“There it is,” my dad said, pointing off to the clouds clearing at the summit of Mount Washington, just in time for us to catch a glimpse. “It’s not often we get to see that.”
“You can even see the weather station at the top, Dad!” I yelled back.
That was our first year of what became known as “the hike,” when I was 10 years old. I don’t think we understood what we were getting ourselves into at the time, but I do understand now that clear skies in New Hampshire’s Presidential Mountain Range is a rare gift, as our annual father-daughter trip would become, as well.
Due to the convergence of several storm tracks, the Presidentials — and Mount Washington in particular — are famous for erratic weather, which has earned them the moniker “home of the world’s worst weather.” Conditions can change from mild and warm to life-threatening in a matter of minutes. And so that view of Mount Washington became something we’d hope for every year.
Of course, that wasn’t the only thing we looked forward to. Hiking this section of the Appalachian Trail — the 2,180-mile trek that winds up the eastern seaboard from Georgia to Maine — every year with my dad and our family friends, the Griswolds, has become a joyful and, at times, grueling tradition that we cherish.
I remember that first year, how my dad, Tim Griswold, Tim’s two daughters — Caroline and Emily — and I made the 4 1/2-mile climb up the steep, craggy section of the trail known as Tuckerman’s Ravine with the packs on our backs holding weekend essentials — flashlights, water bottles, garbage bags-cum-rain covers, extra pairs of blue jeans, Snickers, and, for me, a Sony Walkman Sport with a half dozen cassette tapes. (I had been complaining about how heavy my backpack was; when Dad opened it up, he wasn’t too happy about the contraband.) Miserably climbing hand-over-hand in some areas, we wondered if we’d ever make it to our destination, Lakes of the Clouds Hut, perched high above tree level on Mount Washington.
After a bit of struggle, we arrived, earning the honor of signing our names in the log book. We settled in, played cards, and listened to our dads chat about work and everyday life and reminisce about old times. It was hilarious to hear about the pranks they pulled. We pretended not to hear but I couldn’t help it, especially when Dad would talk about his days with Mom before my time, and about their woes as young parents. Tim would nod, take a puff of his cigar, and offer Dad “skosh” from the flask. But what happens on the mountain stays on the mountain. That was the unspoken agreement among the members of our tribe. In other words: Don’t tell Mom.
The next day we set out for our seven mile hike to Madison Springs Hut, another of the eight mountain huts that are operated and maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Positioned in six to eight mile intervals along this section of the AT, the huts are full-service during summer, with dinner and breakfast served by a team of caretakers called “the croo.” (In winter, you cook for yourself.)
Though it’s strenuous and long, the hike from Lakes of the Clouds to Madison Springs has always been my favorite. Maybe it’s because we cross over the Cog Railway, which claims to be the first mountain-climbing train ever built and takes less-hearty visitors to the summit of Mount Washington. Maybe it’s the breathtaking views here that Dad loves so much, and the expectation and comfort of experiencing that simple moment with him.
“Remember that year when you girls put pennies on the tracks?” Dad asks, like clockwork, every time we cross under them.
Anticipating the question, I smile to myself. “I sure do, Dad.”
The terrain above the tree line is unique. Cairns guide hikers over headwalls and moon rocks and through paths. When the chit-chatting with fellow hikers begins to fade – generally when the hike gets tougher – my mind often turns to self-reflection. I’ve made major career and life decisions on those trails in between the High Huts.
I’ve often asked Dad for his advice when the two of us are paired up on the trail. Huffing, puffing, and complaining about the terrain, he’d offer up his wisdom, which I’d always put to use.
Throughout our 26 years of the hike, we’ve seen weather that would make our mothers shiver — pouring rain and even hail. At times, we genuinely feared for our safety. But our dads were always there, not only to protect us, but to encourage us to continue forward. There was the time they had to help us up the rocks during a lightening storm, and the year they had to shield us from the extreme winds of Hurricane Bob. Our dads gave us the confidence that we needed in the moment — partly because they were helping us grow up, but partly because turning around was not actually a possibility. Failure was simply not an option, and that’s a lesson we took off the mountain: When things get tough, keep trucking on. We’d curse our way up and down, questioning why we signed up for the hike yet again, but we’d always laugh it off back at the bottom. With scratches on our arms and bruises on our legs, we’d start planning next year’s trip.
In the past few years, I’ve found myself preparing for each year to be his last, but Dad, now 70, continues on. He’s an over-achiever — bowing out just isn’t his style, especially when it comes to our hike. His motivation is inspiring; he trains year after year to strengthen his body so that it hurts less the few days after. And when the email about this year’s trip – our twenty-seventh – started circulating a month ago, my Dad was quick to reply: “I’m in.” Still, he’s had me worried at times, like when I had to push him up a steep set of rocks because of his bum knee. I had tears in my eyes, though Dad didn’t know that then. In truth, our physical roles have begun to reverse, and I think, in some way, he’s worried he’ll let me down. Maybe he doesn’t realize that he never could.
All photos courtesy of Kara DiCamillo.