LEARNING TO FLY
By Nadia Brako
The Montréal Review, April 2011
Echo Lake, Franconia Mountains, New Hampshire (1861) by Albert Bierstadt.
Last summer, as my son and I embarked on our first camping trip alone together, everything went wrong. I can't blame New Hampshire. It's not her fault that we failed to see her majesty, the truth that spilled in icy waterfalls over her glacial rocks, the clarity of her alpine breath. I can only blame myself for clinging to my Darwinian roots like a rock climber without a harness. I believed in what I saw, and nothing else. My contempt for blind faith had inevitably infected my son as well, but New Hampshire had a cure for us both.
Our troubles began with money. As a single mother with an unreliable ex-husband, I am accustomed to a tight budget, but I still like to dream. Last summer, I was owed over $3,000 in child support arrears, and dreamed of a lump sum payment allowing me to afford our trip. History has shown that a payment would soon be posted to my account, and since my ex-husband never learned his history, he was doomed to repeat it. In anticipation of this payment, I prepared for our White Mountain adventure in every possible way, obsessively training at the gym, weighing the pros and cons of camping in the family friendly, yet less challenging Franconia Notch vs. the unforgiving, unfamiliar Presidential Peaks just north, and servicing my high mileage vehicle at bare cost, while ignoring my mechanic's warning that it was not, and never again will be, "trip safe."
In late August, as the constant drone of tree frogs in the pond across the street began to grow as weary as my bank account, I was ready as ever. Finally, the week before Labor Day, my dream came true. My ex-husband proudly declared that he had made a large payment, and although, as a seasoned New York State Child Support Enforcement Bureau recipient, I was well aware of the delay that such a payment may require to post, or that he may simply be lying, I requested six days of vacation, from Wednesday through the Monday of Labor Day. School started on Tuesday. This was our last hope. I spent Wednesday packing and searching for an open campsite (a daunting task on the heels of Labor Day weekend), and booked a remote site in the Presidential Peaks, ten minutes from the base of Mount Washington.
On Thursday morning, I awoke at dawn, anxious to check my account. Three thousand dollars had posted to my child support account, but my checking account was still empty. This was a defining moment. We were certainly not fit to survive for five days with seventy five crumpled bills in my pocket, a massive engine leak, and no AAA membership, but for once I took a leap of faith, and drove us to an uncertain future, my car rattling every time it approached 60 mph.
As night fell, our true characters crawled out from the shadows. I surprised myself by being capable of impulsive decision making, but my son, the AP/Honors student perpetually glued to his computer, proved himself capable of wilderness survival. We coasted into Beech Hill Campground with a gas gage hovering to the far left, and after the surprise, yet mandatory, deposit of $20 for the gate key, and the purchase of firewood, we could not afford even 75¢ for fire starter. New Hampshire is brisk in September, especially at night. I remember how primal I felt watching my son whittle his own kindle with a dull knife, while bracing myself under a fleece blanket, my thoughts as frozen as my fingers. After what felt like an eternity, the fire took. An ember must have caught my soul, as I leaped up in jubilant praise at my son's worthy achievement, and after being raised from physical and mental anguish by its orange glow, I felt an affinity toward native peoples and an appreciation for what I had always taken for granted: warmth. Having dodged the immediate danger of freezing to death, I suddenly felt hungry and devoured the remaining half of my veggie wrap. Not satisfied, I grabbed the last of our food, a box of Honey Bunches of Oats cereal, and began shoving handfuls into my mouth. My son, horrified, seized the box and shouted, "This is all we have!" At that moment, we both realized the absurdity of our predicament, and even worse, that the responsible child was chastising the impulsive parent. We laughed, as we always do in impossible situations, and talked the night away.
The next morning, I emerged from my sleeping bag into the cold mountain air with one goal: call the bank. To my amazement, my cell phone had service at our campsite. My fingertips frozen, I pressed the numerical prompts with mounting impatience, '1' for Automated Banking, '1' for English, '2' to enter my account number, followed by my pin number, '1' for the Inquiry Menu, '2' for Account Balances, and '1' for Savings and Checking Account Balances. By the time the computerized voice began reading me my balances, I was shaking. The mechanical sound of the words "three thousand dollars" made me drop my phone and scream. My gamble had paid off.
Money may not buy happiness, but it sure can buy breakfast. After filling our tank with gas, we filled our bellies at Shakespeare's Inn (I liked the name), a diner that I am quite certain would not meet with Shakespeare's approval. At the time, I was still struggling to balance my vegan diet, specifically my sources of protein. In retrospect, oatmeal and fruit were not the best choices that morning, but lucky for me, my son ate for two. He would be pulling me up a mountain in less than an hour.
Our first summit hike, Mt. Eisenhower, made me wonder what poor Dwight had done to deserve such a dedication. The trail was challenging, but unscenic, a vertical incline of jutting roots and jagged rocks with an alpine region that seemed reluctant to emerge. At times, and possibly due to a sub-conscious expression of sheer boredom, I collapsed from exhaustion. My son, literally, pulled me through, and as the trees shortened to reveal the magnificence of the White Mountains, I felt for the first time in my life my own smallness, and the smallness of things I let bother me. At that moment, I was so proud of myself for not allowing money to defeat me. Here I was, at the top of the world (or so it seemed), and not at home wishing I'd taken a chance.
After snapping pictures of each other beside the sign that read: "The area ahead has the Worst Weather in the World. Many have died from exposure, Even in Summer. TURN BACK now if the Weather is Bad," we trudged our way to the summit. Passing that sign seemed like a silent victory. We were vulnerable, stripped of all physical protection, and yet, on those cliffs, we didn't need any. The mountains rolled on to infinity in every direction, and the azure sky stretched above us and dipped below us in a fantastic whirl of nothingness. It was here, standing on solid earth, that we learned to fly.
Looking back, those five days changed us. We realized that the core of our survival was not hinged on money or things, but on believing in ourselves and each other. Sleeping in a flimsy tent in bear country, hiking to 6,000 feet with aching knees and a lack of protein, and simply seeing the world from a different perspective humbled us. The wilderness taught us to see each other in a way that we had been blind to before. No five star hotel, nor exclusive resort, could offer that amenity.