Monadnock: An isolated hill or mountain of resistant rock rising above an eroded lowland.
She had picked the longer way to climb the mountain, and that had meant that the first couple of miles were an easy warm-up through the cold November woods. Bill called this approach the handicapped ramp, relatively gentle but three times as long over the outstretched wing of Monadnock. That was appropriate; she felt somewhat disabled today. The days had been dim but dry, and she knew this would be her last chance to make this pilgrimage until spring – she was not physically brave and certainly no climber of ice. She had done the trail many times, but never without Bill. This, however, had to be a solo journey, even though she was not really alone. Her cell phone was in her pocket and she had a strong walking stick; she was connected to the world (at least while the signal lasted), supported on it, and defended against it all at the same time. At least physically.
There was the problem of the backpack, of course. When they hiked together, Bill always did the carrying, so she was not used to it. It seemed to grow heavier by the yard, and the straps pulled back at her shoulders the way that her father used to do when he wanted to emphasize how poor he thought her posture was. He was right; her posture was still poor. She had long ago chalked it up to poor self-esteem as a child, an early-developing chest which she tried to hide, and a life-long addiction to reading in bed, shoving two pillows between the head board and the back of her neck, rounding her shoulders permanently in the process. That is where she wished she were now – home in bed with a book. But, those voices – the same ones that told her it was time to close the book and get out of the bed and do something – had given her a formidable sense of discipline. Therefore, she was on the mountain.
She had consciously picked a weekday so there would be fewer people on Monadnock. And, while this trail was always somewhat lonely, the top of the mountain was densely populated on the weekends with those who were jubilant with justifiable pride in their achievement. You could see and hear them on the wide-shouldered mountain long before you joined them, where all exuded triumph, relief, and exhaustion simultaneously. There were probably fewer people up there today, but she would not see the summit from this approach until later. Just when she was exhausted, she would emerge from the tree line, look up, and the broad stony dome of Monadnock would rise up and assure her that she could make it. She did have occasional views of the surrounding countryside as she passed clearings, and she looked forward to getting to the ridge where the panorama on the right and the left made you feel that you were walking on a road to heaven. Or, on a day like this, on the path to a rather gray purgatory.
A great deal of this trail was up dried stream beds – impossible to keep your footing on a wet day or in ice, but fine today. Going up was more strenuous, but always safer than coming down, where gravity, speed, and fatigue led to the most accidents. The narrow gulch was filled with rocks of all sizes which had broken off and tumbled down the mountain over centuries and centuries. Most of the rocks were the same color, but the variety in size was amazing. The big ones were good to step and rest on; the small ones often wobbled or gave way. Rocks always reminded her of her father. After an early retirement, he had become fascinated with rocks. He gathered rocks, he sorted rocks, built things with rocks. The first project – the one that started it all – was a fireplace in the new addition to his retirement home. He gathered the rocks from various places, using a small utility trailer he bought for the purpose. Then, he built the fireplace from plans in a book he got from the local library. The old man had always been believed that you could learn anything from books; she had gotten that from him. Human experience was not so singular that someone else had not built what you wanted to build, felt what you felt, puzzled over what you agonized over. She and her father wanted different things from books, however. He wanted answers, brief and useful as possible. She wanted comfort.
The biggest concern from the beginning was whether homemade fireplace would draw the smoke; fireplaces and chimneys are not easy to engineer. There was a grand ceremony at the first lighting of the hearth, and it was a success. The fire blazed, the smoke went up, and the sherry was passed around. They had gathered like members of the tribe and toasted the father of the clan.
In any case, once the fireplace was a success, there was no stopping him. She often thought that he retired early just so he could lug rocks around. There were walkways, walls, and a circular picnic area in the backyard that had an uncanny resemblance to Stonehenge. In the center, he had used a large flat boulder to try to construct a table for family picnics. Bill called it the sacrificial altar. On any visit, admiration of Dad’s new masonry (such as it was) became the first and compulsory order of business. And then, everyone had to commiserate over all the scrapes and bruises with which he had bought his obsession. He almost never asked about their life. Nothing was more important than his stones. As he aged and was less able to work with the rocks and cement, he became increasingly determined and also increasingly bad at it. He built walls and they collapsed; he rebuilt them. He seemed to like rocks because they were so solid, so permanent, but he did not seem to have the patience to do it slowly, do it right. Or even to stop doing it as he aged and poor circulation got the better of him. The family all fretted over the abrasions on his hands and the gashes on his legs caused by the rocks. They ceaselessly worried while at the same time cursed his opinionated, critical attitude and his callous indifference to their mother and everyone else around him. In that, he was much like his rocks.
The pack was getting even heavier. She could see the summit now and the path of rock cairns laid out as guidance now that she was past the tree line. Piles of rocks again. Can’t get away from him today, she thought, and that’s not surprising. She never had been able to, even when she was “grown up” and had children of her own. What was surprising was how well he did with his grandchildren compared with his own children. He seemed to have long ago given up on his own children; they had missed the mark, but in his grandchildren, he had another chance. It became clear that they were significant to him in some primal way; as with his rock walls he was trying to build some lasting monument through them, while bypassing her generation entirely. Hours were spent constructing a playhouse out back (stone, of course, and the source of many a bruised knee and elbow when the kids were small) or teaching them to skip rope or bicycle. She had gotten plenty of attention as a kid, but not that kind. He did lose his temper with them occasionally, but he recovered almost immediately, and the grandchildren seemed to be able to shrug it off in a way that she never could. He was not their parent; there was some emotional distance.
She zipped up her jacket and pulled her hat down over her ears. It was getting cold up here. Darkness was pushing harder and harder on these fading days, and it seemed like the sun never rose past the top of the mountain. She stopped to take off the backpack for a few minutes and fished a power bar out of her pocket. Her father had never been on this mountain; he was an ocean man. The only memories that she had of being in the New England woods with her father was when she was very small and they lived in the countryside, long before he built the beach house. He would take her and her brother out and help them identify trees by their leaves and their bark. They would come home laden with leaf specimens, wildflowers, and curious rocks. Those were the best memories and the only good ones. Something happened after that. They moved far away; her childhood was over. It was many years before she rediscovered the woods. The woods redeemed her, in both big and little ways. She often wondered if something really did happen or if she had just grown out of that idyllic childhood, that Eden before the tree of knowledge enlightens one into the realities of life. She was not sure. They moved away from the woods, she and her brother were joined by a much younger sister, they were all caught up in education, sports, friends, sex. And, in keeping away from the man whom none of them could please.
And here she was, at the summit and with plenty of time to make the descent before dark. Fortunately, there were few people at the top. It was raw; the wind was dry, but cold and sharp, and even the view was not keeping anyone at the summit for long. She surveyed the three New England states she could see, patterns of brown and blue where bare trees surrounded ponds whose waters took on mutant patterns that showed that they were almost, but not quite, frozen. The wispy dark clouds were still above her, but they threatened to settle down on her and the mountain they protected. She backed into a narrow shelf of rock, rested her spine on the ledge, and shrugged off the pack. Her water bottle was just at freezing and perfect. She took a long drink and closed her eyes. Now. She reached into the backpack, took out a box, opened the lid, made sure the wind was in back of her, and waited for a strong gust.
“There you go,” she said as the ashes spewed out. She gave the box a few more shakes and even tapped it on the rocks. “Back to your rocks. You couldn’t want any more rocks than this.”
She had been expecting a sense of release. She had pictured herself running, skidding, down the mountain with all of the past behind her. She stood for a few minutes in the cold wind and waited for a revelation. None was forthcoming; the only message she could hear was simply telling her to head down the mountain where there was a warm car and a hot thermos. Ice cold water was good for thirst, but she needed to be thawed out. She put the box back in the backpack and headed for the first cairn.
As she descended, his voice came back. Why had she chosen her favorite mountain to scatter his ashes on? Her mother’s were scattered in the Caribbean, as she wished. Her siblings had been glad to hand over his ashes and any remaining responsibility to her. Have him, they seemed to say. Take him far away. Sell the house, let someone else cart away all the rocks. He had never told them what he wanted done with his remains, but then he had been spectacularly uncommunicative in the nine months that he survived his wife. For his children, his wife had been the great intermediary; their difficulty with him had led her to interpret all things – what he was happy about, what had displeased him. She tried to do it with tact, but always with the urgent necessity that if she did not get the message straight, he would have to intervene, and they all wanted to avoid that.
Mostly there had been messages of displeasure. She often wondered why she tried, since trying only seemed to make it worse. There were friends of hers who had written off one or both of their parents, but she had seemed unable to do that. One of the problems was that it was hard to put your finger on what was the matter with him. He could be charming, generous, loving – but he could turn on a dime. He disarmed you and then went it for the kill. You hated him when you left his presence and then . . . you were remembering the charming, loving moments. You wanted to remember those moments. In some ways, she supposed, she should be grateful. In trying to please him she had worked very hard at a number of things – at least in those things on which she had any hope of success. Good grades, but no hope of being either a good athlete or a homecoming queen. Decent job, but never the kind of wealth or prestige that would have made a difference. Acceptable children, but in need of shaping up by their grandfather. Attentive to her parents, but visits – especially in the early days before she hardened up and her father got tired of baiting Bill – often ended in tearful scenes.
She slowed down as she got back to the steep creek beds. She had to keep reminding herself that the descent was the most dangerous time. One step at a time. She kept stopping, something in her kept stopping her, even in this cold. As she leaned against an old pine tree, she started noticing the roots that had been exposed by the eroding of the sides of the stream. They were something to be careful of, jutting out in strange angles and curves. Some of them were also very beautiful, curved by having grown around rocks and boulders which had since been washed away by water and gravity. The roots had maintained the shape of the rocks, sometimes in graceful semicircles or in long stretching umbrellas – gracefully reaching down over obstructions that were no longer there. The wood in the roots was old now; even when the tree was alive, these roots were permanently deformed into these frames for a missing center. Yet, they were beautiful. Yes, they were beautiful, but in a grotesque, gothic kind of way.
Like me, she thought. He’s gone. The rock that she wound her roots around is gone, the hard immovable mass that made her life misshapen was gone. The obstruction that she was forced to work around to feed her roots had washed away. But that shape is now permanent. And yet – maybe – it was beautiful in its own way. It was strong scar tissue, it recreated arcs of longing, of trying. It had made her hard, given her discipline and strength. But the rock was gone now. She could admire what was left behind. Of course, she reminded herself, the most dangerous part is going down. The most dangerous part is when we think the worst is over. She had to caution herself to descend carefully.