April 11, 2016
CLIMBING MOOSE MOUNTAIN WITH A GHOST
ETNA, NH – It’s impossible for me to drive through the village of Etna without deep feelings of nostalgia and a bit of homesickness. I pass over half a dozen kitchens that Mother designed and I installed, past homes and families fondly remembered, even if now long gone. Past the village store and post office, the library, and the Baptist church. Across the Appalachian Trail. A left turn just past the cemetery, and finally a right turn onto our dead-end dirt road. On my right, the cold-water swamp where the deer bedded all winter and the does dropped their fawns in the spring. Up the hill to the house; and as I coasted to a stop in front of the garage, a fierce, small creature almost always leaped from the low porch outside the door, barking furiously.
Big sheep dogs, like border collies, are designed to bark to tell the shepherds that the wolf is here, and then to tackle the wolf till help arrives. Little ones are designed to just bark for help and keep just out of reach. Tucker was a little one – her mother was a Sheltie, we think – and she was telling the world that danger was in the yard. But her tail wagged furiously. Be scary, it said.
I played my role in the drama: I glowered out the window at her, and then opened the truck door very slowly, so that it squeaked like the hinges in the old radio show, “Inner Sanctum.” Her barking increased. “I’m going to get out of this truck,” I growled, “and grab you and break every bone in your miserable little body.” She went wild. With my lunch pail in one hand, I lurched across the yard like Quasimodo, dragging a foot and reaching for her, while she ran in a circle crying wolf! a couple of yards beyond my fingertips. But the moment I straightened up and stopped, she ran to me and leaned her muzzle against the inside of one knee. Then she whined, “Are we going? Are we going? Come on in and change your shoes, eh?”
The memory of her was especially poignant as we pulled into the Appalachian Trail parking lot on Three Mile Road this morning. She and I maintained a couple of miles of the trail, some years ago, she keeping predators at bay while I picked up bits of trash and sawed and clipped away at blowdowns and brush. In the afternoons, we often parked here for a run up Moose Mountain.
My hiking buddy Scott had brought his two dogs, Baxter and Wilhelmina, who sat in their car poised for instant action, but quietly enough, while Steve and Adam, a crew of two, messed with batteries and frequencies for the cameras and microphones. The dogs could tell when we were finally ready, and popped out of the car like champagne corks when Scott opened the door. The wagging tails and perimeter-sniffing recalled some of my happiest days, now past.
Baxter is mostly beagle, and wants to run – not the best trait in a hiking companion that you want to be able to take home with you. But Wilhelmina is older and leans toward retriever – a few kinky hairs suggest Chesapeake – so she stays closer, while Baxter runs point for her.
The trail is maintained largely by the Dartmouth Outing Club, and there’ve been a few repairs and improvements since Tucker and I last ran it. There’s a rough bridge crossing right beside a heavily shaded camping spot popular with AT thru-hikers. At one time, it was only a single log, with a rail better adapted to balance than support. The dog and I both teetered across it gingerly; in low water, she just splashed through the brook. Today it’s two logs, and the rail is solid, but I’m a lot more teetery, so I was especially thankful for the upgrade.
Moose Mountain rises only about 2200 feet above sea level, but it’s the first of the New Hampshire mountains that the northbound thru-hikers encounter after leaving Vermont. After that, the hills get ever higher – Holts, Smarts, Cube, and finally Moosilauke, the first of the 4000-footers. Just after my family and I moved to the Upper Valley in 1968, a Northeast Airlines turboprop passenger jet struck the very top of the mountain during an approach to Lebanon Airport. Of the 42 people on board, 32 died. Almost every trace of the plane has been removed, and somebody has been cutting the brush growing up on the site, restoring the former view to the east. Scott trudged into the bushes and returned with a tortured, blackened chunk of aluminum. We took photos of it, and he replaced it for somebody else to discover.
The mountain probably got its name the way mountains usually do – someone shot or was chased by a moose up here in antiquity – but however it was, it was the place that Tucker saw her first moose. She was still a puppy then, and still clearly showing the effects of earlier abuse. As a herding dog, she invariably walked or trotted about forty feet ahead of me, and every fourteen of my steps, on average, looked around to make sure I was still coming. That day, near the summit, as she turned to look ahead again, she found herself staring at a very large cow moose ambling down the trail toward us. I had a hard time getting off the trail and into the trees because of the frantic, scrambling fur ball between my feet; and she walked the next half mile in that position, looking over her shoulder. Poor thing! She never quite got over it.
How I missed her today! The dogs’ waving tails as they scouted ahead of us recalled so many memories. I reflected that the tip of her brushy tail was lighter-colored than the rest of her, and I could spot it instantly whenever I looked up. She’d follow me anywhere, or at least try to; I almost lost her one day when she got swept away in Monahan Brook and carried downstream and under a brushpile. Today, her little ghost climbed with us, unperceived by the others, and lent a significance to at least a dozen spots on the trail. I got back into my truck without spreading a bit of canvas on the seat for her muddy paws and belly, and missed even that. May she rest in peace.