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wandering alone Welch & Dickey Loop Trail, Thornton, NH

I'd never done it before. Hiked on my own. But something drew me out that long October weekend in New England. Maybe it was me being tired of Covid restrictions. No museums. No concerts. No sports. No nothing. Maybe I wanted out because it was my birthday or because technology had overtaken my life. What's up on Instagram? Twitter? Instagram? Words With Friends? TikTok?

I'd become like everyone else. Wondering what everyone else's screens were doing instead of what I was doing. But truth-be-told I wasn't only trying to get away from technology, I was trying to find my way through life. And I needed someone to help.

Arriving at 8:20 AM the parking lot which was already full down to its second level and teeming with people, I checked my phone to text home before climbing. Damn, no cell service. But wait. Great. No cell service!

I had the escape I wanted but felt immediately untethered in a way I never would have fifteen years earlier. "Who would know where I was? What if someone needed me? What if I didn't answer a text I now couldn't get?" The always-on culture of life filled me with unnecessary dread.

The White Mountains of New Hampshire give your legs a run for their money no matter your age. But what they give to your soul is well worth any physical price. As a part of the Whites, the Welch & Dickey Loop Trail is known for its granite scrambles. There are great places to slip if the rain or frost have been around, and leave you holding your breath if you have bad shoes, bad legs, or both.

I told my wife Julie about the granite scrambles and she was nervous about me being alone but I said; "You know — it's October in the whites, and the color is popping so there'll be more than enough folks to carry my body." I was nervous a bit myself, but compulsion overrode any trepidation.

Funny thing about 2020 and trying to escape technology. You can't. At the first clearing before the first peak there were tons of folks with their phones out blowing through selfies. A young couple to my right must have taken a dozen in just one spot. Hordes of young women especially, and on both peaks would get as close to the edges of a precipice as they could, stand in profile and grin for the best possible Instagram photo.

I couldn't escape technology's grip even in the forest. But that was okay I guessed, because escape was just one goal, the more important goal was finding my best friend. My dad. Gone now over eight years.

Light through the dark pines.

My dad brought me and my brother Dana on our first hike in New Hampshire. I was young and nervous but at a shade beyond 5'6' my dad was the biggest man I knew, and never seemed worried about anything. "You can do this." he'd say when he saw doubt creep across my young eyes. I was just 7 or 8 years old and not exactly brimming with confidence. Part of the fear was because my mom was nervous when she dropped us off that morning. And all cards on the table, I was a nervous sort to begin with. If my mom was worried that was good enough for me.

We actually bushwhacked up the mountainside without even knowing there was a trail. Dad just kept his eyes toward the peak (when we could see it) and with dead-reckoning got us to the top. Wide-eyed and a bit scared my fear disappeared when we came out and excitement took its place. There, Lake Winnipesaukee stretched out before us as I had never seen it. It offered the magnificent view of a 21st century drone long before drones were even conceptualized.

And at that instant I found a love of the woods, mountain peaks, the vistas they offered, and gained an understanding that pushing through fear will often be worth it. As my dad had likely intended.

Throughout my life I came to depend on my dad as I did that day for every mountain I'd attempt whether literal or figurative through the awkward teens and beyond. I'd visit him and my mom on Saturdays after I was married and had a family of my own — sharing my adventures or travails whether it was difficulty at work, or the challenges of raising a family in 21st-century America.

My dad would just listen to me lay out my worries, and with the same dead-reckoning he used to get us up that first mountain he would make me feel like "I could do this" with just a small hint or nudge. And he helped me without ever telling me exactly what I should do. It was his way, and it always worked for me.

My dad was my trail marker, or a set of well-built cairns on an open ledge. I had to do the work, but he could offer guidance that made me feel less lost, and turn me in the right direction. And what happens when you no longer have that person? It can be tough. Empty. Many look to God.

The second exhale. Just before the first peak.

I was raised in churches as a boy and even raised my own children in one so they could have the option of this path, but there is no longer a God for me. Witnessing through journalism, the global abuses of the Catholic church and wondering how a benevolent God could allow that to happen to tens of thousands of children (his children) was the last straw in a long series questioning straws. But leaving God behind does remove the promise that you'll see the dead again. That's a hard crutch to lose. And looking for the dead is what I was doing.

So, now the earth, its' trails, and nature are church for me. The quiet of the mountains, and the challenges of a hike my spiritual journey. The wilderness gives me the chance to reach into my own version heaven, and I don't have to wait for death to get there. It's where the deep yawning crater of loss can be assuaged through a one-way conversation with trees, earth, wind, and sky. If only for a few hours. Where my dad and me have time together again.

The conversation will remain between us, but when we were done talking, I came out of the trees with a renewed sense that despite my personal challenge, I would be okay. I could do this. On this day I found my dad and myself. Likely, as he intended.

Someday after I'm gone, if you need me. You now know how to find me. Find us both.

Doug Gould is an art director/creative director/Boston University professor out of Boston, Massachusetts

Images ©Doug Gould 2020 taken without an iPhone. #whitemountains, #hiking, #newhampshire, #sprituality

Credits:

©Doug Gould 2020