To the top

IT was a good day for hiking, cool, breezy, with a vague promise of clearing skies later in the day. Viewed from the base parking lot, Wildcat Mountain seemed fairly tame, even for hikers out of practice like Michele, Stephanie, and me. After the hearty breakfast served at our little country inn, we were ready for it. No lazy ride up on the gondola for us! We started out on one of the easy ski slopes winding up the side of the mountain, stopping frequently to look at the developing view of Mt. Washington Valley, catch our breath, and pick the occasional red raspberry. But about two-thirds of the way up, we encountered modern technology in the form of bulldozers and assorted heavy machinery and pipes. They looked so out of place -- was there no escaping civilization? Snowmaking capability was being installed all the way to the top, we were told. It was too early to think of schussing down the slopes; for now, we were hikers, and tearing up these mountain trails came close to sacrilege -- who wants to trade rustic mountain trails and the fragrance of flowers and conifers for dirt and mud?

There was an alternative: straight up the steepest hill, underneath a still-standing chairlift. Why not? There is something exciting about treading where nobody has trodden before. The advice given some years ago, in a larger context, to a graduating high school class by a Swiss compatriot and avid mountain hiker popped into my mind: ``Do not follow where the path may lead, Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.''

But it was hard work, and conversation was replaced by grunts as we hoisted ourselves up the steep incline, among knee-high mountain pines and other bushes, slipping on rocks or roots once in a while. The scent of pines mixed with the moist smell of mushrooms, and moss was all around. Lining the chairlift like a tired honor guard were files of decrepit fir trees, a sad testimony to the ravages of the spruce budworm and the elements. As we looked down, the few cars in the parking lot below seemed like toys. On the other side of the valley, Mt. Washington stood forbidding and aloof in the gray sky, with clouds traveling fast across its flanks.

Stephanie was the first to spot the chairlift terminal. ``We made it!'' Our pace picked up for the last few hundred yards. At the top, it was cold, windy -- November in August, a day for warm hooded parkas and not light windbreakers. The ridges of the mountain ranges all around were sharp against the dull sky. We stood higher than many of them and felt like benevolent conquerors. We huddled on a rock for a while, just looking, almost too exhausted to eat our snack, but it was a triumphant, exhilarating exhaustion. We had made it to the top the hard way -- the best way!

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