It was not the ideal day to camp, but at least the rain held off until we were able to finish cooking dinner. Then the three of us retreated into a two-person tent to eat. The skies opened up and it poured to the accompaniment of impressive thunder and lightning. We didn’t care. We were snug, if a bit cramped, with good food and a growler of Last Chair (translation: a very large jug of very good beer). The key to enjoyable camping is to be prepared and to be flexible.
After the rain cleared, we crawled out and stretched, inspected the jug to be sure that it was indeed empty, and took a walk down to the river. It was early evening in late June at a campground in Crawford Notch. A few yards from our tent site was a stretch of sandy beach and a deep pool. The river bottom was rocky and the water was mountain cold. But a brave soul could enjoy a bracing dip. My friends were willing to be so brave, but I am a wimp when it comes to immersion in water so icy it takes your breath away.
A group of kids were whooping it up on the beach and generally expressing the heartfelt exuberance of their youth. It was easy in that setting to start a conversation, commenting on the cloudburst we’d all just weathered and how great it was to be here in the wilderness. They said they were from Massachusetts and my friends and I ragged them for being “flatlanders.” A rainbow was taking shape over the mountains. Mist was rising on the slopes, illuminated by the sinking sun.
Turned out these guys had all just graduated from high school and this camping trip was their celebratory huzzah prior to flying off in various directions for the summer. Matt said he’d discovered this campground with his dad years ago and had been coming since he was eight. Colin and Joey were planning a road trip out to Colorado where Colin would be going to college, majoring in skiing. Mike’s nickname was “Mr. Whiskey” and he sported a tee shirt advertising a famous brand of same. Good-looking, friendly kids who were having a grand time off on their own. I wondered who had bought them the Coors they were too young to be drinking legally. And one of them had a very handsome pipe which I’m sure did not have tobacco in it.
Yes, well, when I was their age I would have been doing exactly the same thing, except when I was eighteen–back in the time of the dinosaurs before the Internet was invented–it was legal for me to drink. We were considered adults. Old enough to go fight a war, old enough to vote, old enough to screw up our lives any way we chose.
A group of us used to get together regularly to go climb mountains. I remember just about running up Mt. Star King, then shedding my shoes and walking the trail to Waumbek barefoot. We used to start late and hang out on the summit until everyone else was gone, and then make a campfire (no permit, of course). We’d sit around drinking beer and smoking until late into the evening, then go giggling down the mountain by flashlight. Smart? No. Fun? Hell, yes.
We always thoroughly smothered our fires and packed out our trash. Nobody ever got hurt. We did no damage nor molested any wildlife. We flaunted the rules, but we did so responsibly.
I’ve gone back to mountains I did in my twenties, ones I remembered as easy climbs, and found myself wondering half-way up who switched the trail on me. It was never this long or steep. Thirty years has made a big difference and it ain’t the trail that has changed.
Back at the tent site, later that evening as dusk set in, I walked down to the river’s edge. Further up I could still make out the slim young shapes of the graduates, vague in the mist settling over the water. Their voices and laughter drifted down to me above the roar of the river. So damned young. At that heartbreaking, frightening, exhilarating intermission in their lives between childhood and the rest of it. And here I was, watching them wistfully, a Woman of a Certain Age with the biggest chunk of my life behind me. Aches in my joints, failing eyesight, brain function getting a bit laggy.
And I realized that on the whole, I didn’t envy them. It took me by surprise. But it was kind of like standing on a mountain looking down on somebody still slogging up the trail. I wouldn’t want to go back there and lose all the elevation I’d gained. Sure if there was a miracle cure for bad eyes, wonky ankles, and a brain upgrade to improve speed and capacity I’d grab it in a heartbeat. But not if it meant having to back down the trail and start over. I’ve accomplished too much.
I silently wished the guys from Massachusetts all the best in the long climb ahead of them.