I recently celebrated a birthday, a big one. The Douglas Adams Birthday, 42. All summer I had dreamed of spending my birthday trail running Franconia Ridge, dreams fueled by the photos my friend Jenny, who lives just over the ridge from Franconia Notch kept posting. Then she posted the recipe for a chocolate cake covered with sweet potato ganache, and that sealed the deal. I would spend my birthday in New Hampshire.
They say you are supposed to honor your mother as much as yourself on your birthday, that it is as much a day for her as for you. She spent the day bringing you into the world. My mother is a fighter, taking punches every day at the Parkinson’s disease that is slowly taking her down. Some of those punches consist of doing things she isn’t supposed to, things we tell her not to do, things we tell her that we will do for her. I’ve come to realize after 42 years, that my mother has an impatient streak, and when she gets something in her head, she isn’t likely to change her mind or wait for you to do the thing you said you would. I’ve arrived at her house to find her up on a ladder, scrubbing the house trim or picking peaches from the tree, or down in the basement trying to get something off a shelf. Things I could easily do for her if she had just waited for me. I’ve also come to realize, after 42 years, I am the same way. Once I get an idea in my head, I am likely to follow through on it regardless of what anyone else says.
The morning of my birthday, Jenny suggested I head to a trail a mile from her house, that would take me up Kinsman Ridge, the mountain on the west side of Franconia Notch. She had to run some errands with her two young children and couldn’t accompany me on my adventure. I agreed, and then looked at the map after she left. I saw the yellow blotches that indicated treeless alpine terrain and realized my intended hike didn’t hit any yellow blotches, and made a split second decision to follow my original plan (just like my mom), the one I had been thinking about all summer, to hike up to Franconia Ridge, at least up Mt. Layfayette to get above tree line and on an open alpine summit.
The trail took me from the parking lot for the Old Man of the Mountain/Cannon Mountain Tramway, up the other side of the notch away from the high way. I climbed by myself for nearly an hour before encountering another soul. The trail was wet and slippery and I hiked it instead of running. It brought me to the Greenleaf Hut, run by the AMC, and from there I headed up Lafayette. I thought about Guy Waterman as I hiked, legendary hiker and climber from the area, compiler, along with his wife, of the history of hiking and climbing in the northeast in the books Forest and Crag and Yankee Rock and Ice. When Guy was 67 years old, he decided it was time to pass over, and he climbed Layfayette in the middle of winter, laying himself out on the summit, allowing himself to freeze to death under the starry winter sky. I thought about Guy, going out on his own terms, and then I thought about my husband’s uncle Joe who lost his battle with ALS two years ago, none of which was on his own terms.
The ALS ice bucket challenge is everywhere these days, I’ve been called out twice on Facebook myself. I have mixed emotions about the phenomenon. On the one hand, drawing attention to the disease raises awareness, and starts a conversation. You begin to realize that more people are touched by it than you ever knew. On the other hand, people dumping buckets of ice on their heads and posting videos of themselves doing it seems to serve no real purpose. My first thought, when my friend Jude called me out on this was “but I really hate the feeling of being cold and wet”. Then I caught myself, and realized how stupid that was. I could get cold and wet and then just go get in a hot shower and solve the problem. Someone with ALS really hates the feeling of not being able to control their body like they are used to, and there is not magic hot shower that will bring them back to normal. It made me feel like an ass. That being said, I know how science works, and science is all about the money (for better or worse). There are several images and discussions circulating about the mismatch and imbalance between fundraising for research and the diseases that actually affect the greatest number of Americans, and are the most likely to kill us (hint: the funding doesn’t usually go to the big killers). Thinking long and hard about what the point of the ice bucket challenge really is, and how my resources would best serve people (and which people) in need, gave me pause.
I don’t actually know a whole lot about ALS except for this, when my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, all the doctors were really relieved it wasn’t ALS. I’ve watched somebody die from ALS, albeit from a distance, and it was brutal. ALS took everything Uncle Joe had, and made him sit in the front row and watch it all. It was uncompromising and relentless, and in the end, it won. It always does. I thought about Joe, and Guy Waterman, and Robin Williams, mentally ill and tortured and facing his own Parkinson’s diagnosis, as I hiked up the ridge away from the hut, out of the forest and into the clouds that kept opening and closing around me. The sun would shine and I could see the summit and all the people ahead of and behind me. Then the clouds would billow in and I would be alone. I talked to people I encountered as I climbed, the men with barbells in their ears and tattoos and scruffy facial hair who were so thrilled to be climbing a mountain for the first time who asked me if they sold cigarettes at the hut (“no, I don’t think so” I smiled), the kids who warned me as I neared the summit that I would “freeze to death up there!” (“I’ve got a hat” I replied), the guy from Arizona who wondered loudly outloud if he could eat the red berries he was seeing on the summit (“actually, yes you can, they are mountain cranberries, here, try one—I’ll go first”). Contrary to what you might think, I loved seeing so many people out on the mountain on my birthday, and that is usually the case. The more I go into parks and national forests and the like, the more pleased I am to see people there enjoying it.
Once I got to the summit, the clouds parted and the entirety of Franconia Ridge stretched south ahead of me and I simply could not resist, who could? I did the responsible thing, texted Jenny to let her know my updated plans (then my phone died, so no more photos), and I headed out. It was everything I hoped it would be and I felt more and more alive with every step. On the ridge I achieved the rare giddiness that comes from being aware and present in the singularity of an amazing place. The clouds would part and I could turn and look back at the trail snaking back towards Layfayette and the grin nearly split my head in two. I looked down on Cannon Mountain and the Black Dike and the Whitney Gillman Ridge, technical climbs that look so intimidating from the parking lot, shrunken and manageable from this height. Obstacle is all a matter of perspective isn’t it.
When Joe died two years ago, I wrote the following: “He didn’t want to leave this life, no one does. Not the buck, not the girl, not him. The responsibility of the living is to try to remember this fact, not just when our own end time comes, but when we are wakened by sunlight on our faces, when we float on our backs in water that sparkles with mica in a pond surrounded by granite swells and white pines, when we find fresh bear tracks, when we clasp hands and jump off the dock together, when the peach is so ripe the juice runs down our necks, when the table is crowded and we raise our glasses to each other, when we are at our most alive.”
Likewise Ann Pachett, in her 2006 essay Love Sustained, writes of “…those perfect times with the people we love, those moments of joy and equality that sustain us later on…these moments are the foundation upon which we build the house that will shelter us into our final years…”. My birthday this year was perfect, was everything I intended (within the confines of reality), it was a day for which I will remain grateful the rest of my life.
I came down off the ridge and made my way back to Jenny’s house, to find an amazing dinner awaiting me, which I ate with Jenny’s husband Sam and their children (Thatcher and Sylvie). I pushed Thatcher on the swing, played with baby Sylvie, talked with Sam about life and the future, and relaxed as yet another essential moment crystalized in my head. After Jenny returned from teaching an evening Pilates class, and the kids were in bed, we stayed up late, all exhausted, to make coconut milk ice cream and eat grain free chocolate birthday cake with sweet potato ganache.
These are moments that do sustain me, time outside in my body in beautiful places, time with family and friends. Awareness of this fact only makes it sweeter and more intense, though sometimes the gratitude is crushing. Sometimes I feel like a gambler, wondering how long this string of luck can last. There’s really only one way to find out. Forward……