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A Yankee Notebook

October 19, 2008

Mother Charges Up Cardigan Mountain, And Disappears

ALEXANDRIA, NH – “Hi! Have you seen a woman in a long blue denim skirt?” I asked the question of every person and party we met as we climbed the mountain, and each had the same answer: No (with a quizzical expression that said, “Long skirt?”). After three or four of those responses, I began to feel more than a little anxious. We seemed to have lost track of Mother.

It had started innocently enough, as do most near-calamities of this type. Mother and I had driven down to the eastern foot of Mount Cardigan, at Cardigan Lodge. There we met a film crew and a couple other friends for a day of climbing and filming on the two-mile trail to High Cabin, where we’d spend the night, go on to the summit for more filming, and then hike back down. She was in charge of the cooking, and had prepared brilliantly for the shortage of water at the cabin: preboiled pasta and prebaked beef bourguignon (heat ‘n’ eat); frozen beans that’d be thawed by the time we got there; and a pie mix requiring no baking.

It was the Columbus Day holiday, and there must have been fifty cars in the parking lot; people, kids, and dogs coming and going everywhere. So it took a little longer than usual to find a relatively quiet spot to shoot the opening and introduction. Peter Sellers, maybe, could have pulled it off with kids playing Frisbee and strangling each other behind him, but not I. While we dithered and interviewed the manager of the lodge, Mother decided to take off before us so as not to hold us up so much when we overtook her, as we surely would.

She’d wanted very much to come along on this trip. I was delighted at the idea, but suggested that before she tackled a couple of uphill miles on the trail, she ought to walk home from church some Sunday, which would be two miles partly uphill. She did it in a breeze; and since the crew starts and stops frequently to shoot scenery or record information, I figured she’d keep up pretty well. When she said she’d be going on ahead, my belief in never splitting the party bubbled up, but I figured it was impossible for anything to go wrong.

“How do I get there?” she asked the lodge manager. I listened as he described the route – Clark Trail, Grand Junction, Holt-Clark Cutoff, Hurricane Gap – and had the same reaction that the Kapellmeister in Amadeus has to Mozart’s music: too many notes. I doubted I could follow the trails as he described them; but I have a high regard for Mother’s intelligence, and an even higher regard for her oft-demonstrated resourcefulness. So I said nothing as she set out confidently up the trail alone with her brand-new L.L. Bean backpack, hiking poles, and long denim skirt – rather like a Victorian lady explorer without the petticoats.

We followed fitfully, filming as we climbed, and averaging well under a mile an hour. At the one-mile mark, we came to a spot called Grand Junction, where several trails diverge. Luckily, we had a map with us and were able to dope our way onto the right trails. And it was just about that time I began to ask people we met coming down the right trail whether they’d seen our missing companion going up. None had.

Mount Cardigan’s summit cone, only 3155 feet in altitude, is treeless. Forest fires in 1855 burned everything in their paths, exposing the thin alpine soils to erosion, which soon left the mountain a bare, polished dome. It’s essentially a granite pluton, a mass of magma pushed up from beneath the earth’s crust half a billion years ago during a collision of tectonic plates. The rock is filled with feldspar megacrysts, crystalline lumps that weather more slowly than the surrounding rock and stick up slightly, vastly improving traction for hikers in slippery conditions. Great grooves in the surface mark where glaciers ground down the dome long before the trees first arrived. And the peak has a spectacular 360-degree view and a fire tower.

Around four o’clock we reached the cabin half a mile below the summit. My fears were realized: no Mother. On the assumption that if she was on the wrong trail, she’d reach the top, we stormed up the peak by two different trails. Nobody there; and the air literally absorbed our shouts. Below us, the woods where she probably was seemed vast and impenetrable. A pair of hikers coming up the western side of the mountain hadn’t seen her, either. It was cell phone time.

Many of us who have hiked for fifty years or more disdain or derogate modern appliances like cell phones, satellite phones, and global positioning devices. If a compass was good enough for Davy Crockett, we’ll take our chances with that. Thus it was amazing to me how quickly, faced with the possible loss of the most important person in the world, I overcame my puritan principles and called abjectly for help. Rob, the AMC staffer with us, reached the manager at the lodge by phone and learned that some hikers we’d queried earlier had passed the lady in the blue skirt, climbing up the right trail and “not far below the cabin.” Back down the peak we flew!

We found later that, reaching Grand Junction, she’d taken the Holt Trail, described in the guide book as “very steep...the scramble up these ledges is is much more difficult than on any other trail in this section and one of the most difficult in New England.” Luckily, after scrambling half a mile or so, she’d met a trail crew, who reversed her: told her to go back to the junction and ascend by the other route. By the time she’d returned to the junction, we’d already passed; so now she was behind us, and still chugging uphill. She was delighted to see two of our party descending to take her pack and escort her to the cabin. She made supper by lantern light in the kitchen, and later brightened the dark camp with her laughter in the middle of a hard-fought Scrabble game.