Our penultimate hike is taxing.
Try as we might, neither of us can shake the doldrums. We’re nearly finished. Even as we hike, arrangements are being made to celebrate the conclusion of our quest tomorrow. The weather is nasty, the snow is wet and a nine plus mile hike with limited views through the Sandwich Wilderness is leaving us ragged and surly.
But, this is it. I had selfishly turned down offers from hiker friends interested in making this traverse with us. I wanted Janelle to myself. Tomorrow would be a victory lap, filled with family and friends. Today, I wanted to share this one final hike with Janelle as we began, the two of us moving through the wilderness, learning, exploring, bonding.
But we are tired, and mostly just want to get it done.
Then, as darkness falls and the ache in our legs grows, something happens. The darkness forces us to slow down, to go inward as we search for blazes and work to stay on trail.
“I smell campfire,” Janelle says.
“Woodstove,” I say. “We must be getting close to the trailhead.”
“Oh,” she says. Do I detect a hint of melancholy?
Finally, 10 hours after we begin, we are at the car, bedraggled, hungry and cold. The Ferncroft parking area and trailhead sits right at the head of a vast farm field, the nearest house hundreds of yards away behind a grove of trees. There is no light and the sky is winter clear.
We pull the thermos of uneaten soup out of my pack, bundle up and sit on the back bumper to eat.
“Turn off your headlamp for a second,” I say.
There at the end of our personal journey, sipping soup, her legs dangling off the ground, in below freezing weather, the girl looks up at the sky for a long time. The stars this night are clear and brilliant, the Milky Way is a bright streak of white, like an artist dragged a paint brush across the sky. There is nothing and everything at once. It is like her and I are alone at the foot of the universe.
I fight the urge to speak, to tell her about the stars, to congratulate her on this accomplishment, to let her know how terribly proud I am of her. I have so much to say to her.
“I’ve never seen so many stars,” she says instead, saving me from ruining the moment. “Can we stay here a little longer?”
“As long as you like.”
She nods, and sips soup and stares up at the heavens, and we stay there in the cold just a little bit longer.
Square Ledge and Hibbard (11/10/12)
Heights: 2,620 and 2,940 feet
Location: Sandwich Wilderness through hike. I-93 north to Exit 32 to Route 112 (The Kanc) east to Oliverian Brook Trailhead on right.
Our trailhead: Oliverian Brook Trail to Square Ledge Branch Trail to Square Ledge Trail to Passaconaway Cutoff to Walden Trail to Wonalancet Range Trail to Ferncroft.
Distance: 9.6 miles.