Notice

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 nodded.

“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.

 

 

 

 

Waves

As October began winding down, the days became increasingly cold and short. For most of the summer, I’d been longing to do a little camping, but hadn’t had the chance. When my parents visited for my birthday (prior to Dad taking a dive into the Atlantic), they had generously given me a lovely backpacking tent. This, of course, was code for: “by the way, we rented out your room back home…” Nonetheless, I was stoked and all the more eager to try it out.

Thus, on an overcast Saturday afternoon, I piled some gear into the back of my Subaru and headed up Coastal Route 1.  I had recruited my housemate, Justin, to join me for a one-night trip and we set off with a vague destination. I’d heard tell from some locals of an area called the Cutler Coast Reserve and deemed it worthy of inspection.

The Cutler Coast (or “Bold Coast”) is a large plot of public land that’s been converted into hiking trails with backcountry campsites right up against the ocean. The camping is free, the only restriction of any sort is that backpackers fill out a registration card and deposit it in a box at the trailhead, in case of “needing rescue”. I scribbled down a fake name (“Bunky Deadwillow”) left my ex’s phone number, and we were on our way.

Due to a late start, dusk was fading as we began our trek through the woods. It was a cool, cloudy evening – not promising of rain but certainly not against it. We hiked for about fifteen minutes and came to an intersection.

“Which way?” Justin asked.

I produced my trail map, which, in reality, was a computer print-off and appeared to be a Crayola production. I turned on my headlamp and scanned the page.

Important life lesson: it’s hard to read crayon in the dark. All I could make out was a blotch of green (which I assumed was the forest), a brown line (the trail), an area of bluish hue (the ocean) and a couple large X’s (treasure!?).

“Um,” I said, “I think the ocean’s that way.”

Justin looked in the direction I was pointing. “That’s what the map says?” he asked.

“’Says’ is too strong a word,” I held the map towards him, “I think ‘implies’ is better suited for our situation.”

Justin glanced down at the map and shrugged carelessly. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

And just like that we were off to the tune of The White Stripe’s “I Can Tell That We Are Gonna Be Friends” whistled for the occasion by yours truly.

Soon complete darkness set in and we both turned on our headlamps. Hiking with a headlamp is not as simple as it seems and can be somewhat terrifying. Even with powerful illumination, a headlamp hardly reveals more than a step or too in front of you and sometimes even this area is still a mystery. Rocks, roots, and gopher holes, easily viewed by daylight, become proverbial land mines come nightfall. There’ve been hikers who knocked what they perceived by their headlamp to be a large rock, only to discover a very angry raccoon suddenly latched onto their toes.

Meanwhile, the area around you, which isn’t illuminated, is filled with objects and creatures that could all easily contribute to my ex-girlfriend one day picking up her phone to learn that poor “Bunky Deadwillow was mauled by a bobcat on the Cutler Coast” and “would you like us to send you the body?” Running into low-lying tree branches is common occurrences, as well as spider webs and the occasionally unaware bat. I’d even heard tell of one hiker who was trudging along, eyes glued to the ground, and wandered smack into a large object. Although he thought it was a tree, the softness of his impact, and low grunt from a few yards ahead, compelled him to reconsider. It was, in fact, a hefty bull moose. As much as I was yearning to see a moose, I certainly didn’t want to find myself with my head up ones butt, so I made sure to regularly peel my eyes off the ground to check the area ahead of me.

And thus I passed the next hour, trudging along, listening to all the noises around us wondering what sort of carnivorous phenomenon, or moose in need of a gynecologist, was licking its chops and watching the soon-to-be Bunky Deadwillow trudging through the forest. Inasmuch, I was fairly grateful to have Justin along. Not only were we close friends, thus deep in conversation the entire time, but if nothing else I figured I had a good shot of out-running him.

Soon our path took a slight turn to the right and we heard a blessedly familiar sound off to our left: waves. We continued along the path and soon arrived at a clearing. Through the trees we could see the ocean and the sun setting off to the west. Like a moth to the flame, we were both drawn towards the view.

“Whoa,” Justin put his arm out in front of me and pointed down. I turned my headlamp back towards the ground and saw nothing.

“We’re on the edge of a cliff,” he said. And sure enough we were. Though I couldn’t see more than five feet beyond the edge, I could hear the waves crashing what sounded like a good fifty feet below.

Since it was already dark and we had to hike out early in the morning for church, we decided this would make as good a camping spot as any. With the tent assembled, we sat on the edge of the cliff, our feet hanging into oblivion, and munched on some dinner while spending nearly two hours engrossed in a conversation over the sound of crashing waves

Eventually, we got cold and moved into our sleeping bags, but the conversation continued. Eventually, after I’d been talking uninterrupted for quite some time, I stopped to hear Justin’s response.

Nothing.

“Justin?” I whispered. “You awake?”

Again, nothing. He was either asleep, or subtly exiting the conversation, neither of which I could blame him for.

And so I was alone with my thoughts and the sound of crashing waves. Throughout dinner and our conversation afterwards, I hadn’t really noticed the waves. But now that I was quiet, with my resting spot on a cliff up against the ocean, each crash reverberated around me. I was fairly content.

You see, waves are one of the forces of nature that have always fascinated me. I find great comfort in their inevitable crashes and thunder. With each cycle that rolls onto the shoreline, whether it be a mountain of water or peaceful ripple, it’s guaranteed that another will follow. Despite what’s happening on shore, or even further out at sea, despite the circumstances of my individual life, the only thing that’s going to stop the next wave from coming in, is the One who created them. If I listened to them, I could hear them saying something; I could hear them teaching me a lesson. With every crash, every thud of the water against the rock, I was reminded that the world was turning, the ocean’s tides were moving, and everything, yes everything, was just the way it should be.

It’d been nearly six months since I graduated from college, a concept that was hard to believe. As I thought back on this time, I couldn’t help but recall the highs (standing on the top of Mount Rainier) and the lows as well (…ya know…capsizing in the middle of the Atlantic) of the past few months. I thought about my college friends and where most of them were at that moment: many had started their careers, gotten married, were in grad school, etc… For all intents and purposes, they had set a course, they were on there way. I, on the other hand, still felt unsure about, well, most anything related to my futre.

But this didn’t bother me in the slightest. My life was what it was and, like the waves, it would continue to progress under the control of myself, yes, but also someone who was much, much greater than me. Bills existed, jobs had been lost, prospects were blurry, but the waves still crashed, the world still turned, and I was still alive. I found it hard to be forlorn in the face of these facts.

So on that brisk, October night, a certain Bunky Deadwillow lay in his tent, in peaceful serenity. It didn’t matter that he was a college graduate, yet to find a secure job, and still seeking clear direction in his life. It didn’t matter that there were bills to be paid, that he was miles from home, and the future was a blurry question mark. Heck, it didn’t matter that, for all he knew, at that moment there were two wolves sitting outside his tent contemplating: “I dunno, Fred. Do you want to cook ‘em in alfredo or marinara tonight?”

None of this mattered, because Bunky was listening to the waves.