Crawford Notch, N.H. It occurred to me, right about where the Gibbs Falls cutoff heads away to the left off the Crawford Trail, that we might be in a rut. We have tramped along this path several times. We have climbed into these hills for overnights in the remote mountain huts of the Presidential Range the past 10 summers in a row. We have "slumped, scrambled, rolled, bounced and walked, by turns, over this scraggly country" -- the language is Thoreau's, but the sentiment is mine -- for a quarter century.
Is this a summertime rut, I wondered, or is it a habit? The trail has been here since 1819 -- Ethan Allen Crawford once recalled how he and his father "made a foot path from the Notch out through the woods, and it was advertised in the newspaper, and soon we began to have a few visitors" -- and today it is the oldest continuously used hiking trail in America. In a world that has changed mightily in the past 184 years, it is still the same.
It is still true that the nights up at Mizpah Springs Hut have a special glow, and that at sunset the sky is painted in shades Crayola never contemplated, a kind of bluish pink that I always associate with the White Mountains and never see anywhere else. (It nicely complements hunter green, which drapes these hills and has always been, to my mind, the official color of outdoors.)
It is still true that the powdered eggs and homemade bread of breakfast are served at long tables up here at Mizpah by an ebullient woman known only as Biscuit. It is still true that -- this is an evocative phrase from an advertisement the state distributed in 1938 -- New Hampshire is "a Great Out-O-Door State."
And yet every time we head toward northern notches, we discover something different.
This year, for example, we found that our reliable hillside companion, the Old Man of the Mountains, had disappeared; you might think of its sad demise in May as rocks to rocks in a thousand generations. This year, as we headed up the Crawford Trail, the rain, which almost every year soaks our packs and rubs our arms cold, started a lot earlier than it usually does -- and then, in one of those unexpected kisses from nature, moved on to some other mountain fastness.
This year, Biscuit, who is known at lower elevations as Alex Bisset, and who may possess the wisdom of the hills but who is only 24 years old, is spending her last summer singing songs and slinging food. Apparently the hard-faced clerks who administer college loans have found her, even here. To the great relief of her parents, she's in search of more conventional employment.
But the most jarring change we noticed was truly a change in the order of things. For years, these hikes were exercises in esthetics and encouragement.
The esthetics came from God, the encouragement from Mom and Dad. The girls were smaller then, closer to the ground, you might say, but the energy they brought to other endeavors -- blaming each other for slights unseen by any other mortals, for example -- somehow disappeared when the ground was covered by roots and rocks. They liked hikes, to be sure, but they were also laggards.
Those years we cajoled, we exercised gentle coercion -- it has long been an unproven conviction of mine that the word "gorp," now widely understood to mean a heavenly concoction of cashews, sunflower seeds, raisins and M&Ms;, is actually an Abenaki word for "bribe" -- and we packed our trunks so many times we could have passed for sea captains. This went on for hours -- once, during a particularly taxing hike, for 10 hours.
Not this time. From the very start the little one -- I remember when I could fit her hiking boots in my pocket -- took the lead. The big one -- I remember carrying her over muddy spots too numerous to count and then, the artifice abandoned, over dry spots, too -- bolted ahead. The little cousin, who has joined us on these excursions these past couple of years, responded to the challenge. Don't tell his mother, but I saw him all of about five seconds.
He shot ahead across terrain he was determined to master and then, over a celebratory lunch in which we presented him with a commemorative pin, was proud to claim it his very own.
In the rear tramped the adult supervision, the ones whose idea it was to make these hikes an annual marker on the calendar, the ones who remember, maybe just to protect their dignity, that they are here for the journey, not merely to reach the destination, the ones who think there is spirituality in an excursion that, for their charges, is merely exercise in high spirit.
And so are these trips here to New Hampshire -- Dad has made them for the past 34 years, not missing a one, and Mom has made them for the past 26, with equal consistency -- a rut or a habit?
Some years ago Dad said a stupid thing, one of many, something along the lines of this: New Hampshire is a great place for a summer vacation. Mom, by then accustomed to stupid remarks, made a serious one: How would I know? We never go anyplace else.
Just for fun, as we headed across the prettiest ridge line in the world, the one that leads straight to Mount Washington, I did what I do a lot of times.
I repeated a stupid remark I made long ago. This time Mom had a different answer. She said: Why go anyplace else?
We never do. But, in a way, this year we did travel somewhere else this summer. For the first time, we traveled at the back of the pack. We'll get used to it, of course. The best view, after all, is back here, and it took me all these years to realize it. Back here, at the end of the pack, you get to see the most remarkable sight nature provides. It is the view of your kids speeding ahead.
This summer we learned that is not a rut. This summer we realized that it will soon be a habit, and not only here, in a Great Out-O-Door State.