Adventure Guide: In Their Footsteps

Words and Photos by Erin Costello Smith

When climbing Mount Monadnock, I like to think of myself as following in the footsteps of the great Transcendentalist writers and philosophers, Thoreau and Emerson. However, if you've ever hiked the popular White Cross trail with its swarms of visitors, you may find that climbing the mountain is far less of a transcendental escape and far more of an experiment in trying to keep your cool while irritable thoughts along the lines of, "is she seriously wearing flip-flops?" loop painfully through your mind.

In order to embrace the Thoreau way of life, to "live deliberately,” to "suck the marrow out of life," you know, basically carpe diem to the fullest, my husband and I head to another side of the mountain. We start with the Old Toll Road, continue up to the peak of Monte Rosa, and reach the top of Monadnock via the Smith Summit Trail.  Honestly, I have no idea if Emerson or Thoreau took these particular trails.  I could probably look it up, but I don't want to know. I prefer to think that I am both symbolically and literally hiking in their footsteps.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

On this October day, between deep breaths as we hurried up the Old Toll Road, my husband and I couldn't stop remarking on the vibrant blue hue of the autumn sky, the brightness of the changing leaves, and the scent of earth that filled the air. Once on the Monte Rosa trail, we no longer saw other hikers, and were able to descend into the peacefulness of the woods.

From the peak of Monte Rosa – well worth the bit of additional effort — we watched the specks of people moving in the distance along the top of Monadnock. Looking down, the immediate evergreens contrasted the colorful changing leaves stretching out across the background. The rolling hills were broken up only by the beautiful lakes, which reflected the cloud-studded sky. A rusted weather vane indicated an elevation of 2,540 feet and spun around at the whim of the wind.

After sitting on a warm, craggy stone to appreciate the view, we climbed down a short way before continuing our ascent of Monadnock itself. Blueberry bushes dot the summit trail in late summer and year-round there are golden grasses that push their way through the massive rocks. The peak was no longer in sight, but our excitement was building.

We were reunited with throngs of people at the summit. It became a rather anxious journey to find somewhere to sit, navigating through the masses of people and jumbles of rocks.  It was those rocks that did me in. We were about to head back down, and I wasn’t paying enough attention. As is often the case, I didn't even know I was falling, but suddenly my body was down, partly in a puddle, and I felt embarrassed and in pain. I tried to get up, but, feeling a sharp pain, recognized quickly that my ankle had twisted awkwardly. With a sinking stomach, I realized that my ankle was sprained and that I had to hike, or rather, hobble, down a mountain with an hour of sunlight left.

I distinctly remember noticing the setting sun and really beginning to worry about halfway down the mountain. We had a flashlight, but my pain-laden steps were already a tricky balancing act. Yet, just as those fears rushed in, I felt myself pausing and truly appreciating the beauty of the sight before me. I became absorbed in this moment of watching the light surge through the paper-thin leaves, turning them into glowing jewels. So this was how Thoreau and Emerson must have felt. Here was my reminder of Emerson’s now, but very true, statement that "life is a journey, not a destination." It's never about getting to the peak of the mountain, it's about the hike itself. It’s about conquering some fears, about finding yourself, slowing down and noticing nature, about that call to be a part of something bigger than you. I was going to make it down that mountain because I had to, and that was that. In the meantime, I was going to let my worries be overtaken by my awe for nature.

We arrived at the Halfway House lookout in time for the end of the sunset. Shades of amber and pink flooded the sky. We stayed and we watched, soaking it all in. And then, we picked up our bags, took one last look, and made our way down the Old Toll Road, my husband shining the flashlight ahead.

"You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment."
— Henry David Thoreau