First Mountains

My first mountains arrived in a book — a gift from a waitress I was courting while washing dishes in a breakfast joint in California. I’d told her of my yearning to climb a mountain so she bought me a book of photos of them.

In Florida, where I grew up, the closest thing to mountains are sand dunes. There were some big ones on our beaches, including one we called The Matterhorn that was treated like a faux snow hill by kids on cardboard sleds wearing nothing but swimsuits, grins and Coppertone. So I was sincere about my unrequited desire to mountaineer. I had just read Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums,” in which climbing on the Matterhorn Peak in the Sierra Nevada replaces the cross-country motif of Kerouac’s more famous “On the Road.”

My waitress girlfriend had the most lovely name: Dale Mary Painter. The book she gave me, titled “Only a Little Planet,” was published by Friends of the Earth. She always called me “Richard,” so she signed the book to me using that name and closed with “Love, Dale.”

Receiving it was a peak moment for me, but no actual mountains were climbed in the process. Her inscription concluded, “Pacific Grove, 1975.” I was 23. My first real mountain ascent would have to wait for me to return to Florida, escape to Atlanta, get married, move to New Hampshire, and have three kids. Apparently, all that was a necessary prelude for me to finally climb (drum roll) Mt. Kearsarge (rim shot) — a mountain that allows you to park halfway up and jog to the top in about 30 minutes.

It was probably a good place to start for someone from the far flatlands. And in that same spirit, my next climb was Monadnock — everyone’s favorite practice mountain.

Frankly, my youthful ambition to stroll Alpine trails to some chilly summit had faded a bit by then. I was in my 40s (which seemed pretty old 20 years ago) and starting to get footsore on hikes, so I figured I might have to call Monadnock “my” big mountain. Then a coworker-friend intervened. She was a seasoned hiker who had completed the AT a few years prior, and she organized a climb with me and a few other adventurous employees.

We climbed Lafayette together. All the way to its rather barren ridgeline and peak. It was a sublime moment. We hugged and high-fived. Heading back, I struggled as every ounce of energy deposited getting up the trail was now being returned to my tired knees and ankles going back down. Memories mercifully fade, but we made it to someplace for beer and food. I’d do it all again tomorrow if I thought I wouldn’t wind up a mountainside statistic.

That could have been it for my mountain-scaling career, but for one thing: this job.

How, I thought, could the editor of New Hampshire’s official magazine have never summited New Hampshire’s most famous peak?

Eventually, and not that long ago, my solution arrived as an invitation to members of the press to ride the Cog up Mt. Washington. I accepted via speed-of-light email, and after a few weeks of anticipation, there I was, improbably chugging my way up Mt. Washington by rail to the busy little city that resides on top. It was an emotional high point for me and will remain my geographic apogee unless they build a similar contraption for summiting the Matterhorn and invite me to give it a try.

I still have that old book replete with images of peaks in the Sierra Nevada, signed by Dale Mary Painter, on a shelf near my writing desk at home. Meanwhile, you have in your hands (or on your screen) this special issue of New Hampshire Magazine devoted to our state’s most auspicious peak. Producing it has been a long trek for me, my staff and a bunch of our favorite contributors, but also a labor of love.

If you’ve never climbed any mountain, or have failed to do your duty as a Granite Stater to check out the summit of Mt. Washington, you should now have all the impetus you need.

Or you could just put this issue on a shelf and wait a few decades. Your call.

Categories: Editor’s Note