"Today will be an easy day, huh?", Steve said sarcastically.
The previous night, I'd made the rookie mistake of telling my brother, a first-time backpacker, that one of the more strenuous climbs in an area known for being perhaps the most difficult stretch of the Appalachian Trail was going to be "easy". His shirt now drenched in sweat and streaked with dirt as he dragged himself over what seemed like the 1,000th boulder of the day, he was clearly contemplating nudging me off the mountain and telling our loved ones that I was involved in a terrible accident. "I don't know what happened," he'd say, "He was there one minute, and the next he was just gone. So sad, he was too young. Anyway, what's for dinner?"
The stretch of trail I refer to is located in New Hampshire's White Mountains. The specific mountain I was perilously close to being flung from, South Twin. The climb from the Appalachian Mountain Club's Galehead Hut up and over South Twin is a fairly arduous ascent over large, slick rocks, covering over a thousand vertical feet in well under a mile. This, after I had mistakenly taken us to the summit of Galehead Mountain, one-half-mile in the exact opposite direction of our intended route, a novice error in map reading that I was hoping my brother would soon forget before hurling me to my violent and painful death on the rocks below.
The problem was, not only did I want him to like this, I needed him to love this. Over the course of the past two years, I'd become not just interested, but hopelessly obsessed with backpacking. So much so, that I'd been accused by my own family of potentially being in the midst of a full-blown midlife crisis. The way I saw it, I hadn't yet purchased a yellow Corvette or left my wife for a 23-year-old exotic dancer, so they were just being ridiculous. I had, however, spent every waking moment watching vloggers' accounts of long trail hikes on YouTube, pored over endless topographic maps in search of new and exciting trails, and blown through what seemed to be an entire life's savings while noting the weight, down to the gram, of rain jackets, sleeping pads and even toothbrushes in an attempt to make my pack officially "ultralight". At any moment, I expected to be unwittingly led into a room full of friends and family and told by a stranger to take a seat. "We love you, but there are some things we need to say. Your actions have negatively affected us in the following ways..."
All of my backpacking, however, had been done alone. My wife enjoyed our shorter day hikes, but only if there were bathrooms at the trailhead. The idea of squatting in the forest to relieve herself was akin to killing and eating a rabbit for dinner with her bare hands, rather than simply driving to the grocery store. Toilets had been invented, and did they not exist? Spending the night in a tent was completely out of the question, unless we would be in a campground equipped with showers, and only for a night or two. We had recently moved to North Georgia from Florida to be near her family, and the few friends that I had in the area were more interested in spending time on manicured golf courses than sleeping in the woods. My one shot at a potential hiking partner was my brother Steve. We'd both grown up in the Ohio countryside and spent much of our time outdoors. Hunting and fishing with our father in the Southern Ohio forests and Northern Pennsylvania mountains, we'd been taught to appreciate the solitude of the wilderness. But we'd both gone away to college, acquired jobs, and never looked back. Vacations were spent at the beach, and relaxation now took the form of a Corona and a sun umbrella rather than a pair of hiking boots and a tent. Like me though, the mountains were in his DNA. He just needed them to be awakened and released, only then would my plan be fully realized. I felt like a crack dealer in merino wool tights.
In order for my scheme to work, I had to go big. There had to be breathtaking summit views and stunning waterfalls. It had to be something very different than he'd seen in his current home state of North Carolina, it had to be a place that would inspire awe. He had to test himself physically to feel the sense of accomplishment and pride that comes with knowing just how much his body was capable of. It had to be the Whites.
East of the Rockies, and perhaps even further, you're not going to find grander vistas or more difficult climbs than the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The alpine views and ridge walks above treeline are a rare thing for the east, but the weather is notoriously terrible. The worst in the country, or at least that's what the famous sign reads on Mount Washington. For this reason, in 1888 construction of the White Mountain Huts was begun by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Over the course of the next 125 years, eight huts were built, each approximately a day's hike from the next. Warm beds and hot food are provided by crews manning the simple cabins. We could lighten our packs by leaving tents, food and stoves at home if we slept in the huts. There would also be the relative assurance of safety, knowing that no matter what happened over the course of each day, we would arrive to a warm, safe, dry bed. This would be the proverbial "first taste" that would create an addict.
The most worrisome hurdles in my plot to make Steve a backpacker were the 3,300 feet of elevation that lie between the Gale River trailhead and the summit of South Twin. Our weeklong adventure would take us between huts from Galehead to Madison Spring on the other end of the Presidential Range, but I knew the first two days would make or break him. So, I might've told him that they would be easy. I didn't want him to lose sleep wondering if he could make it, after all. He'd need his rest if he were going to have the energy to shove me to my death and make it look like a convincing accident. I don't know if this was the correct strategy or not, downright lying to my brother, but I knew that by the third or fourth day his soreness would begin subsiding, his pack feeling less weighty, his gaze slowly lifting from his feet to the scenery unfolding around him as each step became less imposing. Eventually, he would forgive me.
By the time we reached the alpine zone around Mount Pierce, he was an animal. Where I was previously leading the way and offering encouragement, he was pushing the pace and forcing me to play catch-up. He had taken to the mountains like a fish returned to water after being suddenly pulled from his home by an unknown but unstoppable force, held up for pictures, inspected, measured, weighed, until, finally...freedom! His exuberance was visibly evident. We sang "Happy Birthday" to Lake of the Clouds Hut on its 100th anniversary, followed by a dramatic sunset and even more dramatic night sky; a visible Milky Way and the Perseid meteor shower. The next day, we spent his birthday summiting Mount Washington under a bluebird sky, a rarity even in the summer. In the chilly morning air, we watched the first engine of the day bring the tourists up the cog railroad from below, a coal-fed steamer that immediately transported us to the 19th century, a time when the huts were reached by only the most intrepid of wanderers. We stood, alone, atop Mount Jefferson as we watched a hawk catch the updrafts from the valley 3,000 feet below. We felt a certain kinship with all those who had come before and would come after, other hearty souls who seek the invigorating, restorative power of the mountains.
On the bus ride back to the airport in Boston, we sat in silence, once again confronted by the reality of the modern world. Traffic, noise, crowds, the incessant hum and blur of technology and advancement all around us, when suddenly Steve uttered the words I'd been waiting years to hear, "So, where are we going next?"