Friday, February 16, 2024

My Mom and Mountains

Two women by Marcy Dam

Yesterday, I told my mom that I found an old photo from the time, during my teen years, she dragged me up Mt. Washington. I described the photo to her, reminding her that her choice of permed mullet for a hairstyle at the time was most unfortunate, and also pointing out that she was the only person in that photo who looked happy. My middle sister, standing next to my mom while posing by the Mt. Washington summit sign, and my friend, standing between me and the summit sign, had expressions of exasperation on their faces. I looked absolutely miserable (mainly because I was absolutely miserable).

I chuckled when I told my mom that I could admit it now, many years later. When I talked with her yesterday, I told her that she was right. The summer that I was fifteen years old, my family spent two weeks in New Hampshire’s Presidential White Mountain region. Money was extremely scarce during my childhood, but my dad’s parents had always ensured that, every few years, my parents, sisters, and I were able to stay for a while at the rustic campgrounds that my dad and his siblings had visited, along with their parents, when they were children. This campground had cabins, built in the 1940’s, that were heated with small wood stoves. Most did not have electricity, but a few of the larger ones had been updated with that luxury.


All had running water – spring-fed and icy-cold. Our meals were cooked either on the wood stove or the large outdoor fireplace, and all perishable food was kept in a root cellar on the property. To describe these cabins as rustic would be an understatement. When the wind blew, we could feel the air moving through the outdoor walls into the cabins. We also wondered if the cabins would collapse. Almost every morning, there would be evidence of the rodents who shared our spaces. Almost every night, if we were brave (or desperate) enough to seek out the outhouses (like the electricity, some of the cabins had flushing toilets, but most did not), there would be evidence of the other animal residents of that property – bears, deer, and raccoons lumbering about, and owls hooting from their perches on the old apple trees.


It may have been rustic, but to my young mind, it was perfect. During those summer visits, my mom would mention that she loved looking at the mountains and would love to see the view from the top of them someday. I would half ignore her, foolishly thinking that, since she knew I hated hiking, her “someday” hope would never affect me. Little did I realize that in the summer of my 15th year, she would make that “someday” hope happen and that her plans would involve me. One evening, as we were finishing dinner, my mom announced we would be hiking up Mt. Washington the next day. I remember looking at my friend, who had bravely tagged along for a rustic summer adventure, and thinking that my mom would never be so rude as to make my friend hike a mountain. My mom was that rude.

People pose on top of Mt. Washington summit

Our first Mt. Washington hike.

The next morning, at a sickeningly early time, my mom very loudly woke up all of us and declared that it was time to go. Not having hiking-appropriate gear, I donned the only sleeveless shirt and shorts that I owned (both cotton), pulled on my (cotton) socks, and
my only pair of sneakers (very well-worn by that point). Mom pulled out several small backpacks, water bottles, and apples, and told us that each of us would be carrying our own water and snacks.


The only thing that sounded worse to me than having to hike up a mountain at that moment was hiking up a mountain, carrying anything at all. I tried to leave the backpack at the cabin. Mom found it and made me take it. I tried to leave myself at the cabin. Mom wouldn’t let me do that, either. I don’t think that I am a particularly dramatic person, but anyone who was on the hike with us that day would state otherwise. I was miserable. Absolutely, completely, and utterly miserable. And everyone within earshot knew it (which, when you’re on a mountain, is far more people than you may otherwise realize).


The entire way up the Tuckerman Ravine trail on Mt. Washington, I bewailed my angst. Loudly. Repetitively. And, with great emotive expression. I decried that I hated hiking (which I did). That I was sore, uncomfortable, hungry, tired, thirsty, and didn’t want to go any further (which was also true). That I hated carrying anything (including myself). That I was bored (which wasn’t technically true, since I was so busy being dramatically miserable). That my mom was mean to make us hike (which I certainly felt at the time).

And that I would never, ever, ever, ever, ever willingly hike.


In retrospect, I am slightly in awe of my mom’s lung capacity which enabled her to threaten, reprimand, and tell me that I was wrong, the entire way up the mountain. To my constant stream of invective, my mom kept replying that she didn’t care if I hated it, was sore, uncomfortable, hungry, tired, thirsty, or didn’t want to keep going, didn’t want to carry anything, or was foolish enough to say that I was bored when I obviously had so much that was keeping me busy right then.


She didn’t care if I thought that she was mean, because one day, I would love hiking, and would thank her for making me go hiking that day. When mom made that last statement, we had reached the krummholz and the glacial erratic pile o’ rocks near the top, so even my angsty teenaged self realized that I needed to conserve my oxygen. Rather than responding in kind, I kept my seething thoughts to myself. As I gasped and wheezed and tripped my way to the top of the mountain (gaping at one point at a ridiculously spunky octogenarian who cheerily bounced up the rocks, his hiking-patch-covered backpack bouncing along with his ponytail and boppy feet, as he sped by a much younger, slower, and crankier me), I internally reiterated to myself that I would never, ever, ever willingly hike a mountain, ever again.


Somehow, we made it to the top, and despite my even more dramatic heaving gasps for air, my mom made us all pose at the summit sign. She asked strangers to take the photo for us, telling them that she wanted all of us to remember that we hiked Mt. Washington together. Tucking the camera back into her backpack after our photo was taken, my mom led the way back down the mountain, insisting that we stop and refill our water bottles from a spring flowing near the top of the mountain, and take time to enjoy the taste of the crisp, ice-cold water. She told us that we needed to remember to always take time to enjoy nature, and to not be so busy that we failed to enjoy what it had to offer us.

A group of people pose at Mt. Washington summit

More recent Mt. Washington hike.

I remember that she was calm and centered on that hike down the mountain, smiling to herself (possibly because at that point, I wasn’t complaining anymore). My mom paused every so often to point out a pretty flower, some unique rock (at least to her – a high school teacher by vocation, her favorite classes she taught were always earth science/geology, and she always, always loved identifying rocks to her captive-not-by-choice audience of her children), and to harvest a small handful of wild blueberries (reminding us of the rule of thirds, and to always leave enough for nature).


By the time we made it back to the cabin, my mom was the happiest that I remember her being throughout my entire childhood. She remained that happy the following day (sassily reminding me that I should have listened to her, and not collapsed and stopped hydrating after the hike, as she breezily moved about the cabin, while my lactic acid-infused muscles prevented me from moving with any sort of groan-less fluidity). During the next few years, when my mom reminisced about that hike, I vehemently reiterated that I hated hiking, and would never do it again. My mom would smile and tell me that one day, I would love hiking, and would thank her for letting me go that day.


Spoiler alert – my mom was right.

Many years later, when I lived in the Adirondack Park of New York, a friend told me about the 46er challenge. At the time, I thought that my friend was crazy. Who would want to hike four-thousand-foot mountains, especially when the trailheads were in the middle of nowhere? And, what crazy person would want to hike, willingly? Despite my naivete and reservations, my friend invited me to go on a group hike in the Santanonis to summit Panther, Couchsagraga, and Santanoni. Knowing absolutely nothing outside of the fact that I hated hiking, but also willing to hear my friend out, I tagged along. This time, I willingly carried my water bottle and apple, and dressed in hiking boots, but still wore cotton shorts, shirt, and socks.


During that hike, I was rained on the entire time, hoped that the thunderstorm that raged the entire day wouldn’t cause me to die via lightening strike, I sprained my ankle (while heading up Panther), was swarmed by blackflies (while waiting at Times Square for the
rest of the group to head over to Couch and back), and belly-crawled my way across the bridges that washed out while I was hiking due to the streams swelling from the rain. As I collapsed in the van for the ride back home, my sprained ankle wrapped in 550 cord, my body covered in mud and black fly bites, soaking wet, exhausted, sore, and starving (apparently, one apple doesn’t cut it for hiking fuel), I realized something.


My mom was right. I loved hiking.

A woman's hiking shoes crossed with High Peaks in background

Taking a break in the High Peaks.

That miserable Santanoni hike was the beginning of a new chapter of my love story with hiking. My husband and I completed the 46er challenge in a little over a year, and then completed them again the following year, with our teenage daughter. We are currently working on the NE115 and the Terrifying 25 NH hike lists, interspersing those hikes with ones in the Adirondacks and Appalachians. And, over 20 years after I climbed Mt. Washington with my mom, I hiked it again, willingly, but this time, via the Huntington Ravine. Like the photo taken the day that my mom dragged me up Mt. Washington, the more recent photo of me at the summit is with a group of people, friends, and my husband. But, unlike the last photo, this time, my face is beaming.


Because, my mom was right. I absolutely love hiking, and I am glad that she made me hike Mt. Washington, all of those years ago.
My mom celebrated when my husband and I, and then our daughter, completed our 46er challenge. And, every time I would show her photos from our hikes, she would remind me that she told me that I would love hiking one day, and would thank her for making me go. I would give anything to hear my mom tell me that she was right, one more time. My mom was recently diagnosed with late-stage Alzheimer’s Disease. Sometimes when I talk with her, she knows who I am. Most of the time, she does not. When I talk with my mom, I share good memories with her. I know that she does not remember them, but I do. And for now, that is enough.


So, I tell her of my recent hikes, and my hiking plans for the future, because I want to share these plans with her while she is still here.
Even if she does not know that it is her daughter who is sharing those hopes and dreams with her. Tomorrow, I will visit my mom, and will show her the photo from our hike up Mt. Washington, and will again tell her the story of when she made me hike up Mt. Washington, and how miserable I was, and how miserable I made everyone around me.


And I remind her that, several times that day, she told me that I would thank her one day for making me go on that hike, because I would love hiking. She won’t remember that day, but I can remind of her it.


And that she was right.

Photo at top: MB Mitcham and her Mom by Marcy Dam. All photos provided by MB Mitcham.

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MB, an ADK 46-R, is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Online MPH Program at George Mason University. In her free time, she can usually be found scampering up and over mountains whilst munching on eggplant bacon, writing odd things, or doing zoomies with Sig and Bella, the shollie and entledoodle dynamic duo who own me. She can also be found at:

8 Responses

  1. Peter Henderson says:

    Neat, inspiring story. Thanks,

    I have climbed Mt Washington several times, and about 34 of the 46 ADK high peaks.

  2. Beth Rowland says:

    What a delightful, special story, MB. I know your mom would be so proud of this piece, too. You (and me) were lucky to have mothers, who shaped us, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the women we are today.

  3. Todd Eastman says:

    Powerful stuff! Thank you.

  4. Brian Fiacco says:

    You were blessed to grow up with a mother like that, as was I.

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