And so we stand there, looking at her feet, which are solidly encased in an impenetrable layer of goo. It really is funny, but I hold my tongue.
“What do we do now?” she asks.
“Well, we can turn around if you got really wet, or just kick off some of that mud and let’s keep going.”
Given the option of turning around, she wavers. She needs to begin making these kinds of decisions for herself, judging on her own how uncomfortable is too uncomfortable.
“Ugh, it’s gross,” she grumbles, and I know she’s decided to keep going.
Black Mountain (9/24/12)
Janelle holds her hand out to me. On her pinky rests a tiny, pinhead-sized speck of leaf.
“That’s the hiker,” she says. “Watch.”
We are taking a break on the way up Black Mountain. She bends over and places the speck-hiker under a six-inch spruce seedling in the middle of the trail.
“I sometimes like to think that there’s a tiny forest,” she says. “The hiker is walking through it like we are.”
The little spruce becomes an enormous tree, a pebble becomes a giant boulder. Twigs and grass and other flecks are all part of the mini-forest landscape.
“A forest inside a forest,” I say, and she nods happily. I watch her play inside her tiny forest for a while, considering the depth of this innocent display.
Hiking with Janelle has turned me inward, at first forced me to look more closely at the miniature of the forest. But in time, that closer examination has become expansive, comfortable and infinite. A forest inside a forest. Endless forests within the greater landscape, the natural world expanding exponentially even as our place in it becomes smaller. We are hiking on a micro-level, just as we live as tiny specks within the greater universe, dust motes, blinks of an eye.
How freeing to be here in this forest then, our forest, together in the face of the endless and impossible everything.
“See?” she says. I do.
Crawford / Stairs Mountains (10/7/12)
We are tired. Darkness is dropping and a deep, unsettling quiet has settled over the summit of Stairs Mountain. We worked hard to get here. Tonight is Janelle’s first time in the woods after dark, away from the security of cars, camp stores and washrooms. Exposed. Snow is coming.
Janelle is engaged, eager. She helps set up camp. She carried the tent poles up here, so she might as well be the one to assemble them. Her job was to unpack and sort our food. We had a hot dinner, and sat on the magnificent ledges of Stairs summit until the granite chilled and the sun could no longer provide any hope of warmth.
Now, Janelle begins to shiver a little and she starts to worry, the ache in her bones from the day’s hike combined with this new experience taking its toll perhaps. Meena takes her to the tent, layers her up, tucks her in her bag to show her how warm she’ll be, snow or no snow. I spend 10 minutes boiling water, which we’ll put back in our water bottles, then tuck into her bag — radiators for the night.
There’s too much to worry about on a night like this for a 10-year-old who wanted so badly to “camp out in a place where there are no bathrooms,” as she said over and over in the past. So I don’t want her to have any memory except how beautiful a night on a mountain can be.
We give her attention, and talk to her about our own experiences in camp: coyotes howling us to sleep in the Grand Canyon, camping in the shadow of George Washington’s visage at Mount Rushmore, watching the moon rise over Mt. Everest in Nepal.
Finally, one last thing before we sleep. We take her out of the tent, into the darkness, out to the ledges. I hold her left hand, Meena holds her right. We stand there at 3,500 feet, three souls breathing hard into the first swirls of snow. I count to three and we all shut off our headlamps.
And as we look down across the blackness of the Dry River Wilderness at the distant lights of Jackson, twinkling like stars, I hear Janelle catch her breath. She’s never been here before, never looked down on the world from the dark, from above.
“Wow,” she whispers into the glorious, cold night.
Smarts Mountain (10/21/12)
A raw wind whips through the broken windows of Smarts Mountain lookout tower. Janelle and I are 41 feet in the air, huddled in a corner at the top of the tiny tower cab. I can feel the cab shimmy slightly in the wind. If we stick our heads up too high the wind cuts right though our fleece like a thousand freezing knives.
While the views are spectacular from this perch, the tower, built in 1939, is not a particularly pleasant place with its graffiti and busted floor boards.
None of that appears to affect the girl in the slightest. This is the first time she’s been able to actually go inside a tower. Kearsarge. Cardigan. Megalloway. The Doublehead and Black cabins. They were all closed when we had been there. But both the thru hiker cabin and the tower are wide open for us today, and she’s in a good mood.
She shucks off her pack and begins to lay out her food and snacks with intense concentration. It’s a picnic then; an outdoor feast at 3,200 feet, in the bitter wind, atop a dilapidated tower with gray clouds and a sleety rain spraying around us.
“Are you warm enough?” I ask as she arranges her sandwich, trail mix and apple.
She doesn’t even look up. “Uh-huh. Can we have some tea?”
“You bet.” I pull the thermos out of my pack, and as I twist it open a thick aroma of orange and ginger tea fills the cab.
“Yum,” she says, and smiles, happily oblivious to the torrent howling around us.
Square Ledge and Hibbard (11/10/12)
Our penultimate hike is taxing.
Try as we might, neither of us can shake the doldrums. We’re nearly finished. Even as we hike, arrangements are being made to celebrate the conclusion of our quest tomorrow. The weather is nasty, the snow is wet and a nine-plus-mile hike with limited views through the Sandwich Wilderness is leaving us ragged and surly.
But this is it. I had selfishly turned down offers from hiker friends interested in making this traverse with us. I wanted Janelle to myself. Tomorrow would be a victory lap, filled with family and friends. Today, I wanted to share this one final hike with Janelle the way we began, the two of us moving through the wilderness, learning, exploring, bonding.
But we are tired and mostly just want to get it done.
Then, as darkness falls and the ache in our legs grows, something happens. The darkness forces us to slow down, to go inward as we search for blazes and work to stay on trail.
“I smell campfire,” Janelle says.
“Woodstove,” I say. “We must be getting close to the trailhead.”
“Oh,” she says. Do I detect a hint of melancholy?
Finally, 10 hours after we began, we are at the car, bedraggled, hungry and cold. The Ferncroft parking area and trailhead sits right at the head of a vast farm field, the nearest house hundreds of yards away behind a grove of trees. There is no light and the sky is winter clear.
We pull the thermos of uneaten soup out of my pack, bundle up and sit on the back bumper to eat.
“Turn off your headlamp for a second,” I say.
There at the end of our personal journey, sipping soup, her legs dangling off the ground, in below-freezing weather, the girl looks up at the sky for a long time. The stars this night are clear and brilliant, the Milky Way is a bright streak of white, like an artist dragged a paint brush across the sky. There is nothing and everything at once. It is like she and I are alone at the foot of the universe.
I fight the urge to speak, to tell her about the stars, to congratulate her on this accomplishment, to let her know how terribly proud I am of her. I have so much to say to her.
“I’ve never seen so many stars,” she says instead, saving me from ruining the moment. “Can we stay here a little longer?”
“As long as you like.”
She nods, and sips soup and stares up at the heavens, and we stay there in the cold just a little bit longer.