The next night, we sat on a granite spit jutting into the central and largest of the Kearsarge Lakes watching the sun disappear over the horizon’s watery ledge. As the day cooled, the golden trout began to jump, making a plipping sound each time one broke the surface in a lunge for a gnat or mosquito. They were medium-sized fish, six inches long, with yellow bellies, green coppery backs, and a red stripe bisecting their dorsal and ventral sides. We watched them twinkle all around us, their sides flashing in the low sun. Where shadows interrupted the sun’s quicksilvering, we watched their forms glide into the deep. They were all around us and almost constant: piscine fireworks, and as fun to watch.
To the south, huge rock faces of the Kearsarge Pinnacles loomed, and we passed time trying to describe faces or other formations in the towering piles and sheer walls. The kids had wanted to follow the trail around to the south side of the lake earlier that day, but the vast sweeps of gravel laced with snow and sharp scree spilling directly into the lake looked like a great way to slide into a hypothermic drowning incident. I suspected Mary Austin was describing exactly this cliff face when she wrote, “I remember one night of thunderous rain made unendurably mournful by the houseless cry of a cougar whose lair, and perhaps his family, had been buried under a slide of broken boulders on the slope of Kearsarge. We had heard the heavy detonation of the slide about the hour of the alpenglow, a pale rosy interval in a darkling air, and judged he must have come from hunting to the ruined cliff and paced the night out before it, crying a very human woe.”
We were more likely to lose a child due to overconfidence on unsteady ground than to an epochal shearing of rock from the cliffs high above us, so The Husband and I nixed their plan, encouraging them instead to join us as we swam in a sheltered cove near our site, one with a shallow bottom and flowering banks. We kicked up mud and slow streamers of algae as we plunged ourselves into the icy water, rinsing off the day’s sweat and dirt.
We had made it! Only one more pass to cross over before we could return to the greasemobile, have a diner lunch, and voyage through the furnace air of the Owens Valley to our home in the foothills of the San Gabriels. Our sons were giddy. Son the Younger especially enjoyed my ventriloquization of an ant heroically trying to carry a grain of rice we’d dropped on the rock at supper and hoping not to have to share it with his archrival, Fred the ant. He made me promise to write down the whole story in the trip log. He kept watch over the sky, reporting as its tones changed from the bright copper to tangerine. We watched the lake surface and sky subside into a holy blue. Previous nights, tired and vexed by insects, we’d gone to bed well before dark, but tonight we didn’t care. We watched campers across the lake plunge into the lake from a boulder, sending a clamor across the entire basin. As we were finally getting ready to zip ourselves into our bags, we watched their flashlight bobble on the promontory where they were camped.
This was a far cry from the fret in which we’d woken and begun the day, with Son the Younger harping on crossing both passes before noon and bursting into tears when his altitude- and exercise-swollen feet wouldn’t slide into his damp tennis shoes. His exhaustion and anxiety expressed themselves as free-floating anger which he took out indirectly on us – the tormentors who’d planned this whole affair – in bursts of stridency (not tantrums: he kept walking, just ranted his anxiety). I worked with him on his breathing, instructing him to inhale to the count of four, hold it for as long, and exhale slowly. I tried it myself and found that it actually helped. It’s harder to be worked up when your body’s breathing is slow and regular. The harder part is actually letting go of the strange pleasures of being worked up.
Except for his anxiety, the beginning of the hike went well. We were steeled and our loins girded, since this time we knew in considerable detail what we were up against, having hiked down it less than 24 hours earlier. We ascended from the lake through the alpine meadows with alacrity; even the first snow chute turned out to be a quick, aerobic ascent. It wasn’t till we reached the first major obstacle – the long snow slide – that we had any real problems.
We decided to pick our way up the partial trail to the side rather than trekking alongside the chute through the snow. We were hoping to avoid a breakdown on the potentially hypothermia-inducing snowsheet, but instead, we got our breakdown on the rocky face of the mountain’s first serious foothill, when Son the Younger hit his shin. He’d been hiking hard and fast, with an angry edge, and when he stumbled, his intensity boiled over.
I sat with him, coaching him on his breathing. Observing Son the Younger over the years has provided me with a unique kind of therapy: he’s inherited a lot of my personality, complicated aspects of it I don’t think he’s been able to observe directly, or at least not consciously, in his first eight years. Things that have to do with my attitude towards work, time, and self-worth. Seeing him, for example, develop an arcane system whereby he reads fifteen or twenty books at a time has helped me to find a certain amount of compassion for myself; I’d always thought my mild OCD and perfectionism were character failings and somehow my fault. When I saw Son the Younger trying to control the world around him with his methodicity, or fight back tears at the slightest, most offhand expression of disapproval from an authority figure, I could see that he couldn’t help acting this way. In him, I could also see in a way I couldn’t see in myself that these behaviors were the results of certain strengths he had: self-discipline, emotional perspicacity, a drive and ability to do things well.
I’d been encouraging him on this hike to take care of himself, to realize that he wasn’t performing for anyone and that he needed to hike at a pace that would let him keep hiking for several days. I was trying to practice this mentality myself, having realized within the last few years that at some level I was always trying to hike fast and hard to fit in with that erstwhile band of Lost Boys with whom The Husband had once hiked. So as we sat, I tried to help Son the Younger take care of himself: to breathe, to let go of the unreasonable expectation that we’d be able to hike out before dark, to try to appreciate how special it was that we got to be in this place: as many hikers had pointed out, not many eight-year-olds get their asses over Glen Pass.
I understood the power of his unreasonable expectation: it was an aggressive goal, one whereby he could communicate not only his frustration with us for pushing him on this long hike, but his undeniable and ruthless competence, or his will to develop this competence. Son the Younger plays soccer and when a game is not going his way he tends to flop. I get this; he’s a talented player and there’s nothing more frustrating to a talented person than having the expression of that talent get tangled up and thwarted. During games, I often encourage him to tap into a kind of ruthless mastery, to show the other team what he thinks of their rough play by nailing goal after goal, which sometimes he can pull off. On the side of the mountain, though, I saw freshly that the vicious exercise of ruthless competence is a tool that must be used carefully, as it redounds upon one in exhausting, disheartening, and ultimately disorienting ways – disorienting because my addiction to mastery makes it hard to follow paths on which I think I might fail or otherwise fuck up, even if those are the paths that I really want to follow. You have to be able to turn on will-to-power when you need it and not let it take over.
I talked to him about his desire to hike out, his litany of panic about not getting over Glen, not getting over Kearsarge, not getting to Golden Donut, the carrot he’d hung for himself across those passes. I call that kind of piling-on of worry catastrophizing, and it’s another bad habit I’m surprised to see emerge fully formed in him, like a handwringing Athena from Zeus’s clammy brow. When I feel the sensation of worry, I told him, sometimes I search around in my consciousness for what might be producing it, and I can usually drum up a pretty good list. Then I let them all bounce around in the echo chamber. I think I feel like I need to justify the intensity of the physical sensation of worry. Maybe I like worry, maybe I’m a little addicted to the helplessness it authorizes. Like the ruthless competence thing, it gives me ways to stay off the high rocky paths, the ones that might involve failing at exactly the things I care about the most. When I do that, I sometimes try to look at the worry realistically, I told him. See if it’s actually likely to happen. Think about what might happen if it does come to pass and whether or not that’s actually bad. What happens if we don’t get over Kearsarge today? It means we’ll have to cross it tomorrow. We’ll have to get donuts tomorrow instead of today. Is that really that bad? What happens if we take an extra day in the backcountry? You’ll miss a day of camp. Is that worth panicking over?
Even better, I went on, try to observe the feeling of worry instead of the worry itself. Notice that it doesn’t last forever, sometimes because it just stops, and sometimes because events eliminate the uncertainty you were worrying over in the first place. The feeling passes. Focus on the feeling, where the worry makes your body feel something. See how long it lasts.
After some of this talk, Son the Younger decided hiking was better than listening to his mom. The rest of the climb turned out to be easier than the descent, especially the dread traverse, which we crossed without incident. We handed out Jolly Ranchers at the top, exchanging stories with two women from Ventura County and a through-hiker who’d made incredible time by not taking any zeros. We rested there at the top of the world, feeling the tired solidarity of our bones with the boulders.
The final obstacle was a steep downward scramble past three snow-over switchbacks. I had a moment of panic, feeling my (unlatched) pack sway out from the mountainside as I backed down, but The Husband spotted me, and before I knew it, the three of them had hiked out of sight. I walked slowly, breathing, enjoying the sepulchral lakes and the wildflowers bursting from the rocks.
I caught up with the boys at the biggest lake, its waters sealed in by a sheet of ice already grown gappier than it had been the day before. The boys threw rocks onto it, some of which slid and others of which splashed into the cloudy turquoise. We descended terrace by terrace, snaking our way between pools still gathering volume from the patches of snow basking on the surrounding boulder fields, a season-long osmotic filtration. Eventually the broad curve of Charlotte Lake came into view, and we descended out of the heights onto the broad plateau that sloped down to Vidette Meadows. We lunched at a trail crossing, toasting tortillas and cheese on the Whisperlite.
From there it was a steady and uneventful hike down another set of switchbacks through the piñon and juniper to Bubbs Creek, which we followed back past Bullfrog Lake, enjoying the tall purple wild onion blossoms, and through the rocky waste at the foot of the Kearsarge Pinnacles back to the Kearsarge Lakes.
We trekked along the shore, crossing barefoot through a neck of water that connected two of them. There we found the perfect spot – promontory, boulder spit, swimming cove, fast-moving stream. And we had the whole evening to enjoy it.
We waited till the sky was dark before retiring to our tent. Anxiety dreams woke me halfway through the night. I climbed out of the tent in the middle of the night. Moonlight was pouring into the basin through the notch between University Peak and Kearsarge Pass, throwing the cliff faces into new patterns of relief and floodlighting the terrain we had just watched recede into darkness. I looked up to the stars in the light-washed sky. The fish had gone to sleep or turned to submarine matters. Before long, a mosquito joined me. I thought better of staying out in the strange enchanted basin and so unzipped the tent and climbed into its familiar warmth.