Earl Shaffer, adrift after serving in the South Pacific in World War II and struggling with the loss of his childhood friend Walter Winemiller during the assault on Iwo Jima, made his way to Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia in 1947. He headed north toward Mount Katahdin in Maine and for the next 124 days, averaging 16.5 miles a day, beat back the demons of war. His goal, he said, was to ‘‘walk the Army out of my system.'' He was the first person to hike the full length of the Appalachian Trail.
The beauty and tranquility of the old-growth forests, the vistas that stretch for miles over unbroken treetops, the waterfalls and rivers, the severance from the noise and electronic hallucinations of modern existence, becomes, if you stay out long enough, a balm to wounds. It is in solitude, contemplation and a connection with nature that we transcend the frenzied and desperate existence imposed upon us by the distortions of a commodity culture.
The mountains that loom on the northern part of the trail in New Hampshire and Maine, most of them in the White Mountain National Forest, are also forbidding, even in summer, when winds can routinely reach 60 or 70 miles per hour accompanied by lashing rain. The highest surface wind speed recorded on the planet, 231 miles per hour, was measured on April 12, 1934, at the Mount Washington Observatory. Boulders and steep inclines become slippery and treacherous when wet and shrouded in dense fog. Thunderstorms, racing across treeless ridge lines with the speed of a freight train, turn the razor-backed peaks into lightning rods. The Penacooks, one of two Native American tribes that dominated the area, called Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast, Agiochook or "place of the Great Spirit."
The Penacooks, fearing the power of Agiochook to inflict death, did not climb to its summit. The fury you bring into the mountains is overpowered by the fury of nature itself. Nature always extracts justice. Defy nature and it obliterates the human species. The more we divorce ourselves from nature, the more we permit the natural world to be exploited and polluted by corporations for profit, the more estranged we become from the essence of life. Corporate systems, which grow our food and ship it across country in trucks, which drill deep into the ocean to extract diminishing fossil fuels and send container ships to bring us piles of electronics and cloths from China, have created fragile, unsustainable man-made infrastructures that will collapse. Corporations have, at the same time, destroyed sustainable local communities. We do not know how to grow our own food. We do not know how to make our own clothes. We are helpless appendages of the corporate state. We are fooled by virtual mirages into mistaking the busy, corporate hives of human activity and the salacious images and gossip that clog our minds as real. The natural world, the real world, on which our life depends, is walled off from view as it is systematically slaughtered. The oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico is one assault. There are thousands more, including the coal-burning power plants dumping gases into our atmosphere that are largely unseen. Left unchecked, this arrogant defiance of nature will kill us.
"We have reached a point at which we must either consciously desire and choose and determine the future of the Earth or submit to such an involvement in our destructiveness that the Earth, and ourselves with it, must certainly be destroyed," writer-poet Wendell Berry warns. "And we have come to this at a time when it is hard, if not impossible, to foresee a future that is not terrifying."
Year after year I returned to these forbidding peaks from conflicts in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. I had a house in Maine on an 800-foot hill with no television, cell phone or Internet service. The phone number was unlisted. It rarely rang. I refused to give the number to my employer, The New York Times. I brought with me the stench of death, the cries of the wounded, the bloated bodies on the side of the road, the fear, the paranoia, the alienation, the insomnia, the anger and the despair and threw it at these mountains. I strapped my pack on in the pounding rain at trailheads and drove myself, and later my son, up mountains. I rarely stopped. Once, in a bitter rain, I crested the peak of Mount Madison in August and was immediately thrown backward by howling winds whipping across the ridge and pelting hailstones. It was impossible to reach the summit. On a hike in the remote Pemigewasset Wilderness I made a wrong turn and, fearing hypothermia, walked all night. By the time the sun rose my blisters had turned to open sores. I wrung the blood out of my socks. I go to the mountains to at once spend this fury and seek renewal, to be reminded of my tiny, insignificant place in the universe and to confront mystery. Berry writes in "The Peace of Wild Things":
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I climbed my first mountain in the White Mountain National Forest when I was 7. It was Mount Chocorua. The mountain, capped with a rocky dome and perhaps the most beautiful in the park, is named for a legendary Pequawket chief who refused to flee with his tribe to Canada and was supposedly pursued to its summit by white settlers, where he leapt to his death. It is a climb I have repeated nearly every year, now with my children. I guided trips in the mountains in college. I would lie, years later, awake in San Salvador, Gaza, Juba or Sarajevo and try to recall the sound of the wind, the smell of the pine forests and the cacophony of bird song. To know the forests and mountains were there, to know that I would return to them, gave me a psychological and physical refuge. And as my two older children grew to adulthood I dragged them up one peak after another, pushing them perhaps too hard. My college-age son is deeply connected to the mountains. He works in the summer as a guide and has spent upward of seven weeks at a time backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. My teenage daughter, perhaps reflecting her sanity, is reticent to enter the mountains with the two of us.
I stood a few days ago in a parking lot at Crawford Notch with Rick Sullivan, an Army captain and Afghanistan war veteran. It was the end of our weeklong hike in the White Mountains. Sullivan noticed a man with a T-shirt that read "Operation Iraqi Freedom." The shirt had Arabic and English script warning motorists not to come too close or risk being shot. The man, an Iraqi veteran, was putting on a pack and told us that he was the caretaker of a camp site. He said he left the Army a year ago, drifted, drank too much and worked at a bar as a bouncer. His life was unraveling. He then answered an ad for a park caretaker. The clouds hovering on the peaks above us were an ominous gray. The caretaker said he planned to beat the rain back to the tent site. I thought of Earl Shaffer.
"You try and forget the war but you carry pieces of it with you anyway," the caretaker said. "In the mountains, at least, I can finally sleep."