by Frederick Keogh
Every summer I make the pilgrimage home, flying from Milwaukee to Hartford via a random city I could care less about. I still get joy from looking out the window of the jet, but lately there always seem to be clouds or I am put in the aisle seat. Lately, something always comes between me and joy, and it is with immense relief that I greet the landing at Bradley International, the nets on the tobacco fields circling the runways like spider webs caught in morning dew.
The relief is not long-lived, for I am always going to visit my mother, who lives in the same house that my grandmother lived in before she died. My mother is alone now, her husband—my father—gone, although Mom, in her mind, is never really alone. Sometime after heart surgery when she was eighty, her mind became stronger than her senses, so that of late, she sees and, more importantly, hears things that are only present for her. She talks of her husband in the present tense and is certain, at least for that moment, he is still alive. The doctors say she has dementia, as if a label like that explains anything, but whatever she suffers, it can be nerve wracking. It is far worse for her, to be sure, for she is the one certain that a child is bleeding to death on the road outside her house, or that men are plotting murder outside her bedroom window, but it is no comfort to us, either. And so, as part of every summer trip to Connecticut, I plan a visit with Jim.
Jim lives not far from my mother, but in summer he spends most of his time at his place in New Hampshire. He can do this because he is a teacher, and it does seem that he needs the break. Every time I visit he seems that much older, and so I blame him for the feeling that I get after visiting that I, too, am that much older. His place, after all, is in the foothills of the White Mountains, and only men who are not old might venture far into them. We venture far into them every year, and so it must be that our increasing age is an illusion. My mother has taught me that illusion is often stronger than reality, and so I must rely on that. With Jim, my old high school buddy, we are forever young and forever we will climb the Whites, and that is how it has always been, since the time I moved to the Great Lakes a long time ago. A time so long that I now bring my son with me, who is old enough to climb not only the little Whites, but even the bigger ones, as we did two years ago shortly after I had reached my fifty eighth year and my son his seventeenth.
It was our third visit to Jim’s place up north together and already we had established a routine. I would pull the rental car into my mother’s small gravel drive and begin to unload the luggage, when I would see her totter out, barely able to keep balance, her eyes shining with expectation and a little fear. Who could it be? “It’s me, Mom, remember?” I say, and thank God she always does, and she gives me a hug and I feel the bones through her thin skin, her form now more spirit than substance. Then I introduce Jeff, my son, who she takes on faith is who I tell her he is. “How tall he’s gotten!” she always says, and we get our things and talk of her times as a child that may have happened and her times now that certainly did not (“I heard you singing in the attic last night—what were you doing there?”) I later visit my brother and sister who still live nearby and stay a few nights with Mom, her home sweltering in late summer, always, she always cold, her sweater pulled tightly against a never-ending winter that confounds the heat warnings on the TV. After a few days, we pack up early and I tell her, “Going up north to New Hampshire to visit Jim. Be back in a few days,” and she gets that wild look again, not quite understanding: is this forever? I assure her again and again and finally we are on our way, plodding though the traffic up through Hartford and Springfield until the hills of the north come into view, and then the mountains of Vermont.
It is a tangled trip from there once over the Connecticut River and into New Hampshire, and always I clutch the old, tattered directions for reassurance as we drive through small towns and bad roads until the long dirt driveway to Jim’s place comes unexpectedly, always as if by chance. It is a pleasure to be among the steep hills and white pines, and we swim at dusk, where now it is too cold, but we do it anyway because Jim and Jeff love it and that is what we have always done. At night we drink beer and talk and plan for the big hike the next day. That year, Jim had decided on Mount Osceola, a 4,300 footer that is not tall by Mount Washington standards, but I have learned that any mountain in the Whites is tall enough. They are steep, and you sweat going up them, then freeze at the top, so you always carry an extra shirt or a sweater in the backpack with the water and sandwiches. These are always several hour hikes, and that night Jim tells us this is a fairly long one, but I am ready, as I always have been. For Jeff, these mountains are always nothing, and we—Jim and I—have done a lot together. This will be just another.
And so the stage is set. In the morning I brush off a slight hangover with a few cups of tea and pack some extra sweets for Jeff, who I think could live on them contrary to the laws of nutrition, and then we bundle ourselves into the rental. The rentals always come with satellite radio, and I have to turn at least once to the Grateful Dead station while up there, because the north has always been like that for us, since we were younger than Jeff is now. From the beginning it has been the place of hippy dreams, although no New Hampshire farmer would understand it, pulling out rocks every year that grow in the cold winter like gray, sharp edged potatoes, but to us it has always been so. In Vermont they have somehow really made it into a hippy dream, growing their third-rate high country pot while living on woodworking and who knows what, while in New Hampshire they still want to Live Free or Die, but that, too, is part of the dream. Of course Jeff does not understand—this is ancient history to him, this living off the land, but he has come uncomplaining to climb the mountains as he always has because afterward we will go swimming in an icy river with cliffs over a pool of deep, swirling water, his favorite spot. That day as we drive towards the mountain, he is happy in anticipation, and sits in the back quietly as Jim and I discuss old times, problems with the kids, problems at work and everything and anything until I am told to turn. “I think it’s this one—yeah, there’s the dirt road. The pull-off is up a half mile on the right.”
The trail starts out gently, as these trails often do, and I am in love again with the deep woods, my home of homes, lost to me now in the rolling farmland of Wisconsin. We cross a river, cold as always, coming past our knees, and then slog through a swampy stretch of road that makes my sandals squeak and slide around my feet. Here the blackflies start, but they do not last long, for soon the angle of the trail picks up and we are on hard rock. The trail splits off, one to the small lakes at the bottom of the mountain, and the other to the mountain itself, but the signs are angled, half fallen down, and we have to guess. In the first half mile I am wondering, if this is the wrong way, but soon the incline increases again and we know that this must be right. Jeff starts to get further ahead, bored with our pace, but it is fine with me. I could walk like this all day, as always. I almost hope that we find Jeff panting by the trailside, exhausted by going too fast, but we do not. Instead, we find him throwing rocks off a cliff, waiting. I save my strength by plugging on, and the mountain gets steeper. Jeff goes ahead, out of sight again, and again the mountain becomes steeper.
“There, that must be the top. Not too much longer,” I think. Getting pretty steep! I pick up my pace a bit, but only for five or ten minutes, for my heart is starting to race and it is still a ways to the top. “Slow down,” I tell myself, “another fifteen minutes to go.”
Fifteen minutes later and Jim and I see the real top, way up there, but no sight of Jeff. It has now gotten impossibly steep, where we often have to grab on with our hands. A family group passes us coming down, the father quiet, almost grim, and the two boys red-faced and sweating. “How long?” I ask hopefully. “Half hour or so,” says the man, and we see them no more, almost literally putting our noses to the rock and dirt as we bend into the trail. We go for fifteen minutes more and I have to stop, heart racing again, and I look to Jim.
“Christ, this is effing steep. How long to the effing top?”
Jim looks up at me, annoyed with the same fatigue and says, “You can’t just stop. What did you expect?”
That shuts me up. I am no baby, but damn, it hurts. Jeff pops up before me and I offer him some water and ask him if he’s seen the top.
“Been there already and got bored. What’s taking you guys so long?”
“How long to go?” I ask hopefully.
“I don’t know, a quarter mile or so. I’m going back up,” and he does, losing us again within a minute, for we are moving slowly now, so slowly. It will never end. I have never been defeated by a mountain before, never, and now … but we press on, pulling ourselves over the last quarter mile like dying men across the desert. We do make it. The views are not spectacular, much of the top covered too thickly in pine to give us a panorama. What we do see is the vast slope of the mountains, like a massive green wave, trees and trees set in the wide blue of sky, infinite. Yes, as always it was worth it. But this time, this time …
It would continue to bother me, how hard this climb was, but like everything unpleasant in life, after the pain was gone, all returned to normal. We sat to eat our sandwiches and then were met by a very large man who had made it up, too, impossible though it seemed. In his thirties, young to me now, he took our picture, Jim with his hat and dark glasses, Jeff open to the breeze as if on a picnic, me, with my gray hair plastered to my forehead. How had he made it, I ask him.
“I take my time. I give it about two-three hours. I’ve climbed most of the Whites that way.” Remember that, I told myself, you need to. Take your time.
Going down was easy, nobody with bad knees, and we swam at the lake towards the bottom, water dark with tannin and cold from the mountains, the water always cold there. I dried in the sun, but when a cloud parsed its heat, had to put my shirt on again. The other two lingered in the frigid water while I thought again—that was tough, that climb. Maybe it was too much beer the night before, maybe the cigarettes we rolled from the hidden can used for such nights. Or maybe I had to take my time now. Maybe something had changed permanently, and time had become as much a friend as an enemy, more necessary than it had ever been even as there was less. Less for me, anyway, but not for the mountains. They take their time in big gulps that are impossible for us to imagine, their year a million to us while we are ground down, made humble and small before them, climbing to the top only to retreat, while they stand tall, always, as we settle below after so short a visit.
We would hike again the next day, this time only along low ridges, and swim in the cold river and listen to the owls again at night over stories and beer, and then Jeff and I would leave the great, heaving hills of forest to see my mother again, to see her tottering out to meet our car. “Is it you?” she asks. “When did you come? How long will you stay?” It is almost as if we never left or never came, all the same to my mother, or nearly so.
Two days later we would leave, as always first thing in the morning, and my mother would stand out by the door watching us go, hanging on for balance as if a slight wind could take her away, as it might. And since that time I have known that this is it—I am following my mother who will follow my father, and her thin skin and varicose veins leave one with the horror of one’s future as well as with something sublime. In it, in the mountain, in my mother, I have seen my death; oh, it is coming, in slowed steps and labored breath, and that is the horror. But it is also the way it should be, and in it is a peace, too, a peace like the high mountains and the drift of forest veering off into the great sky. It is time, resplendent, a power beyond all sense, cruel yet beautiful as no painting or poetry could ever be. It is not negotiable, this time; it may be spent on a mountain top, its massive shoulders holding us like gnats, or in the valleys, warmed by voices and light, but even there, no turn of the brush or pen can change its presence. Cruel, infinite, sublime—it is why we have made our gods, for it and they are beyond grasp, beyond reach. In the middle of time lies death and around it, life, whirling like the stars around Earth, and we cry at our losses or hold up our hands to the sky in wonder, and still it turns, meaning everything, everything that we can never know while the power remains in our legs and hearts to climb the mountain. Then we drift, totter, fade into skin and bone and spirit, and it is a horrible and a beautiful thing.
Frederick Keogh is the author of the memoir, Dream Weaver (2011). His essay, The Finger, was chosen as a semi-finalist in the 2013 Writer’s Digest essay contest. After fieldwork in the Venezuelan Amazon, he completed his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Michigan in 1995, and has worked as a teacher and an editor. He now resides in rural Wisconsin with his wife and son. Visit his website.