Meet Jim and Deb. Jim and Deb are an elderly couple of a pleasant nature who live in Gorham, New Hampshire, just north of Mount Washington. Jim is a retired park ranger who has always enjoyed the outdoors and takes any chance he gets to go for a hike. On the morning of December 22, Jim and Deb took their two dogs (which we’ll say are poodles for the sake of sheer irony) and went for a walk in the trails around the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center; a popular starting point for climbers on Mount Washington. They set out on at the base of the Tuckerman Ravine trail, intending to hike, with the dogs, to the waterfall just past the Boott Spur junction, and then head into town for a late breakfast at the local diner.
It was near this junction they noticed a young man wandering down the trail, decked out with enough gear to climb Everest, holding a map (upside down) and muttering somewhat incoherently, as though he’d just been smacked across the head with a steel pole.
Deb and Jim exchanged somewhat befuddled and slightly anxious glances.
“Hey…hey buddy!” Jim yelled in the man’s direction, “You okay? Are you looking for something?”
The hiker stopped. He suddenly looked up as though he’d just landed on earth from the planet Imadoofus and these were the first people he’d ever seen. He walked over to them.
“Yes,” he said, “Yes, I am. I’m a wee bit confused actually. Can you tell me, which way to Mount Washington?”
Jim and Deb exchanged another set of anxious glances. “Um…you mean the summit?”
The man snapped his fingers in a “eureka!” fashion. “Yep! Yep! That’s the one! Which way?”
Jim paused skeptically. “Well there are several different routes…”
The strange hiker turned his head suddenly, like he’d been hit with the steel pole again, then said, “Oh wait! I know where I am now! And there’s the trail!” he pointed to a path just ahead and turned back to the couple. “We’ll you’ve been very kind. Jolly helpful too. But I’m off to the summit! Thanks!”
And just like that, with a tip of his helmet towards Deb, he turned and disappeared down the path.
It’s hard to imagine what Jim and Deb did next, although I could venture a guess. I’d wager Jim turned and sprinted down to the Visitor Center, where he called some of his ranger friends to inform them that “some incompetent” had just headed off towards the ravine on what was, as it turns out, a deer path, and “can you put the rescue squad on stand-bye?” Deb, I’m sure, passed the time waiting for his return, holding their two poodles on a leash while clucking under her breath “Tisk tisk…what would his mother think?”
All this goes to say that my climb didn’t start as smoothly as I would have hoped. I left my house in Maine just before 4 AM and drove directly west under the encroaching daylight. After a brief stop for breakfast and gas, I managed to reach the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center a little before 9 AM. I was due to spend the night in Worcester, Massachusetts, a three-hour’s drive to the south, so I figured I had about seven hours to make a round trip go for the summit.
I got out of my car, stretched and went into the visitor center. I greeted the lady behind the counter of the gift shop and asked to register for my climb. She smiled and nodded her head in the direction of a notebook on the counter.
“There’s weather updates above the binder,” she added.
I smiled and thanked her.
I flipped open the book and filled in my information beneath the gloriously encouraging notice that “Registration records are only used to find missing climbers in case of emergency”.
“Where you headed?” the lady behind the counter asked.
“The summit,” I said, then added “Lord, willing.”
Her eyes widened a bit. “Weather can be bad up there,” she said.
I nodded politely. “Worst weather in the world. I bet it can.”
She didn’t say anything, just looked at me in a rather uncomfortable fashion.
“Not supposed to be too bad today though,” I said, more to myself than her.
“Are you going alone?”
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” she said.
I smiled and tipped my hat to her on my way out (quirk of the day). “Course, I do, ma’am. Have a good one!” And with that I proceeded to walk out the door, change into my climbing clothes, throw on my pack, take off down the trail and within thirty minutes find myself muttering incoherently shortly before encountering Jim and Deb. The irony was simply cruel.
The problem was that I knew what trail I was supposed to be on, but there were several smaller trails that kept branching off of mine, and they didn’t appear to be marked on the map. I stopped at one point and doubled back, a frustrating experiencing after gaining altitude, only to find that one of these offshoots was, in fact, a deer trail and a dead end.
To make matters worse, the path was slightly snowed over with a thick layer of ice underneath. This made things complicated, because there wasn’t enough of a snowpack or ice to utilize crampons, but the footing was terrible. I found myself picking my way among the rocky path frequently slipping on an icy patch, nearly doing the splits, or perhaps plopping onto my butt in a fashion slightly less eloquent than Charlie Brown after kicking a football. It was all rather frustrating for me and rather comical for anyone who had taken it upon themselves to hide in the woods in hopes of someone like me coming along.
After a prolonged series of “where the @#$% am I?” and “Oh no no no!” PLOP! I remained sitting down and took the map out of my pack. I knew I was somewhere on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and somewhere near the Boott Spur junction. The problem was, I wasn’t quite sure where the junction was or if I had already passed it. Should I happen to go the wrong direction at the junction, I could quickly find myself a good mile out of my way and headed towards a different peak altogether.
I studied my map, looked up at the trail, and studied my map some more. I was glad I was the only one around to witness my plunge into incompetency and it certainly did cross my mind that if I was having this much trouble on a trail fit for poodles, how would I fare on an exposed, apocalyptically weathered summit? I pushed these musings from my mind as I shoved the map back in my pack. The topography on the map indicated that my desired route should feature a short dip in elevation followed by a steady increase. If I were heading the right way, I would know soon.
I readjusted my pack and took off down the trail. I wasn’t in the best of moods. I “bah-humbug”ed down the path, slipped, regained my balance and kept going. The path dipped slightly and a few minutes later turned and began working it’s way back up. Jim’s ranger buddies would be waiting for a while; I was back on track.
I let out a sigh of relief and picked up my pace. I needed to make up for lost time. I didn’t have a huge window for the summit and the weather would only get worse as the day went on. I needed to go faster. I needed to watch my footing. I needed to make sure I didn’t make such a stupid blunder as losing my way on-
But something stopped my train of thought. A large snowflake landed on the tip of my nose. It was one of those snowflakes that seem to float rather than fall, like it’s dancing it’s way to a new home. It sat there for a moment and then slowly melted into a drop of water that trickled down to my lips.
I stopped walking and looked around me. I noticed for the first time that it was snowing; large, lazy flakes like the one I’d just encountered fluttered all around me.
I noticed several other things as well. A creek, just off to my left, was mostly frozen but had just enough water still flowing to make a trickling noise that no bell choir or percussionist could reproduce. Two small birds fluttered around a tree branch above me, and I even realized there were several sets of deer tracks just off of my own. It was beautiful and I’d almost let it slide by unnoticed.
And I began to wonder: how many things have I walked past in my life without taking the time to appreciate them? How many little things had slipped past me, because I was so focused on some grand objective? The summit of Mount Washington held so much allure for me, it’s true: but what of the mystery of a snowflake, or the bliss of two birds?
If I believe in anything, I believe in the simplicity of beauty. I believe in the grandeur of the little things, the ones that are often forgotten, blown past or trod upon. I believe in the song of a trickling brook, the story behind a set of deer tracks and the dance of two birds fluttering among the trees. It is true that I believe in the allure of a mountain, its’ snow blown summit and avalanche prone slopes: but I also believe in the intricacy of each and every snowflake that sits upon it. This is a mystery all the more beyond my comprehension: the beauty of the little things.
I guess, in a small way, that’s why I believe in God. The world in which I live and play in is not a world of grand schemes, concepts and sights. It holds these things, but they would not exist were it not for the tiny, often unknown intricacies and details upon and from which they are built. Any doofus with a map can blow past the smallest things in life en route to something he had decided was important. Only the utmost God can know, understand and appreciate the deepest mysteries that they hold.
I took a deep breath as another snowflake melted on my cheek. The hassle of being lost, the frustration of my morning, all seemed very, very small compared to…well…the small things. Instead, I was just grateful to be there, standing at the base of a mighty mountain confounded by the mystery of a tiny snowflake melting on my skin.
And to think that I almost didn’t notice.