Week 33: Faith (2 of 3)

[Continuation of Week 32: Wham! Oof! Splat]

When hiking in the White Mountains, you often have to choose how much to trust the traction of your boots on steeply sloped rock ledges. Trust too much, and you risk falling or worse. Trust too little and you end up like me, slowly picking your path to minimize risk and trying to always have a small tree trunk or well-placed hiking pole as backup in case of slippage. That is one of the many reasons the kids bound ahead of me. I like pushing physical boundaries, but only with a rock solid backup plan. Most of the time.

I was feeling pretty down upon my return to the Highland Lodge, after sending Dorian and the girls off on their Traverse and spending the bulk of the day dealing with our minivan. My back was unhappy from driving the car around the wilds of New Hampshire and sitting around the Honda dealership. I was unhappy that my spiral of injury, inactivity and weight gain was lurching inexorably downwards and preventing me from sharing this adventure with my family.

I had about two hours until dinner and decided that since my back was hosed anyway, I might as well see it if could handle a gentle hike up Mt Willard. It is 1.6 miles each way, but with relatively little elevation gain, decent footing as mountains go, and a disproportionately grand view from the top. I figured I’d stop after an hour and turn around and head back (or sooner if necessary), and that I would not carry any pack.

The surprisingly grand view from the summit of Mt Willard
A beautiful waterfall along the way

My back held up pretty well with the walking. It definitely preferred hiking to sitting, especially with two hiking poles. I found that I was making pretty decent time and I reached the summit in just over one hour. I wasn’t brave enough to sit down to the enjoy the views (since I wasn’t very confident I’d be able to get up again), but I took some photos and then headed back down. I headed into dinner feeling less glum and more determined to make the best of the opportunities I did have. I enjoyed their forest berry pie and a glass of pinot grigio on the patio, and an evening stroll around the pond.

Mt Willard on the left, from the easy direction

I had some options regarding meeting up with Dorian and the girls on top of Mt Washington the next day. I booked a round trip cog train ride, reaching the summit at 2:30 and heading back down at 3:30. The safest bet was to take the train as normally scheduled. But it was also possible to go standby on a later return train that day or the next day, weather and space permitting. It was a 1 ½ mile hike from the summit of Mt Washington to the Lake of the Clouds hut, where we were booked to stay overnight.

So if I reached the summit and was feeling good, I could walk with my family to Lake of the Clouds hut, stay overnight, and return the next morning. Worst case I’d have to clamber back up the 1000 vertical feet of rocky boulders on my own with screaming back pain and all the trains would be full, but I’d have all day to do it weather permitting.

It wasn’t until one of my roommates prayed for me that I allowed myself to consider attempting the whole rest of the traverse with my family – going on five miles from Lake to the Clouds to the Mitzpah Springs Hut, and then hiking out a few miles and 2000 vertical feet the following day.

The Highland Lodge has four bed bunkrooms, and the room I had shared with my family the previous night was now shared with three kind, friendly middle-aged women. They were all great. One is a retired teacher handling logistics for her husband’s Appalachian Trail through hike (dropping food for him in various places, buying replacement gear etc). Another was visiting a friend nearby. Jill works as a counselor helping disadvantaged children.

When I told her about my conundrum, she shyly asked if I minded if she prayed for me. She said she felt awkward asking, but was moved to see a loving family doing things right, when so many of the kids she works with don’t have that. When I said my injury probably served me right for not staying in shape, she said no, she was sure Jesus wanted me to be up in the mountains hiking with my family.  

She put her hands on me and prayed out loud for my back to be healed so I could join them. She seemed disappointed when I didn’t feel any warmth or tingling in my back and tried again. My back was not cured, but something shifted within me. I didn’t know if Jesus or the universe wanted me to be with my family up in the mountains, but I knew that Jill did. And I knew that I did, more than anything.

I started to imagine what could go right, instead of focusing entirely on mitigating what could go wrong. I still thought about backup plans if my back went out at different points along the way. The options were painful but not life-threatening. The trail difficulty for the southern half of the traverse seemed reasonable (the northern half is much more difficult). The weather forecast was clear.

I decided to trust my boots’ traction on the steep rocky ledge: in this case, to have faith that my back would hold, or at least that it might hold, and that it was worth trying. I hiked the short but steep and scrambly Elephant’s Head in the morning to confirm I was ok with steepness, bought a lightweight backpack to carry minimal gear, and booked a shuttle to get my car from the cog railway station two days later. I then drove to the Mount Washington “Railway to the Moon” to catch my train and reunite with my family.

[Continued in “Week 34: My Traverse”]

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