When we turned onto Zealand Road, I saw the one campsite nobody wants but people still pay to stay at: right next to the highway we just pulled off, protected by a fog line and an old fence. I’d rather save my money and sleep under a canoe in my dad’s backyard. Tourist campers were wrapping up tents and folding up grills; we bumped along in the car to the trailhead, half-listening to the staticky radio. Every trailhead and parking area on the drive up to New Hampshire White Mountains was packed with zipcars and RVs, but we were pleased to see only a few parked at our destination. Mt. Hale is a less popular 4,000-footer, as it does not afford many views – in fact, other mountains look down onto it – but it is still a necessary stop for those “peak baggers” chasing all 48 4,000-foot summits in New Hampshire.

Summer is in full force in the mountains by the end of July. And as the trail steepened, my gal and I were forced to enjoy it at its own pace. Every thing living and dead reached down to touch us, these strange humans that came to say hello. Leaves and bugs and wind and water all dripped and whisped and buzzed a greeting. I found myself sniffing around corners like a curious pup. There were lots of very funny orange mushrooms – a trippy tie-dye orange, technicolor. I imagined a wiggly, blurry lime green frog leaning against the stalk of a mushroom, enjoying some shade and reading the morning’s paper. I tip-toed by to watch quietly and he lowered the top half of his Toad Times and frowned at me, not quite making eye contact. He sipped his little coffee cup and sighed. Some people in this neighborhood, he muttered and blinked his eyes a few times before sitting still until I walked away.IMG_20160731_102539724

The birds called out from the trees. “I am a bird! Here I am!” my gal translated. I heard, “Introodahs! To ‘yer nests, girls! Get ready for peckin’!” Perhaps, my gal added, they are discussing what they’d like for breakfast. “Today I’ll go find a nice juicy earthworm.” Breakfast sounds good to me, I thought. “I’d like to eat a nice omelette,” I called out. If only the birds and I could understand each other, they’d have peeped down – or I’d have sauntered softer.

There were beautiful old birch trees abundant in these woods on the slopes of Hale. They dominated the first mile of the hike, before giving way to spruce and other conifers. Many of the old birch were peeling and dying – or dead – donning mushrooms galore. Nothing is ever dead in the forest. It is only providing for more life.

One birch was so warped, it looked like a howling wolf (or an ape? or a man? or a wolf-ape-man?). It was a shrine unto itself, that nature shall always rule man and man can only think he tames it. It is a call to join nature – when necessary – to live in harmony with it; and to break out of nature when necessary, to survive. A balance can be found; I am often in it. The lines are better when blurred, since they don’t exist anyway.

I approached the falls at Hale Brook about halfway up the mountain. I was ahead of my gal so I stopped and stared at its mysteriously simple masterpiece. I stared into the moss, thick on the rocks and fallen branches, many shades of green all over, lined with foam and bubbles from the spring. I let the babble of the water completely crush my ears and I tried to memorize the sound – I never want to hear anything else.

My eyes followed the falls up and up – a turn here, a rock there, it kept going up. It never seemed to begin. It’s marvelous.

It maddens me sometimes when I think that men once lived in these woods and spent their days on these very mountains, walking home after, to do it again the next day. Bradford Torrey began his Footing It In Franconia with a hearty declaration:

And so it goes. In Franconia it must be a very bad half day indeed when we fail to stretch our legs with a five or six mile jaunt. I speak of those of us who foot it. The more ease-loving, or less uneasy members of the party, who keep their carriage, are naturally less independent of outside conditions. When it rains they amuse themselves indoors; a pitch of sensibleness which the rest of us may sometimes regard with a shade of envy, perhaps, though we have never admitted as much to each other, much less to any one else. To plod through the mud is more exhilarating than to sit before a fire; and we leave the question of reasonableness and animal comfort on one side. Time is short, and we decline to waste it on theoretical considerations.

And the great saunterer, Thoreau, wrote that sun-colored men were preferable to those who remained indoors: “The pale white man!” Thoreau gasps. “I do not wonder that the African pitied him.”

I stood there by the falls and calculated how much time I would be on the mountain today and it didn’t match the drive time back home. Busy, busy – just enough time to sneak up to the hill for a hike and back again – it’s terrible. We all make this our hobby, sitting in traffic to shuffle up a mountain to sit in traffic to make a little notch in our list of 4,000-footers. To break these curious hobbies down into the basic information they’re made of makes them sound awfully silly.

When I’m on a mountain, I wish to reject its name, its human projection of a personality. This mountain is named after Edward Everett Hale, a Massachusetts reverend and storyteller who penned the nationalist tripe The Man Without A Country. It is about a navy man who renounced his citizenship and was kidnapped by the government and forced to live on a ship. He was prohibited from hearing any news or information about the United States. I think it sounds like a swell life, but we learn at the end that this fellow has been chomping at the bit to lick Uncle Sam’s boots. He’s a Texas man, and fiercely proud of it, and is ecstatic when he reveals on his death bed a map of the U.S. and can add Texas to it. Someone somewhere is confusing hometown pride with blind nationalism. And all of this bootlicking of something that doesn’t really exist after being forced to live on a boat for daring to question authority, basically. The original Stockholm syndrome. It’s a stupid, forgettable story that still gets bandied about now and then – but many mountains in New Hampshire were named in the progressive times of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, and unfortunately “nationalist tripe” was on the menu back then.

IMG_20160731_101142600I just don’t care much for the human projections on things that are completely oblivious to humans. Men tame nature by naming it, these days. I once heard an old woman climbing Mt. Eisenhower chirp, “Oh it looks just like him! Look at that bald head!” We don’t look up at Mt. Washington and think in awe of barely climbable rock and wind and lichen barely clinging – we don’t think of what the Abenaki locals called it, “where the great spirit lives” – we think of how stately, stoic, and noble it is. We think of words that describe men, not nature, which is none of those things.

Nature is not stately; it is anarchy. It is not stoic; it is violent and jealous. It is not noble; there are no bloodlines, no pedigrees, no family values, no manners. Thoreau referred to nature as our “vast, savage, howling mother,” and it is when we are weaned from her breast to society so quickly from birth that we lose touch with her. Society isn’t quite real; nature is. Try not mowing your lawn for a week and tell me which reality exists.

And there I stood on Mt. Hale; I felt like the real man without a country. Yes, there was a trail but I was not obliged; nor was it compelling. Thoreau wrote of walking off the road whenever possible. He wrote of the dog standing at the edge of the field listening to the siren howls of the wolves in the distance. He wrote of the domesticated cow sneaking out of the pasture to have a wild time. It:

…boldly swims the river, a cold, gray tide, twenty-five or thirty rods wide, swollen by the melted snow. It is the buffalo crossing the Mississippi…. The seeds of instinct are preserved under the thick hides of cattle and horses, like seeds in the bowels of the earth, an indefinite period.

And yet when master gets the whip… “But, alas!” he sighs, “a sudden loud Whoa! would have damped their ardor at once, reduced them from venison to beef…. Who but the Evil One has cried, “Whoa!” to mankind?” Herds of cattle and herds of men are one and the same.

Thoreau thought that it was into nature and wildness that we would find freedom. Culture and “society” – stuffy, proper, restricting – did not liberate. Nor does it offer anything resembling freedom to him – or any man without a country.

Even men’s names – to name other men is to tame them. He pondered, “The names of men are of course as cheap and meaningless as…the names of dogs.” A man’s name “does not adhere to him when asleep or in anger, or aroused by any passion or inspiration.” A wild savage given a common name makes him no less strange. I feel the same when on the edge of the trail hearing the siren call of the savage in the trees – do I have a name? This mountain is no different. There is nothing adamantly patriotic about it; none of the trees are red, white, or blue. It is covered in the same colors as every other mountain: green, brown, grey, and the dirty paper white of the old birch forest. It is indifferent to its name.IMG_20160731_103717715

It was simply named to remember a fellow who isn’t any more important than anyone else. But language is an important tool for social control. Some people know that if they can control the language, they can control people. All your thoughts are in language – letters and sounds make words – and your language is limited to what the social narrators put in your head – what they call schoolin’ – then your thoughts are controlled. That needs to be rejected. Language cannot be controlled. The Americans knew this when they separated from Britain; the Native American tribes changed their languages when they separated from other tribes. If you can’t control the language, you can’t control the people.

My gal caught up to me staring at the brook and I shared my thoughts with her. Why can’t we live a mile from here and foot it as we wished, like Torrey? Look, I said, channeling him:

“This is living!” I found myself repeating aloud, … “This is living!” No more books, no more manuscripts, – my own or other people’s, – no more errands to the city. How good the air was! How glorious the mountains, unclouded, but hazy! How fragrant the ripening herbage in the shelter of the woods!…

Nature used to be a place where freedom existed, but now it is thought of as a giant dog park. We modern folks gotta drive two hours to get up here to take off our leashes to play for an afternoon once a month – and pay the government to park the car. We already spend ninety minutes every day in the car sitting in traffic on the way to and from work, pretending podcasts matter in order to keep the cognitive dissonance at bay, when we could be living! Our wills are flickering like dusty coals! We have to be free, as soon as possible! We have to ditch the day trips and spend the other six days a week up here! Right here! Right now!

20160731_114913My gal is usually able to remind me that it’s all part of the plan: “Why don’t you just enjoy the hike for now, instead of worrying.” She led me past the falls and up the mountain some people refer to as Mt. Hale. My mind put all the monkey chatter away for the time being and I returned my focus to the mushrooms and birches and springs. We saw Mt. Washington peeking down on us – this is a part of the world where it is often around every corner, its little city of Oz at an elevation of 6,288 feet is hard to miss – but I shook it off. Psh, mind your business, I thought. I was focused on myself, and us, and our adventure. Up, up, up and the last switchback led us comfortably to our destination.

At the summit there was a clearing the size of a backyard and a cairn the size of a saltbox. The trees up there have spent some time reclaiming the clearing, after years of being hacked back to allow for a fire tower, which no longer exists. I’d much rather have this clearing to spend some quiet time in the sun with myself and my gal than to climb a tower that provides a view of all those places I’ve yet go, if ever – whether I will or can’t, it doesn’t matter. I don’t need places to go, I need places to be.

Today it wasn’t about getting another peak for my list of rocks I’ve stood on. It was about taking another step in the direction of personal liberty. It’s not about the summit as much as it’s about the hike.