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So this one time I almost died raiding Mt. Moosilauke. It’s just one of those things, one of those things you do when you’re young and draw energy from the night like flowers draw water—a feeling I’ve never forgotten. We were in college, which is to say that we thought ourselves grown up and toasted that with cheap beer I can’t believe we ever drank. The mark of immaturity is thinking you’re grown up, at least as much as the mark of maturity is being disabused of any mystique the term ever held. It was inordinately silly, and indulgent, and perilous, and what I’d give to do it again...
The night was clear, in a way you can only understand in the mountains—when you come along a pass and see lights as diamond chips floating on ink and know that they are streetlamps twenty, thirty miles away. Such views are rare; such crisp, clear, early autumn nights were like air to the drowning, and we drowned in them for four years. Rarest of all are those who take time to appreciate the moments before they’re past—that’s why we have memory, to savor the moments we rushed. I would do it again, and drive a little more slowly into the White Mountains.
I was finishing my studies at Dartmouth, and had stretched it out just long enough that I finished around the time the new freshmen were arriving. The college’s Outing Club welcomes them with a week of hiking and camping in the mountains around campus, where they trek the Whites and stay in cabins or kayak the Connecticut River and sleep on the shore. And there was raiding—the upperclassmen paid nighttime visits to the groups, unexpected (though anticipated, at least, by the upperclassmen guides), announcing themselves in any manner of fashions.
There are impromptu musicals, pirate raids, dancing aliens … the sorts of silly things that grow from bumps in the night into Dorothy and the Tin Man prancing through a campsite singing about a yellow brick road. It takes the new students’ fears of the frightening things in the dark (many students are from glowing cities) and gives them comic faces until everyone laughs a little too much and shares a late night snack. It’s how they meet upperclassmen, and what they talk about over breakfast. “He really had the accent down,” “I couldn’t believe it, a pith helmet? Who has a…” “Man, I was just about to jump up and—” “Sure you were!”
Sitting here now, wrapped in a warm blanket with a fire crackling near the feet of my rocking chair, I can once again feel my hand riding the slipstream as I traced Highway 112 through the Whites in a borrowed car bound for glory. In the back we had a referee outfit, ninja suit, business formal attire, torch, kerosene, extra water, sleeping bags, a pack of glow sticks, and a large air cannon. The cab was crowded with myself in German camouflage and a rock climbing helmet, John Paul in a black ninja raid suit, Susan in bellbottoms and a paisley shirt with tassels, and extra hiking gear. On her lap she cradled a plastic box of oven-warm brownies and chocolate popcorn balls. Raids have three parts: the initial surprise, the performance, and the food the raiders bring for the group. Over candy or the like, you meet new friends and ask “where ya from?” It helps ease their nerves a bit.
Our night had started inauspiciously with a firecracker raid against a group near campus, where they were neither scared by the sudden noises, nor overjoyed to see us when JP and Susan jumped out of the bushes. They made awkward small talk, and wandered off into the night while I crouched near the campsite with more firecrackers and no opportunity to use them. We had left the food in the car, fearing that we lacked enough for four sequential raids, and knowing well that this group would be raided again that night. I take responsibility for that raid fizzling, though crawling for two hundred yards across a moonlit pasture was great exercise.
“… and then you fire the cannon, and I’ll walk around with the torch,” John Paul said. The plan was dynamic, to accommodate a large degree of improvisation and adaptation. The plans of mice and men gang aft agley, after all, and at that, our plan was definitely not among the best ever laid. We pulled off the highway an hour and a half from campus, turning left onto a dirt road and past a wooden sign welcoming us to the White Mountains National Forest. The pull-off was just up the road, and we were on the trail within minutes—JP with his torch reeking of kerosene, me with the glowsticks and the cannon, Susan with more firecrackers, and food.
This group was huddled in a three-sided shelter along the Appalachian Trail, near where it starts up the steep grade over Mt. Moosilauke. They were sleeping peacefully when our group came out of the darkness. JP tended two strings of firecrackers in tin cans (to amplify the sound) placed in front of the shelter; the torch was propped against a tree safely away from the log shelter; the food placed out of sight behind a wall, and Susan and I cracked glowsticks to fire out of the cannon—like fireworks, glowing bars of light streaking up through the heavens in a Technicolor explosion of sparks that absolutely could not start a forest fire (for that, JP had the torch).
The glowsticks crackled, and they snapped, like they should—but they didn’t glow. We snapped, crackled, and popped them and tried charging them with headlamps, hoping the light would somehow be trapped in the chemicals … to no avail. “Pack it with dirt,” I said, “it’ll at least make a whoomp!” I snapped my fingers, and JP lit the firecrackers—papapapow! “Air raid!” I screamed. Someone else screamed. I fired the cannon, whoomp! and JP lit the torch. “Take that torch,” a surprisingly old voice bellowed from the shelter, “and shove it up your ass!”
That wasn’t the normal reaction; that wasn’t the way raids usually went, and in a minute our friend Brett stepped into the glowing halo around the torch. “Um, guys,” he said, “we forgot to warn the thru-hiker in our shelter that this might happen.”
“Oh…” we said, deflated. The stranger was not expecting a ninja, a Village Person, and a German soldier to wake him with firecrackers, a cannon, and a flaming torch.
“We brought food!” Susan chirped, trying to resurrect a levity that was never there. Two freshmen ambled out of the shadows, an untold number turning over in their sleeping bags and slipping peacefully back towards sleep.
JP swung his torch, drops of kerosene flinging and lighting and burning through the night like tiny meteors. There was really no way to put it out, he realized, now that it was blazing too brightly to ignore. The freshmen soon tired of small talk and popcorn balls and even Brett left us standing, alone, in the forest with a flaming torch that JP had no intention of shoving up his ass. The mood was heavy, and we walked back to the car, sullen. “Oh for two,” he said, plunging the torch into a creek by the road.
Our next raid was half a mile away, in a cabin called, for unclear reasons, “Great Bear”. There were great moose in those mountains, but great bears? Great Bears? Maybe the alum who built it liked Chicago sports teams, we really didn’t know. “We have nowhere to go but up,” Susan said, or something like it, as we marched our brownies across a field near the cabin. She was right. Things improved, but life comes in waves, and that you hit bottom once is no insurance against doing so again. I flirted with glory, JP flirted with Susan, and we flirted with the idea of doing a Wizard of Oz raid—we were following a yellow brick road to certain destruction, after all; it fit. But we didn’t look the part, and our other costumes—including togas, which regrettably went unused the entire night—lie abandoned in the car. “It’s dark, they won’t know,” Susan reassured.
The cabin is a few dozen yards into the trees, surrounded by hemlocks and birches on all sides, with a pleasant clearing in front. Built on a slope, the ground drops away from the floor so you access the wrap-around porch from the rear, where we linked arms three raiders abreast…which made storming through the door difficult. But we managed.
“We’re off to see the wizard!” we screamed into the darkness, “The wonderful Wizard of Oz!” “Why?” “Because, because, because, because, because of the wonderful things he does!” For some reason they didn’t start screaming until we finished the interminable repetitions of “because,” as if they needed the first stanza for the shock of a spontaneous musical in a remote cabin on distant mountain to sink in. Our song degenerated into a parody of a farce: Monty Python’s Argument Clinic recreated (poorly) in context. Someone shouted approval, and there was a catcall from the loft.
They passed the popcorn balls around, sticky fingers stealing second and third snacks in the darkness. We introduced ourselves, learned their names, and spent a few glorious minutes on the mountainside. “Thanks guys,” someone said with a true Cheshire grin. We chanted successful raid! successful raid! on our way out the door.
Back on the road, JP directed me towards the fourth and final raid of the night—up Beaver Brook trail “somewhere” on the far side of the mountain, another forty-five minutes’ drive farther still from campus.
“Have you ever been up that trail?” I asked, because I had not. Susan had not, either.
“I’ve been down it to the shelter,” JP said, “from the summit, but, um, never up it. No.” We discussed plans, and agreed to take only the brownies, water, and flashlights, and leave the planning for the trail. I parked with no particular care, diagonally across a handicapped space and a “no parking” area aiming the headlights so they shown on a trail map posted under a small overhang, next to a sign that said “Fee Area, Pay for Parking.” We bounded out of the car and searched for the trailhead, circling the entire parking area, coming back upon our car, to ultimately find our path just beyond the passenger door. An inauspicious beginning…
It was just before one o’clock in the morning, three raids down and one mountain to go; it would be quick, up and down and back home to welcoming beds. The trail was flat and spanned two small creeks with two long bridges built of heavy timbers and thick brown bolts. There is little undergrowth in the Whites, so we followed white blazes on hemlock trees. Then, white blazes on boulders. Then the blazes became superfluous, as there was only one—well defined in the moonlight—way to scramble up the boulders along a gurgling brook. “Yeah guys,” JP said, “this is the shortest distance to the summit. Just over two miles.”
I grabbed a metal bar stuck fast into a boulder and used it to hoist myself up the rocks—they were wet with dew and slick with moss. Someone had carved much of this trail out of granite using dynamite and drills, rebar and wood. There were steel rails in places where one really appreciates them, and wooden steps fastened to the rock with rebar driven deep into stone. If this trail gets to the summit in just over two miles, and my favorite trail on the other side gains just as much altitude over the course of about four miles…then this trail should be roughly twice as steep. And slippery. And dark.
“Wah!” thump! someone yelled and fell hard on the rocks. That someone was me. I was the only one who fell on the ascent, that increasingly perilous ascent where some stairs shift sideways around boulders rather than straight up. I shone my flashlight down on the brook, the light flickering off steep granite sides that sloped down to the frisky water. It splashed around rocks and seemed to have a rollicking good time, and I stopped long enough to wonder if water enjoys playing in creeks—it sure looks like it.
JP passed his water around, and I drank for all of us, having left mine in the car. “It’s not too far,” we thought, confusing hope with fact and having no real idea at all how far the freshmen were camped from the car; my water was with my sleeping bag, on top of our togas, locked in a car parked three-ways-illegally in the middle of nowhere. All college stories should start like this.
A few more slips, a few more falls—all mine, as JP and Susan snickered to each other, and I laughed with them from the shadows at their feet—and a couple dozen yards higher, I stopped again. “Just how far do you think it is, really?” I asked JP. When he hiked down, during daytime months earlier, it was “about half a mile.” And the distance to the summit was “a bit over two miles,” putting the shelter “right around” about “a mile and a half.” Up, he forgot to say; up.
“A mile and a half, alright; so how far have we come?”
It was dark; I could feel the blankness of their stares.
“Alright then…” We hiked on, in silence, my flashlight dying with a silent wheeze and then it was out. The moon was bright, so much that it cast my shadow across the field on our first raid, so much that we hadn’t used lights until this raid, so much, in fact, that we doused the other lights and found we were better off. The trail continued upwards, mocking us, reminding me that nature is far more powerful than man. Lest I forget, I kept slipping and sometimes falling and pouring two ounces of sweat into my cotton camouflage for every ounce I drank. The exertion kept us warm, and our breaths did not show in the air, though the temperature—I learned the next week—dipped into the forties.
At length—at great length, at absurd length, and at that no more than a mile and a half—I saw the siding branch off towards the shelter; a few more yards and we would be upon them, the unconscious freshmen warm in their sleeping bags. So comfortable, so safe—so unsuspecting. What should we do, I asked, without any of the passion from earlier. The words clunked through the air like a night train rattling the tracks.
“We could do animal noises,” Susan suggested; her Oz idea was the only hit of the night, so with her successful raid and my two failures, she was undefeated.
“Um,” JP said, asserting himself against the eddying silence, “yeah. I’ve got nothing.” He looked at his watch—just past two o’clock in the morning. “We really shouldn’t hike down tonight.” We agreed wholeheartedly—going up was treacherous, and not advisable. Going down the slippery rocks in the dark with only two flashlights, no energy, and wobbly legs would cross the line between silly and stupid. It was decided without need for a vote to sleep the night with the group. Energy sapped, enthusiasm gone, I struck upon another idea, a surefire ticket opposite my earlier clunkers.
“The cuddle raid.”
“Cuddle raid. We’re soaking wet, it’s freezing, we have no sleeping bags, and need to stay warm. They’re not expecting us. We infiltrate their ranks,” I said, my sweat-drenched camouflage flapping heavily as I pantomimed the idea, “and then go to sleep. They wake up in the morning, and voila: there are strangers in their midst…with brownies.” Again, the darkness barely hid their vacant stares.
We found the bulk of them encamped outside the shelter, under a white tarp strung between four skinny trees. Water bottles and packs were scattered about, mostly under the tarp, with just enough space to lie down between a sleeping freshman and a row of packs. I quietly rummaged between the packs, finding a rain jacket to use for a blanket, and laid myself upon the ground with my helmet forming something of a pillow that swallowed my head. It got cold; rather, it was cold, and I started feeling it. Fully. Wet cotton clothes, exhaustion, and temperatures in the forties, are not the ideal conditions for a restful night’s sleep on the ground. With the jacket pulled over my face, I quietly absolved myself of sin in at least three religions, and closed my eyes.
JP and Susan lay down behind me, scooting up until they were in the crook of my legs as I tried to sleep on my side. Using my butt as a pillow and another rain jacket for a blanket, they settled in to sleep until dawn. I’m not sure how they slept, as The Shivers set in and I turned into a fair approximation of a “magic fingers” vibrating bed…all the comforts of a cheap motel—bugs, dirt, and vibrating bed—right there trailside. Turns out they didn’t sleep a wink, either—they just laid there trying to stay warm.
Sometime later—days, I’m sure, but it felt much longer—the man next to me stirred. Blinking the way a drunk blinks when staring into a patrolman’s flashlight, he tried to understand why there was a man in a climbing helmet, German fatigues, and a woman’s raincoat convulsing violently inches from his face. “Who the hell are you?” he asked.
“I’m,” chatter chatter, chatter chatter, “good, how’re you?”
“Um, fine. Who are you?”
“Who are you in my campsite?” I asked. The weirdness was palpable; unfortunately, it was a poor insulator.
“Seriously dude, what’s going on?”
“You’re being raided,” Susan said from atop my arse, fully awake. “But it’s too dangerous to go down, so we’re spending the night with you.” Then she woofed.
“Oh,” as if it made perfect sense.
I pulled the raincoat over my head, and a shower of condensation from my breath poured on my face. The shivers strengthened.
Somehow I managed a few minutes of sleep, if that is the right word; “lost consciousness” fits the mood better, but I wonder if that would perhaps be overdramatic. I learned later that folks in wet clothing have died in warmer weather, but lying on the ground amid so many warm, safe, peaceful students subverted mortal fear.
Dawn broke through the trees to my right. Morning came slowly, like consciousness to the soundly sleeping, which we weren’t. One by one by two by three they woke to the commotion of each other, testing the light with bleary eyes and wondering who the hell is that! as they looked at the three of us. “Oh, hi,” JP said to the first pair of eyes he found peeking from a sleeping bag. “We have brownies.”
It was one of those things, one of those things you should never do but having done it you can laugh; having been there, having come through it unscathed, it’s funnier with each passing year. John Paul saw Susan a few more times, under much warmer circumstances, and our raid became a case study in the Outing Club’s risk management training. There really isn’t much of a legend to it, but now I have a story that starts: so this one time, I almost died raiding Mt. Moosilauke…